The Libations of Blood in Psalm 16:4

In: Vetus Testamentum
Author: Jelle Verburg1
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  • 1 University of Oxford, St John’s College
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The “libations of blood” in Ps. 16:4 have been interpreted as a reference to Canaanite cultic practice. This short note suggests it is better understood against the background of Greek literature on necromancy.


The “libations of blood” in Ps. 16:4 have been interpreted as a reference to Canaanite cultic practice. This short note suggests it is better understood against the background of Greek literature on necromancy.

In the ritual laws of the Torah, libations always consist of wine: old wine according to some of the versions of Num. 28:7, or new wine according to the Temple Scroll (11QT XIX 14; XXI 10). David once made a libation of water: “he poured it out for YHWH” (2 Sam. 23:16; 1 Chr. 11:18). The reason why he refused to drink the water, despite being thirsty, was that the water represented “the blood of the men who risked their lives” (2 Sam. 23:17; cf. 1 Chr. 11:19) in order to reach the well, which lay behind enemy lines. If, however, David had actually poured out human blood, he would have greatly defiled the ground, at least according to the homicide law of Num. 35:22. There is no law or narrative in the Hebrew Bible that suggests anyone ever brought a libation of actual blood, except for Ps. 16:4. Some ancient interpreters of the Bible suggested that the “sprinkling” (zrq) of blood on or around the altar should be considered a libation in itself: according to Philo, the priest “makes a libation of spiritual blood” whenever he sprinkles the blood around the altar (Leg. All. 2.56), and according to R. Abaye, a fourth-generation Babylonian Amora, the sprinkling is in fact a libation (b. Sanh. 60b). His most important prooftext is not a text of ritual law, but the very reference to “libations of blood” in Ps. 16:4: “they multiply their sorrows, who hasten after another, I did not bring their libations of blood (bal ʾassîk niskêhem middām) and I did not take their names on my lips.”1

Modern scholars understand the Psalm’s critique of blood libations against the background of Canaanite cultic practice.2 The problem with this interpretation, as noted by the very same scholars, is that there is no reference to any libation of blood in Canaanite literature. This problem can be solved by positing that blood here is a metaphor for life itself, which allows us to understand the psalmist’s ridicule of “libations of blood” as a critique of human sacrifice or of bloodshed in general, since “the soul of flesh is in blood” (Lev. 17:11 et al.).3 Alternatively, the “libations of blood” can be interpreted as a metaphor for wine, “the blood of grapes” according to Gen. 49:11 and Dt. 32:14, which would allow for a closer analogy between the Psalm and Ugaritic texts describing banquets between gods and men.4 Yet other solutions to the problem of the “libations of blood” are to understand min in middām comparatively: “… let alone blood”,5 to translate middām as “because of bloodshed”,6 or to read middēm, apparently a form of “from my hands”, instead of middām.7 These philological ingenuities do not deny, however, that the “libations of blood” in the MT pose a problem. But instead of confronting the problem, such solutions surgically remove it.

In two articles, published in 1969 and 1973, D.J. McCarthy suggested that these libations were not metaphorical at all, but “surely [refer] to a magic or ritual invocation” of “the gods of wounds and death”.8 Although McCarthy alluded in passing to the evidence of the Odyssey, he quickly dismissed it, because here “all remains brooding and sinister” and the dead returning from the underworld are “eerie, partial, and the opposite pole of true life.”9 The reason why he put the Odyssey aside with such value-laden terms, I suspect, was his conclusion that the concept of blood as life was “specifically Israelite” and had no precedent or parallel whatsoever.10 J. Wellhausen’s Prolegomena also intimated that there was something peculiar about the Israelite conception of blood: “The life of which the blood was regarded as the substance … had for the ancient Semites something mysterious and divine about it”.11 That may or may not be true, but it should not preclude us from comparing the Bible to any piece of literature.

In my opinion, the Odyssey, and Greco-Roman literature in general, has great potential for the interpretation of Psalm 16. The purpose of the following comparison between the Homeric epic and the Davidic psalter is not to posit any historical connection between the two corpora, but to try to make sense of them: to perceive meaningful similarities and differences between the two.12 In book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus is at the end of his wits, and, following Circe’s advice from the previous book word for word, seeks to consult the seer Teiresias in the underworld. To do so, he digs a pit, brings libations of milk, honey, wine, and water around it, and promises to bring sacrifices upon his return to Ithaca. But only after he pours out the blood of sheep into the pit—recalled explicitly as a “libation” of blood by Claudian13—the dead appear: “I took the sheep and cut their throats over the pit, and the dark blood flowed. Then there gathered from out of Erebus the ghosts of those that are dead” (11.35-7).14 The purpose of the blood poured out to the dead, as Teiresias himself explains, is to strengthen the ghosts:

Whoever of those that are dead and gone you shall allow to approach the blood, he will speak truly to you; but whomever you refuse, he will go back again. (147-9)15

