Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Steiner, Richard, Disembodied Souls: The Nefesh in Israel and Kindred Spirits in the Ancient Near East, with an Appendix on the Katumuwa Inscription (ANEM, 11; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015). Pp. 228. Paperback. US$21.77. ISBN: 978-1-62837-076-8.

In this broad-ranging study Steiner presents linguistic, archeological, and sociological evidence about the belief in disembodied spirits and the nature of the human soul from ancient Israel and the ancient Near East. Steiner's thesis is that (at least some) ancient Israelites believed that the soul (נפש or רוח) was separate from the body during life and in death. He bases this argument on his own, new interpretation of Ezek 13:17–21 and the presence of similar beliefs among ancient Near Eastern people in the first and second millennia BCE. In addition, Steiner also provides commentary on the Katumuwa inscription from Zincirli (in an appendix), the conclusions of which form a portion of his argument (see below).

In his Introduction, Steiner begins by discussing the relevant literature, and finds in Ezek 13:17–21 evidence that ancient Israelites believed in disembodied spirits. He chooses Ezek 13:17–21 because, according to Steiner, it is the only passage cited by previous scholars that provides clear evidence for such a belief by ancient Israelites. Presenting his research on key words from Ezek 13:17–21 (including כסתות ,מספחות as well as פרחת and נפשים) and using comparisons with contemporary ancient Near Eastern cultures, Steiner thus hopes “to demonstrate that the passage in Ezekiel [13:17–21] refers quite clearly to disembodied souls” (p. 9).

In chapter 1, Steiner uses his interpretation of the Katumuwa inscription from Zincirli to begin a larger argument that there was ubiquitous belief in disembodied souls in ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures during the first and second millennia BCE. The author cites evidence for the existence of disembodied souls from Anatolia,[1] Ugarit,[2] Mesopotamia,[3] and Egypt.[4] From these findings, Steiner suggests that the ancient Israelites may have inherited the notion of disembodied spirits from their “proto-Semitic” ancestors. In chapters 2–5, Steiner makes a linguistic argument—often times taking support from Rabbinic literature—that Ezek 13:17–21 provides clear evidence that some ancient Israelites believed in disembodied souls. According to Steiner's interpretation, Ezekiel chastises a group of women who are trying to benefit from others' belief in disembodied souls. These women claim that they have the ability to trap the “dream-souls” of sleeping individuals. These dream-souls were attempting to return to their owners, but became trapped using enchanted pillow casings wielded by the women. After trapping the dream-souls, the women claim they now possess some control over the vitality of the disembodied souls and that if a ransom is not paid to them, then the converted “bird-souls” will perish along with the sleeping individuals. Key to Steiner's argument are the notions of “dream-souls” and “bird-souls.” In chapter 6, Steiner cites evidence for the belief in dream-souls—disembodied spirits that leave the body during sleep—in ancient Greece,[5] ancient Mesopotamia,[6] Islam (citing Qur'an 39:42), Rabbinic literature (citing Gen. Rab., Deut. Rab., & Midrash Tanḥumah), 1800's African folklore,[7] and ancient Egypt.[8] Steiner also suggests that in ancient Egypt (in the Coffin Texts and Book of the Dead) and ancient Mesopotamia (Maqlû III 8), we witness a commonly held belief that humans and/or demons could hunt dream-souls. In chapter 7, Steiner turns his focus to bird-souls—disembodied spirits of the deceased whom the living could interact with—arguing that numerous cultures held a similar belief. He notes that specific nouns were used to signify the belief in bird-souls in Egypt (ba), Mesopotamian (zaqīqu), and Ugarit (rp'um). And finally, to support his claim that לפרחת (Ezek 13:20) means “to convert into bird-souls,” Steiner claims that a number of passages from Rabbinic literature use flying verbs (root פרח) in association with the noun נפש/נשמה “soul” (e.g., b. Sanh. 91a bot.) and that in Isa 8:19 bird-like sounds (והמהגים המצפצפים) are attributed to ghosts (האבות) and familiar spirits (הידענים). Steiner then uses these conclusions about Ezek 13:17–21 to expand his conversation about belief in disembodied souls in other avenues.

