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RESHEF is a northwest Semitic god, whose cult is best attested in northern Syria. Its history may be followed for 3,500 years, from the Ebla tablets of the third millennium bce to the Babylonian Talmud and the Aggadic Midrash, Exodus Rabbah, the redaction of which took place, it seems, not earlier than the tenth century ce. By that time, the Reshefs had become birds of prey, after having been viewed as demons dwelling on roofs. This development has a background in the Judeo-Hellenistic interpretation of Reshef in the Septuagint translation of the Bible, which at times assimilates him to a bird of prey, like a vulture or an eagle. Unfortunately, there are no extant myths in which Reshef plays a significant role, except for allusions to the plague he may cause.

Extension of Reshef's Cult

An important and diversified cult of Reshef is attested as early as circa 2300 bce in cuneiform documents from Ebla, then in various texts from the thirteenth century bce, found at Ugarit and Ras ibn Hani, and also in compound personal names at Ebla, Mari, Ugarit, and Emar, all from Bronze Age Syria. In the seventeenth century bce, at Hana/Ana on the Middle Euphrates, Reshef's heteronym Rushpan is used as an onomastic element. It does not witness a simple phonetic or dialectal development, but belongs to another nominal pattern, the same as Shulman, a divine name well attested in the area of the Middle Habur. Both names derive from adjectives. Reshef also occurs in the Bible and in many inscriptions from the eighth to the first centuries bce. In the mid-second millennium bce worship of Reshef also found its way to Anatolia, where he was called Irshappa, and more importantly to Egypt.

His name was introduced in Anatolia by the Hurrians, whose language does not admit any initial r, hence the prosthetic vowel i - and the consequent changes in vocalization and stress, leading to the form Irsháppa. In Egypt, about fifty stelae and other artifacts have been discovered bearing Reshef's name or image. In hieroglyphic script, the theonym is usually written Ršpw, where the -w is a vowel sign added in analogy to several Egyptian divine names ending in -w. Under Amenhotep II (14531419 bce), the cult of Reshef obtained an official status in Egypt, and this pharaoh even bears the title of "Reshef's beloved" on one of his seals. However, most stelae date from the thirteenth or twelfth centuries bce and come from Deir el-Medineh, a settlement of Syrian crafters, facing Thebes. Among other attestations of Reshef one can mention the rock shrine of Tushka in Nubia, dating from the eighteenth dynasty (c. 15001300 bce). A procession of five offering bearers approaches three seated deities, identified by hieroglyphic inscriptions as the local Horus, lord of Miam, the deified pharaoh Sesostris III, and Reshef, who brandishes a mace-ax above the head and holds a shield. A stele from el-Simbillawein, from the Ramesside period (c. 13001100 bce), shows Reshef in front of the god Ptah with a scepter and the figure of the Horus falcon above.

Etymology and Local Associations

Reshef's name is probably a derivative of the same Semitic root as the Akkadian divine epithet rašbu, "redoubtable." In fact, interchanges between labials (b/p ) often take place in Semitic languages. Etymologically Reshef is an epithet or a title, and it is often used with a following place name, "Reshef of," for which many examples can be found at Ebla and Ugarit. It was initially a title used for any tutelary god. Certainly later it became a proper name, but even then it was used for a type of deity, namely a warlike deity, as confirmed by the use of its plural in various texts and by iconography.

Since "inspiring fear" is a notion essential to the nature of the sacred in primitive religion, it is not surprising therefore that the cult of Reshef is recorded already in the third millennium bce and that several local numina are called in such a way, the plural "Reshefs" being also attested. This is best illustrated in texts from Ebla, where at least eleven different deities named Rashap occur with mainly toponymic qualifications. The tablets mention the deity in relation to offers that were brought to Reshef's various sanctuaries, and they specify the number of sheep sacrificed in his honor. There are neither mythological nor ritual and liturgical texts, which could reveal the true nature of the god and show him in action. Nevertheless, an administrative text lists offers made not only to Reshef of Atanni, an important holy place, but also to his emblems, possibly his "quiver," his set of "javelins" or "arrows," and his "mace-ax." If this uncertain interpretation of the logograms is correct, these weapons would appear to be Reshef's attributes. Bow, arrow, and quiver are offered also to the Hurrian god Nubadig, identified with Reshef. Reshef of Gunu, mentioned at Ebla, deserves a special mention, because he is still worshiped one thousand years later at Ugarit.

