Kingship in the Ancient near East

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A purely secular view of Near Eastern kingship that does not take into account the special relationship existing between king and deity is destined to be found myopic. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel the king was the representative of the deity on earth. It is very important, therefore, to determine the nature of this association in order to understand better the concept of kingship in the respective countries. After treating of kingship in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel, this article will conclude with a consideration of the Israelite concept of the ideal king of the future.

Relation of King to Deity in Ancient Egypt. The fundamental concept of Egyptian kingship was that the king or pharaoh was a superhuman being, a god from birth, begotten by the sun god and first King ra (re) and metaphysically one with all of the great gods. In his different ministerial capacities he incarnated the gods Horus, Seth, and Osiris. As the personification of the gods, he ruled by divine decree and meted out justice by divine wisdom. The beneficial relations between heaven and earth resulting from the king's union with the gods were reactivated yearly at the principal festivals, especially the all important "Sed festival." On that occasion the king took part in a cultic drama in which he ritually overcame death and chaos by resurrecting in triumph and thus generated prosperity for the land and its people during the coming year.

Relation of King to Deity in Ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Mesopotamia the king was the earthly viceroy of the national god, but he was not considered divine as were the pharaos. He was a mortal, made to carry a superhuman charge placed upon him by the godsa "big man" as his Sumerian title 1u-ga 1 signifies. There are some scattered examples of kings using the divine ideogram before their names, but these graphic signs are not enough to establish a common concept of deification.

The king did take on characteristics of a deity, but only intermittently, as for instance at the New Year festival. It was then that he substituted for the national god in the enacted ritual drama and renewed his superhuman endowments, while also restoring harmony and fruitfulness to nature temporarily disturbed by the change of seasons. Nature's renewal in the spring was looked upon as the result of a sacred marriage (hierogamy) between the mother goddess, represented ritually by a priestess, and the king, made to play the part of the divine bridegroom.

The Mesopotamian king is said to be "adopted, nursed, and reared" by the gods. He is "holy" by virtue of his familiarity with the gods, and thereby partakes of "eternity, splendor, and glory." He is likened to the different gods, especially the sun god and the resurrected fertility god, Tammuz; yet he ever remains the earthly steward of the deitiesa mortal like all men.

Whereas in Egyptian ideology the king's role of representing the gods was particularly emphasized, in Mesopotamia more stress is placed upon the king's representation of his people before the divine throne. Once again, at the prominent New Year festival the king, as the representative of the congregation, ritually effected the resuscitation of the "dead god" by bringing him the assistance he needed. The people also through their king "descended to the dead god," temporarily confined to the nether world, and by a further ritual effected a reversal of mood that brought the god back to the world of the living. Thus conjoined to their king, the people would be assured a new period of fertility for the coming year. Even in such a ritual, the king is never a god. He is temporarily "fused" with divinity, imbued with the god's destiny, experience, and life giving powers that he, in his turn, imparts to the society he represents.

On the basis of such ideas, advocates of the so-called "Myth and Ritual School" of comparative religion conclude to a common "ritual pattern" in the king ideology of the entire ancient Near East. This theory revolves about the divine figure of the king, especially in his cultic function at the great cyclic festivals. The king is of divine origin. He suffers, dies, returns to life, conquers the monsters of chaos, and in the annual repetition of these sacred acts becomes a source of prosperity and blessing for his people. Israelite kingship is said to be patterned on this ideology.

As ingenious as the "Ritual Pattern Theory" may be, most Biblical scholars today view it as an unproved hypothesis, wanting seriously in Biblical evidence, and, on the whole, underestimating the distinctive qualities of Israel's religion.

Relation of the King to Yahweh in Ancient Israel. Although Israel's monarchical structure was in some ways influenced by the "king ideology" of neighboring nations, the theistic concept of Yahweh's kingship was and always remained such a basic tenet of Israel's religion that kingship took on properties quite distinct from the ideologies of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

For one thing, kingship in Israel was integrated into a theocratic system in which Yahweh alone was considered king and absolute ruler of the universe (Ex 15.18;19.6; Nm 23.21; 1 Sm 8.7; 12.12; Jgs 8.23); the human king was but His earthly regent. As a matter of fact, there was strong feeling against the introduction of the monarchy from the very outset; it appeared too restrictive of the free and independent traditions inherited from Israel's migrant days, and what was more objectionable, it was too closely allied with the Canaanite way of life.

The theocratic structure of the people of God was based on the Sinai covenant [see covenant (in the bible)]. In their attempt to settle the promised land the Israelites encountered steady opposition from hostile neighbors, and it soon became clear there was need of effective centralized action; the Israelite tribes needed a leader (1 Sm 8.20). It was then that a new "royalized" covenant was established between Yahweh and the Davidic dynasty; the latter, however, always representing and embodying the people Israel by virtue of the Biblical concept of "corporate personality." The king becomes Yahweh's viceregent, and in contrast to Yahweh, Israel's real king, the human position of the king is clearly delineated.

