And Moses said, "By this you shall know that it was Adonai who sent me to do all these things; that they are not of my own devising: if these men die as all men do, if their lot be the common fate of all mankind, it was notAdonai who sent me. But if Adonai brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth wide and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that these men have spurned Adonai ." Scarcely had he finished speaking all these words when the ground under them burst asunder, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households, all Korah's people and all their possessions. They went down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation. (Numbers 16:28-33)
Just where are they going, these rebels whom the earth swallows up?
You might think that Sheol means hell. After all, it's down there. It would appear that the shortest way to get to Sheol is just to fall in if the earth opens up. So most people assume that it must be the same as hell. And we all know what it's like down there.
The only trouble with that explanation is that it is an anachronism. When the Torah was written, there was no idea of hell, at least not among the Jews. The Bible is notably devoid of speculation about what happens in the afterlife. One thing is for sure: There was no reward or punishment after death in ancient Israelite religion. Our ancestors did not believe that you went to heaven if you were good and went to hell if you were bad. It was not until the Rabbinic period that we began to think of the afterlife as a time and place of reward and punishment.
In the Torah, to be rewarded by God is to have the rain fall in its season, to be blessed with abundance and peace, to be secure in one's home. The ideal of life, as expressed in Micah 4:4, is that everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and none shall make them afraid.
And what does it mean to be punished by God? According to Deuteronomy, it is to be cursed with hunger and disease, to be ravaged by one's enemies, to be exiled from one's homeland (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). Punishment has nothing to do with what will happen to you after you die.
So just what is the punishment to which Korach and his followers are subjected? It's not about where they are going; it's that they are going there too soon!
In fact, as far as the Torah is concerned, we are all going to Sheol, just hopefully later rather than sooner. Sheol is not depicted as a place of punishment; the only punishment is that you have to leave here to go there.
Sheol is a place name derived from the Hebrew root shin-alef-lamed , which means "ask." That is, Sheol is the place to which one addresses one's requests if one wants to speak to one's ancestors. When Saul wants to consult with his deceased mentor Samuel, he asks the witch of Endor to bring up Samuel's ghost, only to find out that he, too, will be heading down below the next day (I Samuel 28:8-19).
Nor will we find only our ancestors in Sheol. When Jacob is deceitfully told by his sons that his favorite child, Joseph, has been torn apart by wild beasts, he cries out, "I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol" (Genesis 37:35); that is, he will never stop mourning the death of his own son until he is once again reunited with him in Sheol. Jacob does not think that either he or his son is going to a place of punishment. He just envisions Sheol as the place where his son will be waiting for him.
In the Bible, Sheol is the place to which all people go, not just Israelites. Sheol is the great equalizer. Isaiah has a vision about the Babylonian king's demise, in which the other kings are all waiting for him down below:
"Sheol below was astir
To greet your coming-
Rousing for you the shades
Of all earth's chieftains,
Raising from their thrones
All the kings of nations.
All speak up and say to you,
'So you have been stricken as we were,
You have become like us!
Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
And the strains of your lutes!'" (Isaiah 14:9-11)
The most visual part of the Korach story is not where they are going, but how they get there. The Torah understands the earth itself as God's partner; it seems to speak for God. When the earth "opened its mouth," it proclaims the guilt of Korach and his followers (Numbers 16:32).
This is similar to the way the earth behaves in Genesis after Cain kills his brother Abel. The witness to Cain's deed is the earth itself. "What have you done?" asks God. "The voice of your brother's blood calls out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand" (Genesis 4:10-11). That is, the earth knows what you've done, and as in the case of Korach, the earth's own mouth executes judgment on those who see themselves as beyond the law.
The punishment of Korach's followers was not where they were sent, but their untimely death. In the biblical view, there is no suffering, no punishment after one dies. Rather, divine retribution is understood as losing one's life in an abrupt and dramatic way, in which the earth itself pronounces one's guilt.
Our ancestors valued life above all. They engaged in little speculation about reward and punishment in the afterlife. What counted to them was living good lives, lives filled with decency and devotion. Only in life could one accomplish the tasks for which we were intended. "For there is no praise of You among the dead; in Sheol, who can acclaim You?" (Psalms 6:6).
By the way...
- One of the psalms recited in the festival Hallel prayers declares: "The dead cannot praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence. But we [the living] will bless the Lord, now and forever. Hallelujah" (Psalm 115). Carrying out this theme, traditionalist Jews at the funeral cut the fringes of the prayer shawl that is placed around the shoulders of the deceased. That custom is explained as symbolizing the belief that the deceased have no mitzvot , no deeds to be fulfilled. To be alive is to have deeds to perform and imperatives to be followed. (Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, quoted in What Happens After I Die? by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme [New York: UAHC Press, 1990], p. 98)
- And I won't feel the flowing of the time when I'm gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I'm gone
My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here.
(Phil Ochs, "Chords of Fame")
- Jewish beliefs about the afterlife continued to develop after the biblical period. Do you think that there was something unsatisfying about the biblical view?
- Could there be life after death without reward and punishment?
- Is Judaism more "this-worldly" than other religions? If so, what are the implications for our sense of religious duty?