Resheph – God of War, Pestilence, and the Underworld in the Hebrew Bible

Habbakuk 3 and the God Resheph in the Hebrew Bible

Photo of the Canaanite god Resheph (Reshep, Reshpu, Reshef) from the “Min – Qeteshet – Reshef” stele displayed at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, CA

Many bible translations have a tendency to mask the polytheistic nature of Israel’s commitment to Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout the Old Testament, clues exist to demonstrate the monolatrous nature of the authors of these texts. This is due to the fact that the authors of these texts lived in an environment that acknowledged the existence of other gods and divine beings. I like to say that scripture comes in its very own cultural packaging. These prophets, priests, poets, and scribes that assembled these texts that we call “The Bible” lived in a world that acknowledged other divine beings as naturally as 21st century writers talk about things we are familiar with. Over time many of these authors, while acknowledging other divine beings, came to view Yahweh or Jehovah as the head god of a pantheon of gods, and eventually became monotheists, or believers in a one true God. 1

These changes didn’t happen instantly, and there is disagreement as to when these changes occurred. But if we read the texts of the Old Testament with an eye open to these divergent views, we will see the Bible for what it really is: an ancient document that reflected the varying views of the authors as they worked to express their experience with the divine. There are some examples of these other gods of the Ancient Near East that remained in the text of the Hebrew Bible, that were incorporated into the council of God, or members of the entourage of Jehovah.

Habbakuk 3 offers an interesting example of this, describing a scene in which Yahweh decides to engage in conflict with the waters of chaos.

God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran. (Selah.)
His glory covered the heavens,
and the earth was full of his praise.
The brightness was like the sun;
rays came forth from his hand,
where his power lay hidden.
Before him went Deber,
and Resheph followed close behind.
2

(Habakkuk 3:3-5)

Yahweh’s connection with the southern region of Teman is probably a shout out to older traditions associating Yahweh with this location. 3 What’s curious here is Yahweh’s military procession in verse 5, Resheph and Deber. Though these names are typically translated as “pestilence” and “plague” in many of our English Bibles, they are in reality the names of two Ancient Near Eastern deities. 4

Deber (changed by a translator to “dabar” or “word”) was a rather obscure deity, apparently the patron god of Ebla 5, but Resheph was a larger figure in the Ancient Near East. He is attested as early as the third millennium BCE, and he was one of the most popular gods of the Near East, respected from the Anatolia to Cyprus to Egypt. In the texts of Ugarit to the north of Israel, Resheph is described as the gatekeeper of the sun goddess, the guardian of the Netherworld. He is also the lord of battle, fire and disease, which he spreads with his bow and arrows — hence his role as a warrior of pestilence in Habakkuk and the references to a bow and arrows later in the same chapter. The Pharaoh Amenophis II regarded Resheph as his personal military protector. 6 The cult of the Canaanite god Resheph is well attested throughout Syria-Palestine, and far beyond, usually in syncretism with other deities. 7

Qetesh Stele current location: Louvre Museum. From left to right: Min, Qetesh, and Resheph

Resheph was a destructive, powerful, smiting god of the Ancient Near East, similar in many respects to some of the characterizations of Yahweh seen throughout the Old Testament narrative.

Resheph appears numerous times throughout the Old Testament, although it is hard to determine sometimes whether the authors had the personified deity in mind or simply the idea of plague or destruction. In Psalm 78:48-49, Yahweh appears to unleash Resheph and his other minions on the Egyptians: 8

He gave over their cattle to Deber
and their flocks to the Reshephim.
He let loose on them his fierce anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.

Deuteronomy 32:23-24 also refers to Resheph and the demon Qeteb as the means by which God punishes those who are unfaithful. The text says: “I will heap evils upon them, my arrows I will spend on them; wasted with hunger, devoured by Resheph and Qeteb, the poisonous one” 9

Resheph’s connection with Israel may have been even closer to home. According to a text from Ebla, Resheph was the patron god of Shechem, an important Canaanite city that eventually became the capital of Samaria (Israel). 10

Resheph was sometimes associated or combined with the dusk god Shulman as the deity Resheph-Shulman. 11 It has been conjectured that the god Shulman was known among the West Semites as Shalem, the divinity whose name is thought to be a component of the name of the city of Jerusalem, where a temple of the god was allegedly found. 12

What do we make of all of this? The Jews used the gods that were in their culture to express their belief and understanding of the divine realm in a way not unlike their neighbors. They put their sacred texts together the way that they knew how, in their own cultural packaging. That is how God has allowed mankind to experience spiritual things, according to the language and culture that they understand. God speaks to man “according to his (mankind’s) language” (D&C 1:24). This is how God “deals” with the children of men. Those who misunderstand this may have a tendency to complain, to say that the text is too human and not enough divine. Like Laman and Lemuel, they may “murmur because they knew not the dealings of that God who had created them” (1 Nephi 2:12).

