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


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Trinity Journal 3 NS (1982) 18-38.

[Cited with permission: A Publication of Trinity Journal, Deerfield, Illinois]




By its very nature, language about God must include analogical terms which

try to communicate the idea of "God" in ways which man understands.

Because man's experiences and cultures have varied so tremendously, it is

difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about the ancient Near Eastern

concept of god. Rudolph Otto in his study The Idea of the Holy1 found a com-

mon mysterium tremendum et facinasum in all religions. This represents a

power within things which results in man's special treatment of them. An

object might be considered sacred or taboo, but would receive reverence

regardless, because of its power.

This power within nature, objects or people was perceived in different ways.

In most cases it had control over aspects of nature, objects or persons to which

it was related. This vital force, or god, was sometimes described in terms of the

structure of the culture in which the people lived. These powers were thought

to have personalities or wills which were related to one another in ways similar

to the social relationships between men. Some powers were higher than others,

as a master is above his slave, while others were offsprings of higher and more

potent gods. Destructive forces like fire might be described as judges, or the

earth as a mother who gives birth to vegetation. It seems natural then, that the

chief gods or powers would be described in terms of the highest analogical

power on earth: the king.2

The first section of this paper will survey some of the texts which archeolo-

gists have found in the ancient Near Eastern world to see how men describe

their gods. Because the ancient world had so many gods, because of the large

number of texts and because of the complexity of trying to reproduce an

accurate conceptualization of a term like "god," there will be no attempt to

present a total picture of each god, during each period, as it was seen by each

different class group within the society. Instead, the main purpose will be to

examine the concept of king as it relates to the gods of the ancient Near

" Eastern world. Are gods called king, lord, ruler or other terms which relate to



the king (sitting on a throne, holding a scepter)? Do such references occur in all

types of literature and art, and is kingship or rulership one of the central

factors which characterize a god? In order to get a full picture of kingship,

various roles which the earthly king has (judging, ruling, commander-in-chief)

will be compared to the functions of the gods who are kings.

In the second section, various biblical references to the kingship of Yahweh

are compared with ancient Near Eastern ideas in order to identify both simi-

larities and differences. How does Israel's concept of the earthly king and

God's kingship compare with the Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite and Mesopo-

tamian concepts? Is the kingship or rulership of God central to Old Testament

thinking? The answers to these questions in past studies are very diverse. Some

see a relationship between Mari social customs and the Abraham story but they

deny any theological relationship between Israel and her neighbors. Others find

a basic "pattern" in the many similarities of language, culture, ritual and

theology: thus, Israelite religion is derived from and understood in light of

other religions in the ancient Near East. One of the important issues in this

debate is the concept of kingship, and in this area one must not ignore either

the similarities or the differences between Israel and her neighbors' concept of



There is much about the beliefs of the peoples of Mesopotamia which

suggests a common culture throughout their history. But cultures and times

changed throughout the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian periods. New gods

came to prominence and variations of detail are abundant. Although Jacobsen

has reconstructed the religion of the fourth millennium B.C. around aspects of

fertility, the religion of the third millennium B.C. around the metaphor of gods

conceived as rulers, and the religion of the second millennium B.C. around the

more personal concept of the gods as parents,3 all these aspects were present to

some extent during each period. The metaphor of a god as ruler dates back to

the protoliterate age and continued throughout Mesopotamian history. It

would seem to be precarious to tie a people's concept of their gods solely to

one aspect of their economic, political or personal experiences. One of these

factors may be more influential in certain pieces of literature, but all three

factors contributed varying degrees of emphasis at all times. A god of fertility

can be a personal god who is prayed to for economic aid and still be the king or

lord of fertility. The terminology of kingship and lordship which dominates the

Mesopotamian literature suggests that the power and authority of the gods was

an essential factor in their thinking.

The description of earthly kings found during the early period includes the

conceptual terms of "lord," "one who exercises lordship," "kingship," "the

leader of the military forces," "shepherd of the land" and "the dispenser of


righteous judgment."4 This concept and the power of kingship which the

Mesopotamian kings enjoyed was "lowered from heaven "5 by the gods. The

similarity between the gods and the kings was expressed in the proverb "the

king is like the (very) image of god."6

The Mesopotamian tendency was to view the world as a state.7 Since every-

thing in the world has a character, will and power, it is part of the total society

of the ancient man. The political and social terminology is thus extended by

analogy, beyond the relationship of men, to include all "powers." Although

some "powers" were inferior gods in relationship to the chief gods of the pan-

theon, they were still considered the lord in their own areas of responsibility.

