The Second Coming of Saturn Part 10: Ritual Pits and Rephaim

Of all the names under which this old god has masqueraded through the centuries, “Kumarbi” may be the one least known. “Shemihazah” is likewise obscure, but at least he’s mentioned in the Book of 1 Enoch, so those who’ve been exposed to the story of the Watchers on Mount Hermon are at least familiar with that name, if not the spelling. But the cult of Kumarbi died a long time ago, and the Hurrians, who considered him the father of their gods, had all but disappeared from history until modern archaeologists started digging up the Near East. The story of Kumarbi was lost until 1936, when Emil Forrer connected the Hittite texts about Kumarbi to Greek tales of the Titan king Kronos. And yet, in the supernatural history we’re reconstructing, Kumarbi plays a key role.

We’ve established that the Hurrians are the link between the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) civilization of the Ararat Plain, the early urban center of Urkesh in northern Mesopotamia and its necromantic pit, the abi, and key sites in and around what became Israel—specifically, Shechem, the area around Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem. This is significant because the word for the sacred pit used by the Hurrians to summon the gods of the netherworld—the Infernal Council, if you will—is connected to several Hebrew words for spiritual practices expressly forbidden by God. In fact, the term was familiar to a number of cultures in the ancient Near East stretching from the Persian Gulf to the middle of Anatolia:

A large degree of probability exists for deriving the Sumerian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Hebrew terms from a common source. The chart below illustrates the similarity in sound shared by these various terms:

Sumerian        ab(.làl)
Hittite              a-a-bi
Ugaritic           ʾeb
Assyrian          abu
Hebrew           ʾōb[1]

The Hebrew word ʾōb (pronounced “ove,” with a long O) is usually translated into English as “medium,”[2] but some scholars believe a more accurate rendering is “spirit of the dead.”[3] The word appears in the Old Testament sixteen times, often followed by yiddĕʿōnî (“necromancer”). The most famous use of ʾōb is in the story of Saul and the medium of En-dor, to whom Saul turned in desperation when he realized that he’d been abandoned by God. Note the description of Samuel’s appearance:

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. (1 Samuel 28:12–14, emphasis added)

The spirit of Samuel, called “a god” (elohim) by the medium, “rose up out of the earth”—in other words, from the pit she used to contact netherworld spirits. This has led some scholars, because of the connection between the Hebrew term and the pagan divination pit of the Hurrians, prefer to translate ʾōb as “ritual pit.” Compare the ESV and NET translations of 1 Samuel 28:8 (emphasis added):

English Standard VersionNew English Translation
So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.”So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothing and left, accompanied by two of his men. They came to the woman at night and said, “Use your ritual pit to conjure up for me the one I tell you.”

In light of the evidence, the NET translators are correct. We can’t fault the ESV translators; the NET Bible may be the only English translation to choose “ritual pit” as the translation for ʾōb in that verse. But it’s only been since about 1980 that scholars have accepted the existence of a cult of the dead in and around ancient Israel. The idea that the pagan neighbors of the Hebrews summoned gods of the netherworld is not usually discussed by Bible scholars. And the abi of Urkesh was only discovered in 1999, so the influence of the Hurrians on these necromantic rituals is only now coming into focus.

So, kudos to the translators of the NET Bible. Citing the paper we excerpted above, the translators of the NET point out that the common understanding of ʾōb in the days of Saul and David was not “medium” but “owner of a ritual pit.”[4] And it’s clear that Saul and his servants knew exactly what the pit was used for.

As noted above, the concept of the ʾōb, a pit used to summon spirits from the underworld, connects the Hebrews to older cultures in the ancient Near East going all the way back to Sumer. The Sumerian word, ab, means “sea,” and it’s related to abzu, the term for the cosmic underground freshwater domain of the god of wisdom, Enki, whom we mentioned in an earlier chapter. It was from the abzu that Enki sent forth the abgal (usually referred to by the Akkadian word apkallu), semi-divine sages who delivered the gifts of civilization to humanity. And, as we noted, abzu (Akkadian apsû) is where we get the English word “abyss.”

Amar Annus demonstrated in a groundbreaking 2010 paper that the apkallu can be positively identified as the Hebrew Watchers.[5] There is a striking similarity between the activity of the abgal/apkallu, the rebellious Watchers (especially Asael), and the Titan Prometheus. We don’t think this is a coincidence. Annus interprets the Hebrew stories of the Watchers and their progeny, the Nephilim, as “deliberate inversions of the Mesopotamian source material,”[6] polemics against the sorcery and bad behavior of their pagan neighbors who celebrated the apkallu as heroes. More than that, however, the Hebrew accounts of the Watchers and their monstrous offspring were a different spin on a shared spiritual history in which the apkallu were judged according to the moral standards set by God, rather than those of the fallen “sons of God” placed over the nations after the Tower of Babel.

