Bible translations often conceal the polytheistic context of Israel’s devotion to Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures. Even as the Yahweh religion spread from its obscure Edomite/Kenite origins to become a unifying force across Samaria and Judah, acknowledgement of other deities and divine beings remained. Often, these deities might be represented as part of Yahweh’s divine council or personal retinue.
Habbakuk 3 offers a fascinating example of this, describing a scene in which Yahweh comes up from the south 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.
Yahweh’s connection with the southern region of Teman is an interesting topic for another post. What’s interesting here is Yahweh’s military retinue in verse 5, Resheph and Deber. Though these names are typically translated as “pestilence” and “plague” in English Bibles, they are actually the names of two West Semitic deities.¹
Deber was a somewhat obscure deity, apparently the patron god of Ebla², but Resheph was from the big leagues. He is attested as early as the third millennium BCE, and he was one of the most popular gods of the Near East, venerated 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 the Netherworld. He is also the lord of battle, fire and diseases, 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.³
Resheph was a smiting god. Sound familiar?
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”. In Psalm 78:48-49, Yahweh appears to unleash Resheph and his other minions on the Egyptians:⁴
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.
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).
Resheph was sometimes associated or combined with the dusk god Shulman as the deity Resheph-Shulman.⁵ Shulman was the patron deity of Jerusalem and formed the theophoric component of the city’s name itself — Jerusalem (“foundation of Shulman”), or just Salem as it is sometimes called in the Old Testament. Theophoric personal names that incorporate Shulman include Solomon⁶, Absolom (“Shulmon is my lord”), and Shalmaneser (“Shulman is foremost”), a name used by five Assyrian kings.
The takeover of Yahweh as Jerusalem’s patron god can perhaps be seen in Ezekiel’s vivid description of Jerusalem as Yahweh’s adopted daughter (Ezek. 16:3-14). Resheph may have been demoted, but he lived on in biblical memory as a powerful warrior who would accompany Yahweh and inflict plague upon Judah’s enemies.
¹ Cf. Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, 2001, p. 149.
² John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 2000, p. 199.
³ “Resheph”, DDD, p. 701
⁴ Day 200.
⁵ H.O. Thompson, Mekal, the God of Beth-Shan, 1970, p. 160. This association makes sense, since Resheph guarded the gateway to the Netherworld where the sun would descend each day at dusk.
⁶ The etymology of Solomon is contested, but note that he is also given a separate Yahwist name, Jedidiah (2 Sam. 12:25).