Bloody libations

Na; the sea’s like the land, but fearsomer.  If there’s folk ashore, there’s folk in the sea – deid they may be, but they’re folk whatever’ and as for deils, there’s nane that’s like the sea deils… labsters an’ partans, an’ sic like, howking in the deid; muckle, gutsy, blawing whales’ an’ fish – the hale clan o’ them – cauld-wamed, blind-eed uncanny ferlies. O, sirs,” he cried, “the horror – the horror o’ the sea!  R.L. Stevenson, The Merry Men

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. (Psa 16:1 ESV)

The Pentateuch knows several kinds of libations.  There are libations of water, oil and wine – but never of blood.  Psalm 16:1 is the only place where we find any mention of a blood libation and it is in a negative sense.  The sacrificial laws of the Old Testament expressly forbid the sacrifice of animals ‘upon the ground’ so that their blood was allowed to run into the ground.  The Israelites were to slaughter the sacrifice at the entrance of the tabernacle and the blood was to be sprinkled on the altar.  Deuteronomy makes allowance for non sacrificial slaughter in the open field but in this case, the blood must be ‘poured out like water’ – that is, not ceremonially.

So what exactly was the purpose of a libation of blood and why would does the Psalmist single out this particular practice?  I suspect the reason why is because the blood libation had to do with the cult of the dead.   Leviticus 17:7 assumes that, until the giving of the sacrificial laws, the people sacrificed to ‘goat demons’  – what is is probably a general category for spirit beings who inhabit the ground.  In Roman times, the blood of victims was poured into the ground to satisfy the restless spirits of the dead.   Franz Cumont writes,

Fights of gladiators, whose blood drenched the soil, originally formed part of the funeral ceremonies.  It is said that these sacrifices were intended to provide him who had gone to the other world with servants and companions, as the offering of a horse gave him a steed, or else that, in case of violent death, they were meant to appease the shade of a victim who claimed vengeance.  (Cumont 1959, 51)

Cumont further observes that sacrifice to the dead “was at first often a human sacrifice of slaves or prisoners – Octavius, upon taking Perugia on the Ides of March, caused three hundred notables of the town to be slaughtered on Caesar’s altar…” (Suetonius, Life of Augustus – 15)  We find this same idea in Greece.  For example, Euripides tells a story about the sacrifice of the virgin Polyxena to the spirit of Achilles.  This sacrifice was made at the tomb of Achilles in order to get a favorable wind home after the sacking of Troy:

The Argives with one consent are eager for thy sacrifice to the son of Peleus at his tomb.

The language used to describe the slaying of Polyxena is the same kind of language used to describe the slaying of an animal.  Thus Polyxena laments,

As a calf of the hills is torn from its mother, and sent beneath the darkness of the earth with severed throat for Hades, where with the dead shall I be laid, ah me!

When the son of Achilles slays the girl, he prays:

Son of Peleus, father mine, accept the offering I pour thee to appease thy spirit, strong to raise the dead; and come to drink the black blood of a virgin pure, which I and the host are offering thee; oh!

This sacrifice is famously depicted on a sarcophagus found in Turkey that dates to ca 525 BC.  That means the depiction on the sarcophagus is older than the story told by Euripides.  Euripides would have us believe that Polyxena wished to die instead of live a life of slavery, but the relief on the sarcophagus tells a different story.  The tall mound in the background is the grave of Achilles – emphasizing the fact that this is a sacrifice for the dead.

Polyxena Sarcophagus
Sacrifice of Polyxena on a sarcophagus found in Turkey (525 – 500 BC) – Photo Courtesy of Dan Diffendale –


Sacrifice of Polyxena over the tomb of Achilles - Black Figure  Vase (ca. 570 BC) - Wikicommons
Sacrifice of Polyxena over the tomb of Achilles – Black Figure Vase (ca. 570 BC) – Wikicommons

Sorry about the graphic and not very pleasant reading.  I think it at least brings home the idea behind blood libations and the reality of human sacrifice that is so often denied in modern scholarship.   I don’t think the Psalmist necessarily had in mind human sacrifice in Psalm 16 but the principle is the same in either case.  The spirits of the dead needed the blood of the sacrifice just as the gods in heaven needed its meat.  Franz Cumont writes,

“When blood was sprinkled on the soil which covered the remains of a relative or a friend, a new vitality was given to his shade.”  (Cumont 1959, 51)

This makes the conclusion of Psalm 16 all the more meaningful.  The Psalmist does not look forward to a future as a disembodied spirit inhabiting a tomb and waiting for a friend or relative to bring a food offering or a blood libation.  His hope is of a completely different order,

I have set the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption (shachat).
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psa 16:8-11 ESV)

The word translated ‘corruption’ is shachat which some of the more modern versions translate as ‘pit’ (NET, JPS, TNK)  The word could be translated either way – and it is possible that the Psalmist intended for the word to stand for both meanings.  Unfortunately, translators have to choose one or the other.  It is worth nothing that the LXX translates shachat as ‘corruption’ and for good reason.  If we translate the phrase ‘to see the Pit’ then we must ask what exactly did the Psalmist mean by this?   The Psalmist’s hope is not that he will be kept from the grave, but that he will not be abandoned there.  To be abandoned in the grave is to experience corruption.

Did the psalmist switch from the 1st person to the 3rd person and assume the title ‘holy one’?  Did the Psalmist really believe that he would not see the pit or experience corruption?   The Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter quote this passage in reference to Christ (Acts 2:27 13:25).   The psalmist looks with a prophetic eye beyond his own circumstance to the resurrection of Christ – the firstfruits of those who are asleep, but not abandoned!


