Yahweh Was Not (Primarily) A Divine Warrior

Once in a while I check a reference in a text, and then find myself reading the whole book because I cannot put it down—such has been the case with Anne Moore’s Moving Beyond Symbol and Myth: Understanding the Kingship of God of the Hebrew Bible Through Metaphor. This is a revision of her doctoral dissertation from Clairmont in New Testament, and her effort to correct dated approaches to discerning what the “kingdom of God” metaphor would have meant in Jesus’ day. The major problem with previous studies, according to Moore, is that they ignore the diverse meanings of this metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, making it center solely on eschatology, and making the source of the kingship of God revolve around a common stock Ancient Near Eastern idea of a Divine Warrior. This latter point is what I think is worth sharing.

Many scholars have mistakenly followed the timelines of the History of Religions School, rather than actual dating of Hebrew Bible texts, to discern the development of Hebrew thought, and therefore many scholars state that the Israelite view of divine kingship originated from a common stock ancient near eastern myth in which a deity or primeval king (e.g., Marduk in Babylon, Asshur in Assyria)  combats chaos or the forces of evil with victory, with the result that humans build the deity a house or abode and declare the eternal kingship of the deity with annual enthronement festivals. Patrick D. Miller, for example, says this pattern carries over into Israel. But there is no evidence for such enthronement festivals in Israel, and most of the texts that support this theory are actually post-exilic. Moore has shown—convincingly, to me at least—that the kingship of Yahweh was not a prominent pre-exilic theme for Israel (regardless of pre-exilic sources redacted by later editors, which are surely included in the Masoretic Text, the only clearly pre-exilic reference to the metaphor “God is king” is in Isaiah 6:1–11). This makes 1 Samuel 8 and 12 some of the earliest developments of the metaphor, alongside Exodus 15:1b–18 and 19:3–6. The latter are exilic texts establishing that Yahweh became king over Israel, and as such is the divine lawmaker who offers protection, and in return has the right to Israel’s praise and obedience to the laws of the covenant. It was not until Israel’s and Judah’s monarchies had failed that they devoted much intellectual rigor or reflecting on the metaphor of divine kingship.

Correcting this error has two important implications in my mind. First, the late development of the metaphor of divine kingship, as well as the fact that it arose in response to failed human monarchy, should prevent over-determining the identity of Yahweh under the category of kingship; as Walter Brueggemann has labored to make clear, there are other metaphor’s of Yahweh’s governance present in the Hebrew Bible, including judge, father, and warrior. Second, the kingship of Yahweh is to be seen as originating in the Exodus and the covenant, rather than primarily as a focus on Yahweh as a divine warrior. This does not mean that Yahweh is never portrayed as a violent figure in the Hebrew Bible, but it seems to me that Yahweh is at least not primarily a warrior. Moore makes this latter point a focus of her project: “One of the intentions of this study is that the ‘God is king’ metaphor is not consistently associated with the idea of a Divine Warrior within the texts of the Hebrew Bible. The ‘God is king’ metaphor is extended through the semantic fields of ‘judge’ and ‘shepherd’…The coherence of the metaphor is further evident in the entailments of the metaphor that include the association of God’s strength with mercy and justice, and the choice of the ‘shield’ (a device for protection) as the major military trapping connected with God” (44-5). It is amazing what results can come from something as simple as the correct dating of texts.

13 thoughts on “Yahweh Was Not (Primarily) A Divine Warrior

  1. Great stuff. Does Moore bring in discussions about the El/Baal/YHWH confusion around the kingdom split at this time? This particular hermeneutic basically redeemed the creation stories for me.

  2. This is interesting. Would you say the History of Religion approach would basically infer the dates from the presumed evolutionary scheme of religious ideas (i.e., texts reflecting a more “primitive” view of the deity are therefore earlier)?

  3. Erin:

    Moore does not discuss the these themes in relation to the kingdom split, but considers most of the texts developing the metaphor of ‘Yahweh as king’ as exilic or post-exilic, so I suppose that would make them post-kingdom split. Would you mind saying more about the hermeneutic you speak of, and who has done that work? (I’m still not sure if I answered the right question)

    Adam: you are basically right, and a lot of the HORS work is brilliant guesswork, and often correct, but their theories do not often fit textual dating. Also, Moore might put it this way: texts narrating Israel’s early history have frequently been taken to be earlier, when in fact they were written later. The key example is the victory song of Moses after Israel crosses the Red Sea in Exodus 15: scholars like Sigmund Mowinckel classified this song as an Enthronement Psalm (a supposed primitive Israelite festival), yet “Aramisms” (from Aramaic language), its intrusion into the narrative, its kerygmatic nature, its non-conformity with the J and E sources of the Penteteuch, and exilic themes all suggest this is an exilic text.

    This is not to say that Israel did not borrow common-stock ideas in the Ancient Near East; it is just that they transformed them, and that Yahweh’s identity as a king came late, not early.

  4. I’ve been lurking on this site for a while, and I’m a little thrilled to see a post on a topic about which I might be able to comment.

