Israel and monarchy

Peter Leithart writes about Henri Frankfort’s writing about a Mesopotamia creation myth (I think that it is the Epic of Creation), in which the god Marduk emerges victorious from a cosmic battle and is acclaimed as king.  According to Frankfort, “Kingship [in Mesopotamia] was a thing not of human origin but added to society by the gods; the king was a mortal made to carry a superhuman charge which the gods could remove at any time, to bestow it upon another.”  Leithart then adds his own reflections about Israel:

With this background, we can better understand the significance of Israel’s request for a king and Yahweh’s response to that request in 1 Samuel 8.  First, it’s remarkable that Israel had existed for a couple of centuries as a nation before having a king.  Moses was not a king, though there are some kingly aspects to his work and office, and at Sinai no king was established.  Israel was constituted at Sinai as a kingdom of priests, but they were priests to the nations and priests to the divine king.  They were household servants of King Yahweh, but King Yahweh ruled directly without a human representative.  Throughout the period of judges, there was no king, and the book of Judges points not to the need for a human king but to the need for a divine king.  At the center of Judges is a polemic against kingship, stories of Gideon and Abimelech.  Israel can exist completely without a king, as she does again during the exile and after.

Second, 1 Samuel 8 is not a mythological account of the origins of kingship in Israel.  The threat to Israel is a simple military threat from the Ammonites, and they respond with a political/military solution.  There is no combat of the gods; the paraphernalia of kingship does not descend from heaven.  Yahweh authorizes the kings, sending His Spirit on Saul and then David, and as in Mesopotamian kingship Yahweh withdraws His favor from Saul when Saul sins and resists.  Samuel “demythologizes” and to some degree “secularizes” kingship.

Third, we can see why Yahweh would discern in this request a desire to overthrow Him as king.  Wanting a king like the kings of the nations means wanting a king who is divine like Pharaoh, or one who guarantees the favor of the gods like the Mesopotamian kings. Yahweh sees the request as a request for a rival.  Even after Israel has a king, she is supposed to trust Yahweh and Him alone.

The uniqueness of Israelite prophets in the Ancient Near East

Peter Leithart, summarizing the arguments of John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, compares the role of prophets in Old Testament Israel and the oracles of other Ancient Near Eastern societies.  Israelite prophets often pronounced judgment on the kingdom for violating God’s covenant, while in other societies oracles tended to focus on communicating divine support for kings.  Disapproving oracles usually criticized (in Walton’s words) “cultic neglect,” leaving the required ceremonies that appeased the gods unfulfilled.  It’s interesting that at least some of the Israelite prophets (and I don’t know them as well as I should) criticized Israel for maintaining the rituals but violating God’s other commandments (for example, in Isaiah 1 and Amos 4).

But while prophecies often denounce sin, they also point to the restoration and redemption in God’s plan for the world.  As Leithart notes (mostly quoting Walton),

Finally, though both Israelite and ANE prophets offer hope, in Israel the hope is “generally not intended to indicate divine support for the king.  The hope offered is for after the judgment. . . . The contrast is clear: The ‘support’ category in the ancient Near East focused hope primarily on near-term victory and protection, legitimizing the current regime; Israelite aftermath oracles generally focused on the long term because the near future held judgment and defeat for the current regime, which is consequently stigmatized.  Ancient Near Eastern prophecies functioned in a context of immediacy and urgency and had no longer-term value.  In contrast, the hope that is offered in Israelite prophecy is presented as part of a divine plan that is eschatological and covenant based.”