|Trinity Journal 3 NS (1982) 18-38.
Copyright © 1982 by Trinity Journal, cited with permission.
THE CONCEPT OF GOD/THE GODS AS KING IN THE
ANCIENT NEAR EAST AND THE BIBLE
GARY V. SMITH
WINNIPEG THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
By its very nature, language about God must include analogical terms which
try to communicate the idea of "God" in ways which man understands.
Because man's experiences and cultures have varied so tremendously, it is
difficult and dangerous to make generalizations about the ancient Near Eastern
concept of god. Rudolph Otto in his study The Idea of the Holy1 found a com-
mon mysterium tremendum et facinasum in all religions. This represents a
power within things which results in man's special treatment of them. An
object might be considered sacred or taboo, but would receive reverence
regardless, because of its power.
This power within nature, objects or people was perceived in different ways.
In most cases it had control over aspects of nature, objects or persons to which
it was related. This vital force, or god, was sometimes described in terms of the
structure of the culture in which the people lived. These powers were thought
to have personalities or wills which were related to one another in ways similar
to the social relationships between men. Some powers were higher than others,
as a master is above his slave, while others were offsprings of higher and more
potent gods. Destructive forces like fire might be described as judges, or the
earth as a mother who gives birth to vegetation. It seems natural then, that the
chief gods or powers would be described in terms of the highest analogical
power on earth: the king.2
The first section of this paper will survey some of the texts which archeolo-
gists have found in the ancient Near Eastern world to see how men describe
their gods. Because the ancient world had so many gods, because of the large
number of texts and because of the complexity of trying to reproduce an
accurate conceptualization of a term like "god," there will be no attempt to
present a total picture of each god, during each period, as it was seen by each
different class group within the society. Instead, the main purpose will be to
examine the concept of king as it relates to the gods of the ancient Near
" Eastern world. Are gods called king, lord, ruler or other terms which relate to
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1943) 12-41.
2 T. Jacobsen, "Formative Tendencies in Sumerian Religion," The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in Honor of W. F. Albright, ed. G. E. Wright (Garden City: Doubleday, 1965) 27.
SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 19
the king (sitting on a throne, holding a scepter)? Do such references occur in all
types of literature and art, and is kingship or rulership one of the central
factors which characterize a god? In order to get a full picture of kingship,
various roles which the earthly king has (judging, ruling, commander-in-chief)
will be compared to the functions of the gods who are kings.
In the second section, various biblical references to the kingship of Yahweh
are compared with ancient Near Eastern ideas in order to identify both simi-
larities and differences. How does Israel's concept of the earthly king and
God's kingship compare with the Egyptian, Canaanite, Hittite and Mesopo-
tamian concepts? Is the kingship or rulership of God central to Old Testament
thinking? The answers to these questions in past studies are very diverse. Some
see a relationship between Mari social customs and the Abraham story but they
deny any theological relationship between Israel and her neighbors. Others find
a basic "pattern" in the many similarities of language, culture, ritual and
theology: thus, Israelite religion is derived from and understood in light of
other religions in the ancient Near East. One of the important issues in this
debate is the concept of kingship, and in this area one must not ignore either
the similarities or the differences between Israel and her neighbors' concept of
I. THE CONCEPT OF A GOD AS KING IN MESOPOTAMIA
There is much about the beliefs of the peoples of Mesopotamia which
suggests a common culture throughout their history. But cultures and times
changed throughout the Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian periods. New gods
came to prominence and variations of detail are abundant. Although Jacobsen
has reconstructed the religion of the fourth millennium B.C. around aspects of
fertility, the religion of the third millennium B.C. around the metaphor of gods
conceived as rulers, and the religion of the second millennium B.C. around the
more personal concept of the gods as parents,3 all these aspects were present to
some extent during each period. The metaphor of a god as ruler dates back to
the protoliterate age and continued throughout Mesopotamian history. It
would seem to be precarious to tie a people's concept of their gods solely to
one aspect of their economic, political or personal experiences. One of these
factors may be more influential in certain pieces of literature, but all three
factors contributed varying degrees of emphasis at all times. A god of fertility
can be a personal god who is prayed to for economic aid and still be the king or
lord of fertility. The terminology of kingship and lordship which dominates the
Mesopotamian literature suggests that the power and authority of the gods was
an essential factor in their thinking.
