Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The root-verb שאל (sha'al) means to ask, inquire, borrow, beg. This verb occurs all over the Bible, in all expectable ways. Most notably is the usage in entreaty for God's guidance or salvation (1 Samuel 23:2, Joshua 9:14). In these cases this verb occurs often without a subject: people "ask of the Lord" but what it is that they ask for lies interred in the story.
The derivatives of this verb are:
- The feminine noun שאלה (she'la) meaning request or petition (Judges 8:24, 1 Samuel 1:27).
- The feminine noun משאלה (mish'ala), meaning petition or desire (Psalm 20:5, 37:4).
- Then there is the difficult noun שאול (she'ol), which is the famous word Sheol, meaning grave, pit, or, according to most translations, hell.
Curiously enough, this word Sheol is spelled identical to the name Saul, but according to the Masoretes, pronounced slightly different. Possibly because it's a mystery why the grave would be known by a word that means "asked for," BDB Theological Dictionary deems relations with the root "dubious" and HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament declares the etymology "uncertain". Still, to a Hebrew audience, the erroneous connection with the verb would have been quite readily inferred.
HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament seems to favor the view that our word שאול (she'ol) only denotes the grave where one's body is deposed of, and not the destination of one's soul. If so, then the similarity between the word שאול (she'ol) and the verb שאל (sha'al) may convey a desire to lay off the body and go to heaven, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:2 and by Peter in 2 Peter 1:13.
The problem with this interpretation is that the word Sheol was used long before Israel's theology adopted the Greek sense of soul and afterlife. It seems more plausible that the concept of Sheol came from the understanding that one could follow one's desires towards satisfaction only when one was alive. Note that the Hebrew word נפש (nepesh), commonly translated with soul, is not the same as how the concept of soul is viewed today. The Hebrew word נפש (nepesh) covers the desires and wants of a living being and is associated with that being's breath. In cognate languages, this word exists also with the meaning of throat, which is exactly what Sheol was said to have (Isaiah 5:14). Read our article on נפש (nepesh) for more details.