The connection between the abzu of Sumer and the ʾōb of the Hebrews is obvious (pardon the pun). The apkallu were called upon for favors, especially to protect the home or royal building projects,[7] and it was common for Mesopotamian kings to compare themselves to, or claim to be descendants of, the apkallu:

[Nebuchadnezzar], king of Babylon…distant scion of kingship, seed preserved from before the flood…[8]

To a Jew in the ancient world, a “seed preserved from before the flood” meant a descendant of the Watchers. (By the way, that inscription was carved for Nebuchadnezzar I, who ruled Babylon in the late twelfth century BC, about five hundred years before the Nebuchadnezzar most of us have heard of.) The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal compared his wisdom, including an ability to understand “antediluvian inscriptions,” to the first of the abgal/apkallu to emerge from the abzu, Adapa, and claimed to be his descendant to boot.[9]

The point is that it was widely believed in the ancient Near East that supernatural beings from the netherworld had power and knowledge that was useful, even though they were sometimes considered evil beings with strong connections to Mesopotamian demonology, and were sometimes considered demonic themselves.[10] The linguistic link between the Sumerian ab and Hebrew ʾōb connects the practice of trying to appease these underworld spirits and the necromantic activity of the woman consulted by Saul the night before his death.

Before we decide that we’ve firmly nailed this connection, new research deserves to be considered. As we saw above, Bible translators who’ve made a career of studying ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, and Greek haven’t settled on a firm definition for ʾōb. The context seems clear enough, but does the word mean “medium” or “ritual pit”? In 1 Samuel 28:7, the woman Saul consults is called a baʿalat ʾōb. The translation “mistress of mediums” is odd (hence the NET note that the original Hebrew means “owner of a ritual pit”).

Christopher B. Hays has suggested a new interpretation of ʾōb based on an Egyptian etymology. He’s argued elsewhere, convincingly, for Egyptian loanwords in the Bible, especially in the book of Isaiah.[11] In this case, Hays and his coauthor Joel M. LeMon suggest that the word may derive from an Egyptian cognate, 3b(w)t.[12] Not surprisingly, they find the word in the book of Isaiah applied to Egyptian religious practices:

…and the spirit of the Egyptians within them will be emptied out,
and I will confound their counsel;
and they will inquire of the idols and the sorcerers,
and the mediums [ʾōbot] and the necromancers. (Isaiah 19:3)

The argument is fairly technical, but their conclusion is this: The Hebrew word ʾōbot is related to Egyptian 3b(w)tand means “dead ancestors who could be represented through images.”[13] They go too far in crediting the Egyptians with inventing the word, given the evidence of similar terms going back to Sumer as early as 3000 BC, more than two thousand years before Isaiah.[14] Still, connecting this matrix of ideas to images or statues that represented the venerated dead fits what we know of the culture that produced the patriarchs. Genesis 31 records the story of Jacob’s flight from his father-in-law, Laban. Besides his anger at losing his moneymaking son-in-law, Laban was furious that his “household gods” (teraphim) had gone missing. While the idols are not called ʾōbôt in the Genesis account, the sense of the word is the same. The teraphim gave a physical location to ancestral spirits during the monthly kispum rite, and since those spirits were summoned for blessings and protection, losing access to them was a disaster. It was serious enough in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that wills have been found cutting off disobedient children from the family gods.

 Ugaritic text 1.20 column A

Hebrew ʾōbôt is usually translated into English as “spirits of the dead,” but a similar word, ʾābôt (based on the root ʾāb), means “fathers,” as in “deceased ancestors.” The difference is subtle. It’s even plausible that ʾābôt and ʾōbôt are essentially the same word,[15] and it’s impossible to ignore the similarity to the Arabic word abu, which means “father of.” These words and ideas are linked to a puzzling reference in Ezekiel 39:11 related to the prophesied war of Gog and Magog, who foresaw the battle’s end in the gê ha-ōberim (“Valley of the Travelers”). “Travelers” was a term used by the pagan Amorites of Ugarit around the time of the judges to refer to the Rephaim,[16] spirit beings believed to be the deified dead kings of old, equivalent to the Nephilim of Genesis 6.

