Plagues, Flames and Vultures: The Complexity of a Forgotten God

We’re hearing the words maggēfåh (מַגֵּפָה) or någīf (נָגִיף), the common Hebrew words for a plague or contagious disease, a lot these days, and recently came across déver דֶּבֶר, one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt in the Pesach Haggadah. Hebrew dictionaries list an intriguing additional synonym, réshef (רֶשֶׁף), alongside the others. One reason this word is so enigmatic is its many meanings:

The most common use of réshef is for flames and sparks, or the flash of a firearm or explosive device being detonated. To these, the Even Shoshan dictionary adds “destruction, plague, oblivion [אָבְדָן]”, and even “a legendary destructive bird of prey” (עוף טורף ומזיק אגדי), though this is noted as being restricted to the writings of ancient Jewish sages. The dictionary further mentions the phrase benéi réshef (“sons of réshef”) as meaning “small sparks flying in every direction” (כינוי לניצוצות קלים הניתזים לכל עבר).

Most Hebrew speakers today would indeed understand the word réshef as referring primarily to flames and sparks, and associate it with the phrase “rishpēi ēsh” (רִשְׁפֵּי אֵשׁ), as a descriptive term for “fiery flames”. This phrase goes back to Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs (6:8), where it is said of lovers’ jealousy, “It’s flames are flames of fire”, using the word réshef twice in plural form: reshåféihå rishpēi ēsh (רְשָׁפֶ֕יהָ רִשְׁפֵּ֕י אֵ֖שׁ).

The word réshef is also at the root of the place names Tel Arshaf / Arsūf, known as Apollonia in the in Hellenistic period, and nearby moshav Rishpōn, both on the northern outskirts of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

Tel Arshaf / Apollonia was, it appears, once dedicated to the Canaanite-Phoenician god Réshef, known in Phoenician inscriptions as רשף (presumably pronounced Réshef), and called Rishpu (רִשְׁפֻּ) in Ugaritic. “He spread epidemics and death. […] He is represented with a shield, a club and a lightning bolt,” according to one summary.[i] (The positive aspect of rainfall as bringing fertility was the domain of a more well-known god, Bá‘al (בעל), who is remembered more fondly.[ii]) With flames, plagues and lightning in his tool kit, it appears that Réshef was indeed a force to be reckoned with. But what of birds of prey? And demons?

Elsewhere in the Tanakh, we come across additional meanings of the word réshef:

Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:24 includes among its list of divine threats: “Wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence and fanged beasts”, as the JPS translates the list including leḥumēi réshef (מְזֵ֥י רָעָ֛ב וּלְחֻ֥מֵי רֶ֖שֶׁף וְקֶ֣טֶב מְרִירִ֑י וְשֶׁן־בְּהֵמֹת֙). Most translations render this réshef as having to do with either contagious disease or fiery heat. In the traditional commentaries, Rashi takes another tack, explaining that this means that “the demons will attack them” (השדים נלחמו בהם). Ibn Ezra cites Onkelos’ explanation of leḥumēi réshef in Aramaic as “eaten by birds [of prey]” (אכולי עוף), but ultimately decides that the phrase means “that the air will heat up” (שיתחמם האויר).

The prophet Ḥavaqqūq / Habakkuk more clearly uses the word réshef to mean a destructively contagious disease (in verse 3:5), proclaiming: “Pestilence marches before Him, And plague comes forth at His heels”, as the JPS translates: lefånåv yēlekh dåver, ve-yetzē réshef le-raglåv (לְפָנָ֖יו יֵ֣לֶךְ דָּ֑בֶר וְיֵצֵ֥א רֶ֖שֶׁף לְרַגְלָֽיו). Such verses in the Tanakh, in which the second half poetically rewords the first half, often help figure out what specific words mean, or how they are being used in that given instance. In this verse, réshef is clearly being used as a poetic synonym for déver דֶּבֶר, a common term for plague or pestilence.

A more surprising use of the word réshef is encountered in Tehillim / Psalms 76:4, reading (in the JPS translation): “There he broke the fiery arrows of the bow (rishfēi qåshet, רִשְׁפֵי קָשֶׁת), the shield and sword of war.” Rashi examines this verse together with the use of the stand-alone plural form reshåfīm רְשָׁפִים shortly thereafter, in 78:48, which JPS renders as “He gave their beasts over to hail, their cattle to lightning bolts.” Given Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:24, Rashi is tempted to see all of these verses as having to do with demonic birds of prey, equating reshåfīm with “birds” (צפרים) preying on cattle and with high-flying “demons” (שדים). In the case of Tehillim / Psalms 76:4, he ultimately explains the phrase rishfēi qåshet as barrages of “flying arrows” or “arrows that the bow sets in flight” (חצים המעופפים … חצים שהקשת מעופף).

When discussing Onkelos’ Aramaic translation of Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:24, both Rashi and Ibn Ezra cite another verse, Iyov / Job 5:7: “For man is born for toil, while the Sons of Réshef fly high,” Kī Ådåm le-‘åmål yūllåd, u-vnēi réshef yagbīhūūf (כִּֽי־אָ֭דָם לְעָמָ֣ל יוּלָּ֑ד וּבְנֵי־רֶ֗֝שֶׁף יַגְבִּ֥יהוּ עֽוּף). (This is my own rendering of the verse. Most translations and commentaries directly relating to this passage understand the phrase “sons of réshef” as the Even Shoshan dictionary does, and simply render it as meaning “sparks”, though this seems here to miss the mark significantly.) As we have seen, Rashi and Ibn Ezra were no doubt aware of the possibility that the phrase “sons of réshef” could have something to do with “birds of prey”, but they seem to want to play this possibility down.