A. The Kingship of An, Enlil and Enki

An/Anu, the god of heaven, was regarded as the highest god and head of the

pantheon of the gods. Anu is addressed as king in the story of Adapa,8 the

myth of Enki and Sumer9 and the hymn to Ishtar.10 "Anu the Great, the

father of the gods,"11 is the father of Enlil who is called the king of the lands

in the prologue to the Lipit-Ishtar law code.12 The prologue and epilogue to

Hammurabi's law code give first place to "lofty Anum, the king of the

Anunnaki," and second to his chief executive, "Enlil, lord of heaven and earth,

the determiner of destinies."13 In the lamentation over the destruction of Ur,

a similar relationship is found between "Anu, the king of the gods" and "Enlil"

the king of the lands."14 Enlil's kingship is proclaimed over and over again in,

the myth of Enlil and Ninlil15 and he is said to have a throne and crown.16

Ringgren says, "He (Anu) is above all, the gods of kingship; it is from him that the office of kingship comes, and he is himself king of the gods…. Enlil was


the 'king of the lands' (i.e. of the earth), and like his father, Anu, could be

'called 'the father of the gods' and the 'king of the gods'.17

Enki, whose name literally means "the lord of the earth" is related to the

earth, the water, wisdom and craftsmanship, but his status as a god in his own

realm is that of a king. Jacobsen posits that Enki's office in the world state is

that of "a great nobleman of the realm….a councilor….But he is not king,

not a ruler in his own right. The position derives from Anu and Enlil; he is their

minister."18 But in the myth of Enki and Ninhursag, Enki is called "the king"

by Isimud his messenger,19 thus giving his position in his own realm. In Enki's

power struggle with Enlil, he is called "the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the

