Plague and death in the ancient Near East
Living through a global pandemic, it is easy for our minds to be filled with biblical imagery of plagues and pestilence. In particular, many invoke the enigmatic Book of Revelation and the signs found within it. Two thousand years of church tradition has created an image of Pestilence personified riding alongside his fellow horsemen of the apocalypse as heralds of the end times. In truth, the Pale Rider is death itself, using plague, famine, and pestilence as his weapons. While such a vision certainly instills a poetic sense of dread in the mind of the modern reader, to the people who first read and heard the words of John, the purported author of Revelation, it was already quite common and even ancient.
To the Sumerians and Babylonians, this role was filled by Nergal, king of the underworld. As Jon Beltz discusses in his article “A Tale of Two Plague Gods” in the Winter 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Nergal “was also a war god, and starting in the early second millennium B.C.E., he became explicably associated with plague.” He would eventually merge with another god of plague and pestilence, Erra, and take on his attributes as well. “Nergal/Erra seems in many ways to be the causal agent of disease, just as he causes death on the battlefield. Fatal disease is just another one of his weapons.”
Erra is best known from an epic poem known as How Erra Wrecked the World, which was most likely composed during the Neo-Assyrian period (ninth–seventh centuries B.C.E.). Much like later apocalyptic Jewish writers of the Second Temple period, the poem’s author, Kabti-ilani-Marduk, claims that the gods gave him a vision of celestial war that brings devastation upon mankind. Central to the narrative is Erra—the divine enforcer of death and destruction who even Marduk, the king of the gods, cannot control. As the story unfolds, Erra musters his forces, including the dreaded Seven—enigmatic personifications of destruction—to be his weapons. It seems that the people of Babylon incurred divine wrath for some reason, possibly letting Marduk’s statue fall to ruin, and Erra seeks to punish them with all his weapons of death. The other gods, including Marduk, and even Erra’s own advisor, Ishum, fear that he will bring about another event of world-wide devastation (like the Flood) and try to convince him to stop. They fail and Erra brings chaos and devastation of apocalyptic proportions onto the great cities of Mesopotamia. Righteous and unrighteous alike are killed, livestock are destroyed, parents despise and plot against their children, shrines are desecrated by wild animals, and the palaces of kings are in ruins as barbarians overrun the cities. Death and chaos reign supreme until Ishum is finally able to calm Erra and bring him to his senses. Satisfied that everyone respects his might, Erra admits that he got carried away. The end of the poem serves as a warning to all who hear it not to neglect the sanctuaries of the gods and for kings to extol the name of Erra.
Like war and famine, plague and pestilence have been a constant force of dread throughout human history. These forces have had such a powerful impact on our existence that they are often personified in cultures both ancient and modern. The Pale Rider of the apocalypse of Revelation served that purpose for John’s audience, just as Erra did for Kabti-ilani-Marduk’s audience centuries earlier. Though mostly a pop-culture icon today, the Grim Reaper serves a similar purpose in modern times—an image of death that serves as a reminder that we too shall die.
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