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V. Phillips Long on Ancient Kings Chosen By Deity
The stories of Saul and David in the Bible make it clear that the Lord was the one who chose the king, and the people expected him to do that. This is not unique to Israel. The king was the earthly representative of deity and therefore was designated and put on the throne by the deity. Phil Long offers some of the perspectives from the ancient Near East on this matter in his commentary on the Books of Samuel in ZIBBCOT.1
In brief, the king’s anointing expressed his vassal relationship to the Great King, from whom his authority was derived, under whose protection he stood, and to whom he was beholden. Not only in the Bible but generally in the ancient Near East, "royal authority was seen to have a heavenly origin and destiny; where authority was at issue, the gods were believed to be nearby."2
To cite but a few examples, Eannatum, ruler of Lagash in its Early Dynastic period (early third millennium), speaks of himself as one "whose name was called by Enlil; endowed with strength by Ningirsu; envisaged by Nanshe in (her) heart; truly and rightly suckled by Ninhursaga; named by Inanna." Gudea (near the end of the third millennium), also of Lagash, betrays a similarly polytheistic orientation in describing himself as the "Shepherd envisaged by Ningirsu in (his) heart … endowed with dignity and sublime scepter by Ig-alima … he whom Ningiszida his god has made to appear in the assembly with (proudly) raised head." The famous Hammurabi (early second millennium) alludes to his divine election when he speaks of a time when "Shamash … with radiant face had joyfully looked upon me—me, his favourite shepherd, Hammurabi."
Nearer the time of David, an inscription of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114–1076 B.C.) credits the king’s rule to divine appointment:
Great gods, managers of heaven (and) underworld, whose attack means conflict and strife, who make great the sovereignty of Tiglath-pileser, beloved prince, your select one, attentive shepherd, whom you chose in the steadfastness of your hearts; upon him you set the exalted crown, you grandly established him for sovereignty over the land of the god Enlil, to him you granted leadership, supremacy, (and) valour, you pronounced forever his destiny of dominion as powerful and (the destiny) of his priestly progeny for service to Ehursagkurkurra.3
Such was the consistent tenor of royal inscriptions in the ancient Near East; all these (and many more) give the flavor of ancient Near Eastern thinking with respect to the link between royal authority and divine authorization. As a worshiper of the one true God, David is rightly respectful of the status of Yahweh’s anointed (cf. 26:9) and, despite the fact that Saul is clearly out to kill him, regrets having lifted his hand, even symbolically, against Saul.
This sort of information helps us to understand Israel’s view of kingship and we can see that God did not have to initiate a new way of looking at kingship for the Israelites.
Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.
1 Launderville, Piety and Politics, 47.
2 For these and many more examples, see H. Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978), 238–40. For information on the rulers and gods mentioned, see, e.g., W. von Soden, The Ancient Orient: An Introduction to the Study of the Ancient Near East, trans. Donald G. Schley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994 [German orig. 1985]).
3 Grayson, ARI, 2:5–6.
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