king defiant."20 In the myth of Enki and Sumer, Enki is identified as the

"king of the abyss."21 The myth of Enki and Eridu refers to "the lord of the

abyss, the king Enki" and Enlil announces that "My son has built a house, the

king Enki."22 Inanna is presented the "throne of kingship…the exalted

scepter, staffs, the exalted shrine, shepherdship, kingship"23 by Enki who is

addressed as king by Isimud and Inanna in the myth of Inanna and Enki.24 Ea,

the Akkadian name of Enki, is called king in the story of Adapa,25 the descent

of lshtar into the nether world,26 and in a psalm to Marduk.27 He is called

lord on numerous occasions in the Atrahasis epic,28 as well as "king of the


B. The Kingship of Other Gods

Ninurta is king of the land in the myth of Kur29 and in a similar manner

Enkimdu, the farmer god, is twice called "the king of dike and ditch" in the

dispute between the shepherd-god and the farmer-god.30 Ereshkigal, the

goddess of the nether world, is pictured as sitting on a throne31 and called

queen of the nether world in the myth of Inanna's descent into the nether

world.32 In the story of Kumma's vision of the nether world, Nergal who was

granted "dominion over the wide nether world,"33 is seated on a royal throne


wearing a crown of royalty and holding a scepter.34 He is bowed to, his feet

are kissed, and he is called ruler. The myth of Zu describes the gods' loss of

their rulership when the tablets of destiny are stolen.35 The Assyrian version

of the myth identifies the exercise of "Enlilship" (rulership) with "the crown

of his sovereignty, the robe of his godhead."36 Rulership is the essence of the

gods which Zu took in order that he might rule and set himself on a throne. In

the lamentation over the destruction of Ur, Ningal the wife of Nanna is

referred to as a shepherd and the queen of Ur.37 A Kassite inscription has eight

references to the gods as kings38 and in a hymn to Shamesh, the sun god, the

people would sing, "prince of the gods, righteous judge…king of heaven and

earth, lord of destinies…[you] govern mankind; you rule over the heavenly


In the Enuma Elish, Marduk is described in extraordinary terms, being far

above the other gods at the time of his birth.40 But it is Kingu who is elevated

as chief of the assembly, commander-in-chief, supreme controller of destinies

and the one elevated to the rank of Anu.41 In contrast to the power of Tiamat

whom none can destroy and Kingu who was made supreme by Tiamat, is

Marduk who is given a throne, complete authority, the most honored position

and kingship of the universe.42 After he is given a scepter and a throne, he is

proclaimed to be king and lord repeatedly.43 Hammurabi, in the prologue and

epilogue to his law code, refers to Marduk as the supreme one whose kingship

was established in Babylon.44 Nebuchadnezzar II at a later period also calls

Marduk lord and king.45 Nabonidus and Cyrus call Marduk "king of the gods

and lord oflords,"46 but sometime in the reign of Nabonidus his attention was

turned to the god Sin whom he calls the king of the gods.47 The historical

texts from Assyria repeatedly refer to the god Ashur as lord48 and twice he is

called king.49

Descriptions of the gods in terms of kingship are found in ritual texts,

hymns and prayers. Two of the many praises given to Ishtar are "queen of

women" and the "goddess of goddesses who wears the crown of dominion."50


The moon-god, Nanna or Sin, is called "lord of the shining crown of dominion,

of hero of the gods, Father Nanna, who is grandly perfected in kingship."51 The

New Year's festival at Babylon describes Bel as "excellent king, lord of the

country" which parallels the title given to Marduk who is "the great lord,"

the "the lord of the world, king of the gods…who holds kingship, grasps

In lordship."52

The seemingly contradictory proclamations, that a multitude of deities are

king, can be understood only if one realizes that different gods ascended to

the kingship at different times and that the kingships described often pertain to

different areas of rulership. Thus An, Enlil and Enki who were supreme among

the Sumerians, gave way in later history to the increased importance of Marduk

and Ashur as well as Shamesh, Ishtar and Sin. Whoever the chief god may be, it

far appears from the literary evidence that he was described in terms of kingship or

lordship from the Sumerian through the Babylonian periods.


In the northwest Semitic culture at Ugarit, the title "king" and its related

conceptual terms are found In the epic literature as well as in later Greek

authors who describe their religion.53 The description of the Ugaritic earthly

kings provides a criterion for identifying kingship terminology that was applied

to their gods. Although there is a limited amount of information on kings out-

side the "mythological" literature, the image of the king in the epics appears to

be a realistic representation of the ruling earthly kings.

The Keret epic describes several disasters which threaten Keret's role as

king. The king, who is the "son of EI,"54 is the one who leads the army, judges

righteously, and sits enthroned ruling with authority.55 In the initial section,

after Keret loses his family and has his authority undermined, EI asks him, "Is

it kingship like Bull his father's he desires, or authority like the Father of

Man's?"56 In the final paragraphs Keret is returned "to his former estate; he

sits upon the throne of his kingship; upon the dais, the seat of his

authority."57 The plot of this epic is clearly put in terms of kingship and

specifically relates to Keret's ability to maintain his kingship in spite of

sickness, death, plagues and other disasters. Yassib, Keret's son, attempts to

usurp Keret's position and declares, "Descend from thine kingship-I'll reign,

from thine authority-I'll sit enthroned."58 The epic of Keret explicitly com-


pares the kingship of El with that of Keret and gives a basis for understanding

kingship as an essential concept in ANE thought about the gods.

The Aqhat epic describes the struggles of a righteous king59 or a righteous

village elder60 who "sits at the gate…judging the fatherless."61 Most of the

epic deals with the desire for, birth and death of, and the search for Aqhat. The

position of El is identified when Anath enters "the pavilion of the king, Father

Shunem,"62 the abode of El, to gain his approval for the death of Aqhat. El

the king is bowed to and reverenced but later mistreated and threatened during

the temper tantrum of Anath. Pope and others interpret El's reaction as a sign

of weakness which demonstrates that El's kingship was more nominal than


A. El the King

The attributes and epithets of El have been outlined by M. Pope, and

include: (a) "father," with its more specific identification of "father of years,"

"father of mankind," "father of the gods," and "father of eternity" which

point to El's position in the family of the gods and his advanced age;64

(b) "Bull," which symbolizes his procreative powers;"65 (c) "wise, beneficent,

holy, and kind;"66 (d) "creator of creatures" and "creator of earth;"67 and

(e) "king."68

The significance and status of El in relationship to his kingship is perceived

differently. Dussaud gives El a very high position and identifies him with the

solar Aton, the god of the Egyptian Empire (because of the solar disc above El

on a stela). This near monotheistic position was later eroded by the ascendance

of Baal who supplanted EI and reigned in his stead.69

Nielsen sees El as the chief Semitic god who was connected to the moon.