On Tehillim / Psalms 78:48, which refers to the Ten Plagues of Egypt, Rashi cites a Midrashic tradition explaining the verse as follows: “When the hail began to fall, the Egyptian fled with his goat or sheep [in Hebrew tzōn (צאֹן), a general term covering both] towards the house, but the hail became like a wall in front of him, so the Egyptian slaughtered [the goat or sheep], and put it on his shoulder, to bring it to his house to eat, but the bird came and took it from him, and this is [the meaning of] ‘and their cattle to the reshåfīm,’ as in ‘and the sons of réshef fly high’ (Iyov / Job 5:7). This is the Midrash [of the verse], but according to its simple reading, ‘to the reshåfīm’ [means] ‘flames of fire’, as it is written (Shemot / Exodus 9:24), ‘and fire igniting within the hail’.”

When commenting on Iyov / Job 5:7 itself, however, Rashi avoids interpreting the Sons of Réshef as soaring birds, and describes them instead as “angels and spirits who fly high, and are not of the lower realms, where Satan and the evil impulse reign” (מלאכים ורוחות שהם יגביהו עוף ואינם מן התחתונים לשלוט בם שטן ויצר הרע).

I am not aware of any modern or late pre-modern translation rendering the “Sons of Réshef” in Iyov / Job 5:7 as anything not having to do “sparks”. But when the Septuagint translators tackled it some twenty-two centuries ago, they rendered the verse into Greek as “Yet man is born to labour, while the vulture’s young seek the high places” (based on Brenton’s 1851 English edition).

Translating the “Sons of Réshef” as “young vultures” would of course accord well with the Midrashic tradition reflected in some of Rashi’s comments noted above and Onkelos’ translation of Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:24. Outside of sometimes-hesitant references preserved in the Jewish tradition, however, sources associating Réshef with birds of prey seem largely absent.

Evidence for the antiquity and authenticity of the traditional association of Réshef with birds of prey comes from a surprising source.

Just beyond the northernmost reaches of the ancient Canaanite-Phoenician expanse, on the other side of Mount Tzafōn, the peak which gave its name to the direction “north” (צָפוֹן) in the Hebrew language[iii], and which was seen as a Levantine Mount Olympus, the home of the Canaanite gods, there was once a kingdom known in the Tanakh as Qevē (קְוֵא). Though this kingdom was just outside the Canaanite-Phoenician zone, and was itself ruled by kings of Indo-European Hittite origin, one of its elites, a local lord called Azatiwada (אַזַתִוַדַ), commissioned an unusually long monumental inscription in the Phoenician dialect of Hebrew nearly 2800 years ago.

In this inscription, Azatiwada praised the Canaanite-Phoenician gods Bá‘al and Réshef, and gave them credit for his decision to establish a new city named after himself, Azatiwadaya, now Karatepe, Turkey. As can be seen in the transliteration of the text into more familiar Hebrew lettering, Azatiwada twice refers to Réshef as רשף צפרם. Given the Jewish tradition associating reshåfīm with birds of prey, alongside the Sons of Réshef “flying high” in Iyōv / Job 5:7, it seems we can vocalize this nickname as רֶשֶׁף צִפֹּרִם, Reshef Tzipporīm, “Reshef of the Birds”.[iv]

In any event, it is apparently the image of Réshef as a god of flames, pestilence, birds of prey and flaming arrows that inspired the Greek renaming of Arshaf, Réshef’s city on Israel’s central coast, as Apollonia in the Hellenistic period. Apollo, besides being the Greek god of poetry and music, was also the god of light, and, much like a bird of prey, he defeated a mythical serpent, Python, bearing down on him with divine arrows. Apollo was also, paradoxically, the god of both healing and disease. “Apollo delivered people from epidemics, yet he is also a god who could bring ill-health and deadly plague with his arrows,” the Wikipedia article relates.

Plague and pestilence, purification and healing, are seen as two sides of the same coin, governed by the same force.

Just a few lines below the verse contrasting toiling humans with the soaring Sons of Réshef, in verse 5:18 Iyōv / Job’s friend advises him to accept the bad just as he had earlier accepted the good:
כִּ֤י ה֣וּא יַכְאִ֣יב וְיֶחְבָּ֑שׁ יִ֝מְחַ֗ץ וְיָדָ֥ו תִּרְפֶּֽינָה׃

“For He injures and binds [the wounds]; He crushes and his hands heal.”

[i] Wie is wie in de mythologie, Tweede druk, Uitgeverij Ten Have, 2004.

[ii] In Hebrew to this day, fields or crops that do not require irrigation, but can be left entirely to natural rainfall, are called admōt bá‘al (אדמות בעל) or gīddūlēi ba‘al (גידולי בעל), and similar uses of the old god’s name are found in Arabic.

[iii] In Ugaritic, צפן is attested as indicating both Mount Tzafōn and the direction north (noted in Schniedewind and Hunt’s A Primer on Ugaritic), and צפלי is used to mean “northern” in a Phoenician inscription (according to Richard S. Tomback’s A Comprehensive Semitic Lexicon of the Phoenician and Punic Languages).

[iv] In another translation of the inscription, the nickname רשף צפרם is instead read as רֶשֶׁף צָפִרִם, Réshef Tzåfīrīm, which the translator renders as “Réshef of the Stags”. Tomback’s lexicon, however, considers this and other Phoenician and Punic inscriptions including the words צפר and ציפרם to be referring to birds, not stags.

About the Author
Daniel Kennemer is the founder of the Mount Carmel Arabic Immersion and teacher of Hebrew, English and more through Mount Carmel Languages. He studied Archaeology and Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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