Ancient near east and the bible gary V. Smith winnipeg theological seminary

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Two Lands."152 In the final paragraph the god Horus, the son of Osiris,

appears as the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, thus setting forth the identifi-

cation of the dead Pharaoh with Osiris and his successor with Horus.153

The position of Horus as the new king explains why the Egyptian Pharaohs

Re were identified with Horus. The earthly king sits upon the throne of Horus154

who is called "the good king of Egypt" and "the ruler" in the contest of Horus

and Seth.155 In celebration of the ascension of Mer-ne-Ptah to the throne, he

is said to be "great of kingship like Horus,"156 and at the ascension of Ramses

IV, Horus is proclaimed to be "upon the throne of his father Amon-Re."157

"Pharaoh, then, is an incarnation of Horus, the Great(est) God, Lord of

Heaven."158

Beliefs about the god Osiris primarily relate to fertility and resurrection. His

identification with burial rites and especially the dead Pharaoh ultimately lead

to the place where Osiris is "considered the supreme god of Egypt."159 In

mythology, Osiris was a king after Geb his father, until he was murdered and

went to the world of the dead where he was known as the "King of the

Dead."160 The fertility aspect of Osiris related his death land resurrection to

148 ANET 261.

149 ANET 325. This text also includes the title "Lord of the thrones of the Two

Lands."


150 ANET 365-7.

151 Frankfort, Kingship 24.

152 ANET 4-5.

153 Frankfort, Kingship 32.

154 Morenz, Egyptian Religion 34.

155 ANET 17.

156 ANET 378.

157 ANET 379.

158 Frankfort, Kingship 40.

159 Ions, Egyptian Mythology 50.

160 Ibid. 55; Frankfort, Kingship 197, 207-10.

32 TRINITY JOURNAL

the seasonal agriculture cycle, the seasonal rise and fall of the Nile and the

daily rebirth of the sun.161 Osiris is called "King Wen-nofer"162 and the dead

King Unis is said to sit on the "throne of Osiris."163 Although the popular

Osiris cult challenged the solar cult of Re, the merger did not remove Re from

his position as king of the living. At times both Re and Osiris appear to be

supreme kings but the kingship of Osiris is exclusively in the realm of the

dead.164

These examples illustrate the centrality of the kingship of the gods to

Egyptian thinking. These gods are called kings, they sit on thrones, rule, judge

and wear the crown and hold the scepter of a king. As representatives of

elements of the universe "they establish a bond between nature and man, and

that in the only manner in which Egyptians could conceive such a bond-

through kingship."165

IV. THE CONCEPT OF GOD AS KING IN ISRAEL

The truth within C. T. Gadd's observation in his 1945 Schweich Lectures,

that "God and king are two conceptions so nearly coupled in the oriental mind

that the distinction is constantly blurred,"166 has been illustrated in the cul-

tures around Israel. The nature and the extent of the association between these

two ideas in Israelite beliefs varies considerably according to the hermeneutical

approach being used.

S. H. Hooke and his followers in the Myth-Ritual School, drawing heavily

from the earlier works of Frazer,167 developed a standard pattern of myth and

ritual which was allegedly present in all the Near Eastern religions. The kin,

who functions as the chief god, is at the center of this pattern in the great New

Year's festival. In the myth and ritual, the god (i.e. the king) goes through

humiliation, death, resurrection, and a sacred marriage to bring fertility to the

land for the coming year. S. Mowinckel, one of the Scandinavian scholars who

accepts a common ritual pattern, admits that this coherent "pattern" has been

misused by some and that it is really an "artificial schematization."168 This

tendency toward over-identification is also found in I. Engnell's169 study of

“royal ideology." Frankfort repeatedly criticizes Engnell's hermeneutical ten-

dency to generalize and overemphasize the unity between the concept of the

king in Israel, Egypt and Mesopptamia.170 Mowinckel carried out an extensive


161 Frankfort, Kingship 181-95.

162 ANET 14.


163 ANET 32.

164 Breasted, Dawn of Conscience 113.

165 Frankfort, Kingship 182.

166 C. T. Gadd, Ideas of Divine Rule in the Ancient East (London: Oxford University

Press, 1948) 33.



167 J. G. Frazer, Lectures on the Early History of Kingship (London: Macmillan, 1905).

168 S. Mowinckel, He That Cometh (New York: Abingdon, 1954) 24-5; J. Gray,

Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1979) 7-38 summarize,

some of this debate.