Notes

  1. Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. With a foreword by Patrick D. Miller. 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans; Dearborn, Mich.: Dove, 2002.
  2. Translation taken from John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, p. 199. See also John J. McDermott, What are they saying about the formation of Israel? p. 24. McDermott writes: More specifically, the god Resheph accompanies Yahweh. Although English translations usually treat the word in a naturalistic way (plague), it may originally have been a reference to the same Canaanite god who is sometimes associated with Baal.
  3. Mark S. Smith, Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World, p. 94-95. Smith writes: Sometimes the sites of Yahweh stand in competitive relationship. As Hutton has insightfully surmised, the architecture of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud appears literally inscribed with the old tradition of Teman, and it is further acknowledged in the portable inscriptions marked on pots. By contrast, the considerably later tradition of Yahweh of Samaria is restricted to inscriptions of pottery. This “newer” Yahweh perhaps serves to mark a minority voice in addition to the older, established tradition of Yahweh at Teman. This old Yahweh of Teman also seems to stand behind the poem of Habakkuk 3. In this poetic case, the evocation of the old Yahweh from Teman plays into an exaltation of the Judean royal establishment (Hab. 3:12). No less important, there is no reference in the poem to the Judean king’s own cult site center in Jerusalem. Instead, the Teman tradition is a glorious one associated with high antiquity that could be used without any particular need to defend or exalt – much less even mention- the Judean cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem. The mention of Teman and Paran serves to glorify the Judean king and his divine patron. Old memory is useful here, binding the present circumstances to the glorious Yahweh of old; it poses no competition or threat.
  4. Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, 2001, p. 149. See also: Maciej Münnich, The God Resheph in the Ancient Near East, Mohr Siebeck, 2013 p. 218. Münnich writes: We are dealing with a typical henotheistic picture in which besides the primary god there are lesser, subordinate deities. “Pestilence” is here only a personified disease while Resheph remains a deity, like the pantheons of the other West Semites. In the case of Hab. 3:5 both beings serve to stress the menacing, destructive power of Israel’s God. They can be – as found in literature – described as demons. This character is perfectly visible in the ancient translations of the biblical text. Jerome translated the name of Resheph directly as diabolus, which explicity shows that he saw in reseph the name of the pagan deity/demon. However, this gives a fairly surprising whole: a devil proceeds in Yahweh’s retinue! We do not know how the creator of the Vulgate reconciled that picture with his faith but undoubtedly, it was a problem for the authors of the LXX, for whom the personified perception of Resheph, clearly contradictory to the final monotheistic phase of the development of the religion in ancient Israel, could not be accepted. Consequently, the Greek version omits the name of Resheph, and additionally, instead of “pestilence” (deber) it has “word” (dabar), with the result that in the translation we have: Logos strides before Yahweh. Certainly, we are not dealing here with a mistake to read the Hebrew text but with a conscious intervention to correct the text. The aim of this correction was most probably to demythologise the text, which could result in a theologically correct monotheistic version.
  5. John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 2000, p. 199.
  6. “Resheph”, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 701. It states: In Egypt from the New Kingdom onwards the cult of Resheph gained prominence under the influence of immigrated Asiatic people. The god was officially adopted at the court of Amenophis II; the Pharoah regarded this deity as his special protector during military enterprises. In the Ramesside period, Resheph’s veneration also spread among the common people: textual and iconographical data testify both to his worship at the highest levels of the society and to the devotion of the general population.
  7. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 332.
  8. Dictionary of Deities and Demons, 703. It states: In Ps. 78:48 we have an allusion to the seventh plague of Egypt: God has given up the cattle to Barad (Hail) and the herds to the Reshephs… the poet deals with decayed deities, Barad/Resheph(s), depicted as malevolent spirits which accompany God in his destructive action. See also: John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, p. 200.
  9. Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 702-703.
  10. Charles F. Pfeiffer, Ras Shamra and the Bible, Baker Studies in Biblical Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1962, p. 34. See also: https://bible.org/article/baalism-canaanite-religion-and-its-relation-selected-old-testament-texts#P107_24025 It states: The god Resheph (Heb. “pestilence”) is responsible for the demise of Kirta’s family and he is seen in many Ugaritic cultic texts as one who receives several offerings. Earlier in the late 3rdmillennium B. C. E. he was worshipped as a patron god of the kings of Ebla. He was also one of the most popular gods in the worship of the Egyptians of the nineteenth dynasty. Some scholars closely link Resheph with the god Mot.
  11. William Foxwell Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths, Eisenbrauns, 1990, p. 150.
  12. “Shulman,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons, p. 774-775.

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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3 Responses to Resheph – God of War, Pestilence, and the Underworld in the Hebrew Bible

  1. Pingback: The Messiness of Scripture | LDS Scripture Teachings

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  3. Pingback: The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources | LDS Scripture Teachings

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