Cumont, F. V. M. (1959). After life in Roman paganism. New York,, Dover Publications.

Tobit on Daniel

How did Jews living under the rule of the Persians look upon the Medes?  Did they see Media as separate from Persia –  a distinct empire or did they see the Medes and the Persians as essentially the same?

“But as a careful family man, Tobit also works out the practical consequences of these prophecies; he enjoins his son to leave Nineveh for Media because Media will have “real peace” until the appointed time. Thus, for the author, the fall of the Persian Empire will be followed by the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  It is obvious therefore, that the book must have been written before Alexander’s conquest and the fall of the Fourth Monarchy.  (Bickermann 1988, 57)

A 4th century BC Jew living in Ninevah did not distinguish between Media and Persia.  Neither did the Greeks,

“The word ‘medism’ was used to condemn an opponent as having pro-Persian, often aristocratic, sympathies…”  (Freeman 1996, 165)

It is highly improbable that Media and Persia are two empires represented separately in the statue of Daniel 2 and the beasts of Daniel 7.


Bickerman, E. J. and Jewish Theological Seminary of America. (1988). The Jews in the Greek Age. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
Freeman, C. (1996). Egypt, Greece, and Rome : civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean. Oxford ; New York ;, Oxford University Press.



I will Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever

Did the Israelites hope for a life beyond the grave?  I have been reading through some of the Psalms with this question in mind, and am struck by the number of places where the Psalmist expresses hope for life after death.  For example, the last phrase of Psalm 23 reads:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever (leorech yamim). (Psa 23:1 ESV)

Some expositors take issue with the word “forever” and think it would better be translated “the rest of my life.”  While the the Hebrew phrase leorech yamim literally means ‘length of days’ and therefore does not necessarily mean forever, it often does refer to eternity.   They further argue that the Israelites viewed death with finality and despair.  The souls of the dead inhabit a shadowy underworld where none of the pleasures of this world are known or experienced.  This view is typified by J. Assman,

In fact, not only was there no meaningful afterlife in the Old Testament world, but also no sacred space of duration in this world, such as the Egyptians achieved by means of stony monumentality.  The divine and death were kept as far apart as possible, man was close to the divine only during his earthly existence, and all the accounts of righteousness had to be settled in this life; there could be no talk of immortality, yet the life of the individual was surrounded by a mighty horizon of recollections, by a promise that extended not into the afterlife, but into the chain of generations.”  (Jan Assman, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt 11)

Lets say, for the sake of argument, that the Psalmist only hoped for a blessed existence during the days that he lived on the earth.   Already he is conceiving of his days on earth in terms of a metaphor that sounds very much like the Christian view of heaven.  He wants to be with God – in his temple (cf. Psalm 15).   It is absurd to think that the Psalmist then envisions that when he dies, he enters the shadowy world of Sheol.

Moreover, there is good reason to think that the Psalmist is referring to more than just the days of his life on earth.  The final two clauses of Psalm 23 are in parallel, with the 2nd clause building on the first.  The goodness and mercy of the Lord experienced in this lifetime (all my days) becomes the all surpassing hope of dwelling with the LORD in his house forever (length of days).  This is how most translations understand it, but it is nevertheless surprising how many commentators go with Gesenius. [See Note 1]

It is with this in mind that we read in the book of Isaiah of a certain overseer of the house named Shebna whom the prophet condemned for building an elaborate tomb as “a dwelling in the rocks.”  The word Isaiah uses for ‘dwelling’ is ‘mishcan‘ – the same word used for the Temple.  Shebna built an impressive tomb to dwell in, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to do if one believes, as the Egyptians did, that the tomb was an important staging point for the soul on its journey to the afterlife.  But Israelite belief and ritual does not give place for a cult of the dead.

I have heard it said, “There is no resurrection in the Hebrew Bible!!!  None!” with an added caveat about Daniel, which is late.    While it is true that the resurrection of the body is not made explicit in the OT –  belief that the dead will go to be with the LORD is expressed clearly and directly in a number of places.  One could argue that this is the central idea behind the temple – it is the stairway that connects heaven and earth as revealed in Jacob’s vision.    Many of the Psalms express hope for life after the grave and relate this hope to the temple, just as Psalm 23 does.

It is interesting that, in light of these OT references, the Lord Jesus referred to heaven as ‘my Father’s house’.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?   And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.   (Joh 14:1-3 NIV)


(1)  Gesenius argued that ‘I will dwell in the house of the LORD’ should be translated ‘I will frequent the house of the LORD’.  Hengstenburg responds, “… it is impossible that the expression can be applied to literally abiding in the external temple, and it is altogether arbitrary to substitute, as Gesenius does, frequenting, instead of abiding.  Moreover, the possibility opened up by God of frequenting the temple, if occurring at all in a Psalm which extols so well what is great and glorious in God, is least of all to be expected at the conclusion, where there ought to have come in some comprehensive significant expression, and where it serves no other purpose except to weak the impression of the whole.  As parallel to goodness and love follow me all the days of my life, the words, I dwell in the house of the for ever, sound exceedingly feeble and cold, if they relate to a frequenting of the sanctuary.”   (Hengstenberg, E. W. (1842). The Psalms. Edinburgh, T & T Clark.)

(2) Forevermore (leorech yamim) in the OT:

Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O LORD, forevermore (leorech yamim). (Psa 93:5 ESV)

He asked life of you; you gave it to him, length of days (orech yamim) forever and ever. (Psa 21:4 ESV)

The phrase also appears in Akkadian texts,

I will give you long days and eternal years in the City, O Essarhaddon, in Arbela, I will be your good shield.  (Esarhaddon and Ishtar of Arbela, Foster 2005, 814)