In the next section, chapters 8–13, Steiner discusses mortuary issues and conceptions of the afterlife. In chapter 8, Steiner examines a number of Hebrew Bible passages that may also witness beliefs about disembodied spirits similar to Ezek 13 (including 1 Sam 25:29; Gen 35:18; 1 Kgs 17:22; Songs 5:6). In chapter 9, Steiner argues that נפש הבשר and רוח were physically unified by God's breath in order to make a חיה נפש, a unification that continued from the time of the soul's creation until the decomposition of the flesh, around twelve months later. In chapter 10, Steiner claims that the common burial-phrase ויאסף על־עמיו “he was gathered to his people/ancestors” does not refer to the moving of the deceased's bones during primary or secondary burial.[9] Instead, Steiner claims that this burial-phrase refers to the deceased's disembodied spirit being brought into communion with her/his ancestors in heaven by God before the primary burial process. In chapter 11, he then argues that textual (e.g., Num 23:10; Isa 38:17; b. Šabb. 152b–153a) and archaeological evidence (e.g., the amount of grave goods and the period of their supply) related to ancient Israelite burial practices bolster his argument that disembodied spirits remained present, in proximity to the decomposing corpse, for about twelve months after death. According to Steiner, after the body completely decayed, נפש הבשר “the body soul” would join קהל רפאים “the assembly of the Rephaim” in the underworld and רוח “spirit” would return to God in heaven. In chapter 12, Steiner suggests that נפש and רוח, because they are interchangeable words for “soul,” can denote either part of, or the entirety of, the soul (including both נפש הבשר and רוח). Chapter 13 consists of a short refutation of Robert Laurin's argument that (1) נפש cannot be separated from the body and (2) that נפש cannot refer to disembodied souls because other nouns fulfill this function.[10] And, in chapter 14, Steiner concludes and summarizes his arguments, writing: “it is no longer possible to insist that the Hebrew was unable to conceive of a disembodied [נפש]” (p. 127).

In addition to the Introduction and subsequent, fourteen chapters, Steiner also provides two appendixes. The first appendix consists of a translation and commentary on the Katumuwa Inscription. Two aspects of his interpretation are noteworthy. First, contrary to Pardee and Lemaire, in line 2, Steiner takes ḥggt as a construct noun, not a verb controlling the direct object śyr/d zn.[11] And, second, in line 5, the author suggests that nbs is not a phonetic variant of nps because phonetically the terms (nbs and nps) were indistinguishable, both being pronounced naps.[12] More importantly, however, Steiner accepts Pardee's initial conclusion (from 2009) that Katumuwa's inscription commemorated a feast to inaugurate his funerary cult after his death, and rejects Pardee's subsequent opinion that Katumuwa's inscription celebrated the erection of his stele during his lifetime.[13] Steiner adds a discussion about the correct classification of Samalian within Northwest Semitics, noting that the peculiarities of the Katumuwa inscription (e.g., use of –n in plural endings) can be attributed to the change in royal inscription practices (from Samalian to Old Aramaic) during the reign of Rab-Rakib. Thus, the author concludes that the Samalian language is descendant from “the Bronze Age Amorites of Samal and their Amorite dialect” (p. 162), and that, contrary to Pardee (2014), Samalian is not a new dialect of Aramaic. The second appendix refutes the claim by Nancy Bowen that לצדד means “to make dizzy,” maintaining, instead, that the construct verb falls within the semantic range of “hunting.”[14]

Disembodied Souls contributes to current debates on a number of issues including ancient Near Eastern and ancient Israelite religions (especially discussions about the nature of the soul during dreaming, death, burial, and the afterlife), Hebrew linguistics (especially discussions about the nouns נפש and רוח), and Northwest Semitic linguistics (especially discussions about Samalian and Aramaic dialects). Steiner has produced a well-written monograph with clear arguments and consistently uses a comparative linguistics methodology to explain his interpretive choices. He should also be commended for his use of earlier scholarship as a way of framing the entirety of the debate about disembodied souls in the modern period of biblical studies. Additionally, Steiner has provided a biblical basis from which to discuss complex conceptions of the soul and the afterlife in preexilic/exilic Israelite thought, something that many biblical scholars are hesitant to do, but which seems plausible given similar evidence throughout the ancient Near East. Yet, it may be that the Hebrew Bible simply cannot help solve certain questions about ancient Israelite religions conclusively by itself. Along with Steiner's successes in Disembodied Souls, there are at least three drawbacks. First, Steiner does not address issues of social-location and popularity. He glosses over the fact that most of his examples come from royalty (Katumuwa) and elite-officials (Ezekiel), and thus he fails to address how ubiquitous he considers the belief in disembodied souls to be in ancient Israel (or the ancient Near East for that matter). So, for example, we may ask ourselves whether or not the women's so-called victims in Ezek 13 are superstitious elites or lower-class people or both? Katumuwa, according to Steiner, believes his soul (nbs) lives on after death, but does this tell us anything about the beliefs of the craftspeople that built his hall and stele? And, while the textual evidence from the ancient Near East may not provide scholars with ample data about lower-class people, discussing entire populations and eras in terms of their elites must be avoided—Ezek 13 and Katumuwa provide us with snapshots not panoramas. Second, while Steiner does engage some scholarship from near Eastern studies about the nature of the soul, he does not engage scholarship in Death Studies more broadly, opening up his argument to claims of being outdated and single-disciplinary. And third, Disembodied Souls reads more like a compilation of essays on the topic of disembodied souls than a coherent monograph, but this is to be somewhat expected given that Steiner's first draft was more akin to a long essay (which he mentions in the Preface).