169 I. Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East (Uppsala: Almquist

and Wiksells, 1943). See also the careful analysis of the myth-ritual school in J. W. Roger-

son, Myth in Old Testament Interpretation (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974) 66-84.

170 Frankfort, Kingship 337-44, 355 n.13; 382 n.5; 405 n.l; 408 nn.66-9.

SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 33

study of the "Ideal of Kingship in Ancient Israel" and concludes that Israel did

borrow aspects of Caananite kingship, but this did not amount to a takeover of

Canaanite religion and its view of sacred kingship in an unaltered form.171

Nevertheless, Mowinckel does find a considerable interrelationship, especially

in his study of royal psalms.172

Israelite kings ruled, shepherded and governed their people, sat upon a

throne in a palace, judged important court cases, and were the commanders-in-

chief of the army just like the kings in other neighboring nations.173 But the

Israelites did not believe the human king was a mediator between God and

men, or the one who integrated and harmonized man with the natural world, as

was the case in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Israelite king was not deified and

did not serve in the cultic drama which re-enacted a divine battle in the New

Year's festival. Human kingship in Israel was introduced well after the forma-

tion of the nation, so this institution appears less significant than kingship in

cultures around Israel.

These factors draw the focus of attention to the unique character of Israel's

true king, Yahweh. This uniqueness does not deny certain conceptual or func-

tional similarities with the ancient Near Eastern ideas about the kingship of the

gods. Three primary components which unite themselves in the Israelite meta-

phor of God as king are similar to those used in other religions: (a) Yahweh

(as other gods) is Lord and king of the world; (b) Yahweh (as other gods) is a

mighty warrior who destroys his enemies; and (c) Yahweh (as other gods) is a

judge over his kingdom.174

A. The Metaphor of Yahweh the king

L. Köhler maintains that "God is the ruling Lord: that is the one funda-

mental statement in the theology of the Old Testament….Everything else

derives from it. Everything else leans upon it. Everything else can be under-

stood with reference to it and only it."175 Seeing a similar emphasis, J. Gray

and S. Mowinckel conclude that the kingship of Yahweh is the central theme

of the Old Testament.176 Martin Buber defines the Israelite religion as the
171 Mowinckel, He That Cometh 21-95, esp. 56-9. Compare this with the view of

W. H. Schmidt, Konigtums Gottes in Ugarit und Israel (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1966) 80-82.



172 S. Mowinckel, The Psalms in Israelite Worship (New York: Abingdon, 1962). In

contrast to Mowinckel is the view of Weiser who believes that the enthronement Psalms

were used at the covenant renewal ceremony: A. Weiser, The Psalms (Philadelphia: West-

minster, 1957) 30.


173 A. R. Johnson, "The Role of the King in the Jerusalem Cult," The Labyrinth, ed.

S. H. Hooke (London: Macmillan, 1935) 71-111; J. H. Eaton, Kingship and the Psalms

(London: SCM, 1976); C. R. North, "The Religious Aspect of Hebrew Kingship," ZA W 9

105 (1932) 8-38, T. Ishida, The Royal Dynasties in Ancient Israel (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1977)

38-40, 99-117; K. W. Whitelam, The Just King (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1979) 17-38,

207-18.


174 J. L. McKenzie, Myth and Realities: Studies in Biblical Theology (Milwaukee:

Bruce, 1963) 114-16.



175 L. Köhler, Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957) 30.

176 Mowinckel, The Psalms.l. 106-92; J. Gray, "The Kingship of God in the Psalms

and Prophets," VT 11 (1961) 1.

34 TRINITY JOURNAL

belief in the kingship of God,177 while W. Eichrodt claims that the idea which,

binds the Old and New Testament together "is the irruption of the Kingship of;

God into this world and its establishment here."178

The word "lord" is often used of God. Lordship implies rulership (Gen

45:8; Ps 105:21), but some question the extent to which this emphasis is

present in this title of honor.179 Certainly formulas like "Lord of all the

earth" (Josh 3:11, 13; Ps 97:5; Mic 4:13; Zech 4:14; 6:5) and "God of gods

and lord of lords" (Deut 10:17; Ps 136:3; Dan 10:47) contain this element.

