Reviews of

Nicholas Wyatt, “After Death Has Us Parted: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in the Ancient Semitic World”

In Abraham, Edinburgh, HB/OT, Kerry Lee, Nicholas WYATT, Pentateuch, SEMINAR REPORTS on November 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

A report on a paper given by Professor Nicholas Wyatt (Honorary Professorial Fellow, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh) at the Biblical Studies Seminar at New College, the University of Edinburgh, 28 October 2011.

The list of forthcoming papers in the Biblical Studies Seminars at Edinburgh can be downloaded from here. You can find RBECS on facebook, here.

Professor Wyatt’s paper drew together disparate strands from first and second millennium BCE texts from across Mesopotamia and the Levant in order to identify common elements in their post-funerary practices, or ritual “Encounters Between the Living and the Dead.”

The bulk of the paper centered around investigating the eastern Mesopotamian practice of the kispum, a ritual feast wherein a deceased person, most especially but not exclusively a deceased king, was remembered and “fed.” While this term only occurs in eastern Mesopotamian texts, there are hints of similar features in practices recorded elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. Wyatt discussed numerous Akkadian texts from Assyria, Babylon and Mari, including “Ammiditana’s Letter” and the “Hammurabi Dynasty”, which make explicit use of the term kispum. Then he compared the sociological and philosophical features of these texts with texts and archaeological data from Emar, Ebla and Ugarit in Northwestern Mesopotamia (modern-day Syria) where the term kispum is absent. He found a number of striking similarities, including ritual feedings of the dead, emphases on successors taking up the role of remembering the dead through these rituals, and connections of some of these texts with lists of royal names (as in the “Hammurabi Dynasty” text) and liturgical practices including the performance of music. The treatment of Ugaritic texts brought out another common aspect of these rituals: the prominence of Rapiu/Rapiuma in these texts. The feast of Rapiuma phenomenon was advantageously compared to Isaiah 14:9-11, a text which mentions rephaim (translated “shades” in the RSV and NRSV) and which may be a parody of a Rapiuma feast.

Toward the latter part of the paper, Wyatt then began connecting these findings with a few other texts in the Hebrew Bible and showing how having a kispum-like ritual in the background offers an interesting slant to the reading or even a solution to a lingering problem in the text. These texts include 1 Sam 20:18-19 (the mention of a New Moon feast) and several texts from Isaiah (including especially 57:7-9 where language describing a ritual of this kind may be the intended primary meaning, whereas the hitherto understood sexual imagery of the verses is the ironic double entendre). In Genesis 15:2, the successor’s role as “pourer of water” (a phrase found in texts from Ugarit to describe an heir in his role as a ritual rememberer of the dead ancestors, especially in curses aimed at deriving someone of an heir) may be behind the enigmatic term for Eliezer, ben-mešeq, “son of the cup,” which context hints must have something to do with being a successor to Abraham.

Professor Wyatt’s paper concluded with a brief discussion of the role of music in funerary and remembrance rituals.

This paper was in many ways a call to further investigation. As such, its conclusions were perhaps somewhat more speculative than one would desire in order to be firmly convinced. Nevertheless, Professor Wyatt established the plausibility of a kispum-like remembrance ritual in the western Semitic world, showing the interpretive possibilities such a ritual has for problematic texts in the Hebrew Bible. While much work remains to be done to follow-up on Professor Wyatt’s work, it was a challenging and exciting paper.

Kerry Lee
University of Edinburgh
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  1. Congratulations! This post was included in the November 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival. This is quite an achievement. My word, yes.

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