Breaking Bread with the Dead: Katumuwa's Stele, Hosea 9:4, and the Early History of the Soul.

AuthorSuriano, Matthew J.

The discovery in 2008 of a stele at Zincirli (ancient Sam'al) (1) has brought new impetus to the study of the Semitic root npgInbS, classically translated in Hebrew () as "soul." The stele (Fig. 1), which dates to the eighth century B.C.E., bears an inscription and image of a royal servant named Katumuwa, (2) and describes the provisions necessary for sustaining his "soul that is in this stele." In one single motion, this discovery opened anew several longstanding issues in the study of Semitic languages, most notably the following three: the relation of nps to concepts of selfhood in the term's abstract and substantive forms, the use of this term in contexts that are distinctly funerary, and the cultural practice known as feeding the dead.3 Each of these issues has a direct bearing on the Hebrew Bible. Feeding the dead is attested in both biblical sources (see, e.g., Deut. 26:14; Jer. 16:7 [with the LXXD, (4) and the archaeological remains of the southern Levant, (5) yet it is poorly understood as a cultural practice. Moreover, in the Hebrew Bible can stand for a person who is either living or dead. In the latter sense, the term stands for a type of body (corpse) that is ritually defiling, which raises questions regarding the very nature of the term. The semantic origins of nps/nps are more assured, since it is attested throughout the Semitic languages, where the meaning "life" occurs as early as Ebla in a bilingual lexical list that glosses nu-p[u.sub.3]-us-tu-um with Sumerian ZI ("life"). (6) Yet, the early history and exact nature of nps as a concept of self in postmortem contexts continues to elude a better understanding. A new interpretation of Hos. 9:4 will shed light on the nature of:, drawing together texts from Zincirli (particularly Katumuwa's stele), where the nbs is identified and provided with food, and biblical sources that involve feeding the dead.

The interpretation of /nps is obscured by the modern metaphysical sense of "soul," which involves a body/soul dichotomy that is taken from Plato and is heavily informed by Descartes' similar division of body and mind.(7) The modern concept of the term "soul" confuses the matter because in the Hebrew Bible the is neither inherently immortal nor entirely abstract.(8) Certainly, rabbinic texts can speak of the as a core of being that is separated from the body at death, though the extent of Greek in fluence here can be debated.(9) Yet biblical sources such as Num. 19: 11-22 imply that the could be a physical body, either dead or living, and other texts indicate that the could die (e.g., Ex. 21:23 and Lev. 24:17). It is the physicality of death in these ancient sources (both biblical and inscriptional) that draws to the forefront an existential sense of "soul" that is both abstract and uniquely substantive in marking postmortem selfhood. This is not to affirm the older monistic view of the, as best argued by Johannes Pedersen, where body and soul represent a single totality of being. (10) Nor is this to embrace anew a pleonastic interpretation of body and soul in the reading of pre-Hellenistic texts. It is to suggest instead that in certain texts the abstract essence of the nbs is assigned a physical presence through ritual. This interpretation is critically linked to a definition of ritual that understands it (ritual) as the formalization of action and meaning through performance. (11)

The basic problem of interpretation begins with the individual and mortality, and our limited understanding of the dialectical relationship between the two in the ancient Levant. By extension, little is known regarding the practices involved in preserving one's identity after death. What is argued here is that ritual action preserved the identity of the dead, objectified in the nbs, creating a particularized notion of postmortem selfhood. In the ancient Near East, these ritual actions would include the evocation of the name of the dead, along with the use of food and drink for the sustenance of the dead. These actions can be referred to singularly as ancestor veneration. The same actions, however, could also serve as part of a funerary ritual when they are associated with the disposal of the dead. Although the situations may differ (ancestor veneration versus funerary rituals), (12) in each case the /nbs becomes situationally defined in a manner that marks its physical presence while also affirming its abstract quality. The reification of the abstract component (selfhood) perpetuates the life of the soul long after death, and in some cases this allows the /nbs to exist separately from the body. Yet the argument here is not for a disembodied soul, but instead for a concept of the soul that was embodied through ritual. Since the substantive form of the /nbs differs in Sam'al and Israel/Judah, (13) it is important to examine the abstract sense that serves as the starting point for ritual action in the two cultures. The abstract sense can simply be described as the identity of the dead, and in the recently discovered stele from Zincirli (henceforth = KTMW) the identity of Katumuwa can easily be located not only in his image, name, and vocational role (royal servant), but also in his inscribed words that speak to us directly in first-person voice. (14) Combined, these elements represent the enduring selfhood of Katumuwa, and they shape identity in a way that is individualized and defined within a specific context. Thus the /nbs is materialized within a distinctly ritual setting, and a comparison of Hos. 9:4 with the text of Katumuwa's stele will show that the feeding of the dead was a critical component of this ritual setting at both Sam'al and ancient Israel/Judah.


