In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). Although Lazarus lived a life of destitution and despair, the rich man did not help him. Therefore, when the two die and go to “Hades” (ᾅδης)—the Greek term for “Sheol” (שאול), the realm of the dead—the rich man ends up “in torment” (16:23) while Lazarus is carried by the angels “into the bosom of Abraham” (εἰς τὸν κόλπον Ἀβραάμ; 16:22). But what does it mean to be in the “bosom of Abraham”?
Jesus notes that while the uncaring rich man is being tormented in Hades, “he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom” (Lk 16:23). For modern readers, this description of the man “lifting up his eyes” may suggest that he is in “hell” below while Abraham and Lazarus reside in heaven above. However, Luke does not mean to convey this vertical scenario. Instead, “lifting up eyes” is an ancient Hebrew idiom that refers to looking into the distance, as Abraham himself does on his way to the land of Moriah: “Abraham lifted up his eyes (וישא אברהם את־עיניו; va’yisa Avraham et-eynav) and saw the place from afar” (Gen 22:4; cf. 22:13). In Luke, Abraham clarifies that the rich man’s view is from a horizontal perspective, telling him, “Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (16:26). Abraham, Lazarus, and the rich man are all in the same place (i.e., Hades) but they are separated into far-flung areas of the underworld—the rich man is parched in a pyretic plot (16:24) but Lazarus is in paradisical repose with the patriarch.
And that’s what the “bosom of Abraham” means—paradise. Before the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish text of Jubilees describes a blessing that Abraham gives to his grandson, Jacob. Though there’s no precedent for this blessing in Genesis, the Second Temple writers added their own traditions to the biblical story. After Abraham blesses Jacob, Jubilees says, “The two of them lay down together on one bed, and Jacob slept in the bosom of Abraham (בחיק אברהם; ba’heq Avraham), his grandfather. And [Abraham] kissed him seven times, and his emotions and his heart rejoiced over him” (Jub 22:26). The patriarchs are alive as the embrace, not in Hades as Luke envisions, though Abraham does mention “Sheol” in his blessing for Jacob (Jub 22:22). Still, Jubilees says that to be in Abraham’s bosom is to experience peace, love, and joy—and this is exactly what Lazarus is feeling as he rests with Abraham in Hades.
This language of being in Abraham’s bosom mirrors other descriptions of being in the bosom of God. According to Sefer Yetzirah—a Jewish text that likely dates to the late rabbinic period (c. 700 CE)—God placed “Abraham our ancestor, may he rest in peace... in his bosom (בחיקו; be’heqo) and kissed him on the head, and called him ‘Abraham my beloved’ [Isa 41:8]” (6:7; cf. b. Qidd. 72b). Here, God does for Abraham what Jubilees attributes to Abraham’s blessing of Jacob—the Lord puts Abraham at blissful rest in divine arms. The Gospel of John offers a similar picture of the preexistent Word of God being “in the bosom of the Father” (εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς; Jn 1:18). Whether the embraced is the earthly Abraham or the heavenly Son, to be in the divine bosom is to be in the blessed care of God. Although Luke’s rich man and Lazarus are both in Hades after death, Lazarus reclines in paradise with Abraham as they await the day of resurrection.