Ancient Near Eastern texts almost unanimously presuppose the institution of kingship as a social organizing principle. Kingship in Mesopotamia is “lowered from heaven” or is coeval with creation. The Assyrian King List, for example, can hypothesize a time when kings “lived in tents,” but not a time before kingship. The image of the “first man” as the “image of God” and as lord over creation (Gen. 1.26–28) is not unrelated: YHWH is often portrayed in Israelite literature and iconography in solar terms; just as the sun, the “major” astral body, “rules” over the sky (Gen. 1.16–18), just as YHWH rules over creation, so the relationship between humanity and the world is modeled as one of royal domination from the very outset.
Near Eastern myths, too, principally portray the order of divine organization as monarchic. Egyptian, Greek, Hittite, Ugaritic, and Mesopotamian myths all recount tales of martial conflict whereby one of the gods emerges as their king. In most instances, the monarchic order is portrayed as an innovation, replacing an earlier paternal domination of children. Interestingly, in the cases of Mesopotamian and Greek myth, the new kingship is functionally elective: the pantheon appoint a king‐elect from among their number, to lead them into battle; the appointee wins the battle; and, as a result, the appointee wins confirmation on the throne. The royal ideal is thus one of elective autocracy. In Babylonian myth, the winning of the throne is also the starting point for the creation of the cosmos, which is the foundation for the heavenly structure that serves as the high god's palace, the counterpart of his earthly temple.
Kings and other administrators in the ancient Near East regularly portray themselves, like the state gods, as champions of the weak and the oppressed. The king was the upholder of the social order—much like the divine king who resisted the threats and encroachments of chaos. But fixing the social order, to judge from Mesopotamian law codes, involved attempting to fix prices and attempting to ensure the inviolability of property. It also involved occasional amnesties, and general release from debt. Ultimately, the king presented himself as the personification and defender of what was just, the supreme judicial authority.
Near Eastern kingship was overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. Cities lent themselves to monarchic organization precisely because of the complexity of administration involved. Kings took responsibility for, and pride in, the fortification of towns: the Gilgamesh Epic ends with a return to the subject of the mighty walls of Uruk, which were the hero's immortality. Kings thus enjoyed the right not to tax, but to direct corvée and conscription for the public good—for defense, conquest, and the construction of irrigation and navigation systems.
Claiming the right to govern by divine election, kings also relate their temple‐building activities. The completion of a temple is modeled by them as a mundane repetition of the heavenly creation myth. The building of a temple also is taken as a sign of the gods' imprimatur on the builder's royal dynasty. Likewise, the New Year ritual in Babylon, and, later, in Assyria, combines a rehearsal of the creation myth with a renewal of the high god's temple: the king leads the high god in procession to reoccupy the temple, and at the same time renews his own kingship, after a ritual battle against chaos. The king consistently presents himself as warrior, builder, creator, favorite, even adoptee of the gods.
Israelite conceptions of kingship reflect both continuity with, and departure from, earlier traditions. For one thing, earliest Israel was decidedly nonurban, consisting of small agricultural settlements principally in the central hill country, Transjordan, and the upper Galilee. It is impossible to identify any major urban center as Israelite before David's conquest of Jerusalem. Israelite monarchy, therefore, originated as a national monarchy, not as a city‐state kingship. Correspondingly, Israel is the only ancient Near Eastern culture to have preserved written memories of a time before the evolution of kingship or to have constructed any account of a transition from what later tradition would construe as a theocracy to monarchic organization. (There were, however, periods when Assyrian kings presented themselves as stewards of the gods, rather than as kings, and early Sumerian kings adopted the same recourse.)
In this connection, a number of Israelite texts express reservations about the institution of kingship—a sentiment elsewhere unparalleled. Offered a dynasty, for example, the premonarchic warrior Gideon makes the paradigmatic reply, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; YHWH will rule over you” (Judg. 8.24). Although the text proceeds to condemn Gideon for appropriating priestly status and constructing an ephod (Judg. 8.24–27), similar sentiments recur in an account of the transition to monarchy (1 Sam. 8.4–20; 10.19; 12.12): the urge to enthrone a human king conflicts on this theory with the ideal of YHWH's kingship over Israel (and Hos. 13.10).