The meaning of in the Hebrew Bible is complicated and a full discussion is beyond the scope of this essay. Of the word's various nuances, this study will examine the single notion of postmortem selfhood, and for these purposes the term "defunct-soul" will be used to render (and nbs) in the texts discussed below. (15) The translation provides consistency throughout the study, since the term will be applied to various objects (corpse and stele) that mark the identity of the dead. According to the accepted historical-philological understanding of the root, the word's earliest sense was "throat," and the line of meaning that descends from here ranges from "hunger" and "greed" to other affective senses. (16) The second semantic range of, which stems from the core meaning "life," includes "living being," "person," "people," and "self." The postmortem essence that emerges from this semantic range includes "corpse" (in specific literary strands of the Hebrew Bible), (17) and "stele" or "cenotaph," as well as "tomb" (in later phases of Hebrew and other Semitic languages). (18) The two seemingly disparate semantic fields of "life" and "throat" raise historical-philological questions of association and translation, particularly in Hos. 9:4.

To approach this problem, it is important to begin by recognizing that the defiling nature of in certain biblical sources (mainly P and H) implies physicality. In biblical literature, discussion of the defunct-soul () occurs in restrictions on mourning rituals (Lev. 19:28) and in relation to ritual purity (Lev. 21:1; Num. 19:11-13). (19) The defunct-soul, in these texts, is a source of contamination relational to any person who touches it, and with regard to the respective person's participation in the ritual cult of the tabernacle/temple. As Seth Sanders has recently observed in his study of Katumuwa's stele, (20) the wider context of ritual participation defines the parameters of the nbs, and within this context it becomes an object that is both singular and deictically near. Accordingly, the history of the term nbs (the allomorph of ) (21) is dependent upon the ritual of feeding described in this and other texts from Sam' al. (22) The defunct-soul as the central object in rituals of veneration required sustenance; the ceremonial act of feeding the respective object reified the dead in the presence of the living. Consequentially, it becomes possible to understand a trajectory of meaning within a larger context of ritual that is recognizable in texts from the northern Levant and south Arabia. The nbs in the Sam'al inscriptions is not necessarily architectonic in essence, relative to a tomb; instead, it is representative of the defunct individual. Yet the term is used in a manner similar to Old South Arabian funerary inscriptions (= OSA), where the nfs is apparently an architectural feature. (23) Thus, a history of the term emerges from the sources that suggests that the concept of selfhood began with the nuance "life" (in an individualized sense) and encompassed "corpse,' which extended to "tomb" and "cenotaph," and ultimately the external "soul" (in the modern sense). (24) The questions of causality that underscore this historical-philological lineage must be recognized within the framework of ritual performance, a framework that is apparent in texts that refer to the dead as a nbs or.

In both biblical literature and Northwest Semitic inscriptions the defunct-soul is an object signifying an identity that was distinct, singular, and unique to the respective dead. The general examples given in the Hebrew Bible do not attach specific names to each soul in the direct manner that inscriptions identify the respective nbs (for example, "the soul of Panamuwa" [nbs pnmw] in KAI 214:17). Yet the defunct-soul signifies an identifiable person within a specific framework. A clear example is found in Lev. 21:1-6 (cf. v. 11), the divine instructions regarding the purity of priests and their participation in funerary rituals. The passage begins by referring to the deceased as a defunct-soul (in the absolute form): "for a defunct-soul, he will not defile himself among his relatives" (Lev. 21:1b[beta]). The priests, however, can defile themselves for close family...

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