Roggia and Eissfeldt interpret El worship to be nearly monotheistic, with

Eissfeldt giving El the monarchial position of being the king and highest god


(the other gods are emanations of his power) and Roggia finding a gradual take-

over by Baal of El's position of power and authority.70 Ringgren calls El the

"supreme authority among the gods, where he reigns as king."71 Pope dis-

covers in El only a nominal head of the pantheon and a nominal king of the

gods because Anath forced El's hand when she requested a house for Baal and

when she demanded Aqhat's bow, because the messengers of Prince Yamm

refused to bow to El, and because Yamm and Baal are also called "king" and

"lord" in their successful struggle for dominion.72 Lokkegaard interprets El's

so-called weakness as a virtue in a ruler. El's action is based on moderation,

tolerance, self-reliance and a true sense of security in one's position.73 Olden-

burg's analysis of El in Sanchuniathon's Phoenician History reveals an "omni-

potent monarch ruling from Phoenicia over the whole world,"74 whose

kingship is usurped by Baal in the Ugaritic mythology.75

Albrecht Alt's identification of the patriarchal God as "the God of the

Fathers"76 is expanded by F. Cross who compares the Ugaritic god El to "the

God of the Fathers."77 Cross concludes that "the exercise of authority by El

over his council suggests that his role is more that of a patriarch, or that of a

judge in the council of a league of tribes, than the role of a divine king."78

Certainly El is the aged divine father, and it is true that the office of a judge

over a league and a king are quite similar, but the titles and functions of El go

much beyond that of a judge or patriarch. Cross believes that El was not an

absolute ruler79 but this recent trend to diminish El's power does not go as far

as what the text demands.80 The power of a king is not destroyed if he gives

authority to others or is influenced by wives, friends, and threats. Cross has

properly drawn attention to the distinctive character of El's rule and concedes

that El reflects "the organized institution of kingship"81 as well as the patriar-

chal society.

In the Baal epic, as in many mythological texts, a description. of the gods'


struggle for power is expressed in terms of kingship. After permission for

building a house for Yammis granted from "the pavilion of king, Father

Shunem"82 who has power to grant and "overturn the throne of thy kingship!

Yea, break the scepter of thy dominion,"83 Baal goes "to El the king his

begetter"84 to get permission to have a house built for himself. This is fol-

lowed by Asherah's trip to "the pavilion of king, Father Shunem."85 In their

dialogue, El wonders if "El the king's love stirs"86 her, to which Asherah asks

"the king"87 to build a house for Baal. Later in the epic both Anath and Mot

refer to "the pavilion of king, Father Shunem"88 and Shapsh tells Mot that El

has the power to "overturn thy throne of kingship, break thy staff of

dominion."89 "Eternal king" is another epithet used of El90 who is enthroned

and sits as judge.91 These references to concepts relating to kingship demon-

strate the importance of the conceptual analogy of the king in the Ugaritic

concept of the chief god El.

The graphic representation of El on a limestone stela as a majestic figure on

an ornate throne, wearing a crown, supports the kingly view of the god El.92 A

bronze statuette of El with an Egyptian crown was also found at Ugarit.93

B. Kingship of other gods

The struggle for power and kingship of other gods is illustrated in the Baal

epic. The fertility cults' nature cycles are conceived in terms of the dominance

of various gods as king of the earth for a limited period of time.

Prince Yamm desires a house or palace like El and authority over Baal.94

Yarmm has a throne but Kothar wa-Khasis tells Baal "thou'lt take thine eternal

kingdom, thine everlasting dominion…chase Yamm from his throne, Nahar

from the seat of his dominion."95 Baal also requests a house like the gods with

a gorgeous throne. Once Baal's throne is built and Baal dwells in his house, Baal

declares his dominion over the earth and the gods,96 and is called Lord of the

earth.97 But soon Baal is "chas'd from his throne of kingship, from the dais,


the seat of his dominion"98 and "Puissant Baal is dead, the Prince, Lord of the

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