Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Crisis, Conflicts and Controversies During Monarchy: A Cursory Study on the Impact of Monarchy on Israelite Society/Religion

An uncritical reading into the history of Israelite society convinces the reader about ‘Monarchy’ as the momentous point in the social, political, economic, cultural and religious development of the people of Israel. Further extends crisis only to the official syncretism of Solomon, and the resultant division in the Kingdom. But the actual events during the establishment of monarchy were not so plain. Though the growth into the centralized-state like the neighboring nations improved the life-situations of Israelites, yet it need not have been the heaven-on-earth situation for them.  Historico-critical biblical scholarship opine that roughly those 300 years of monarchy might have been a pull and push experience between tradition and change in life, culture and religion of Israelite society.

Religion - in the case of Israelite society religion is blanket term that covers almost every aspect of the society - that had arisen out of the liberation from state oppression and for almost two centuries supported the efforts of the tribes to free them any form of political hegemony within and without faced problems with attempt to establish Monarchy. The new social changes had far reaching impacts on the life-situation of the period before the state, especially on the religion.  So the crisis in our paper refers primarily to the crisis as experienced by people who are dragged into the centralized state. We have numerous evidences of events that attempt to reintroduce the culture of the period before the state in sharp contrast to the then prevailing development. Note for example the controversy over the legitimation of the kingship. The aim of the paper is to resist the temptation that takes the growth of the Israel into a monarchical territorial state as gradual socio-political change or God’s gift, thus accept the varied cultural elements projected during the period as belonging to antiquity. The truth is that most probably they were not; consider for example the ‘temple-cult’, it is something quite contrary to the pre-state theology where Yahweh is close to people, and is unbound to any closed walls.

Unlike our general belief the controversy during monarchy was not between Yahweh nomadic religion and Canaanite agricultural religions; this is simplistic. Rather the major problem was the establishment of the kingdom rule and the consequent social changes that posed a great challenge to the Yahweh religion. Official syncretism i.e. King Solomon bringing in other gods juxtaposing to the main cult for political reasons, though posed a major threat to Jerusalem-temple-theology, the temple cult/royal state cult that developed need not have been the traditional worship of Yahweh religion. Meanwhile this becomes so acceptable that they are unquestioned by Deuteronomic authors, later become their vantage point. The paper intends therefore to make obvious the tension between tradition and change i.e. between tribal alliance and centralized state, charismatic leader and king, Yahweh religion of the liberated group and temple religion during monarchy. We do this by presenting the struggles in the formation of monarchy and by analyzing the different elements that change Yahweh religion into a royal state cult, leaving the controversy of the official syncretism of the later period for further research.

Monarchy: Formation and Rebellion

The formation of monarchy in Israel, according to the scholars goes back to the external military threat from the philistines and internal need for expansion with the rising population in the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the eleventh centuries. They record a gradual growth of the tribal alliance into statehood. This is evident from the case of Saul who was the first one to be accepted as the chiefdom close to the ‘Kingship’ and yet never exercised permanent power over everyone. He was limited to his family resources: his son, uncle, army of his tribe and located in his home place. The independent tribal heads (elders of Israel) were not ready to give up their privileges in the wake of centralized political authourity with the monarchy. Only when they experience another lose to Philistines, the people resolved to seek a far-reaching solution. David by then imposed a different kind of central authourity over the tribes, with an independent power base: with capital outside the tribes of Israel, royal professional soldiers other than the traditional militia of the tribes, and taxes. The tribal alliance could not ignore his power and so yielded to the monarchical-state instituted by David, later developed by Solomon his son.

It would be rather unjust to underestimate the social, political, cultural, economical changes the new social institution brought in the Israelite society. The new governance, state-building/architectures, religion and foreign policies manifest its glories. The territory was expanded to form an empire with several vassal states under Israel. The growth was not however free from dangers. The expansion of the empire created a force-situation for the people of Israel to live with non-Israelite population who had to be integrated socially, culturally and in religious terms. This had long lasting impact in the culture and worship of Israel. Take for example ‘kingship theology’, ‘temple theology’ and ‘indispensable mediation of priesthood’ does not have a place in the patriarchal religion or the religion of liberated group. It is comprehensible only in relation to the influence of the Near East theology.