The Ugaritic Rephaim Texts, in which these Travelers are summoned to a feast in their honor, reveal information about the Rephaim that should be startling to Christians:

In spite of the damaged text, we may read the opening lines of KTU 1.20 i 1–3 as follows:

[rp]um tdbḥn  [The sav]iours will feast
b]ʿd ilnym    [seve]n times the divinities
[ṯmnid] mtm    [eight times] the dead…

This amounts to a statement that the rpum [Rephaim] are indeed divine: they fall into the category of ilnym [elohim], that is, chthonian gods, who are in turn qualified as mtm, “dead.” This gives them the aura of underworld associations, rather than merely denotes that they are defunct. These dead are powerful!…

The rpum texts contain other pieces of information. Apparently summoned to a cultic performance, usually interpreted as a kispum rite, the Rapiuma [Rephaim] come in chariots on a three-day journey to a location variously identified as a threshing-floor (grn), a plantation (mṭct), a sanctuary (atr) and a house (bt, || palace, hkl), which may denote a temple and its constituent sacral areas, and which is at the same time on a mountain summit in the Lebanon (KTU 1.22 i 24–5). The three days of their journeying hints at a lunar symbolism tied to the theme of resurrection, as perhaps evidenced in Hosea 6:2. This is circumstantial evidence supporting the view that they are dead. The apparent location of the sanctuary, and especially the allusion to the Lebanon, not as we might expect to somewhere directly associated with Ugarit (such as the city itself, or [Mount] Saphon [modern Jebel al-Aqra near Antakya, Turkey]) suggests that the narrative is keying directly into the tradition of the Hauran (biblical Bashan) as the territory associated with the Rapiuma.[17] (Emphasis added)

 Ugaritic text KTU 1.22

In the Ugaritic text designated KTU 1.22 i 13–15, the Rephaim are called ʿbrm, a Ugaritic cognate for ōberim, which is variously translated as “travelers,” “vagabonds,” or “those who came over,” in the sense of the dead “crossing over” from the spirit realm to the land of the living. And note that these “travelers” were summoned through a necromancy ritual to the “threshing-floor” of the Canaanite creator-god El, which scholars generally agree was the summit of the mountain that was visible nearly everywhere in Bashan, Mount Hermon.[18] According to the text, after two days of riding, the Rephaim arrive at the threshing-floor “after sunrise on the third.”[19] The purpose of the ritual was nothing less than the resurrection of the Rephaim:

There, shoulder to shoulder were the brothers,
whom El made to stand up in haste.
There the name of El revivified the dead,
the blessings of the name of El revivified the heroes.[20]

If you’re a Christian, the concept of resurrection at dawn of the third day should be obvious. In fact, finding it in a pagan text written twelve centuries before the Resurrection of Christ should make the hair stand up on the back of your neck! To put it plainly, this is the most important concept in our faith. As Paul wrote, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[21]

As we continue, we’ll see that the timing and the location of the Resurrection take on new significance against the backdrop of the rebellion of the Watchers and their chief, Shemihazah.

Next: Threshing-floors and portals


[1] Hoffner, op. cit., p. 385.

[2] Strong’s H178.

[3] Josef Tropper, “Spirit of the Dead.” 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. 807.

[4] NET notes for 1 Samuel 28:3., retrieved 2/23/21.

[5] Amar Annus, “On the Origin of Watchers: A Comparative Study of the Antediluvian Wisdom in Mesopotamian and Jewish Traditions.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 19.4 (2010), pp. 277–320.

[6] Ibid., p. 280.

[7] Ibid., p. 289.

[8] Ibid., p. 295.

[9] Ibid., p. 294.

[10] Ibid., p. 282.

[11] Referring specifically to the “loathed branch” of Isaiah 14:19. Christopher B. Hays, “An Egyptian Loanword in the Book of Isaiah and the Deir Alla Inscription: Hebrew nṣr, Aram. nqr, and Eg. nṯr as ‘[Divinized] Corpse’.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections Vol. 4:2 (2012), pp. 17–23.

[12] Christopher B. Hays and Joel M. LeMon, “The Dead and Their Images: An Egyptian Etymology for Hebrew ôb.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections Vol. 1:4 (2009), pp. 1–4.

[13] Ibid., p. 3.

[14] “Abzu (water).” The Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary., retrieved 2/23/21.

[15] Hays and LeMon, op. cit., p. 1.

[16] The Ugaritic Rephaim Texts, designated by scholars KTU 1.20–22.

[17] Wyatt (2010), op. cit., pp. 50–51.

[18] Lipiński, op. cit., pp. 13–69.

[19] KTU 1.22 ii 25. Nicolas Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit (London; New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) p. 320.

[20] Spronk (1986), op. cit., p. 171.

[21] 1 Corinthians 15:13–14.

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