The description of earthly kings found during the early period includes the
conceptual terms of "lord," "one who exercises lordship," "kingship," "the
leader of the military forces," "shepherd of the land" and "the dispenser of
3 T. Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976) 20-21.
20 TRINITY JOURNAL
righteous judgment."4 This concept and the power of kingship which the
Mesopotamian kings enjoyed was "lowered from heaven "5 by the gods. The
similarity between the gods and the kings was expressed in the proverb "the
king is like the (very) image of god."6
The Mesopotamian tendency was to view the world as a state.7 Since every-
thing in the world has a character, will and power, it is part of the total society
of the ancient man. The political and social terminology is thus extended by
analogy, beyond the relationship of men, to include all "powers." Although
some "powers" were inferior gods in relationship to the chief gods of the pan-
theon, they were still considered the lord in their own areas of responsibility.
A. The Kingship of An, Enlil and Enki
An/Anu, the god of heaven, was regarded as the highest god and head of the
pantheon of the gods. Anu is addressed as king in the story of Adapa,8 the
myth of Enki and Sumer9 and the hymn to Ishtar.10 "Anu the Great, the
father of the gods,"11 is the father of Enlil who is called the king of the lands
in the prologue to the Lipit-Ishtar law code.12 The prologue and epilogue to
Hammurabi's law code give first place to "lofty Anum, the king of the
Anunnaki," and second to his chief executive, "Enlil, lord of heaven and earth,
the determiner of destinies."13 In the lamentation over the destruction of Ur,
a similar relationship is found between "Anu, the king of the gods" and "Enlil"
the king of the lands."14 Enlil's kingship is proclaimed over and over again in,
the myth of Enlil and Ninlil15 and he is said to have a throne and crown.16
Ringgren says, "He (Anu) is above all, the gods of kingship; it is from him that the
office of kingship comes, and he is himself king of the gods…. Enlil was
4 J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (hereafter ANET) (Princeton: Prince-
ton University Press, 1955) 496. Shu-sin is called "lord" nine times in this "love song to a
king." For further examples see pp. 45-52 (Gilgamesh); 164-5, 177-80 (Hammurabi's law
code), 265-6 (Sumerian king list), 480-81 (Ibbi-Sin) and T. Jacobsen, Toward the Image;
of Tammuz and other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press) 158; N. Postgate, The Making of the Past: The First Empires (Oxford:
Elsevier Phaidon, 1977) 23-5; S. Smith, “The Practice of Kingship in Early Semitic King-
doms," Myth, Ritual and Kingship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958) 22-73.
5 ANET 114 line 14; 159-61; 164; 265; 481 line 18. H. Frankfort (Kingship and the,
Gods [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948]) deals with the function of the kin&1
(249-74) and the question of the deification of the kings (295-312).
6 ANET 426.
7 T. Jacobsen and others, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient
Man (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1959) 140.
8 ANET 101, B 17; 102, B 46.
9 S. N. Kramer, Sumerian Mythology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press:
10 ANET 383 line 34.
11ANET 390 line 12.
13ANET 164; 179 line 42; 91.
14ANET 462 lines 381-2.
15Kramer, Mythology 45-6.
16 ANET 113.
SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 21
the 'king of the lands' (i.e. of the earth), and like his father, Anu, could be
'called 'the father of the gods' and the 'king of the gods'.17
Enki, whose name literally means "the lord of the earth" is related to the
earth, the water, wisdom and craftsmanship, but his status as a god in his own
realm is that of a king. Jacobsen posits that Enki's office in the world state is
that of "a great nobleman of the realm….a councilor….But he is not king,
not a ruler in his own right. The position derives from Anu and Enlil; he is their
minister."18 But in the myth of Enki and Ninhursag, Enki is called "the king"
by Isimud his messenger,19 thus giving his position in his own realm. In Enki's
power struggle with Enlil, he is called "the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the
king defiant."20 In the myth of Enki and Sumer, Enki is identified as the
"king of the abyss."21 The myth of Enki and Eridu refers to "the lord of the
abyss, the king Enki" and Enlil announces that "My son has built a house, the
king Enki."22 Inanna is presented the "throne of kingship…the exalted
scepter, staffs, the exalted shrine, shepherdship, kingship"23 by Enki who is
addressed as king by Isimud and Inanna in the myth of Inanna and Enki.24 Ea,
the Akkadian name of Enki, is called king in the story of Adapa,25 the descent
of lshtar into the nether world,26 and in a psalm to Marduk.27 He is called
lord on numerous occasions in the Atrahasis epic,28 as well as "king of the
B. The Kingship of Other Gods
Ninurta is king of the land in the myth of Kur29 and in a similar manner
Enkimdu, the farmer god, is twice called "the king of dike and ditch" in the
dispute between the shepherd-god and the farmer-god.30 Ereshkigal, the
goddess of the nether world, is pictured as sitting on a throne31 and called
queen of the nether world in the myth of Inanna's descent into the nether
world.32 In the story of Kumma's vision of the nether world, Nergal who was
granted "dominion over the wide nether world,"33 is seated on a royal throne
17 ANET 54.
18 ANET 160.
19 ANET 39 lines 97, 117; 40 lines 200-215.
20 Kramer, Mythology X.
21 Ibid. 60.
22 Ibid. 62-3.
23 Ibid. 66.
24 Ibid. 67.
25 ANET 102 c 8-10.
26 ANET 107 lines 27-8; 108 line 4.
27 ANET 390 line 18.
28 ANET 105-106; W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story
of the Flood (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969) 49, 67,89.
