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By God I am King:
David’s Rise to the Throne in Broader Context

The epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East, therefore, paint for us a broader picture, they reveal more of the depth of the tapestry that is the world of the ancient Near East. And the epigraphic texts remind us that ancient Israel was part of the ancient Near Eastern world.

See Also: Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010)

By Christopher Rollston
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow
September 2013

According to the Deutonomistic History, Yahweh commanded Samuel to fill his horn with olive oil, travel to the Bethlehem home of Jesse, and anoint Saul’s successor. David was found and he was anointed for kingship. The narrative of Samuel states that after this event, the ruah of Yahweh entered into David (1 Sam 16:1-13). To be sure, King Saul was still on the throne, but the succeeding verses of the narrative declare that the ruah of Yahweh had turned away from Saul. It seems that the winds of change were blowing, even quite literally. And not long after this, the Israelites were mustered for battle, encamped in the valley of Elah. Similarly, the Philistines were encamped between Socoh and Azekah (1 Sam 17). Goliath of Gath was the glorious Philistine hero, standing six feet and six inches tall (reading with Qumran and the Septuagint). The Hebrew text states that David was just a young man, a na‘ar. And although not part of the encamped Israelite army, David would volunteer to do battle with the tall Gittite warrior. According to the narrative, David proclaimed boldly that Yahweh had delivered him from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear and Yahweh would also deliver him from the hand of the Philistine giant (1 Sam 17: 37). And Yahweh did. And David severed the Philistine’s head, a sanguine prize of war. Not long after this, Saul’s son Jonathan becomes David’s friend and Saul’s daughter Michal becomes David’s wife (1 Sam 18). David’s stock was rising. And not long after this, Saul is mortally wounded in the battle of Gilboah. Knowing that he would not survive, he falls on his sword (1 Sam 31), ignominiously the editor suggests. And Saul’s son Jonathan died in the same battle, as did Saul’s sons Abinadab and Malchishua.

Saul had a surviving son, Ishba‘al, and it was he who succeeded his father on the Saulide throne, continuing the fledgling dynasty. And it was Abner who had made Ishba‘al king (H-stem of the root mlk, “king”), the text proclaims. But all was not entirely well. There was a long civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David. Because the word “house” is often a term for dynasty, there is some scintillating double entendre here. The text of the Hebrew Bible then proclaims that David was fortifying his base of regal power rather nicely, but the power of King Ishba‘al was in free fall (2 Sam 3:1). Reading the handwriting on the wall, Baanah and Rechab, two members of the military attaché of Ishba‘al, assassinated King Ishba‘al in his sleep (2 Sam 4). And according to the narrative, “David grew greater and greater and Yahweh, the God of armies, was with him.” Indeed, says the narrator, David knew that “Yahweh had established him as king of Israel” (2 Sam 5). Much blood had been spilled, but David was king and this was Yahweh’s will, and Yahweh’s doing, declares the text. By God David was king.

During my youth, I read these narratives as straightforward history, wie es eigentlich gewesen. I suppose that I am not alone in that regard. And there is a certain beauty in that sort of reading. But there is also a certain beauty in the epigraphic record, and the ways in which it can allow us to see and understand the larger tapestry of divine and human rule in ancient times, something more about the ways the ancients saw it. Consider the logia of the Tel Dan Stele, an Old Aramaic inscription from the 9th century BCE. Reading with Joseph Naveh, King Hazael proclaims in this inscription that “(The God) Hadad made me king (H-stem of mlk). And Hadad went in front of me (in battle).” By God, Hazael was king. After all, Hadad was the Syrian storm God and within this inscription, Hazael states confidently and piously that it was Hadad who made him king and it was Hadad who brought him success in battles against his regal foes (cf. 1 Kgs 19:17). That is, Hazael had divine support for his rise to power and for his successes in battle. According to the Hebrew Bible, Hazael had usurped the throne from Ben-Hadad, after suffocating the bedridden Ben-Hadad with a dampened piece of woven cloth. After recounting this, the biblical narrative soberly concludes, “And Hazael began to reign in his place.” (2 Kgs 8:15). A royal assassination had occurred, and a new king sat upon the throne. And this new king proclaimed that all of this occurred with divine support.

Consider also the Old Aramaic Stele of Zakir, King of Hamat and Luat. It begins with these words, “I am Zakir, King of Hamat and Lu‘at. I was a humiliated man, but Ba‘alshamayin rescued me, and Ba‘alshamayin arose with me, and Ba‘alshamayin made me king” (H-stem of mlk). This inscription goes on to state that many attempted to do battle against Zakir, but within the inscription he says, “and I lifted my hands to B‘alshamayin and he answered me [saying]…I made you king, and [I shall stand] with you, and I shall rescue you from all [these kings].” Again, therefore, within this Old Aramaic inscription from the 9th century BCE, Zakir proclaims that his God had made him king and his God had gone before him in battle, bringing him success in the face of great resistance. By God, Zakir was king. It is worth noting in this connection, that Zakir is often believed to have been a usurper.

Similarly, within the Old Aramaic Panamuwa Inscription of the 8th century BCE, the following words are etched into stone, “I am Panamuwa the son of Qarli, king of Ya’diya, who erected this stele for Hadad. In my youth, the gods Hadad and ’Il and Rešep and Rakab-’il, and Šamaš rose up in support of me. And into my hands, Hadad and ’Il, and Rakab-’il, and Šamaš, and Rešep placed the scepter of dominion. And Rešep rose up in support of me, so that whatever I might grasp for with my hand[s ….] succeeded [..] and whatever I might ask [for fro]m the gods, they gave to me.” The list of Gods in this text is longer, but the conceptual framework is the same. Panamuwa declares that he had divine support for his rise to the throne and the successes he had were a result of this divine support. By God, Panamuwa was king and by God he had victory in battle.

Indeed, the same sort of language is used in many epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East. Within the Mesha Stele, King Mesha presupposes the support of the Moabite God Kemosh. And in a Mesopotamian text, Cyrus declares that it was Marduk who brought him to the throne and made him victorious in battle against his enemies. And Egyptian texts contain the same basic motif. Sesostris declares in a building inscription, “I will settle firm the decrees for the God Harakhty. He begat me to do what should be done for him, to accomplish what he commands to do. He appointed me shepherd of this land.”

The epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East, therefore, paint for us a broader picture, they reveal more of the depth of the tapestry that is the world of the ancient Near East. And the epigraphic texts remind us that ancient Israel was part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Thus, just as Hazael, and Zakir, and Panamuwa declared that heaven itself supported their rise to the throne, so also did the Hebrew narratives about David proclaim the same. After all, kings became kings at the pleasure of God. Perhaps I should mention that I do not believe the epigraphic material weakens the fabric of the biblical narratives. Rather, I believe that it brings strength to the cloth, sewing layers of knowledge onto our conceptions of the cloth of ancient biblical life.