This is something that I found incredibly cool and enlightening. Another pente-blooper preached badly for too long. This excerpt is taken from Planet Preterist’s ‘Otherworld Journey: The Origins of Hell in Christian Thought’.
Equally divergent from biblical Sheol is the epic of the mythical king of Uruk, Gilgamesh. The version presented here, compiled around one-thousand B.C., was discovered in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh; although fragments dating back to the second millennium B.C. are extant.
This tale gives a detailed account of the world beyond. Gilgamesh‘s companion Enkidu relates his vision of the underworld and its inhabitants, a premonition of his own death:
There is a house whose peoples sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away for ever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in days of old. They who had stood in the place of the gods like Anu and Enlil, stood now like servants to fetch baked meats in the house of dust, to carry cooked meat and cold water from the water-skin.
Enkidu eventually met this fate. But Gilgamesh refused to bury his companion and instead lamented over his body for seven days and seven nights hoping that Enkidu would rise again. “Finally, after watching his body with pious devotion, he notices a worm on the corpse and realizes that death takes its victims beyond recall. The awful reality of death fills Gilgamesh with fear for, since he is not completely divine, he too must die. Hence he becomes obsessed with the drive to obtain immortality.”
The Hebrews rejected such otherworld notions—or at least did not record them as their own. In light of that statement, there is one biblical text that should be mentioned at this point.
Isaiah 14 contains the most explicit details of Sheol in the Old Testament—but is it really Sheol? Yahweh’s prophet Isaiah was told to “taunt the king of Babylon” (Is 14.4), and, it would seem, he did so using Babylonian otherworld concepts.
Sheol below is stirred up about you, ready to meet you when you arrive. It rouses the spirits of the dead for you, all the former leaders of the earth; it makes all the former kings of the nations rise from their thrones. All of them respond to you, saying: ‘You too have become weak like us! You have become just like us! Your splendor has been brought down to Sheol, as well as the sound of your stringed instruments. You lie on a bed of maggots, with a blanket of worms over you. (Net, Is. 14.9-11)
As in Gilgamesh, the kings of the earth have been made low; it is a reversal of fortunes. The Babylonian king was no more immortal than Gilgamesh, and he too would be food for worms. It would be a mistake to read the above as Isaiah’s view of underworld. Isaiah’s taunt no more reflects his infernology than the subsequent section reflects his ouranology. Read the former in light of the latter; these verses are contrasting Babylonian otherworld motifs:
Look how you have fallen from the sky, O shining one, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the ground, O conqueror of the nations! You said to yourself, “I will climb up to the sky. Above the stars of El I will set up my throne. I will rule on the mountain of assembly on the remote slopes of Zaphon. I will climb up to the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High!” But you were brought down to Sheol, to the remote slopes of the pit. (NET, Is. 14.12-15)
A little mythology is helpful here. In Ugaritic texts, Mount Zaphon is the equivalent of the Greek Mount Olympus; it was home of the gods. What is Isaiah saying? The would be god-king of Babylon desired to set himself on the sacred mountain, above the astral deities—on par with the “Most High,” which in this context refers to the god El. Yet Isaiah insists that the arrogant king would be brought low, like his predecessors of old. Even Turner, whose work betrays an affinity for parallelomania, makes an insightful observation with reference to Isaiah 14: “Its message is exactly the same as the one Enkidu reported to Gilgamesh, that great kings are brought low in Ereshkigal’s [underworld] domain. Indeed, in sending the Babylonian king to a Babylonian Hell, the prophet appears to be making a grim joke.” We are inclined to agree. After all, the prophet was instructed to “taunt the king of Babylon.” “This song uses the metric pattern of a dirge but parodies the genre by mocking rather than eulogizing the dead.” It is unwise to build an “underworld” doctrine around parody. Isaiah, like Elijah among the prophets of Baal, was being cheeky.
The entire article is an insightful read. I encourage you to read it. To find out what we’ve previously discussed on sheol on these forums click the link to ‘Should Hell be dropped from the Bible?‘