29 Kramer, Mythology 81.
30 ANET 42 lines 37, 71.
31 ANET 55 line 162; 104 line 78.
32 ANET 54-5 lines 91-5. The same title is given to Ishtar (107 line 23; 110 line 18; \
87, VI iv 50).
33 ANET 104 line 83.
22 TRINITY JOURNAL
wearing a crown of royalty and holding a scepter.34 He is bowed to, his feet
are kissed, and he is called ruler. The myth of Zu describes the gods' loss of
their rulership when the tablets of destiny are stolen.35 The Assyrian version
of the myth identifies the exercise of "Enlilship" (rulership) with "the crown
of his sovereignty, the robe of his godhead."36 Rulership is the essence of the
gods which Zu took in order that he might rule and set himself on a throne. In
the lamentation over the destruction of Ur, Ningal the wife of Nanna is
referred to as a shepherd and the queen of Ur.37 A Kassite inscription has eight
references to the gods as kings38 and in a hymn to Shamesh, the sun god, the
people would sing, "prince of the gods, righteous judge…king of heaven and
earth, lord of destinies…[you] govern mankind; you rule over the heavenly
In the Enuma Elish, Marduk is described in extraordinary terms, being far
above the other gods at the time of his birth.40 But it is Kingu who is elevated
as chief of the assembly, commander-in-chief, supreme controller of destinies
and the one elevated to the rank of Anu.41 In contrast to the power of Tiamat
whom none can destroy and Kingu who was made supreme by Tiamat, is
Marduk who is given a throne, complete authority, the most honored position
and kingship of the universe.42 After he is given a scepter and a throne, he is
proclaimed to be king and lord repeatedly.43 Hammurabi, in the prologue and
epilogue to his law code, refers to Marduk as the supreme one whose kingship
was established in Babylon.44 Nebuchadnezzar II at a later period also calls
Marduk lord and king.45 Nabonidus and Cyrus call Marduk "king of the gods
and lord of lords,"46 but sometime in the reign of Nabonidus his attention was
turned to the god Sin whom he calls the king of the gods.47 The historical
texts from Assyria repeatedly refer to the god Ashur as lord48 and twice he is
Descriptions of the gods in terms of kingship are found in ritual texts,
hymns and prayers. Two of the many praises given to Ishtar are "queen of
women" and the "goddess of goddesses who wears the crown of dominion."50
34 ANET 110 lines 11, 15-16.
35 ANET 1111ines 14, 16.
36 ANET 112 ii5-6.
37 ANET461 lines 305, 315, 331, 369, 373, 383-4.
38 ANET 58-59, fragment A vii; c iv, vi; D V.
39 H. Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East (London: SPCK, 1973) 59.
40 ANET62 lines 80-104.
41 ANET 62-63 I 146-160; II 34-6; III38-49, 95-107.
42 ANET 66 IV 1-15.
43 ANET 66-69 IV 28;VI 20, 39, 142-3; VII 91, 95, 101.
44 ANET 164; 10-20; ii 9; 178 xxv 20-59.
45 ANET 307.
46 ANET 309 i; 310 ix; 315.
47 ANET 311-12.
48 ANET 275-301. The title "lord" is found over twenty-five times in these pages.
49 ANET 281 in the Inscription by Adad-Nirari III and page 289 in prism B by
50 ANET 383-5.
SMITH. GOD/THE GODS AS KING 23
The moon-god, Nanna or Sin, is called "lord of the shining crown of dominion,
of hero of the gods, Father Nanna, who is grandly perfected in kingship."51 The
New Year's festival at Babylon describes Bel as "excellent king, lord of the
country" which parallels the title given to Marduk who is "the great lord,"
the "the lord of the world, king of the gods…who holds kingship, grasps
The seemingly contradictory proclamations, that a multitude of deities are
king, can be understood only if one realizes that different gods ascended to
the kingship at different times and that the kingships described often pertain to
different areas of rulership. Thus An, Enlil and Enki who were supreme among
the Sumerians, gave way in later history to the increased importance of Marduk
and Ashur as well as Shamesh, Ishtar and Sin. Whoever the chief god may be, it
far appears from the literary evidence that he was described in terms of kingship or
lordship from the Sumerian through the Babylonian periods.