The frequent reference to earthly kings as "my lord, the King" in the Joseph

story 180 and throughout the historical books support the position that the

epithet was not without meaning. In Isaiah's vision, he identifies God the King,

with Yahweh of hosts (6:5) and the Lord who was sitting on a throne (6: 1).

The frequent use of "lord" in prayers, parallel to the usage in other religions,

suggests a relationship of a servant to a master. The term does not require king-

ship imagery (only a higher power who has authority), but when lordship

terminology like "my Lord God" or "the Lord God of hosts"181 are inte-

grated with other epithets, an emphasis on the dominion of God results.182

Although "lord" is used more frequently, kingship terminology more

precisely identifies the Israelite metaphor which describes God. Psalms contains

the praise of God who is "King of all the earth. ..[who] sits on his holy

throne" (Ps 47:2, 8), the King of Zion (Ps 48:2). He is worshipped as “my

God, my King" (Ps 68:24; 84:3; 145:1) and Zion rejoices in her King (Ps

149:2) for "the Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his

sovereignty rules over all" (Ps 103: 19).

The kingship of Yahweh relates to all the earth, for the Hebrews like the

other nations connected kingship to creation.183

God is my King from of old, who works deeds of deliverance in the

midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength, thou

didst break the heads of the sea-monsters in the waters….thine is

the day, thine is the night, thou has prepared the light and the sun,

thou hast established all the boundaries of the earth (Ps 74: 12-17).

He is "King at the flood, yes, the Lord sits as King forever," (Ps 29:10), for

just as "the world is firmly established…thy throne is established from of

old" (Ps 93:2). These all point to the fact that "the Lord is a great God, and a

great King above all gods, in whose hands are the depths of the earth...for it

was he who made it" (Ps 95:3-5), for "The earth is the Lord's and all"

contains" (Ps 24:1).

The kingship of Yahweh is established in the present because "He rules over

the nations" (Ps 22:28), "is the King of all the earth, ...God reigns over the

177 M. Buber, Kingship of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

178 W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961) 26.

179 Ibid. 203.

180 Gen 40:1,7; 42:10, 30, 33; 44:5,7,8,9,16,18,19,20,22,24,33,45:9; 47:25

181 A designation which is related to the concept that God is a warrior.

182 ANET 3-4.

183 G. yon Rad, "melek und malkut irn Alten Testament," TWNT 1 (1933) 563-5.

SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 35

nations" (Ps 47:2, 7-8). Mowinckel translates the enthronement Psalms,

"Yahweh has become King" (Ps 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1),184 but Maag denies'

Mowinckel's emphasis and interpretation and suggests the translation "Yahweh

(and none other) is King."185 Either way, these Psalms relate the kingship of

God to his just rule (Ps 96:10;97:1-2;99:4).

Both Yahweh and earthly kings attempt to establish justice; and being a

judge was part of the function of a king. The Psalmist in trouble cried out for

help to "my King and my God…thou dost hate all who do iniquity. Hold

them guilty, O God" (Ps 5:2, 5, 10). Yahweh, who is pictured as a king, "dost

sit on the throne judging righteously…hast rebuked the nations…des-

troyed the wicked" (Ps 9:4), for "he has established his throne for judgment,

and he will judge the world in righteousness" (Ps 9:7). In parallelism to "The

Lord reigns" in Ps 96:10 is God's judgment of the peoples with equity which is

further emphasized in v 13. A parallel concept is found in Ps 98:6 and 9.

Because Yahweh rules and carries out his judgments against his enemies,

God is the Divine Warrior who functions as the King of the earth (Psalm 2), for

"the Lord is King forever and ever, nations have perished from his land" (Ps

10:16). The "King of Glory" in Ps 24:7-10 is "the Lord mighty in battle…

the Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory,"186 and the Psalmist prays: because

"Thou art my King, O God; command victories for Jacob" (Ps 44:4). "He is a

great King over all the earth, he subdues peoples under us, and nations under

our feet" (Ps 47:2-3).