Disembodied Souls provides the reader with a heavy dose of Northwest Semitic linguistic arguments, and thus it would be a terrific book for graduate students and professionals interested in the religions of the ancient Near East (especially those interested in death and burial) and Northwest Semitic linguistics (especially those interested in Zincirli).

Albert McClure, University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology

[1] A. Lods, La croyance à la vie future et le culte des morts dans l'antiquité israélite (2 vols.; Paris: Fischbacher, 1906); V. Hass, “Death and the Afterlife in Hittite Thought,” in CANE 3:2021–30; D. Bonatz, “Syro-Hittite Funerary Monuments: A Phenomenon of Tradition or Innovation?,” in G. Bunnens (ed.), Essays on Syria in the Iron Age (Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Supplement, 7; Louvain: Peeters, 2000), 189–210; S. Cook “Death, Kinship, and Community: Afterlife and the חסד Ideal in Israel,” in P. Dutcher-Walls (ed.), The Family in Life and Death: The Family in Ancient Israel (Sociological and Archaeological Perspectives; Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies, 504; New York: T & T Clark International, 2009), 106–21. reference

[2] T. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (HSM, 39; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989); O. Lorentz “Nekromantie und Totenvokation in Mesopotamien, Ugarit und Israel,” in B. Janowski, K. Koch, and G. Wilhelm (eds.), Religiongeschichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Kleinasien, Nordsyrien, und dem Alten Testament (OBO, 129; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 285–318; P. Xella “Death and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew Thought,” in CANE 3:2059–70. reference

[3] J. Scurlock, “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought,” in CANE 3:1883–93; idem, “Soul Emplacements in Ancient Mesopotamian Funerary Rituals,” in L. Ciraolo and J. Seidel (eds.), Magic and Divination in the Ancient World (Ancient Magic and Divination, 2; Leiden: Brill, 2002), 1–6. reference

[4] L. H. Lesko “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egyptian Thought,” in CANE 3:1763–74. reference

[5] J. N. Bremmer, “The Soul in Early and Classical Greece,” in J. Figl and H.-D. Klein (eds.), Der Begriff der Seele in der Religionswissenschaft (Der Begriff der Seele, 1; Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 159–69. reference

[6] J. Scurlock “Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Mesopotamian Thought,” CANE 3:1883–93; Z. Abusch, “Ghost and God: Some Observations on a Babylonian Understanding of Human Nature,” in A. I. Baumgarten, J. Assmann, and G. G. Stroumsa (eds.), Self, Soul and Body in Religious Experience (SHR, 78; Leiden: Brill, 1998), 363–83. reference

[7] M. H. Kingsley, “Black Ghosts,” The Cornhill Magazine 1 (July–Dec 1896), 79–92; idem, Travels in West Africa: Congo Français, Corsico and Cameroons (London: Macmillan, 1897). reference

[8] R. O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts (3 vols.; Modern Egyptology Series; Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1973–1978); G. Pinch, Magic in Ancient Egypt (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994); C. Carrier, Le Livre des Morts de l'Égypte ancienne (Moyen Égyptien, le langage et la culture des hiéroglyphes—analyse et traduction, 2; Paris: Cybele, 2009). reference

[9] Contra E. Meyers, Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth. Secondary Burials in Their Ancient Near Eastern Setting (BibOr, 24; Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1971). reference

[10] E.g., אבות. See R. Laurin, “The Concept of Man as a Soul,” ExpTim 72 (1960–1961), 131–34. reference

[11] D. Pardee, “A New Aramaic Inscription from Zincirli,” BASOR 356 (2009), 51–71; A. Lemaire, “Rites des vivants pour les morts dans le royaume de Sam'al (VIIIe siècle av. n. è.),” in J. M. Durand, T. Römer, J. Hutzli (eds.), Les vivants et leurs morts: Actes du colloque organisé par le Collège de France, Paris, le 14–15 avril 2010 (OBO, 257; Fribourg: Academic Press, 2012), 129–37. reference

[12] Contra Muraoka and Pardee; T. Muraoka, “The Tell-Fekherye Bilingual Inscription and Early Aramaic,” Abr-Nahrain 22 (1983–1984), 79–117; Pardee, “A New Aramaic Inscription from Zincirli.” reference

[13] D. Pardee, “The Katumuwa Inscription,” in V. R. Herrmann and J. D. Schloen (eds.), In Remembrance of Me: Feasting with the Dead in the Ancient Middle East (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014), 45–48. reference

[14] Nancy Bowen, “The Daughters of Your People: Female Prophets in Ezekiel 13:17–21,” JBL 118 (1991), 417–33. reference