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Musings on Divine Kingship

August 6, 2010

Divine kingship is a tricky thing. Steve Wiggins has written an excellent post on divine kingship over at his blog. His post combines data from the ancient Near East with traditions of divine kingship in Mesoamerica and with our modern world. I want to spend a moment to ruminating on some of the extended problems surrounding the issue in the ancient Near East, muddying the waters a bit.

My focus is Ugarit and the Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BCE). Some of the “Great Kings” of the LBA believed in divine kingship. Certainly the Pharaohs were divine. The kings of the Hittites appeared to have a permanent sacral status, but they only became gods after their death (hence the circumlocution “to become a god” as one phrase used to tacitly refer to the death of the king). Data on the Mitanni and Babylonians are more problematic, but by the first millennium BCE Mesopotamian rulers (e.g. Assyrian kings) had a pretty cozy relationship that might have extended beyond mere synergism to some sort of equation of the king and a warrior god of the pantheon (Ninurta?). (I leave completely to the side earlier issues of sacred marriage in Ur III.)

But at the same time, limited kings and petty lords of the LBA didn’t (couldn’t?) claim divine status. How can you be a god and also subject to the whims of your suzerain overlord? I’m thinking here of Ugarit: all of the evidence in the cult points away from even a permanent sacral status for the king, let alone an apotheosis. The king has to be sacralized each time he is needed in the cult. The priests control access to the divine. By analogy, I bet that a similar phenomenon also existed in those petty kingdoms that were vassals of the Great Kings.

This all makes the data for ancient Israel harder to deal with. Whatever your perception of the entity we refer to as “Ancient Israel,” it wasn’t very large and didn’t have much political power. It was one of the mice that could play while the cats (Egypt, Assyria, etc.) were away. With the resurgence of the major powers of the ancient Near East, these little states all fell to the Great Kings of the first millennium (a situation understood all too well by Amos, in Amos 1-2). Did these petty states understand their own tenuous nature? Did their kings understand how fragile their powers really were? We’ll never know. Indeed, even if we did it wouldn’t necessarily speak to their assertions of divinity.

There are hints of divine kingship in the Bible. Psalm 2 is the premiere example, but others could be cited as well. However, these data are always somewhat cryptic. Surely the Deuteronomists saw the king’s role in the cult highly conscribed. Both P and H pass over the king in silence. The writer of Ezekiel 40-48 envisions an extremely limited role for rulers in his eschatological temple. Does this indicate a reevaluation of the king’s divine status in light of the realities of foreign hegemony, or does it hearken back to ideas found in Ugaritic texts?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2010 10:39 am

    Jim,

    Loren Fisher left the following comment on my blog.

    Jim Getz is correct. In the East Mediterranean World the king becomes divine when he dies. The Egyptians were the exception to this rule. What is abnormally interesting to me is that in later Christian times the exception became the rule.
    Loren.

    I thought it might be good if people could see it here.

    Duane

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  1. Divine kings in “Israel”? - Sansblogue

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