by Derek Gilbert
The people of the ancient Near East, which is roughly defined as the lands of the Bible during the Old Testament period, never really said goodbye to their ancestors. The dead hung around, always near, part of everyday life. In fact, they required the care and attention of their descendants, and through the rituals of the living, those who passed on remained an active part of family, tribe, and community. The Amorites of the second millennium BC, who dominated the culture that produced Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had relationships with family and tribe, both living and dead, that were very similar to ancestor veneration cults and traditions found today in many parts of the world.
Mesopotamians four thousand years ago believed the netherworld was a dark, dreary place. The only food and drink available to the dead was what was provided by one’s descendants. The living were duty-bound to summon the ancestors to a ritual meal called the kispum on the thirtieth day of each month. This was the night of no moon, the darkest night, when the veil between the world of the living and the land of the dead was believed to be thinnest. This is likely why one text in Sumerian and Akkadian from the time of Abraham described the last day of the month as “the evil day,” “dangerous day,” “the day of the kispum,” “day of the disappearance,” and “the day of ‘purification’.”
Kispum was literally a necromancy ritual at which the family summoned deceased ancestors by name. Failure to perform the rite condemned the ancestors to a gloomy existence of dull, constant hunger. The rite probably originated with the Amorites, as the first written references to it date from the early second millennium BC when control of Mesopotamia shifted from the Akkadians and Sumerians to the Amorites. The ritual was comprised of three elements: a communal meal, šuma zakāru (“remembering the name”), and mē naqû (“pouring the water”), while the departed ancestors were represented by statues call en-en-ku-ku (“lords who are sleeping”). These statues are probably what the Bible calls teraphim, the household gods stolen by Rachel when Jacob fled from his father-in-law, Laban (see Genesis 31).
It’s difficult for us in the modern world to grasp how crucial these monthly rites were. Participation in the afterlife depended on one’s descendants faithfully performing the ritual every new moon. This not only nourished the dead, it kept them pacified. This was important because, long before Hollywood’s recent fascination with zombies, it was believed that the unquiet dead could be dangerous! To guarantee that the heir, usually the eldest son, did right by the expired ancestors, inheriting the family estate was tied to the performance of the kispum. Receiving one’s birthright was conditional on performing the monthly rites. Disobedient children could be punished by being denied access to the gods and the recently deceased in a parent’s will. Being cut off from the family gods was traumatic, which explains Laban’s desperation to catch Jacob and recover his teraphim.
The month of Abu in the Babylonian calendar (the Hebrew month of Ab, or July/August) seems to have been especially important in the annual cycle of the kispum. It appears that Abu was believed to be a good time of the year to consult dead relatives for supernatural advice—and ask them to leave the living in peace.
Not coincidentally, the name of the month may derive from the Semitic term ab, meaning “entrance to the netherworld.” In Hebrew, ab also means “father,” but in the broader sense of honored ancestors (or deities). Many of the gods worshiped in Mesopotamia were called “father,” such as the creator-god of Canaan, El, the “father of mankind,” and the war-god Chemosh, who is described as the father of the Moabites. This is especially relevant to this study because another word based on ab, the Hebrew Abarim (“Travelers”), is another name for Nebo, the mountain from which Moses got his only look at the Promised Land.
The 1889 Encyclopedia Biblica defined abarim as “literally, ‘Those-on-the-other-side’—i.e., of the Jordan,” a reference to the mountains in the present-day country of Jordan east of the Dead Sea. More recent research reveals that the encyclopedia’s editors, Cheyne and Black, were almost right. The abarim weren’t the mountains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho, they were the dead—spirits who were “on the other side,” in the same way we use the phrase today to refer to those who’ve passed on.
The tragedy suffered by the Israelites as they camped on the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho, confirms this reading of Abarim. Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers tells of how Israel was lured into the worship of Baal-Peor. Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, was so outraged that he speared an Israelite prince and Midianite princess who appear to have been engaged in a fertility rite in view of the entire camp, and possibly inside the Tent of Meeting itself.
