by SHAUL BAR
In the ancient world from the mid-third millennium up until the end of the first century BCE, Resheph was a well-known deity. The worship of Resheph is found in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic and Egyptian texts. In these texts Resheph is described in various ways, such as the god or gatekeeper of the underworld, god of pestilence, god of war and god of healing. In the Hebrew Bible Resheph is mentioned 7 times. Here we will examine the nature of Resheph in the Hebrew Bible. We will demonstrate that Resheph has several meanings; among them “pestilence,” “arrow,” and “fire.” Each occurrence has the connotation of some type of destructive force. This destructive force brings death which is under the control of God.
RESHEPH AS A DEITY IN THE ANCIENT WORLD
The god Resheph is mentioned in documents and appears as a theophoric element in personal names from the mid-third millennium until the end of the first century BCE. The deity is first mentioned in Syria among the documents of Ebla. Here Resheph is given a quarter of the city and a gate is named after him. In the second millennium BCE the worship of Resheph was exported from Syria to Palestine and then to Egypt. In Ugaritic texts Resheph is the god or gatekeeper of the underworld, as well as the god of war and pestilence, which he spreads with his bow and arrow. He is mentioned twice in the epic of Keret. When the death of the king’s family is described, it is written that mhmst yitsp rsp – “one fifth Resheph gathered unto himself”– which is understood as a reference to plague or pestilence.1 Here Resheph functions like Nergal, the Babylonian god of the underworld, who was a master of plagues. Later, Resheph is mentioned as one of the divine guests at the party which Keret hosts for the gods.2 In mythology he is described as the god of pestilence, who kills men and beasts by shooting his fiery arrows at them. This is evidently the source of the Ugaritic expression “Resheph, the lord of arrow.”3 A similar epithet can be found in a Phoenician inscription from Kition in Cyprus, which reads, rsp hs, “Resheph of the arrow.”4 In another Phoenician inscription from Cyprus, dated 363 BCE, Resheph is likened to Apollo, who was known for his plague-bearing shafts.5 Some believe, however, that the association between Resheph and Apollo indicates that the former was a sun god in charge of justice.6
Resheph was an important deity in the Aramaic pantheon of the eighth century BCE. As indicated in the Panammu I inscription, the divine names Hadad and El are followed by Resheph.7 A Phoenician inscription from Karatepe mentions Baal and Resheph, which is evidence of the cult of Resheph.8 Here, Resheph occurs together with epithets such as Rsp Sprm, which may mean “(Resheph) of the he-goats” or “(Resheph) of the birds” or perhaps “stag.”9 Albright believed that Nergal’s totem was a predatory bird; in fact, Nergal was represented by a lion-headed staff. He alleged a link between Resheph and birds from the phrase Rsp Sprm, but it is not clear whether the latter word means “birds” or “goats.”10 Vattioni conjectured that Sprm is in fact the location of a temple of Resheph.11 Note, however, that according to a fifth-century BCE inscription from Sidon of King Bodashtart a large district of the city was called the “land of the Reshephs.”12
In Egypt, until the end of the Middle Kingdom, Resheph is found only in foreign personal names. It was Amenophis II who adopted Resheph as a deity. Beginning with the Eighteenth Dynasty he was known as a god of war; Pharaoh, as a warrior, was compared to him.13 Egyptian iconography portrays Resheph as a warrior wearing a short kilt with tassels and the crown of Upper Egypt on his head. We have no clue why Amenophis II selected a foreign deity as one of his patrons. After Amenophis II, there are few references to Resheph until the period of the Ramessids, when he became a popular deity. In the later period he is no longer the patron of Pharaoh but a deity of the common people. In magical texts, Resheph is a god of healing. Thus Resheph appears in two forms, as both a benevolent and generous deity and as a dangerous one.
