Ancient Near Eastern views of death and life after death have elicited significant work recently, including two volumes by Jon Levenson, several collections of essays, and the present study, originally a dissertation directed by Herbert Niehr at Tübingen. Given the unavoidable and often tragic dimensions of death and humans’ attachment to hope of something beyond it, this interest should not be surprising. Moreover, careful attention to our ancestors’ thoughts on the subject may offer us forgotten insights. Thus Gulde’s work, which balances careful analysis of relevant ancient texts with an awareness of larger literary issues, does contribute to important reflections.
By focusing on both Ugarit and Israel, she identifies a distinctively Syro-Palestinian, “westsemitisch” figure of a god M-w-t without strong parallels in the “official” cults of Egypt and Mesopotamia or their texts. In those cultures, death is a “metaphorisches Gestalt” and “ein personifiziertes Abstraktum,” not an integral part of the official religion (p. 240). Such a figure also appears in the West, with discrete images of death appearing across the entire Near East over many centuries, indicating not so much cultural borrowing as a widespread, region-wide approach to a universal fact of human existence. The themes of death’s greed, robbery, and monstrosity were widespread.
As Gulde also argues, the biblical material develops an ever more abstract view of death. Early references to death appear mostly in laments, but the postexilic move to monolatry or even “rein monotheistischen Religion” (pp. 244–45) made it necessary to resolve the place of death in the overall plans of Yhwh, thus creating significant problems (and opportunities) for theodicy. Indeed, for all these religious systems, death presents a significant intellectual and emotional challenge, and all the ways of resolving it acknowledge that “der Tod dem Menschen unfaßbar bleibt” (p. 247).
Gulde works out these themes in a series of moves. In Chapter A (pp. 1–62; the unit numbering is odd but ultimately undistracting), she considers the figure of death as a ruler, noting first that the images of death are not always fearsome, but show a greater complexity owing to human beings’ ambivalent attitudes toward death, the diversity and metaphors available for death, and the complexity of the act of figuration itself. On the last point, she discusses the problems associated with the use of mythological language in the Bible (and so-called demythologization; pp. 38–46), and the ways in which myth as a way of describing reality shapes the portrayal of individual characters and the use of metaphors within a given myth. Here Gulde, in my view, asks many of the right methodological questions, although, as she notes, we are still in the beginning stages of finding answers. Her discussion can perhaps help us avoid dead ends and false trails. Her survey of recent literature on the subject (e.g., by Korpel, Geyer, or Wyatt) points out that the Ugaritic material would make us look for a divine figure of death in Israel, but the variety of mythic treatments of major aspects of human existence across cultures must give us pause.
The core of the book appears in Section B (pp. 63–238), which examines first ancient Near Eastern evidence and then the Bible. The material she studies from Israel’s Umwelt includes the story of Ani from Egypt (which contrasts life, creation, and Atum with chaos, death, and Apophis), the Gilgamesh Epic (especially X.6.13–15) and its (unsurprising) placement of the discussion of death in the context of lament, and most significantly, the treatment of Motu in Ugaritic texts (KTU 1.4.VIII.1–30; 1.82; and especially 1.23). Her treatment of the Ugaritic texts is most extensive and stimulating because she argues that Motu is not a figure of chaos, but an integral part of the cosmos (p. 115), thus forcing us to reconsider the facile contrasts of conventional wisdom. She concludes that Motu, “verkörpert als Figur in der Lebenswelt der Menschen abstrakte Erfahrungen mit lebensmindernden Faktoren mitsamt ihren dynamischen Aspekten” (p. 121), though he is a deity of some popularity under such avatars (my word, not hers) as Rašpu.
However, it is worth noting that Motu does not receive cultic observances as such at Ugarit, as far as we can tell. (Regrettably, Smith’s new edition of KTU 1.23 appeared too late to influence Gulde’s work, though her excellent bibliography does include it.) Nor is it clear, at least to me, that Ugaritic presentations of Motu are all of a piece. Why see him as one figure, even in a single city, rather than several? A similar point goes for Gulde’s too cursory treatment of the Akkadian material, in which mûtu sometimes seems an impersonal force or reality seizing human beings and sometimes an all too personal demon (for a convenient list, see CAD 10/2: 317–18; some cases seem debatable, particularly in Gilgamesh). The ancient Near Eastern evidence may be even more complex than Gulde allows for, even though she has pushed us away from previous, less nuanced readings. Her work, along with others, signals a disintegration of older consensuses.
In any case, these ancient Near Eastern texts do use some of the same images of death (as raptor, monster, glutton) that also figure in the Israelite tradition. In her treatment of the latter (pp. 126–238), Gulde identifies four figurations of death: glutton (Numbers 16; Isa 9:19; Hab 2:5; Pss 73:9; 106:17; 124); robber (Jer 9:16–21); shepherd (Psa 49:15); and covenant-maker (Isa 28:15, 18). Although her treatment sometimes loses focus by becoming generalized commentary, a fault of innumerable dissertations, she does manage to stay on target well enough to shed light on numerous texts. Her comparison of biblical texts to the Icelandic saga Ragnarök, which also knows a ravenous god of death, is illuminating (p. 144), as is her subtle analysis of Isaiah 25, where Death is a ruler who loses to the supreme deity, Yhwh, or of Psalm 49, in which shepherd imagery offers “ein neutrales Bild” (p. 210). She shows considerable sophistication in recognizing that the biblical texts see death as both a part of the cosmic structure and a threat to it: “Tod und Underwelt sind Orte der Gottferne. Die beiden Figuren kennen dies Weisheit als Element des göttlichen Bereichs ‘nur vom Hörensagen’ ” (p. 149).
By refusing to see the biblical portrayal of death as univocal, Gulde offers us a beginning place for further analysis. She shows, I think, that the textual traditions of Israel drew on ancient Near Eastern resources but went their own way, particularly as they sought to coordinate views of death with reflections on the nature of the one deity and Yhwh’s omnicompetent ruler. Less clear is the appropriateness of the term “Herrscher” as the master metaphor for the figurations of death in these texts. True, images of shepherds have regal dimensions in many ancient texts, and a being with whom one can make a covenant (Isa 28:15, 18) must be either divine or regal or both. But “Death” is an odd sort of ruler, one whose subjects do nothing, feel nothing, offer nothing. Unlike all other rulers, Death interacts with no hierarchy, receives no ritual or ideological justification for his rule, and in short attracts only those most alienated from any sane social order. On the other hand, perhaps this is the point. Death’s rule is an unpleasant one, though interwoven with the cosmos itself. For helping us understand that, Gulde deserves our thanks. We hope to hear from her again.