    This may be a trivial thing, but Moore’s dating scheme strikes me as unconventional. The Song of Moses in Exodus 15 has generally been treated as a quite ancient poem. That being said, many previously “assured results” of biblical text dating are definitely up for grabs (I mean, just try to make a case for the date of any psalm, save for Ps 137). Particularly, some recent work by Ian Young of U. of Sydney & others has – in my opinion – dealt a severe wound to the idea that one can discern dates of Hebrew literary texts based primarily on a chronological typology of language. I will say that “aramaisms” in their own are not necessarily evidence of lateness (I’m thinking of work by maybe Gary Rendsburg here), and the other three criteria Moore lists don’t seem all that compelling on the face of it.

    Also, the “late so not authentic” school of thought has (rightfully) taken a beating as of late. Is something not really truly Israelite if it doesn’t become widely known until the exilic period? If so, say goodbye to Leviticus. Later Israelite culture is no less Israelite (and certainly no more derivative!) than earlier Israelite culture. Unless, that is, one holds that Sinai (or Amos or whatever) entailed a unique, authentic revelation.

    I don’t mean to be dumping on this post with minutia — in fact I’m glad to see a discussion of how the supposedly boring parts of Hebrew Bible studies (when was something written and by whom) can be of great importance!

  5. Thanks, Thomas, for bringing this book to our attention. I would only like to add that there is good reason to believe that the Hebrew Bible, even in its pre-exilic material, is profoundly critical of the Near Eastern model of divine kingship. If we recall that the Near Eastern model is precisely intended to establish a correlation between divine and human kingship, it is clear that such a correlation in ancient Israel is highly contested. If one looks, for example, at the dance of King David as he brings back the ark to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 6), it shows that the invisible glory of Yahweh above the ark is directly opposed to the exposed genitals of King David. This is meant to show, I would claim, that the human king is NOT the phallic power on earth that embodies divine phallic power (recall, David is punished precisely for his arrogation of phallic power in the case of Bathsheva). Further, the conclusion of this dance is not a holy marriage (quite the contrary, Michal is condemned to infertility for taking umbrage with David’s self-lowering). Nor is there a “house of God” built at the conclusion (again, quite the contrary, David is not permitted to build the Temple precisely because he is a warrior). So, it is not necessary to stress the variety of meanings of the metaphor of kingship in the Hebrew Bible in order to see the Hebrew Bible as more than a reflex of Near Eastern royal ideology. One needs only to attend to the text itself as a critical undermining of that very ideology.

  6. Sean:

    Yes, Moore’s approach is a little bit different, but her case is centered around a need for scholars to focus more on the Israelite theology as it was more developed, rather than focusing on possible original sources (she does acknowledge that Exodus 15 has always been treated as ancient, but she challenges that in part by using Ian Young’s work [Diversity in Pre-Exilic Hebrew] to throw in doubt the ancient dating based on language[on pages 68-69]. I may have misrepresented her by emphasizing the dating too much. Her main point is that the song contains ancient sources, but has been heavily redacted and therefore should be treated as exilic). As I mentioned, she is a New Testament scholar; she consistently insists that the theologoumenon of the kingdom of God that would have been current in Second Temple Judaism would certainly include ancient sources, but that they were transformed and re-worked with unparalleled intellectual rigor during the exile and after the exile. The HORS method tends to focus on origins, whereas she is focusing on Christian origins, which means she is more concerned with slightly more developed Israelite theology than HORS would be. She is not denying authenticity to early or late sources, and she takes for granted that Israel borrowed ideas from their neighbors, but she wants to emphasize that they transformed those ideas significantly.

    Her biggest beef with the HORS method is that it takes one theologoumenon–the Divine Warrior, and makes it into a generic Hebrew Bible theology, and it is so broad as to lack explanatory power. She insists (and demonstrates) the diversity of meanings of God’s kingship. Older scholars had insisted, for example, that the failed monarchy pushed the idea of the kingdom into an eschatology–and only an eschatology–when in fact exilic and post-exilic developments of the idea of the kingdom of God deal primarily with God’s present action in history.

    Thanks for the comment!


  7. And yes, David is not allowed to build the temple because he is a warrior, and Yahweh states that a man of peace must build it. What do you know about the etymological connections between Shalom/Solomon? (I think it is pretty standard, whether or not it is true I am uncertain)

  8. And as to the etymology of the name Solomon: it is more obvious in Hebrew, but it seems to be built on the root “sh.l.m” I never had reason to suspect that this was not the same root as in the word shalom. Even if there is reason to suspect this, it is clear that Hebrew Bible is relying on the apparent identity of the root letters to make a point about Solomon. (Of course, one can’t be sure that it wasn’t David himself who was making the point in naming his son Shlomo, if we accept the historicity of both figures.)

  9. Yes, thank you for the link! Wonderful.

    @Thomas: Sorry for the delayed response. I was not referencing a specific school of interpretation but voicing how helpful it was to learn that redaction matters: first it helped me understand the creation stories and then it helped me rethink the spiritualization of the kingdom I had been taught. It has some important implication for Jewish-Christian relations. Probably Jim Butler challenged me most on this.

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