RESHEPH IN THE HEBREW BIBLE
The Bible associates Resheph with calamity, notably with pestilence, arrows, and fire. We can learn about the nature of Resheph from Habakkuk’s description of the Lord: Pestilence (dever) marches before Him, and plague (resheph) comes forth at His heels (Hab. 3:5). This verse has two stichoi, with three words in each.14 Dever and Resheph are forces that serve the Lord and accompany Him when He is manifested as a warrior. Their function is to assault His enemies. One might say that Dever and Resheph are like the Lord’s horses and chariots or bow and arrows. It is not clear whether they are considered to be two separate forces with similar functions. As we know, the Canaanites considered Resheph to be the god of pestilence, and sometimes he is identified with the Babylonian Nergal and the Greek Apollo, both of them deemed responsible for plagues.15 It bears mention that the Targum renders the first half of this verse, which refers to dever, “from before him was sent the angel of death”; the Peshitta reads “motha,” death.
Just as Dever and Resheph appear as the Lord’s escorts, the mythologies of many nations describe two gods as accompanying their chief deity, whether in front, alongside, or behind him.16 Scholars such as Herbert and Patrick Miller have noted that in the Ancient Near East the war god is often depicted as being assisted in battle by other gods.17 In Ugaritic literature this applies to important deities such as El, Baal, Anat, Yam and Mot. Sometimes the gods are mentioned in pairs, as in the verse cited from Habakkuk. The biblical description is similar to the appearance of Adad the storm god in the epic of Gilgamesh: “With the first glow of dawn, a black cloud rose up from the horizon. Inside it Adad thunders, while Shullat and Hanish go in front, moving as heralds over hill and plain.”18 Ashurbanipal, describing his successful campaign against Elam, writes that it was achieved with the help of the gods Ashur and Nergal. He goes on to describe “Nergal, the august lord, who marches in front of me.”19 In the Phoenician Arslan Tash inscription we read that Baal went forth and that “Gal’an” and “Rib’an” marched before him as his squires.
According to Psalms, There He broke the fiery arrows of the bow (rishfei kashet), the shield and the sword of war (Ps. 76:4 [RSV 3]). The verse refers to Jerusalem, where the Lord will destroy the enemies’ weapons. Rishfei kashet are the arrows shot from the bows. Breaking the enemy’s weapons is a metaphor for defeating him. The same trope is found in He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear (Ps. 46:10 [RSV 9]). The reference to the flying arrows derives from the mythological notion that lightning is a missile hurled by a deity. In addition, arrows shot from a bow somewhat resemble lightning bolts. It is possible that rishfei kashet actually refers to the sparks produced by the bow, since in Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic Resheph means “spark.”
Resheph also appears alongside other destructive forces, such as famine and ketev meriri (Deut. 32:24). In Deuteronomy, Resheph metamorphoses from the god who shoots arrows into an arrow in the hands of the Lord, Who then uses this arrow to punish human beings: I will sweep misfortunes on them, use up My arrows on them: Wasting famine, ravaging plague (lehumei Resheph), and deadly pestilence (Deut. 32:23-4). Here lehumei Resheph can be understood as “consumed by fiery sparks” or “by the god Resheph.” The root lhm in the sense of “eat” can be found in Proverbs (4:17) and in Ugaritic. It is implausible, however, that this is a reference to the god Resheph, even though ketev, which follows immediately, is also the name of a deity, because nowhere in the Bible is Resheph ever considered to be a divine being. Rashi explains both resheph and ketev in this verse as the names of demons, not deities. A similar approach was taken by Caquot, who maintained that ketev and resheph should be rendered as proper names and taken to be referring to demons.20
In some places Resheph certainly refers to fire or sparks: He gave their beasts over to hail, their cattle to lightning bolts (reshafim) (Ps. 78:48). This verse, which is part of the description of the plagues in Egypt, refers to what the hail did to the livestock in the fields. “Their cattle to reshafim” means that the Lord delivered their cattle to fiery bolts – an allusion to the verse in Exodus, fire flashing in the midst of the hail (Ex. 9:24). The Aramaic Targum, Ibn Ezra, and David Kimhi all understand the verse in this fashion. In addition to this plain meaning, Rashi also offers a midrashic gloss on reshafim as soaring birds (citing Job 5:7, the sons of Resheph fly upward): “When the Egyptians saw that the mounds of hailstones prevented them from saving their flocks, they slaughtered some animals and tried to carry the carcasses home on their shoulders. Suddenly birds swooped from the sky and snatched the carcasses away.”