B. Similarities and Comparisons

The metaphor of Yahweh as King, found in the Psalms, correlates kingship

with component ideas which show harmony as well as contrast when they are

compared to statements concerning the kingship of the gods in Egypt, Mesopo-

tamia, Ugarit and the Hittite Empire. Harmony of terminology and function

appear in varying degrees from country to country. These technical similarities

relate to a common feeling of inferiority before the powerful chief gods/God

and a common anthropomorphic way of describing the gods/God with socio-

political metaphors.187 The functional similarities derive from common expec-

tations and responsibilities which are placed on chief rulers (i.e. defence,

settling disputes, governing justly). These similarities are human responses

which do not require a theory of borrowing, for these factors are represented

and understood differently in different cultures.

The contrast between ideas of kingship in the ancient Near Eastern cultures

around Israel, which use expressions and statements which resemble one

another, can only be obtained by defining the precise content given to kingship

ideas in each nation. The identification of kingship and the gods is total in

Egypt, for the Pharaoh is a real god who has absolute power over life, justice,


184 Mowinckel, Psalms.l.l07.

185 Maag, "Malkut Jhwh," SVT 4 (1960) 129-53.

186 P. C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1978) 43; Gray, "Kingship," VT 12 (1962) 2-12.



187 Cross, Canaanite Myth 91-111.

36 TRINITY JOURNAL

fertility and life after death. In Mesopotamia, the major relationship between

the king and the gods was understood in terms of adoption; this maintained a

distinction between the human king and the gods who were kings. The human

king was elected or chosen by the gods according to their wise plans in Meso-

potamia.188 Thus the gods who are kings have the real powers in Mesopo-

tamia; the human kings are servants of the gods. The cultic worship became the

vehicle by which the Mesopotamian king maintained his close relationship to

the gods in order to bring prosperity and harmony between the nation and the

forces of nature. Because of these differences the focus of kingship is directed

toward the Pharaoh in Egypt, but to the gods who were kings in Mesopotamia.

Not enough is known about the conceptual framework of the Hittites to

differentiate their way of thinking. Phraseology similar to both Egypt and

Mesopotamia is found.189 The Ugaritic material appears to be more like

Mesopotamian thinking but there is only minimal information on the exact

interrelationship between the king and the gods.190

The biblical concepts relate more closely to Mesopotamian ideas where the

gods are the true sovereigns of the world. Both include the adoption of the

human king as the son of the gods/God (1 Sam 7: 14), both make the human

king the servant of the gods/God and both recognize that the real power of the

universe rests in the hands of the god-kings, not the human kings. But the con-

trast between the two cultures is possibly more striking than the similarities.

C. Distinctive Aspects of the Kingship of Yahweh

The biblical concept of God, the relationship of man to God, and the

relationship of the king to God are unique in Israel. This peculiar way of

thinking was due to Israel's alteration of Mesopotamian ideas inherited from

the environment of Abram's youth. Mesopotamian polytheism identified the

gods with the innumerable powers within nature. These were organized into

socio-political and family structures which sometimes destroyed other gods to

gain dominance. The biblical concept of God, especially that found in the

Psalms which relate to the kingship of Yahweh, distinguish clearly between the

Creator and the forces of nature. Nature has no power except Yahweh's for

"The Lord of all the earth" established the sea and earth and regulates their boundaries (Ps 74: 15-17). When the power of a thousand nature gods is cen-

tralized in the power of one God, he becomes the king in a way which was

foreign to Mesopotamian thinking.

A second major contrast between Israelite and Mesopotamian thinking was

the distinctive relationship which existed between man and this one true God

srael's relationship was defined by the word of God and the acts of God on

behalf of Israel. Religion was not the means by which one integrated oneself

with the forces of nature, but the integration of man's will with the will of God

188 G. E. Wright, The Old Testament Against its Environment (London: SCM, 63-4.

189 Prankfort, Kingship 238-9.

190 Mowincke1, He That Cometh 51-2.

SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 37

who elected and redeemed him.191 Yahweh, as King, is the sovereign ruler of

all history; and his decisive intervention as the Divine Warrior at the time of the

exodus (Exod 15:3; Ps 74: 12-14) demonstrated both his election of his people

and his own redemptive power. Through his victory over the Egyptians and

their gods, his rulership over all the earth was established (Exod 15:18), and

through the covenant with the Israelite kingdom, Yahweh was established as

the "great Suzerain." The revelation "You are a holy people to the Lord your

God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession

out of all the families who are on the face of the earth" (Deut 7:6), sum-

marizes the unique relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gave

Yahweh an exclusive position because of his grace, and required total devotion

and obedience to the Suzerain. G. E. Wright believes "the all-pervading sense of election and covenant, therefore, is the chief clue for the understanding of