Resistance to the monarchy, by those who upheld the social structure of the period before the state was a recurring feature during monarchy. Further it gained the support of the people as monarchy failed to promote the best interests of the people. Besides, there was no automatic legitimation of long political rule (kingship) in the pre-state Israel society/religion. We have examples of rebellion in Absalom (II Sam 15-19) and Sheba (II Sam 20), the experiment, but failed. There are glimpses of their political theological view in the Deuteronomic books: ‘only the one who is socially useless becomes King, and he will take everything away from you – your sons, daughters, slaves, fields, and cattle!’ (I Sam 8.11-17); and ‘the establishment of a human kingship is an attack on Yahweh’s kingly rule’ (I Sam  8.7).

It is to counter this theological vaccum created by the rebel movements the court theologians intervened with a legitimation of kingship with their ‘kingship theology’ and centralized state by their Jerusalem temple theology. We shall see them independently always in contrast to the life, culture, religion of the pre-state Israelite society.

Note on the Court Theologians

We have learnt that the monarchy was supported by court theologians. It probably comprised of prophets and priest like Nathan and Zadok. It is ironic that they supported monarchy and praised David as the promised King, his reign an epitome for all the rulers thereafter despite conflicts and controversies. For example prophesy of Nathan was the basis of the origin of the new kingship theology which was align to pre-state Israelite religion (II Sam 7).  As mentioned above if kingship theology was only an integration of the Near East tradition and the pre-Israelite Yahweh religion then the Israelite origin of the court theologians are dubitable. Our supposition is proved right by history as scholars note that David captured Jerusalem, city of Jebusites not by a full scale attack but by a trick (II Sam 5.6-9). Hence he probably wanted the Israelites to live along with Jebusites accordingly kept a deliberate balance between the two populations and its cultic institutions. He appoints two priests for national sanctuaries, Abiathar from the priestly family of Eli (I Sam 23.9; 30.7) and Zadok, the former Jebusite priest of Jerusalem. This balance is changed by Solomon, who banished Abiather because of his support to Adonijah adversary of Solomon, giving whole priestly monopoly to Zadokites. This insight explains the instrumentality of non-Israelite priests (court theologians) in the shift of the Yahweh religion into a Zion religion/universal religion and temple religion with complicated codes. Moreover, they shed light about the enormity of material propagating this new theology in the records of Israel History.

Kingship Theology

Our evidence for the Kingship theology mostly comes from David’s royal house i.e. Southern Dynasty. Another basic assumption is that the essential features of kingship theology are developed after Solomon. As the institution of Monarch was adapted by Israel from the neighbouring traditions, it paved way for the entry of their massive theological and cultic implications of Kingship. Near Eastern traditions regarded a king more or less as God’s representative on earth - as Son of God, the image of God and at times even God himself – who is sent by God to impose divine rule and divine order within and without the state. Thus Israelite society, sooner than it adapted monarchy, gradually convinced itself that God has sent them a King to rule over them, forcing aside their traditional Yahweh religion opposed to domination. Remember Yahweh religion in the pre-state period was basically a religion of the liberated group struggling to fight any form of domination. But with the new social institution, the court theologians inserted doctrines about the privileged position of King (as the son of God) and so the necessary obligation to obey them to find favour with God. We have them clearly mentioned in the royal Psalms (2, 89, 110) composed probably in the peak of the kingship theology. The valour and the conviction about the institution of monarchy in the written records, hint that initially it must have been created and developed by mostly Jebusite priests. The hypothesis is proved by the unrelatedness and the contradiction of this new theology to the Yahweh religion of the period before the state which had once been the symbol of liberation from state oppression. Moreover in the Yahweh religion there was no necessity of mediation to relate with God in other words, there was no space for royal son of God i.e. King. People in the wilderness had a direct experience of God through a leader among them.