But it is also possible that here Resheph means plague or pestilence. If so, barad (hail) is actually a corruption of dever.21 Support for this metathesis may be drawn from the description of the fifth plague, which struck your livestock in the fields – the horses, the asses, the camels, the cattle, and the sheep (Ex. 9:3). Furthermore, as previously noted, Resheph and Dever appear in parallel in Habakkuk: Pestilence (dever) marches before Him, and plague (resheph) comes forth at His heels (Hab. 3:5). On the other hand, pestilence is mentioned explicitly in verse 50, and it seems unlikely that the psalmist referred to it two verses earlier as well.
According to The Song of Songs, love is fierce as death, passion is mighty as Sheol; its darts are darts of fire (reshafeha rishpei esh), a blazing flame (Song of Songs 8:6). This verse can be understood in two ways. The reshafim may be darts or arrows; we have already seen Ugaritic texts in which the Lord Resheph is referred to as the “Lord of the Arrow” and a Phoenician inscription from Cyprus with a reference to “Resheph at the arrow.” The other possibility is that reshafim means sparks. As noted, in Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic, Resheph means “fire” or “spark.” By extension we obtain the sense of the fever caused by pestilence. Perhaps the poet had both senses in mind, given that the “arrows of love” is a common image and love is frequently compared to fire as well. We might also consider the mythological backdrop of the verse, which invokes the deities Sheol and Resheph. The former is a mythical figure who swallows up the dead and is never satisfied (Isa. 5:14), whereas Resheph, as we have seen, is the god of plague and pestilence.
Finally, according to Eliphaz the Temanite, the sons of resheph fly upward (Job 5:7). Some render bnei resheph as sparks (the “children of fire”) and understand Job’s friend, Eliphaz, to mean that just as sparks fly up into the air, human beings are born with an inclination to sin. Others render the expression to mean “soaring birds.” The Septuagint has νεοσσοὶ δὲ γυπὸς ‘the vulture’s young’; the Peshitta has the generic ‘sons of birds.’ This may be an echo of an ancient tradition, reflected in a bilingual Hittite-Phoenician inscription from Karatepe that mentions “Resheph of the birds.” In Ben Sirach, Resheph has the sense of bird of prey also.22 Albright believed that in this verse, as well as in Deuteronomy 32:24, Resheph means a bird of prey; he cites a midrash on Exodus 9:22 to support his view.23 It is possible that the “sons of Resheph” are the malefic spirits whose proper place is Sheol. Sinners cause these spirits to rise up and harm them. Alternately, they are the various diseases that rise up from the underworld to sicken human beings.24
Medieval commentators suggest something similar. According to Isaiah of Trani, “these are the spirits that fly through the air, and this is [the meaning of] lehumei Resheph veketev meriri. It means: the spirits soar and fly high and do not suffer the pains of the world, but human beings were created to suffer according to their deeds.” Rashi, too, writes that they are angels and spirits.
As we have seen, in all the documents from the Ancient Near East, Resheph is the personal name of a deity. In the Hebrew Bible, with its monotheistic belief, Resheph is not a deity and has several meanings, such as “pestilence,” “arrow,” and “fire”. In every occurrence in the Hebrew Bible, it bears a connotation of disaster. This disaster brings death, and is under the control of the Lord. It is probably the destructive power of Resheph that leads TB Berakhot 5a to state that “Resheph refers only to demons.”
- Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit, vol I, ed. M. Dietrich, O.Loretz, and J. Sanmartin (Kevelaer and Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1976), 1.14.i:18–19; “The Legend of King Keret,” trans. H. L. Ginsberg, ANET, i.18, p.143.
- Die keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit, 1.15.ii.6.
- Ibid., 1.82:3.
- Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften, 3 vols., ed. H.Donner and W. Rölling (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1962), No. 32.3–4; W. J. Fulco, The Canaanite God Rešep (AOS 8; New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1976), p. 49. It should be noted, though, that some have interpreted the term differently, as “luck” and “outside street.” See, for example: S. Iwry, “New Evidence for Belomancy in Ancient Palestine and Phoenicia,” JAOS 81 (1961): 31; see also Albright who abandoned his older position and followed Iwry: Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (London: Athlone Press, 1968) p.121. As Fulco pointed out we cannot accept Iwry’s view since the word hetz in Hebrew and Ugaritic has the meaning of arrow as a weapon. See further Fulco, The Canaanite God Rešep, p.51.
- Iliad 1. 45.
- D. Conrad, “Der Gott Reschef,” ZAW 83 (1971): 161-163.
- Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften, No. 214:2.
- R. D. Barnett, J. Leveen, and C. Moss, “A Phoenician Inscription from Eastern Cilicia,” Iraq 10 (1948): 65, iii.8.
- R. T. O’Callaghan, “An Approach to Some Religious Problems of Karatepe,” ArOr 18/2 (1950): 354-65, on 360; William Kelly Simpson, “New Light on the God Reshep,” JAOS 73 (1953): 88.
- W. F. Albright, “ Mesopotamian Elements in Canaanite Eschatology,” in P. Haupt Anniversary Volume,ed. Cyrus Adler and Aaron Ember (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1926), pp. 146-150.
- Francesco Vattioni, “ Il dio Resheph,” Annali dell’ Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, n.s. 15 (1965): 39-74.
- Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften, No.15.
- ANEP, no. 473, 474, 476, pp.163-164; Fulco, The Canaanite God Resep, pp. 31, 68-69.
- The words le-fanav and le-raglav are synonymous and the latter can mean “before him” (see Isa. 41:2). Dever and Resheph occur in tandem once (Ps. 78:48).
- Yitzhak Avishur, Studies in Hebrew and Ugaritic Psalms (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1994), pp. 164.
- On the other hand, Andersen, in his commentary on Habakkuk, believes that the Lord is surrounded by four quasi-divine beings. He maintains that those behind him and ahead of him are identified while those at His two sides are not. For the idea that the Lord is surrounded by four ministers, see at length in his book. It should be recalled, however, that in the Bible neither the number nor order of appearance of the divine servitors is fixed. See Francis I. Andersen, Habakkuk (AB 25; New York: Doubleday, 2001), pp. 300-307.
- Theodore Hiebert, God of My Victory: The Ancient Hymn in Habakkuk 3 (HSM 38; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), p. 93; Patrick D. Miller, The Divine Warrior in Early Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 8-63.
- “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” ANET, tablet, XI. 96-100, p. 94.
- M. Streck, Assurbanipal und die letzen assyrischen Könige bis zum Untergange Niniveh’s (VAB; Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1916), 2:194–195.
- A. Caquot, “Sur quelques démons de l’AT (Reshep, Qeteb, Deber),” Sem 6 (1956): 55.
- Symmachus reads dbr (i.e., plague) for brd. The translators of the Jerusalem Bible read dbr. See also Caquot, “Sur quelques démons de l’AT,” p.61.
- Ben Sirach 43:17.
- See Exodus Rabbah 12:4; W. F. Albright, “ Mesopotamian Elements in Canaanite Eschatology,” p.150.
- Conrad, “Der Gott Reschef,” ZAW 83 (1971) 157-183; Fulco, The Canaanite God Resep, pp. 58–59; Caquot, “Sur quelques démons de l’AT,” p. 60. A description of the suffering caused by forces from the netherworld is found in Ludlul Bēl Nēmeqi: “Debilitating Disease is let loose upon me: An Evil Wind has blown [from the] horizon, Headache has sprung up from the surface of the underworld, An Evil Cough has left its Apsû, The irresistible [Ghost] left Ekur,[The lamaštu-demon came] down from the Mountain…”; “The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer”, in Babylonian Wisdom Literature, edited by W.G. Lambert (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1960), tablet II, p. 41, kubes 50–55.
Shaul Bar, Ph.D., teaches at the Bornblum Department of Judaic Studies, University of Memphis.