Scholars for the most part find two sources underlying the account of the origins of Israelite kingship in 1 Samuel 8–12, but differ about their precise delineation. Nevertheless, both sources seem to replicate the pattern for divine kingship: in one (1 Sam. 8; 10.17–27; 11; 12), Saul is elected king with YHWH's approval, defeats Ammon, and is confirmed as king; in the other (1 Sam. 9.1–10.16; 13–14), Saul is anointed king‐designate, defeats the Philistines, and is said to have “captured the kingship” (1 Sam. 14.47). There is a homology with YHWH's kingship over Israel, said to have originated in his election in order to bring Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan, and confirmed at the completion of the Exodus (Exod. 3.16–17; 6.7–8; 19–23); the same pattern already occurs in the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15; twelfth–eleventh century BCE), where YHWH's perpetual kingship and acquisition of a shrine (Exod. 15.18) is predicated on his defeat of Egypt and the establishment of Israel in Canaan.
Numerous psalms follow the same pattern, praising YHWH as the creator or as the victor in some cosmic or mundane martial conflict, in the context of the celebration of his kingship. Likewise, the book of Judges describes the pattern of mundane leadership in terms of a leader's election by YHWH, defeat of a threat or oppressor, and assumption of administrative power (Judg. 2.11–19; 3.7–12.7). And the books of Samuel‐Kings let the same myth inform their historiography: kings whose succession is irregular win battles or overcome obstacles and threats, before their accession formulary (that is, their historiographic confirmation on the throne) appears. The “myth of the Divine Warrior” regularly informs Israelite views of mundane, as well as divine, leadership.
Other Near Eastern conceptions of kingship are equally pervasive among the Israelites. The first Israelite kings eschewed temple‐building, no doubt out of deference to their constituents' distributed and varied cultic traditions. David did bring a central icon, the ark, to his capital. But Solomon was the first to build a temple, and in the capital, which articulated claims of an eternal Davidic dynasty—as well as claims that Solomon, and the later Davidides, are sons of YHWH, entrants into the court of the divine king (see Son of God). Notably, the Israelite kingdom established by Jeroboam by secession from the kingship of Solomon's successor prescinded from establishing its cultic centers in the political capital. Yet the leader of the secession, Jeroboam, was moved to erect cultic establishments at Bethel and Dan to establish himself, too, as a temple builder (see Golden Calf). His actions implied independence from Judah yet disavowed any unchangeable divine election of his dynasty. When Omri's son, Ahab, later erected a temple in Samaria, his capital, the same dynamic was in effect. The revolutionary, Jehu, destroyed the temple in the capital, ensuring a separation of capital and temple in the northern kingdom for the rest of its duration.
In the Israelite ideal, the king is one nominated (or anointed) by YHWH, by prophetic means, and adopted by the people—YHWH proposes and the people dispose. But the opportunity exists, in the aftermath of divine designation, for popular elements responsible for confirming the king to impose conditions on the king's sovereignty. The operation of this principle is evident in 1 Kings 12, where the Israelites propose to elect Rehoboam as their king, on the condition that he lower taxes. Rehoboam refuses; the people therefore reject him as king, and elect Jeroboam. Similarly, both David (2 Sam. 2.4–9; 5.1–3) and Absalom (2 Sam. 15.1–12) campaign for election; David actually campaigns for reelection after Absalom's revolt (2 Sam. 19.10–44). Although elements of the royal establishment laid claim to a perpetual divine dynastic grant (Ps. 89), even the laws of Deuteronomy 17.14–20 acknowledge that kingship, given divine nomination of the candidate, was elective. In practice, this often meant that the king was made by army democracy—as in the cases of Solomon, Baasha, Omri, Jehu, Uzziah, and others.