II. THE CONCEPT OF A GOD AS KING IN UGARITIC LITERATURE
In the northwest Semitic culture at Ugarit, the title "king" and its related
conceptual terms are found In the epic literature as well as in later Greek
authors who describe their religion.53 The description of the Ugaritic earthly
kings provides a criterion for identifying kingship terminology that was applied
to their gods. Although there is a limited amount of information on kings out-
side the "mythological" literature, the image of the king in the epics appears to
be a realistic representation of the ruling earthly kings.
The Keret epic describes several disasters which threaten Keret's role as
king. The king, who is the "son of El,"54 is the one who leads the army, judges
righteously, and sits enthroned ruling with authority.55 In the initial section,
after Keret loses his family and has his authority undermined, El asks him, "Is
it kingship like Bull his father's he desires, or authority like the Father of
Man's?"56 In the final paragraphs Keret is returned "to his former estate; he
sits upon the throne of his kingship; upon the dais, the seat of his
authority."57 The plot of this epic is clearly put in terms of kingship and
specifically relates to Keret's ability to maintain his kingship in spite of
sickness, death, plagues and other disasters. Yassib, Keret's son, attempts to
usurp Keret's position and declares, "Descend from thine kingship-I'll reign,
from thine authority-I'll sit enthroned."58 The epic of Keret explicitly com-
51 ANET 385.
52 ANET 331-2.
53 Ringgren, Religions 124-7. These include the important works of Lucian On the
Syrian Goddess and Philo of Byblos who is quoted in Eusebius' Praeparatio Evangelica
54 ANET 147, KRT C i 10,20,25.
55 Ringgren, Religions 169-73; J. Gray, "Canaanite Kingship in Theory and Practice,"
VT 2 (1952) 193-220; J. Gray, The KRT Text in the Literature of Ras Shamra (Leiden:
Brill, 1964)2, 5-8; R. deLanghe, "Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in the Ras Shamra Tablets,"
Myth, Ritual and Kingship (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958) 142-8.
56 ANET 143, KRT A i 41.
57 ANET 149, KRT C vi 23-25.
58 ANET 149, KRT C vi 37-38; 53-54.
24 TRINITY JOURNAL
pares the kingship of El with that of Keret and gives a basis for understanding
kingship as an essential concept in ANE thought about the gods.
The Aqhat epic describes the struggles of a righteous king59 or a righteous
village elder60 who "sits at the gate…judging the fatherless."61 Most of the
epic deals with the desire for, birth and death of, and the search for Aqhat. The
position of El is identified when Anath enters "the pavilion of the king, Father
Shunem,"62 the abode of El, to gain his approval for the death of Aqhat. El
the king is bowed to and reverenced but later mistreated and threatened during
the temper tantrum of Anath. Pope and others interpret El's reaction as a sign
of weakness which demonstrates that El's kingship was more nominal than
A. El the King
The attributes and epithets of El have been outlined by M. Pope, and
include: (a) "father," with its more specific identification of "father of years,"
"father of mankind," "father of the gods," and "father of eternity" which
point to El's position in the family of the gods and his advanced age;64
(b) "Bull," which symbolizes his procreative powers;"65 (c) "wise, beneficent,
holy, and kind;"66 (d) "creator of creatures" and "creator of earth;"67 and
The significance and status of El in relationship to his kingship is perceived
differently. Dussaud gives El a very high position and identifies him with the
solar Aton, the god of the Egyptian Empire (because of the solar disc above El
on a stela). This near monotheistic position was later eroded by the ascendance
of Baal who supplanted EI and reigned in his stead.69
Nielsen sees El as the chief Semitic god who was connected to the moon.
Roggia and Eissfeldt interpret El worship to be nearly monotheistic, with
Eissfeldt giving El the monarchial position of being the king and highest god
59 Ringgren, Religions 172; G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh:
T. & T. Clark, 1956) 8; J. Gray, Near Eastem Mythology (London: Hamlyn, 1969) 91, 99.
60 J. C. L. Gibson, "Myth, Legend and Folk-lore in the Ugaritic Keret and Aqhat:
Texts," VTS 28 (1975) 60-68 and H. H. P. Dressler, "The Identification of the Ugaritic,
DNIL with the Daniel of Ezekiel," VT 29 (1979) 152-3.
61 ANET 151, AQHT A v 5-8; 153, AQHT C i 22-5.
62 ANET 152, AQHT A vi 49.
63 M. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1955) 25-9. A similar view is held: