Cosmic Kingship and Political Kingship

In a paper I recently wrote on Psalm 82′s form and function, I very briefly touched upon a distinction between a deity’s political kingship and their cosmic kingship. I haven’t seen this discussed much, but it seems to me an important distinction to make. Yhwh, for instance, is understood exclusively as the deity of Israel well into the exile (Ps 79:1, 6; Amos 3:2; etc.), but he is asserted to be the High God and king well before (Ps 18:13; 29:10). Even the name יהוה אלהים suggests his creation of the gods (according to some).

Many scholars equate kingship over the gods and heaven/earth with political universalization (see, for instance, Heiser, “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature,” 77), but I think this is a mistake. When Baal and Marduk accede to their divine kingships in the Baal Epic and Enuma Elish, respectively, there is no indication they do not remain national deities. Kemosh remained the national deity of Moab, and Yhwh the deity of Israel, even in the Mesha inscription, where Yhwh’s temple vessels are dragged before Kemosh. I would point out, too, that in the ancient Near Eastern pantheons there was nothing problematic about multiple “kings.” Baal’s accession to his “eternal kingship” (KTU 1.2.4.10) did not undue El’s sovereignty.

For this reason I see nothing in the Hebrew Bible that undermines the conclusion that Yhwh was politically universalized during the Exile as a means of rationalizing Israel’s deportation and protecting Israel’s relationship with Yhwh and her national identity. Yhwh’s kingship over the gods in pre-exilic periods does not complicate that theory.

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5 responses to “Cosmic Kingship and Political Kingship

  • Seth L. Sanders

    Hi Daniel,
    Very interesting stuff! You say “Yhwh… is understood exclusively as the deity of Israel well into the exile … but he is asserted to be the High God and king well before.” This is a valuable observation but your chronology isn’t totally clear to me.

    When do you see the separation as occurring? What do you think it means?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi Seth. Thanks for the comment. Your questions are exactly what I hope to hammer out in future research. I can provide a very broad view of my chronology as it stands at this point, though. I agree with a number of scholars who view Yhwh as a southern storm deity brought into the Syro-Palestinian pantheon somewhere around the end of the second millennium BCE. I see the storm god as more critical to that area’s theurgy, and so occupying a more central role in their theology and mythology. For this reason Baal is more prominent than El in the Ugaritic literature, and Yhwh becomes more prominent than El in Israelite literature. I still have a lot more work I want to do on it, but I see Yhwh being conflated with El sometime around the beginning of the monarchy in an effort to consolidate cultic and political authority. I would place Yhwh’s accession to cosmic kingship around the same time period, although I think the different streams of tradition likely found different ways to view and express this kingship and its provenance. The Chaoskampf motif seems to play a large role in northern traditions, for instance.

      As with the surrounding nations, cosmic kingship had no real bearing on national deities. Yhwh wasn’t asserted to be the god of any other nation, just heaven and earth, generically. I propose that the notion of deities taking over political kingship was an innovation of the first millennium BCE, and may even be unique to Israel. When nations were made vassals, they generally retained their king. It wasn’t common, as far as I’m aware, for nations to just be wiped out until the middle of that millennium. Deut 32:8-9 indicates Yhwh was given Israel as his only inheritance, and references to Yhwh’s “inheritance” in 1 Sam 26:19, Ps 79:1, and elsewhere, indicate the same. It’s not until Ps 82:8 that Yhwh is said to “inherit all nations.” I date this psalm to the exilic period (for reasons outlined in my paper on Psalm 82) and see it as a rhetorical attempt to assert, as a result of the exile, Yhwh’s accession to political kingship. Around the same time period we find Deut 4:19 recasting the players in Deut 32:8-9, placing Yhwh in the role held by Elyon, doling out the nations to the now astralized deities (showing Assyro-Babylonian influence).

      I think these developments reveal a couple fascinating insights. First, they show that literacy and literature acted as a powerful force in the production of religious ideology. Israelite scribal classes couldn’t just jettison passe aspects of their literary heritage. The texts were permanent and authoritative. They had to renegotiate the texts’ meanings in light of contemporary expediencies. This phenomenon is even more crucial in the Common Era as the sacred literature becomes imbued with a transcendent authority, to the point that it must be preserved letter-for-letter, even where there are obvious mistakes. I think making the distinction between cosmic and political kingship also opens doors for more objective and accurate syntheses of the textual data we have regarding early Israelite views of deity.

  • Seth L. Sanders

    Hi Daniel,
    Thanks for this careful layout of your arguments–I agree with much of this. But note that while Baal is definitely more prominent than El in the Ugaritic literature preserved to us, he may not be overwhelmingly more prominent than El in Ugaritic *religion.* El generally comes before Baal in both god-lists and the order of sacrifices, and while the word ba’lu appears more frequently than ‘ilu, this may be a result of having a lot of divergent local storm-deities. We often have the problem figuring out of which ba’lu is meant! Compare the 7 Baals of RS 24.643 (text 12 in Pardee’s Ritual and Cult) with the charming gaggle of Baals listed as Ba’lu Sapuni/Hazi plus “Baals II-VII”(dIM II-VII!) in RS 20.024 and parallels (Pardee text 1).

    There’s something very important and distinctive about the Israelite and Judean argument about Yahweh as king, though for gods as national kings note the Assyrian coronation ritual with its proclamation “Assur is king!” discussed in Holloway’s book of the same name. I look forward to seeing how your work develops!

  • The Biblical Studies Carnival LVIII « כל־האדם

    [...] papers he’s written, Daniel McClellon (Daniel O. McClellon) draws conclusions about the universalization of Yhwh in Israel and the rhetorical versus historical nature of 2 Kings [...]

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