In Israel there is no indication at all of the earthly king's divinization. He did enjoy a privileged position as God's viceroy on earth, it is true. He became "the Lord's anointed" (1 Sm 16.6; 2 Sm 1.14) and "prince" (Hebrews nāgîd ) over Israel (1 Sm 9.16; 10.1; 13.14); he was changed into "another man" (1 Sm 10.6, 9), and as such he was endowed with the "spirit" (rûa ) of Yahweh (1 Sm 10.6, 10; 11.6; 16.13) and treated as inviolable (1 Sm 24.7; 31.4; 2 Sm 1.4). He became Yahweh's adopted son: "This day I have begotten thee" (Ps 2.7). In a critically troublesome passage he is even called e'lōhîm (God), and his throne is regarded as eternal [Ps 44 (45).7]. Such extravagant phraseology depicting the close association between God and the king really proves nothing more than that the king of Israel existed by virtue of Yahweh's will and was His earthly representative. The hyperbolic expressions so common to oriental Hofstil (court style) cannot be taken too literally. They indicate the preeminent role of the king, but always as subordinated to God.

Furthermore if the kings were considered quasidivine, it is difficult to explain why the Prophets reprimanded them so harshly and frequently for their dereliction of covenant duties, and for neglecting to fulfill their obligations as servants of God and of the people (Dt 17.1420; 1 Sm 13.815; 15.26; 2 Sm 5.12; 1 Kgs 11.3139; 18.1719; 21.1724; Jer 22.1517).

As God's earthly viceroy, the king became a purveyor of divine blessings for the people and their land. He was their source of strength [Ps 89 (90).18], their breath of life (Lam 4.20), and therefore had to be protected in the interests of the nation (2 Sm 18.3). His position entitled him to universal sovereignty [Ps 2.89; 71 (72).811; 88 (89).2628], establishing justice in the world [Ps 44 (45).48; 71 (72).14], and destroying his enemies [Ps2.9; 20 (21).914]. Even the fertility of the land was ascribed to his association with Yahweh, the source of all life [Ps 71 (72).3, 16].

Israel's Ideal King of the Future. An important phase in the historical development of Israelite kingship was Yahweh's promise, delivered through the Prophet Nathan, that the Davidic dynasty would remain forever [2 Sm 7.816; 1 Chr 17.714; Ps 87 (88).35, 2038]. This assertion was the basis of future eschatological hopes for a new kingdom and an ideal king, and in this regard also Israelite kingship differed radically from the kingship patterns of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

A tension arose when this promise came into contact with the harsh empirical reality of the utter failure of the monarchy in both Israel and Judah. Many of the kings had so often abandoned their covenant obligations, and appeared so unworthy of their privileged position that there arose within the prophetic movement, especially in Isaiah of the late 8th century b.c., the hope for an ideal king, one who would embody and revive the qualities of David of old: a king of peace and justice (Is 9.16), animated by the spirit of the Lord (Is 11.2), one who would restore the earth to her paradisaical harmony and bliss (Is 11.69). This future messiah was depicted in various images by the classical prophets down through the centuries.

With the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. and the dissolution of the monarchy, the hopes and aspirations for a future king were marked by a profound change. Israel was chastened by the humiliating experience of the Babylonian Exile [Lam 4.20; Ps 88 (89).3952], and although the first pioneers who returned to Jerusalem were stimulated temporarily by the hope of a new Davidic "branch" (Zec3.810; 6.914), the Israelite hope for the future focused more on the kingdom of god than on one specific individual. Yet at the threshold of the New Testament, Judaism was awaiting a Messiah king who would free Israel from foreign oppression and bring about lasting peace in the world.

See Also: messianism.

Bibliography: r. labat, La Caractère religieux de la royauté assyro-babylonienne (Paris 1939). h. frankfort, Kingship and the Gods (Chicago 1948). c. r. north, "The Religious Aspects of Hebrew Kingship," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 50 (1932) 838. j. de fraine, L'Aspect religieux de la royauté Israélite; L'Institution monarchique dans l'A. T. et dans les textes mésopotamiens (Rome 1954). s. mowinckel, He That Cometh, tr. c. w. anderson (Nashville 1956) 2195; The Psalms in Israel's Worship, tr. d. r. apthomas, 2 v. (Nashville 1962) 1:5061. h. cazelles, "Mito, rituale, e regalità," Bibbia e Oriente 2 (1960) 12135. k. h. bernhardt, Das Problem der altorientalischen Königsideologie in A. T., unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Geschichte der Psalmenexegese dargestellt und kritisch gewürdigt (Vetus Testamentum suppl. 8;1961). Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 128286.

[e. j. ciuba]

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Kingship in the Ancient near East

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Kingship in the Ancient near East