Apparently, the Greeks brought libations to the dead at least once a year, at the annual festival of the Eleutheria. In Plutarch’s account of the festival, the chief magistrate of the city of Plataea “summons the brave men who died for Hellas to come to the banquet and its copious draughts of blood (αἱµοκουρίαν)” (Plutarch, Arist. 21.5).16 In Euripides’ Hecuba, Neoptolemus offers the blood of a virgin to appease his father Achilles. While summoning his father, he explains to the audience that such libations “charm the dead and summon them back up to the land of the living!” (535-6).17

In the Psalm, the libations of blood are brought “to the holy ones which are on the earth” (liqdôšîm ʾǎšer bāʾāreṣ, v. 3). In Biblical Hebrew, ʾereṣ, like Akkadian erṣetu and Ugaritic arṣ, might occasionally refer to the ground in which the dead are buried or perhaps even to the realm where they reside.18 When Saul seeks to consult the spirit of Samuel with the help of the woman at Endor, she reports in 1 Sam. 28:13: “I saw ʾělōhîm ascending from the earth” (ʾělōhîm rāʾîtî ʿōlîm min hāʾāreṣ).19 In Jer. 17:13, those who have forsaken YHWH “will be written in the earth” (bāʾāreṣ yikkātēbû), which may be an oblique reference to the underworld.20 Quite possibly, the “earth” carries similar connotations in Psalm 16.21 Rashi, for one, argued that the qědôšîm ʾǎšer bāʾāreṣ here referred to “the [dead] saints buried in the earth”.22

Odysseus first recognises one of his crewmen, Elpenor, whose body had been abandoned near Circe’s palace: “for we had left his corpse behind us (σῶµα … κατελείποµεν)” (53).23 Elpenor himself is concerned not only with his bodily remains, but also with his legacy:

There, then, my lord, I bid you remember (µνήσασθαι) me. Do not, when you depart, leave me behind (καταλείπειν) unwept and unburied and turn away (νοσφισθείς); I might become a cause of the gods’ wrath against you. No, burn me with my armor, such as it is, and heap up a mound for me on the shore of the gray sea, in memory (σῆµά) of an unlucky man, that men yet to be may know of me. (71-6)24

Initially, the psalmist expresses a similar anxiety: “preserve me, God” (šomrēnî ʾēl, v. 1), but later on, he gains confidence, asserting: “even my flesh will rest securely” (ʾap běśārî yiškōn lābetaḥ, v. 9), and: “you shall not forget my soul in the underworld” (lōʾ taʿǎzōb napšî lišʾôl, v. 11). Unlike Elpenor, David argues that he does not need his friends to worry about his body, to erect a burial mound, or to remember his deeds, because God has taken care of all of that.

The reason why Odysseus wanted to consult Teiresias in the first place was to find out if there was a way to return to Ithaca. Likewise, Saul falls back on consulting Samuel to ask for advice about the future, as he explains himself in 1 Sam. 28:15: “I have called you, so that you may make known what I should do” (wāʾeqrāʾeh lěkā lěhôdîʿēnî māh ʾeʿěśeh). The psalmist, however, would not have to resort to seeking advice from the dead: “I bless YHWH, who has given me counsel (yěʿāṣānî)” (v. 7), and: “you have made known to me (tôdîʿēnî) the path of life” (v. 11).

Psalm 16 does not, however, impose any categorical prohibition, but offers a piece of strong advice: “those who hasten after another multiply their sorrows” (yirbû ʿaṣṣěbôtām ʾaḥēr māhārû).25 The interpretation of these words is problematic, since the root mhr in the qal only occurs here and in Exod. 22:15, where it has the sense of “to pay a bride price (mōhar)”. If “to hasten” were the intended sense in Ps. 16:4, we would have expected a piel vocalisation: mahērû. Furthermore, scholars have suggested to emend ʿaṣṣěbôtām to ʿǎṣabîm and ʾaḥēr to ʾǎhērim, rendering: “those who hasten after other (sc. gods) multiply idols”.26 If Psalm 16 does indeed contain traces of a critique on particular methods of divination, it may be taken to advise against consultations with the dead, and, if we accept the emendations, perhaps even with gods other than YHWH.27 That interpretation makes good sense in the light of v. 5, where the psalmist calls YHWH “the portion of my inheritance and my cup (wěkôsî)”, an instrument with which libations could have been offered. In the emended reading of Psalm 16, such practices of divination are criticised because they are idolatrous, but in the MT, they are dismissed on the grounds of inefficiency: they merely “increase sorrow”. That is certainly true for Odysseus, who could not prevent his crewmen from eating the sacred cattle of Helios, despite the explicit warning of Teiresias. Saul’s consultation with Samuel serves a similarly ironic literary function, because, as 1 Chr. 10:13-14 explains, Saul was killed precisely because he resorted to necromancy in his efforts to avoid death at the hands of the Philistines.

To repeat, I would not argue that the author(s) of Psalm 16 knew the Odyssey in any shape or form. Instead, comparing the two corpora of literature throws into sharper relief the concepts of life and death expressed within them. In particular, it allows us to understand the “libations of blood” in Ps. 16:4 not as a metaphor for something else, but as a means of summoning the dead from the underworld, a practice embedded in Hellenic literature.