Local connections of Reshef's worship still appear in some Phoenician inscriptions from the first millennium bce, possibly at Karatepe, an elevated stronghold on the Ceyhan River in eastern Cilicia (c. 750 bce). Reshef's name is followed there by prn or prm, usually explained as "(Reshef) of the goats" or "of the birds." However, his equation with the stag god, which appears in the parallel Hieroglyphic Luwian inscription, does not prove that "goats" are meant. In cuneiform script, the stag god Runt was indicated by the logogramdkal of a protective deity, like Reshef was at Ugarit. Nevertheless, a toponymic connotation was assumed in this case as well, prm/n being possibly a counterpart of Sepphoris in northern Israel, with the ending -în/-îm of place names. On Cyprus, the oldest dedication to Reshef, dating to the seventh century bce, might refer to "Reshef of Sa[lamis]" (on Cyprus), while later inscriptions from Idalium and Tamassus (Cyprus) identify him with particular types of Apollo, either Cypriot or originally Laconian (Peloponnesus), and call him "Reshef of Amyclae," "Reshef of Helos," and "Reshef of Alashiya," the ancient name of Cyprus or part of it.

There is so far no unequivocal trace of a cult of Reshef in Phoenicia proper, except for two royal cylinder seals from Sidon, dating to around the fourteenth century bce, and the name of the "Land of Reshefs" given in the fifth century bce to a city quarter at Sidon. Nor was Reshef worshiped at Carthage or on the island Ibiza. The name Eresh, borne by a West Semitic divine craftsman, was there misread as Reshef, just as the Egyptian god Herishef was confounded by some authors with Reshef, especially at Byblos. Arsūf, a coastal city of Palestine, preserved the name of Reshef. The place name is possibly attested as early as the third millennium bce at Ebla and is recorded in 1 Chronicles 7:25 as the name of a son of Ephraim. Its Arabic name, mentioned by Yāqūt (11791229 ce) and corrupted by the crusaders into Arsur, bears witness to the Palestinian and Lebanese shift rašp > ršāf, as in kafr > kfār, to the phonetic changes š > s and ā > ō > ū, and to the addition of a prosthetic vowel. Excavations have provided evidence of an early first-millennium bce occupation at Arsūf, but the settlement of the Bronze Age was probably located at a nearby site. The city was called Apollonia in Hellenistic and Greco-Roman times, depending on Reshef's identification with Apollo. Along with this place name and the biblical references to Reshef, a few Palestinian cylinder seals from the late Bronze Age include a recognizable figure of Reshef.

Indefiniteness of Action

Sacred potency, because of the very indefiniteness of action, can heal or strike, be beneficent or unforgiving. Its presence can guarantee peace and security. This is why one of the city gates at Ebla was called "Gate of Reshef" and why personal names witness the recourse to Reshef's patronage, as shown by their meaning: "Servant of Reshef," "Reshef is merciful," "My father is Reshef," "My god is Reshef." On the other hand, Reshef can spread plague and inflict death through his mace-ax, spear, large bow, and arrows. He is not properly a war god, but the god of death inflicted by plague or weapons. It is probable that his arrows, like those of Apollo, killed by spreading the plague. Egyptian stelae show him brandishing his mace-ax over his head, in the same martial stance as the hundreds of bronze statuettes of the so-called Smiting God, found in the Levant and elsewhere. Since these statuettes are not inscribed and the divine characters represented wear various types of crowns, there is no certainty that all these bronzes can be related to Reshef. In particular, no bronze represents the deity with a crown adorned with the typical bent gazelle horns that characterize Reshef on a number of Egyptian stelae. However, these images express the original connotation "redoubtable" attached to his name.

Relationship to Other Deities

This basic aspect of Reshef's character explains why he could be assimilated to such differing deities as the Mesopotamian god Nergal, the lord of the netherworld; the Hurrian god Nubadig/Nupatik, a tutelary deity known earlier as Lubadaga/Lupatik; the Luwian protective god Runt, represented in hieroglyphic Luwian by a stag; the Egyptian war god Montu; the North-Arabian god Rua, and a major Cypriot deity called Apollo in Greek inscriptions. Even a direct identification of Reshef with Horus is attested in Egypt in the Saite period (c. 663526 bce). Reshef's name is engraved in hieroglyphic script on the base of a bronze statuette representing a deity still wearing the "lock of youth," characteristic of "Horus the Child." He wears the red crown of Lower Egypt and his left hand holds a shield, a bow, and an arrow, while a quiver hangs from his shoulder. These are Reshef's typical weapons.

The equation of Reshef with Nergal led some writers to characterize him as a chthonic deity. This equation is already attested in a lexical text from Ebla and thus goes back at least to the twenty-fourth century bce. At that time, Nergal was still the bull god of Kutha, a city located some twenty-five kilometers north of Kish, which appears to be the oldest Semitic center of power in Babylonia, irradiating as far as Ebla. Nergal's anthropomorphic image in mythology reveals that he was a dying and rising god. Every year, he had to spend six months in the netherworld with Ereshkigal, the queen of the dead. This is stated in a late explanatory text: "on the 18th of Tammuz [July] Nergal goes down to the netherworld, on the 28th of Kislev [December] he comes up." In such a way, he thus appears as a chthonic deity, but essentially he was the "redoubtable" city god, bringing war or peace. In the twenty-first century bce, his full equipment consisted of a mace, a large bow, arrows, and a dagger, like Reshef's. It is likely that the equation of the two gods was made on this level and it does not justify, in consequence, the characterization of Reshef as a chthonic deity, although he could inflict death like Nergal. The equation of the two deities was so well anchored in the second millennium bce that logograms of Nergal's name, in particulardmaš.maš and dkal, were used in Ugarit and most likely on Cyprus for Reshef or the Cypriot god identified with him.

