JoAnn Scurlock: Evidence from Babylon that “Rephaim” refers to the long dead?

I spotted an interesting observation about Rephaim from JoAnn Scurlock, in “Mortal and Immortal Souls, Ghosts and the (Restless) Dead in Ancient Mesopotamia”, Religion Compass 10, no. 4 (2016): 77–82 (79). She is discussing how Ancient Mesopotamians treated the dead.

Having a family tomb under the floor of the house made funerary offerings by the family as a group a simple matter as long as the family survived or new owners of the house continued to use the tomb. What would happen then is that, as the memory of the deceased faded and the bones of the long dead mingled with those of more recent arrivals, the individual eøemmu’s [‘ghosts’] melded into a common eøem kimti (Scurlock 2013, pp. 151–152). Eventually, this collective ancestor mixed with the wider community of the long dead, the kimtu rapaåtu, literally ‘widespread relations’. Of interest to Biblical scholars puzzled by the term rephaim is the fact that an old Babylonian commentary (5R 44: 121 [sic]) uses the term kimtu rapaåtu to translate Amorite rapi (singular of rephaim). This would seem to indicate that the mysterious Rephaim are the ghosts of persons who have been dead for a very long time.

“5R 44” (or “VR 44”) is a so-called Name Book from Ashurbanipal’s library (Ashurbanipal was an Assyrian king who reigned 668-627 BC). The text provides a list of Akkadian translations of non-Akkadian names. The reference is to column 1 line 21, so there should have been a gap in the cited reference followed by a Roman numeral: 5R 44: I 21.

5R 44: I 21 reads mḪa-am-mu-ra-pí : mKim-ta-ra-pa-áš-tum, the meaning of each name being “great family” or as CAD K has it (p. 377, s.v. kimtu), “extensive family”. The “ra-pi” means “great/extensive”, and ‘Ammu means “family”. So “rapi” itself does not refer to the long dead.

In the Bible, the Rephaim are either peoples discovered as inhabiting Canaan and neighbouring territories when the Israelites invade (so are long dead from the perspective of the writers) or, in poetic and prophetic books, are long-dead inhabitants of the netherworld. In 5R 44, they are also described as “kings”, another feature in common with many biblical Rephaim, and more consistent with the meaning of “great”.

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Take a Stroll down Emek Refaim Street, Jerusalem

עמק רפאים (Emek Refaim) Street
עמק רפאים (Emek Refaim) Street

Jerusalem is truly a most wondrous city to visit, and Ben Yehuda is no longer the “place to be”. Try Emek Refaim Street for a wide selection of restaurants from “Aroma” coffee bar to some more up market fancy establishments. Best deal for Summer 2008 – “Rivele” – breakfast for 24 shekels and excellent value 2 course lunch with drink for only 59 shekels.
– “Jerusalem Travel Tips”

The annual street fair on Emek Refaim Street
The annual street fair on Emek Refaim Street

“Ghosts,” or the shades who inhabit the underworld, is one of the two meanings of the Hebrew word refa’im in the Bible. One finds this in various places, such as the 14th chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet, describing the impending fall of Babylon, declares to its king whom he imagines being killed, “The underworld is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming; it stirreth up the refa’im for thee….” In other ancient Semitic languages like Canaanite and Ugaritic, rifa’im denotes underworld dwellers too.

But the biblical refa’im also refers to a living people that dwelt in Palestine prior to the Israelite conquest. Deuteronomy 2:21, for example, describes the country of the Ammonites, the area around the present-day Jordanian capital of Amman, as having once been “the land of the Refa’im; Refa’im dwelt therein in olden times; and the Ammonites called them Zamzumim; a people great, and many, and tall as giants; but the Lord destroyed them before them [the Ammonites], and they succeeded them and dwelt in their stead.” The very next chapter of Deuteronomy, on the other hand, places “the land of the Refa’im” further north, in the Bashan or Golan Heights, the home of the kingdom of the legendary giant Og.

The Refa’im, it would thus appear, were a mythical race of giants related to such other legendary creatures as the Emim or “Frightening Ones,” also referred to in Deuteronomy 2 as unusually tall, and the Nefilim or “Fallen Ones,” mentioned in the Book of Genesis as the offspring of heavenly beings and earthly women, and in the Book of Numbers as the titans seen by the 12 spies sent to scout out the Holy Land. “We were as grasshoppers [compared to them],” the returning spies tell the Children of Israel, who become quickly demoralized at the thought of having to fight such creatures.

The biblical emek refa’im, therefore, can be understood as either “the valley of the ghosts” or “the valley of the giants.” Jewish tradition has always chosen the second of these two options in the belief that it was the legendary living and not the legendary dead that gave the place its name. The second-century C.E. Aramaic Targum of Onkelos translates the words as meshar gibaraya, “the Plain of the Mighty,” and although Jerome’s fourth-century Latin Vulgate stuck to the noncommittal vallis Raphaim, our English King James Version, following the Jewish commentators, has “the valley of the giants.”

“Ghostly”, The Jewish Daily Forward, 26 March 2004

I started where all good American bourgeois visiting Israel start–Emek Refaim Street (translation: the Valley of Ghosts or Giants). Its Biblical associations are with early beliefs that Jebusite ghosts may have begun their journey to the underworld in the valley at the head of Emek Refaim; other sources suggest that prior to the conquest of the land in Deuteronomy, the enemies were seen as “giants” and here, classical Jewish sources generally translate it. I mused briefly on this tension while walking–the giants of Zionism and the ghosts of Zionism; and the relationship, inescapable, between a conquered and conquered people. To be sure, street names here have more than once changed their names depending upon who was ruling in the land.
– Andy Bachman, A Higher World, blog 23 July 2011

Emek Refaim Street
Emek Refaim Street

Israel has been as thoroughly conquered by McDonald’s as the rest of the populated world, but Israelis can at least pride themselves on forcing a corporation known for requiring strict conformity and uniformity in the production of hamburgers to bend significantly to suit the desires of the local population. Israel, in fact, is the only country in which McDonald’s has altered its famous logo – due to pressure from the Israeli rabbinate, kosher McDonald’s now feature blue, rather than red, signs and the name of the restaurant in Hebrew rather than English.

But the not kosher McDonald’s outlets, which offer forbidden mixtures of meat and dairy and employ Jewish workers on Shabbat engendered no small amount of controversy and sparked massive protests by Jerusalem’s Orthodox Jewish community.

A Non-Kosher McDonalds on Emek Refaim Street
A Non-Kosher McDonalds on Emek Refaim Street