Or perhaps “I did bring … and I did take …”. On the possible assertive meaning of bal, see R.T. O’Callaghan, “Echoes of Canaanite Literature in the Psalms,” VT 4 (1954), 166-7.


K. Spronk, Beatific Afterlife in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Kevelaer, 1986), 336; T.J. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (Atlanta, 1989), 166; E. Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead (JSOTSup 123; Sheffield, 1992), 123-4; F.-L. Hossfeld and E. Zenger, Die Psalmen I: Psalm 1-50 (Würzburg, 1993), 111; B.B. Schmidt, Israel’s Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition (Tübingen, 1994), 264; K. van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (Leiden, 1996), 210; K. Liess, Der Weg des Lebens: Psalm 16 und das Lebens—und Todesverständnis der Individualpsalmen (FAT II 5; Tübingen, 2004), 147-51; M.S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (FAT 57; Tübingen, 2008), 59-60; id., “Canaanite Backgrounds to the Psalms”, in W.P. Brown (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms (Oxford, 2014), 47-8; M. Suriano, A History of Death in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford, 2018), 227. Previous commentaries interpret Ps. 16:4 as a critique of pagan cultic practice in more general terms, see e.g., H. Kessler, Die Psalmen (2nd ed.; Munich, 1899), 32; B. Duhm, Die Psalmen (KHC 14; Tübingen, 1899), 44; C.A. Briggs and E.G. Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms (ICC 19.1; Edinburgh, 1906), 118, 120; R. Kittel, Die Psalmen (Leipzig, 1929), 50; G.A. Buttrick (ed.), The Interpreter’s Bible (12 vols.; New York, 1955), IV, 83; M.J. Dahood, Psalms I (AB 16; Garden City, NY, 1966), 88; H. Gunkel, Die Psalmen (Göttinger Handkommentar zum Alten Testament II/2; Göttingen, 1968), 52-3; A.A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, Vol. 1: Introduction and Psalms 1-72 (NCB; London, 1972), 142-3; P.C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50 (WBC 19; Waco, TX, 1983), 156; so also K. Seybold, Die Psalmen (HAT I/15; Tübingen, 1996), 71. For an entirely different interpretation, see H.-J. Kraus, Psalmen (BKAT XV/1; Neukirchen, 1960), 122, who argues that Ps. 16:4 is “an oath of purification pronounced by a priest”.


Spronk, 336; Lewis 1989, 166; Smith 2008, 60-1 n. 104.


Hossfeld and Zenger, 111; Bloch-Smith, 123-4; Schmidt, 264; van der Toorn, 210; Smith 2018, 48; Suriano, 227.


Kessler, 32.


Briggs and Briggs, 117, 125.


W. Quintens, “Le chemin de la vie dans le Psaume XVI,” ETL 55 (1979), 237 with 238 n. 16; Dahood 1966, 88-9.


D.J. McCarthy, “The Symbolism of Blood and Sacrifice,” JBL 88 (1969), 166-76, citation on p. 173; id., “Further Notes on the Symbolism of Blood and Sacrifice,” JBL 92 (1973), 205-10.


McCarthy 1969, 170.


McCarthy 1969, 176.


J. Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (trans. J.S. Black and A. Menzies; Edinburgh, 1885), 67.


J.Z. Smith, Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion (Chicago, 2004), 230-50.


Claudian, Against Rufinus 1.125.


A.T. Murray and G.E. Dimock, Homer: Odyssey I (LCL 104; Cambridge, MA, 1919), 403.


Murray and Dimock, 411.


B. Perrin, Plutarch: Lives II (LCL 47; Cambridge, MA, 1914), 281.


D. Kovacs, Euripides II (LCL 484; Cambridge, MA, 1995), 447.


N.J. Tromp, Primitive Conceptions of Death and the Nether World in the Old Testament (BibOr 21; Rome, 1969), 23-46; P.S. Jones, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL, 2002), 98-114.


On ʾělōhîm in the sense of “ancestors”, see Lewis 1989, 47-51, 115-6; id., “The Ancestral Estate (naḥǎlat ʾělōhîm) in 2 Samuel 14:16,” JBL 110 (1991), 597-612.


W. Baumgartner, Die Klagegedichte des Jeremia (BZAW 32; Giessen, 1917), 40; M. Dahood, “The Value of Ugaritic for Textual Criticism,” Bib 40 (1959), 164-6.


Spronk, 334-8; van der Toorn, 210-1.


M.I. Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on the Psalms (Brill Reference Library of Judaism 18; Leiden, 2004), 226.


Murray and Dimock, 405.


Murray and Dimock, 405.


Suriano, 230: “These practices are rejected, but they are not rebuked beyond the oblique statement in 16:4a”.


For these and other suggested emendations, see Duhm, 60; Kittel, 48; Briggs and Briggs, 124; J. Lindblom, “Erwägungen zu Psalm XVI,” VT 24 (1974), 191; C. Schedl, “‘Die Heiligen’ und ‘die Herrlichen’ in Psalm 16,1-4,” ZAW 76 (1974), 173; Kraus, 261; Seybold, 70; Liess, 51-60.


See 2 Kings 1:2-3, where Ahaziah sends messengers to Beelzebub to inquire about his future.

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