The problem of Reshef's spouse would need greater clarification in the sources. The goddess Adamma or Adam appears sometimes as Reshef's consort. Since she is mentioned in a grave inscription from Cyprus in the early ninth century bce, she could possess chthonic features, but this is only a remote possibility, since the existence of a relation between her name and the Hebrew noun ʾădāmāh, "earth" or "soil," is just a guess based on assonance and analogy with the Greek goddess Gaia or Ge, "earth," resident in the earth and governing it. Egyptian stelae from Deir el-Medineh associate Reshef with Min, an Egyptian god, and with a naked Syrian goddess named Qudšu. However, nothing indicates that she was regarded as his wife. In the year 6 bce, the priests of the Babylonian goddess Herta at Palmyra dedicated some premises to Herta, to the goddess Nanaya, and to Reshef. Nothing is known about the relationships between these deities.

Figurative Connotations

The name of Reshef does not seem to have ever lost the features of a common noun, since it continued to be used also in the plural. A ritual text from Ugarit alludes to a procession, "when the Reshefs enter the house of the king," and the historical records of Ramses III at Medinet Habu praise the pharaoh's chariot warriors for being "as valiant as Reshefs," while Psalms 76:4 refers to "Reshefs with bow, shield, and sword," and a city quarter in Sidon is called "Land of the Reshefs," possibly the garrison. Reshef is more likely a "Reshef with arrows" than a "Reshef of the street," corresponding to Apollo Agieus. In fact, "the sons of Reshef" in Job 5:7 are his arrows that "fly upwards" (cf. Psalms 91:5), while the "Reshefs of fire" in the Song of Songs 8:6 are a synecdoche inspired by inflamed arrows shot at besieged cities to set them ablaze. The same synecdoche also occurs in the Hebrew text of Ben Sira 43:17, where flying snowflakes are compared to arrows shot by an invisible enemy: "his snow flies like Reshef."

In older biblical texts, such as Deuteronomy 32:2324, Habakkuk 3:5, and Psalms 78:48, Reshef is a harmful power, bringing plague, as he does in the Poem of King Keret, preserved by tablets from Ugarit. In contrast, the Alexandrian translators of the Hebrew Bible regard Reshef as a bird of prey, thus in Deuteronomy 32:24, Job 5:7, and Ben Sira 43:17. They even attribute to him "wings of fire" in the Song of Songs 8:6, as if he were the Phoenix, and he is recorded in such a way by the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch 6:8. These interpretations probably originated in Egypt, where Reshef was identified also with Horus, often represented as a falcon. The conception of Reshef as a bird seems to have gained wider acceptance, since Reshefs appear in Talmudic literature as "demons dwelling on roofs." There is so far no evidence supporting the view that Reshef was a fertility god, a chthonic deity, or a storm god.

See Also

Apollo; Nergal.


A comprehensive discussion of the evidence and an annotated bibliography can be found in the studies by Edward Lipiński, Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicien et punique (Louvain, Belgium, 1995), pp. 179188, and William J. Fulco, The Canaanite God Rešep (New Haven, 1976), the latter requiring some updating. For the Egyptian iconographic material, most valuable is Izak Cornelius, The Iconography of the Canaanite Gods Reshef and Ba'al: Late Bronze and Iron Age I Periods (c. 15001000 bce) (Fribourg, Switzerland, and Göttingen, Germany, 1994). The bronzes with the "Smiting God" have been studied by, among others, Ora Negbi, Canaanite Gods in Metal: An Archaeological Study of Ancient Syro-Palestinian Figurines (Tel Aviv, 1996), and Helga Seeden, The Standing Armed Figurines in the Levant (Munich, 1980). The motive of the naked goddess was analyzed by Silvia Schroer, "Die Göttin auf den Stempelsiegeln aus Palästina/Israel," in Studien zu den Stempelsiegeln aus Palästina/Israel, vol. 2, edited by Othmar Keel, Hildi Keel-Lev, and Sivia Schroer (Freiburg and Göttingen, Germany, 1989), pp. 89207. For the cult of Reshef on Cyprus, see Lipiński, "Resheph Amyklos," in Phoenicia and the East Mediterranean in the First Millennium b.c. (Louvain, Belgium, 1987), pp. 8799. Postbiblical Jewish understanding of Reshef was examined by Lipiński, "Rešāfīm: From Gods to Birds of Prey," in Mythos im Alten Testament und seiner Umwelt: Festschrift für Hans-Peter Müller, edited by Armin Lange, Hermann Lichtenberger, and Diethard Römheld (Berlin and New York, 1999), pp. 255259.

Edward LipiŃski (2005)