The laws of Deuteronomy 17–18 also attempt to limit the king's latitude in forming policy. They limit priesthood to “Levites,” install Levitic priests as the supreme judiciary, and protect the institution of prophecy. They further attempt to restrict the king's ability to accumulate wealth. Scholars concur that the Deuteronomic law code is late in origin. Still, the attempt to limit the ability to tax, the urge to restrict the king's right to disenfranchise priesthoods, the urge to protect prophets (Deut. 18.18–22; 1 Kings 22.26–28; Jer. 26.16)—all reflect traditional ideals and rural views of central governmental authority.
Notwithstanding popular resistance to royal encroachments on the economy in particular, Israelite kings enjoyed the power both to tax (1 Kings 4.7–19; 12; 2 Kings 15.20; 23.35) and to conscript for warfare (2 Sam. 20.4) and for public works (1 Kings 5.27–30; 11.28; cf. 9.22). Moreover, archaeological remains at important towns, such as Megiddo and Hazor, indicate that the kings projected their power into the countryside in the form of massive fortifications and impressive public buildings. To date, this phenomenon is less well represented in the Israelite heartland, the hill country. However, starting in the tenth century BCE, and accelerating in the eighth century, public buildings are constructed in proximity to the gate complexes of some urban centers, such as Tell Beit Mirsim, Lachish, and Tell el‐Farʿah (biblical Tirzah).
In the same period, increasing royal intervention in local economies is documented by the standardization of weights, and probably, by indications of incipient industrialization, as at the site of Horvat Rosh Zayit, inland from Akko. And, at the end of the eighth century, Hezekiah of Judah was able to concentrate the rural population of his kingdom in a set of fortresses.
There had always been some tension between the royal establishment and the kinship structures—the rural lineages—which were the seat of succession and conflict resolution before the monarchy and continued to function as such after the introduction of kingship. Early on, the state acknowledged an interest in restricting the feud (2 Sam. 14.11), one of the nonstate forms of conflict resolution in the society. But as the revolt of Absalom ended with the complete triumph of the professional royal army over the irregulars of the countryside, central control could be asserted over not only the succession but other aspects of statecraft as well. As early as the time of Solomon, a system of royal administrators was set in place for the purpose of extracting taxation and corvée (1 Kings 4.7–19; 11.28), bypassing traditional tribal forms of organization. It is likely that Jeroboam and the later kings of the northern kingdom undid this innovation; the Samaria ostraca furnish evidence of at least dabblings in a system of such administrators only in the eighth century (one group of ostraca reflects administration through the lineages at that time). However, even the lineage heads through whom some kings administered taxation would have been royal appointees in some sense, and certainly familiars of the establishment (see 2 Sam. 19.32–41).
It was only in the seventh century, after Hezekiah's emergency urbanization, that the monarchy achieved complete domination over the lineages. The urban geography of that era in Judah (Israel having been deported) reflects the resettlement of Judah, after its depopulation by Assyria in 701 BCE, by state orchestration. Gone are the extended‐family compounds that characterize Israelite settlements until the late eighth century. Gone are the large, rambling settlements of that earlier era. Instead, the state, and the kingship, were able to stamp the ideals of the royal cult, the Jerusalem Temple, onto the country as a whole, resulting in a policy, under Josiah, of centralization of worship and of power. This development, and the disappearance of the monarchy in the restoration community (538 BCE), paved the way for the detachment of the monarchic ideology from its origins in relations with the agrarian hinterlands of the capital. In the Second Temple period, the idea of YHWH's anointed—the messiah, notionally a son of YHWH—was transferred from the human king whose election was a matter of negotiation and limitation, to a future king, not wholly human, whose reign would usher in a regime of justice, of the defense of the oppressed, and of requital of the guilty. In the myth of a kingless postexilic Judah, the old, high, ideals of Near Eastern kingship took renewed hold, without the brake of political realities to restrain the ambitions or the imaginings of their adherents.
See also Queen and Queen Mother.