That such an act would take place, especially “in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel,” is shocking, but that’s not what provoked the Lord to punish Israel with a plague that killed twenty-four thousand. In our book Veneration, Sharon and I showed that the name of that mysterious deity was derived from a Hebrew root meaning “cleft,” “gap,” or “opening,” thus making Baal-Peor “lord of the opening to the netherworld,” a name we’re tempted to translate “Lord of the Gates of Hell.”
Writing four hundred years or more after the event, the psalmist confirms our suspicion:
Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was stayed. (Psalm 106:28–30, emphasis added)
The sense of “those on the other side” is captured by another term that’s only recently been discovered by scholars. It was found among a group of three texts from the site of ancient Ugarit, an Amorite city in northern Syria destroyed around 1200 BC, about two hundred years after Moses and the Israelites fell into worship of Baal-Peor. These tablets, designated by scholars KTU 1.20–1.22 and called the Rephaim Texts, were translated for the first time. Scholars have been debating their precise meaning ever since, but the consensus has gradually shifted to interpreting them as a ritual for summoning the spirits of deified ancient warriors—in other words, a rite very much like the kispum.
There are three very important details that connect the Rephaim Texts, and thus the Rephaim of the Bible, to the Abarim of Moses’ day and the demons of the previous chapter. First, they are described as divinized, supernatural chariot warriors. This description is similar to the Bible’s depiction of the Nephilim, the “mighty men who were of old,” especially when Genesis 6:1–4 is considered alongside passages like Isaiah 14:9–19 and 26:13–14, where the word translated “shades” is the Hebrew rephaim; and Ezekiel 32:20–28, a polemic against the Pharaoh that compares the Egyptian king unfavorably with the “mighty chiefs” (literally, “chiefs of the gibborim”) in Sheol. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint understood the thrust of Ezekiel’s argument, as they rendered verse 27 this way: “And they slept with the giants, who had fallen from eternity, who descended into Hades with weapons of war.”
Second, the Rephaim are called “vagabonds,” “travelers,” or “those who came over” in one of the Ugaritic Rephaim Texts. The Ugaritic word ʿbrm, which is behind those English terms, is a cognate (same word in a different language) to the Hebrew ʿōbĕrîm, which is rendered “Travelers” and “can be interpreted as a divine name in Ezek[iel] 39:11, 14, which may have also been preserved in the geographical name Abarim.”
Remember that the Mountain of the Abarim (“Travelers”), Mount Nebo, is just across the Jordan River from Jericho, overlooking the plains of Moab where the Israelites provoked God’s wrath by eating sacrifices offered to the dead. The geographical picture here is the Jordan River serving as a barrier between the land of the living and the realm of the dead, like the Styx in Greek mythology. The Travelers are the spirits of the Rephaim who “travel” or “cross over” from the netherworld to interact with the living.
Third, and most important, is that the Rephaim in the Ugaritic ritual texts are summoned to the tabernacle or threshing floor of the Canaanite creator-god El, which can only mean the summit of his sacred mountain, Hermon. This is where the two hundred Watchers led by Shemihazah, their chief, swore a mutual oath to go forward with their rebellion, which resulted in the creation of the demonic spirits who were venerated as honored dead and divinized kings of old by the Amorites and Canaanites at least from the time of Abraham, and probably much earlier.
This impacted the Israelites and the early church far more deeply than we’ve been taught. Once you know what to look for, you see that this pagan practice must have been all around the ancient Hebrews. There are hints throughout the Old Testament. For example, Abraham’s distress at being without a blood descendant is easier to understand when you realize that he probably believed he and Sarah would have to depend on someone from outside the family to “say their names,” offer them bread, and pour drink offerings to sustain them in the afterlife. Odd sections of Scripture like Isaiah 57 suddenly make sense when you understand the context of the drink offerings and grain offerings condemned by the prophet:
You who burn with lust among the oaks,
under every green tree,
who slaughter your children in the valleys,
under the clefts of the rocks?
Among the smooth stones of the valley is your portion;
they, they, are your lot;
to them you have poured out a drink offering,
you have brought a grain offering.
Shall I relent for these things? (Isaiah 57:5–6, emphasis added)
The dead in ancient Israel were often buried on the slopes of valleys or along the banks of wadis (dry riverbeds). And the Hebrew words translated “smooth stones” in 57:6 can also mean “the dead,” which makes it obvious that Isaiah’s anger was directed at those who still venerated demonic spirits more than seven hundred years after God destroyed twenty-four thousand Israelites for that sin on the plains of Moab.
This is the legacy of Shemihazah and his co-conspirators. We can only speculate on this point, but it’s worth asking: Did the Watchers sire their hybrid children to create a superhuman, semi-divine army for the War of the Ages? The Ugaritic ritual texts refer to the rapi’uma (Rephaim) as “warriors of Baal”; is that because they were remembered as mighty heroes of a bygone era, or because they were created to steal the inheritance God allotted for humanity?
This is an important question. As we noted above, “Traveler” is a divine name in Ezekiel 39, meaning it identifies a type of supernatural entity. The Rephaim Texts identify the “Travelers” as the Rephaim, which means these “warriors of Baal” have a role to play in the final battle of the age:
On that day I will give to Gog a place for burial in Israel, the Valley of the Travelers, east of the sea. It will block the travelers, for there Gog and all his multitude will be buried. It will be called the Valley of Hamon-gog. (Ezekiel 39:11, emphasis added)
The Hebrew word translated “block,” ḥōsemet, is only used one other place in the Bible:
You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain. (Deuteronomy 25:4, emphasis added)
So, what does it mean to “block” or “muzzle” these Travelers? We’ll get to that later, but since we’re dealing with demonic spirits, it’s safe to conclude that Ezekiel did not prophesy a traffic tie-up for sightseers on the King’s Highway in Jordan.
To summarize what we’ve learned so far: An entity named Shemihazah was identified by the author of 1 Enoch as the “chief” of the two hundred Watchers who descended to Mount Hermon in the distant past. Based on the few clues in the Bible, we can conclude that the Watchers are a powerful class or rank of supernatural being. They decreed Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment for his unwarranted pride, which implies that God has delegated some degree of authority to them. But Shemihazah and his colleagues overstepped the limits of their authority and paid a heavy price for their rebellion. Peter and Jude were apparently aware of their fate as described in 1 Enoch, where the patriarch was told that the angels who’d sinned were confined in a dark and terrible place until the judgment.
Even though the Watchers are confined now, their actions have had serious consequences for humanity through the ages. Although most churches don’t teach on demonic possession these days, it is biblical. There is no scriptural reason to believe that demons ceased interfering in human activity at the end of the apostolic age, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that demonic activity is, if anything, increasing.
The question that remains is this: Does Shemihazah, who led a rebellion to steal the birthright of Adam and Eve for his hybrid children and those of his divine brothers, still influence the world from his prison in the depths of the abyss?
The answer is unquestionably yes.
Next: The dark god emerges from the mists of history.
 Renata MacDougal, Remembrance and the Dead in Second Millennium BC Mesopotamia (University of Leicester: Doctoral dissertation, 2014) pp. 58–59.
 Ibid., p. 26.
 Nicolas Wyatt, “After Death Has Us Parted,” in The Perfumes of Seven Tamarisks (Munster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014) p. 261.
 Jo Ann Scurlock, “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribner, 1995) p. 1884.
 Wyatt, op. cit., p. 264.
 Ibid., p. 265.
 MacDougal, op. cit., p. 25.
 Scurlock, op. cit, p. 1889.
 Wyatt, op. cit., p. 261.
 Numbers 21:29.
 Numbers 27:12; Deuteronomy 32:49.
 Encyclopaedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religion History, the Archeology, Geography and Natural History of the Bible, Vol I: A to D, edited by Thomas Kelly Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1899), p. 9.
 Numbers 25:1–9.
 Klaas Spronk, “Baal of Peor.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd extensively rev. ed.) (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999), p. 147.
 Gilbert & Gilbert (2019), op. cit., p. 50.
 Ezekiel 32:27, The Lexham English Septuagint (Second Edition), (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020).
 Klaas Spronk, Beatific Afterlife in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker,Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1986), p. 172.
 KTU 1.22.
 Klaas Spronk, “Travellers.” In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd extensively rev. ed.). (Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans, 1999) p. 876.
 Spronk (1986), op. cit., p. 171.
 Daniel 4:17.
 2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6; 1 Enoch 21:1–6.