Thus there were rebel movements and criticisms to reintroduce the older religion. They were no complete success yet have been forces of challenge to the unquestioned adherence to the Near East tradition. Thus it effected in a middle way in the integration of Yahweh religion with the Near East traditions. First, though the kinds were royal sons of God in the scriptures they are projected with human strengths and weaknesses which is contrary to the Near East tradition. Second, though the king is above people it is repeatedly noted that he is chosen by the people or God on behalf of the people which is opposed to the spirit of monarchy. Third even though king functions he does not constitute it, we have the role of priests and prophets who at times seem to have upper hand than the King. It would not be the case in Near Eastern theology.

Temple Theology

The establishment of monarchy was an important turning point in the main cult of the Israelite society. The evolution of the royal state cult parallel to the centralized state permanently changed the organization, institution, and the function of main Israelite cult. It was a fusion of political power with the religion; the main cult at the central sanctuary was to a larger degree a matter of state. As the centralized state de-empowered the tribal leaders, the centralized sanctuary resulted in the abolishment of all the local cults outside Jerusalem. It is plausible that the temple cult might have been adapted from the pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jebusites.

Scholars believe that non-Israelite priests might have had upper hand in the royal court established in Jerusalem. Abiather and Zadok the royal priests in the time of David are respectively from Israelite and Jebusite traditions. Despite the attempts of David to keep the balance in integrating Yahweh religion with the prevailing cult in Jerusalem, by bringing in the ark of the covenant and appointing priests from both the sides, his efforts collapse with Solomon ousting Abiather from the court. It was then a monopoly of the Zadokities. Solomon thus ends up building a temple. From the evidences available in the scripture and the later research scholars note that he might have actually renovated and expanded the temple already exiting in Jerusalem. In fact we find a mention of tent and threshing floor, some sort of structure as the ark of the covenant is placed in Jerusalem before it was shifted to Solomon’s temple (II Sam 6.17; 7.2 cf. I Kgs 1.29; 2.28). So it is possible that Solomon did not build the temple in cultic free virgin land. Apart from some parts in the temple, the architecture corresponds to the Near Eastern tradition with thick walls separating human beings from God and gradations intent to protect the holiness of God. The bond of the people to God which was so characteristic of the pre-state Yahweh religion found no expression at all in the temple architecture. The lay people could only observe the cult, with no access to the temple itself (the sanctuary). It was as if their God Yahweh disappeared in the semi-darkness of the royal temple. God of the wilderness turned into God who is enthroned ruling from Zion/Jerusalem. Gradually it gave birth to a Jerusalem temple theology that propagated the Kingship of Yahweh and Jerusalem as the city of God in sharp contrast to the people centered Yahweh which is characteristic pre-state Yahweh religion.

Our aim in this paper was to bring attention to the inner crisis and controversies that accompanied the transition to monarchy in the pre-state tribal alliance group to resist temptation to treat the institution of the monarchy as automatic. We have accomplished it by proving that monarchy had elements that was contradicted the pre-state Israelite religion, thus necessitating rebellion. The next interesting topic would be to study the impact of official syncretism and the reasons for the divide of the nation during monarchy. Every religion has its flexible boundaries borrowing some of its characteristics from the neighbouring tradition. But, generally we have tendency to view them as given from the beginning. In this line the paper also makes plain the key elements, temple tradition and kingship theology to have originated from the Near East traditions.


Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. Vol.1: From the Beginnings to the End of the Exile. Translated by John Bowden. British edition. London: SCM Press, 1994.
Boadt, Lawrence. Reading the old testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Ceresho, Anthony R. The Old Testament: A Liberative Perspective. Mumbai: St. Pauls,  2009.

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