Israel's sense of destiny….In other countries of the day, as far as we have

knowledge, there was no comparable conception."192

A third contrast involves the relationship of the king and God. In Israel, the

king was not the high priest and it was not through the king that God revealed

his will to Israel. Israelite kings were condemned and criticized by the priests

and especially by the prophets, for they were primarily servants of Yahweh,

the real King of Israel. The covenant carefully defined the king's limitation and

demanded obedience to the will of God, the Suzerain (Deut 17:14-20). God

governed and ruled the nation with his laws, defeated the king's enemies, set up

the standards for justice, and received all worship. The sanctity of human king-

ship never developed because the covenant with God, the Great Suzerain,

cemented God and the people together long before the monarchy was accepted

as normative. This depreciation of human kingship parallels a counterbalancing

emphasis on the sovereignty and kingship of Yahweh. The centrality of the

covenant relationship to the unique position of Yahweh as king supports the

premonarchal belief in the kingship of Yahweh.

When human kingship was introduced during the time of the judges, it was

seen as a partial rejection of the kingship of Yahweh (1 Kgs 8:7; 12: 12-15). An

earlier attempt to raise up Gideon to be king was unacceptable because it was

Yahweh who ruled over the people (Judg 8:22-23). Pentateuchal references to

the kingship of God are found in Deuteronomy 33:5, where God's kingship is

connected to the establishment of the covenant of Sinai, Num 23:21-22; 24:

7-8, which associate kingship with God's victories over the military enemies

of Israel, and Exod 15: 18, which proclaims the eternal reign of Yahweh.193

V. CONCLUSION

The evidence which has been gathered indicates that the ancient Near

Eastern people described their chief gods by using the metaphor of the king.

The use of the same metaphor in Israel indicates a similarity between the ways

191 Engnell (Divine Kingship) makes too much of the Ugaritic material as Noth main-

tains: "God, King, and Nation in the Old Testament," The Laws in the Pentateuch (Phila-

delphia: Fortress, 1967) 157-60.

192 Wright, Old Testament Against its Environment 62-3.

193 See Cross (Canaanite Myth 121-44) for extensive bibliographic notations.

38 TRINITY JOURNAL

in which Israel and her neighbors explained the power of God/the gods and

pictured the relationship between man and God/the gods. Although Israel's

terminology was the same as the terms used in other ancient Near Eastern cul-

tures, the conceptual images which these terms represent were not always

identical. In all these nations, God/the gods who are kings represented the

highest power, the authority which had the greatest control; but the character,

number and function of God/the gods were quite different. When compared to

other gods, the distinctive authority of Yahweh, the King of Israel, goes far

beyond the dominion of Re who shared his power with the Pharaoh, or Anu

who was one of several gods who were called king. Both these factors have an

effect on our theology of God and raise several questions.

Could the centrality of kingship terminology in the religions of the ancient

Near Eastern world be an aid which enables the modem mind, which generally

looks negatively on absolute monarchs, to enter the ancient Near Eastern world

view? Could the ancient Near Eastern literature which unites the ruling, judging

and warrior concepts around the central ideology of the kingship of the gods,

be a conceptual framework which will unite the biblical functions of God into

an overarching framework? The present survey suggests that a careful compari-

tive methodology can alert the modem mind to connect and interrelate

conceptual ideas which are distinct in our thinking. This restructuring should

lead to a clearer view of Israel's concept of Yahweh because it provides a con-

textual background and thus highlights some of the similarities and differences

among these religions. It also broadens one's focus and argues against theo-.

logical systems which emphasize only one function of God or only one unique

Israelite idea. For example, the idea of the covenant is of prime importance to

Israelite theology, but it is not inclusive enough a theme to encompass the

universal activity of God. If God is only a national covenant God, the full

picture of God is blurred, limited and actually distorted. The study of the

ancient Near Eastern literature puts the concept of Yahweh into perspective,

and the biblical literature suggests that the kingship or sovereign rule of

Yahweh is of central importance in developing a biblical theology of the Old

Testament.

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Trinity Journal

2065 Half Day Rd.

Deerfield, IL 60015



www.tiu.edu/trinityjournal/index.html
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: thildebrandt@gordon.edu


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