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Musing on Sacral Kinship in Ancient Israel

February 23, 2008

Last night I was reading James C. Moyer’s 1969 Brandeis dissertation, “The Concept of Ritual Purity among the Hittites.” While I’ve had this book on my shelf for several years and found his definitions of ritual vocabulary helpful (though now slightly dated), I had not given the latter chapters a good reading. I decided to remedy this last night after running across numerous references to Moyer’s work in Billie Jean Collin’s recent book (discussed here) as well as in Theo van den Hout’s The Purity of Kinship.

An odd little tangent in Moyer’s discussion of the ritual purity of the king got piqued my interest — not for what it said about the sacral status of the Hittite king but because of its comparative implications in ancient Israel:

[T]he Hebrew king was sacrosanct by virtue of his anointment (II Sam. 1:14, 15). David would not kill King Saul and forbade Abishai to slay the Lord’s anointed (I Sam 26:9). It may be reading too much into this inviolability to connect it in some way with the king’s purity. But for the Hittite king there is a very interesting passage in the Apology of Ḫattušilliš that may make the connection. In the Apology, Ḫattušilliš describes bow he was demoted time and again by [his nephew] Urḫi-Teshub. Each time he did nothing at all out of respect to his brother [Muwatalli II]. But finally, when Urḫi-Teshub took the cities of Ḫakpiš and Nerikka, Ḫattušilliš made war on him (iii 66). Then follows this statement: … “When I made war on him I did not do it papratar.” (iii 66, 67) Whatever papratar means it is clear that Ḫattušilliš does not want the people to believe he was guilty of it… [and should be] translated “I did not do it as an unclean thing.”… His use of papratar would seem to indicate that in some way the purity of the king was connected with his inviolability. (p. 92)

Moyer’s connection of the Saul and David stories with the sacral nature of the Hittite king Urḫi-Teshub and Ḫattušilliš’ desire to be seen as not violating religious taboos is interesting. While their are numerous articles comparing the Apology with the rise of David, I don’t remember running across someone positing an explicit link of sacral kingship.

Personally, I have always wondered whether the sacral nature of Saul’s kingship was something that was being argued against in some strata of DtrH. In passages such as 1 Sam 19:19-20:5, Saul’s sacral nature (being “among the prophets”) interferes with his ability to defend his kingship. While David and his heirs are adopted as sons of the divine, we do not see this mantic sacral quality to them.

Regardless of whether my or Moyer’s theory has legs, I can only hope that my dissertation has folks reading and commenting upon it some forty years after it’s completion.

(BTW: if your browser is having trouble reading all the characters in this post, I recommend switching the default font to either Arial Unicode or Gentium.)

  1. February 23, 2008 8:59 pm


    Jim Moyer is a good friend of mine. He is also a good scholar and a very good teacher.

    As for the sacral nature of Saul’s kingship, we have to remember that this is the only case in the Hebrew Bible where the idea of sacral kingship appears. I have a suspicion that the reason David did not kill Saul had to do more with politics and David’s desire to maintain good relationship with the Northern tribes than with the view of sacral nature of Saul’s kingship.

    Claude Mariottini

  2. jimgetz permalink*
    February 24, 2008 11:03 am


    That’s great that Moyer is a friend. Give him my best, and let him know that a new generation of Brandeis students is pouring over his dissertation.

    As far as David goes, he does seem to have been very shrewd politically. Of course, Ḫattušilliš seems to have been as well. There’s definitely a similarity in the rhetoric being used by both usurper kings. Perhaps the genre of “apology” requires sacral kingship?


  1. Blue Cord » Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel

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