God the eastern potentate

One of the clichés trotted out to dispute the sovereignty of God described in Scripture is that the Hebrew writers’ view of God was conditioned by the example of the ANE king, wielding absolute power in an arbitrary way, beyond all questioning and, of course, having scant regard to the liberty of his subjects, which is the main priority nowadays for those who are not too happy to be subjects. In the science-faith game, this view of things applies particularly to God as Creator, forming the Universe by his word of command – whereas we all know (somehow) that actually freedom is God’s greatest priority.
The attribution of error about God’s nature in the Bible is the most radical, and destructive, thing of all – for if the OT and NT writers (and Jesus too, who taught much about God as a king) are wrong about such a fundamental aspect of God’s nature, then the Bible really has nothing to teach us at all. If God’s desire to reveal his own, hidden, nature can’t outweigh the prejudices of the inspired writers, then history, morality, the means of salvation and the whole substance of the Bible can have no reliability at all. One is reduced, as many are, to putting all the weight of God’s revelation on the Incarnation of Christ, but Jesus himself is now held to be capable (and culpable) or error in just the same way. No wonder Evangelicals are losing ground.

But it’s worth asking if the underlying assumption, that Bible writers projected their own cultural expectations on to God’s nature, might not itself be another of those erroneous conceits, like the non-existence of writing in Patriarchal times, the evolution of Israelite religion and so on. This came to mind from one line of Wilcox’s book, in which he envisioned King David’s assessment of the Creation account in Genesis, showing that he would have recognised the picture presented not as a personal substitute for scientific processes, but as the actions of “an eastern king”. Wilcox didn’t push the allusion, and actually viewed it positively as an inspired understanding of God, but the “absolute despot” thought seemed to be in there somewhere.

Now it’s true that kings had a great deal of power in those times. As sole ruler, lacking a sophisticated police force, judiciary, established parliamentary system and so on, they needed it. But were kings that absolute? Looking across the whole ANE, both in the Bible and elsewhere, they were anything but. In the books of Kings we read of great conquerors like Sennecharib being deposed, often by their own family. The average king spends much of his often short reign dealing with insurrection and rebellion – even the paradigmatic Israelite kings David and Solomon had this curb on their control. And threats within were mirrored by threats without, as constant conflict led to a veritable  balancing act of treaties, vassalage and overlordship – kings were seldom politically free agents. Even the military might of Nebuchadnezzar was a pretty deperate policy to maintain the crumbling boundaries of his dominion.

As the story of David particularly shows, even political power at home was severly limited by realpolitik. Even before his pivotal act of sin, when he is presented as the ideal king of Israel, he is shown to be incapable of dealing with the misdeeds of Joab, for the simple reason that Joab controls the army. Ones rule in the ANE was only as stable as ones own personal ability – it is established nations like ours where leaders will maintain control until the next election almost regardless of their popularity.

Neither were kings as arbitrary as is made out – the proverbial phrase “the laws of the Medes and the Persians” comes to us from Scripture, where the rule of law is so constricting to Arterxes that he has no way to extricate himself from laws he himself made. But in Israel too, from the very start, we read of Saul’s being given his regulations by Samuel at his anointing, and divine laws were written in Deuteronomy to the same effect (ch 17). If it is argued that these were piously written into history by some later editor, that would only tell us that the cultural associations of kings were as men who ruled by law, not by whim. That law required making decisions on behalf of both rich and poor – both David and Solomon are praised for their willingness to act for the humblest subjects of their kingdom. What President nowadays gives the ordinary man access to his own personal justice?

Modern research shows that prophets were part of the whole middle eastern royal culture – showing that ANE kings considered themselves subject to the approval and disapproval of the gods. But we knew that from the Bible already. Saul’s shortcomings could not escape the oversight of Samuel, nor David’s of Nathan. In fact the whole concept of eastern kingship was of someone who ruled under the authority of the gods (even if sometimes as a god). His power depended on pleasing the deity by his courage, justice, piety and wisdom. In fact, the very earliest Mesopotamian records, which are also the very earliest written records, speak of the kingship “descending from heaven”, raising the question of whether mankind might not have got its ideas about kings from God, rather than vice versa.

That certainly fits the Biblical picture of God as king, for quite unlike any king who ever ruled in Israel, God speaks and it is done. His angels never murmur a word against him. Even Satan in Job is shown as malicious towards the righteous but totally obedient to God. True, God reigns over a rebellious and stiffnecked people, and the nations may rage against him – but there is never the least threat to his wise and just management of affairs. The picture of Yahweh the King is certainly absolute – but that is what makes it completely different from the culturally-conditioned ANE king, together with nearly everything else about him. Most of all, this is a King whose rule extends even to making sure the wild animals are fed in Psalm 104, and whose direction of human affairs comes from intimate knowledge of every throught and motive, not from the paranoia of the megalomaniac. Even his “micro-management”, as Aquinas points out, comes from knowing the best way to guide creation, rather than from the insecurity of the human who is scared to delegate.

But I shouldn’t need to labour this. If kingship didn’t model the divine nature accurately, Jesus would hardly have presented himself as one. Would he?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to God the eastern potentate

  1. GD GD says:

    Jon,

    Your comments on kingship, sovereign and similar attributes need to be considered within the context of language. Christ is described as ‘king of kings’, to show he has a different attribute that transcends kingship that we usually understand. Sovereignty is often used to describe an area over which a sovereign controls; Christ said His Kingdom is not of this world, and that it extends forever and ever. I can go on; these examples show us that the attribute of the Creator God are singularly so, and yet we cannot discuss these in a language that would give a clear meaning to this attribute. A Creator has total rulership through a notion that cannot be denied – He has created the artefact and this means complete ownership, AND the freedom to do with it as He wills. If He created it with the capacity (limited) for freedom, that too is God’s doing. Kingship implies power and control, but falls short of Creator for the obvious reason.

    Meaning found in biblical accounts of kings and prophets is imo there to again show us how limited and error prone we human beings are; king David and his treachery is almost mirrored by the bumbling of Nathan who wanted to ensure God’s justice was maintained and yet had to see Israel come out relatively unscathed from David’s debauchery – a difficult job by any reckoning. These meanings are of human beings – I cannot accept that we understand God’s attributes in this way (except for the endless patience shown by God).

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Yes, there’s a subtle interplay between the continuities and discontinuities of biblical analogies for God. True for “Father”, “Bride of Christ” and so on. Certainly the whole account of the biblical kings of Israel is to say where they fall short of, certainly, the “messianic” idea of kingship, but also via that of the kingship of God (as Trinity, as it was to be revealed).

    But one of my points was that we often assume that these earthly analogies are only one way: “God is indescribable, but a bit like a Father/king etc”. But there are ways in which the earthly experience is divine analogy to heavenly reality – examples would be the way Paul paints marriage as a model of Christ and his Church, and the way that God the Father is said to be the source of all fatherhood, rather than an analogy of daily experience.

    I conjecture (and that’s all it is) that since Christ created all powers and authorities (Col 1) human kingship might well be partly a gift from him that mirrors, rather than moulds, the divine sovereignty.

    Your point about the absolute rights that Creatorhood implies are basic to our relationship with God, which is why neglect, or dilution, of creation doctrine is such a serious problem for Christians nowadays.

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