Biblical Studies Kingship
Mark W. Hamilton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0035


Kingship is an ancient institution, originating in the 4th millennium BCE (or perhaps even slightly earlier) as small-scale societies developed into states capable of monopolizing violence and resource collection for the purpose of building large-scale public works (canals, temples, palaces, tombs) that united peoples in unprecedented ways. Kings in many ancient cultures bore superhuman (and occasionally divine) reputations. Although the institution of monarchy exists today in a much reduced (and primarily ritualized) form, one should not underestimate its importance as the locus of reflection on the meaning and purpose of society. Political thinking began at least as early as the 3rd millennium BCE as a reflection on the rights and duties of kings, and religious and literary texts about kings have been among the most influential in human history. This article focuses on ancient kingship in the Near East and western Mediterranean, though other areas of the world have also contributed to the ongoing reflection on monarchy. Israelite kingship began in approximately 1000 BCE (just when is debated), likely as a mechanism for defending the previously loose collection of tribes from foreign (especially Philistine) incursions. The Bible reports a 10th-century United Monarchy, though the stories about that period (the reigns of Saul and especially David and Solomon) contain significant embellishments. By the 9th century, Israel consisted of two kingdoms, a northern one called Israel and a smaller and less developed southern one called Judah. The first lasted until annexed by Assyria in 722 BCE, while the second was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The texts about these kingdoms and their rulers have been among the most influential in human history and have formed the basis for political reflection among Jews, Christians, and Muslims for more than twenty-five centuries.

General Overviews

To understand kingship in ancient Israel, it is useful to think about parallel realities in other cultures. Research questions from disciplines studying other parts of the world may reveal questions relevant for research on Israelite kingship and the literature about it. Thus, Bloch 1973 and Kantorowicz 1957 investigate the ideational aspects of monarchy, a theme picked up in other studies (e.g., Launderville 2003). Cannadine and Price 1987 and McDermott 1999, as well as the classic work Weber 1978, explore ritual as an aspect of rule and set it in larger sociological contexts. Postgate 1992 and Raaflaub 1993 discuss the origins of philosophical reflection (in several forms) on kingship and the state, and thus the social structure of virtue. Burbank and Cooper 2010 takes a different tack, one focused on techniques of rule, but the work of its authors is mutually reinforcing. Similarities and differences among cultures can shed new light on well-known texts as it becomes clearer which elements are typical and which are not.

  • Bloch, Marc. The Royal Touch: Sacred Monarchy and Scrofula in England and France. Translated by J. E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1w6t8q3

    A classic French study of medieval and early modern kings as healers. Bloch pioneered a new approach to the study of kingship that took seriously the pageantry and ideational issues, not merely the realpolitische ones. As one of the founders of the major French school of history writing called Annales, he pioneered studies connecting economic, intellectual, and social dimensions of historical phenomena.

  • Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    A cross-cultural study of empires from ancient Rome and China to the 20th century. The authors explore the “repertoire of empire,” habits and beliefs that allowed empires to (1) manage internal and external diversity, (2) use intermediaries, (3) interact with other empires, and (4) construct “imaginaries” or networks of political imagination. Successful empires were highly creative, making it impossible to construct rigid typologies of rule that apply to all of them.

  • Cannadine, David, and Simon Price, eds. Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    A collection of nine essays examining royal rituals from the ancient Near East, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the Carolingian realm, Tang China, Nepal, Madagascar, and Ghana, illustrating both similarities and differences in the details and conceptions of rituals. Cannadine’s introductory essay emphasizes the historical significance of pageantry not as a way of obscuring power but as an instrument of it.

  • Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

    A highly influential study examining the ways in which medieval European rulers (especially the Ottonian emperors) used religious ideas to project themselves into the national sphere. The ruler was imagined to have both a physical and a symbolic body. Those monarchs were thought to receive the Holy Spirit at their coronation, and thus they were sacral kings whose rule was divinely protected. Such notions of kingship drew on ancient Byzantine (and through that empire, Near Eastern) practices.

  • Kessler, Rainer, Walter Sommerfeld, and Leslie Tramontini, eds. State Formation and State Decline in the Near and Middle East. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harassowitz, 2016.

    The eleven case studies in this brief volume examine how ancient states were formed under various conditions such as in previously unorganized areas, at the margins of empires, and in the context of earlier failed states. The shifting of ethnic identities could result from the work of states. And states can have a profound effect on subject populations and even the physical environment, including hydrological systems. Indeed, the control of water and soil often shaped the operations of early states.

  • Knapp, Andrew. Royal Apologetic in the Ancient Near East. Atlanta: SBL, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt18z4h1f

    Many ancient Near Eastern rulers found it necessary to defend themselves from charges of usurpation or incompetence. Royal apologies thus became a recognizable literary device (though not a single genre) with shared characteristics. This volume studies the apologies of Telipinu, Hattusili III, David, Solomon, Hazael, Esarhaddon, and Nabonidus, rulers during the second and first millennia BCE. While not all such apologies appeal to divine election (most do), they all do face the charges of illegitimacy head-on, often appealing to the king’s descent or some other basis for legitimacy. The existence of such texts across centuries and cultures shows both the centrality of kingship and the possibilities of challenging the rules of given kings. This careful literary study shows the range of approaches possible in such texts.

  • Launderville, Dale. Piety and Politics: The Dynamics of Royal Authority in Homeric Greece, Biblical Israel, and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.

    Cross-cultural study of the practices of kingship and their interpretation, including the divine sanction of kingship, royal rhetoric, the centralization of the community in the person of the king, the role of memory and tradition in legitimating power, the means of criticizing the court’s rule, and the role of visions of the ideal king. This volume demonstrates mutatis mutandis the sorts of “repertoires of power” that Burbank and Cooper 2010 describes.

  • McDermott, Joseph P., ed. State and Court Ritual in China. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Chinese courts heavily emphasized ritual, as a way of organizing time and matter in general. These articles address both broad themes across historical periods and practices illustrating them. Particularly relevant to biblical studies is Laidlaw’s essay “On Theatre and Theory,” which refutes the understanding of ritual as the mere packaging of reality, drawing on Confucian ritual theorists as well as modern anthropologists.

  • Postgate, J. N. “The Palace.” In Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. By J. N. Postgage, 137–154. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

    This survey of Mesopotamian history 3200–1500 BCE, includes a chapter on early palaces. Such structures include storage facilities, servant quarters, private rooms for the royal family and perhaps their nobles, and public spaces for royal rituals or audiences with subjects. Postgate cites numerous texts (epic, contracts, letters, belles-lettres) illustrating the roles of the king and the functioning of his bureaucracy.

  • Raaflaub, Kurt, ed. Anfänge politischen Denkens in der Antike: Die nahöstlichen Kulturen und die Griechen. Schriften des Historischen Kollegs 24. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1524/9783486595734

    Studies the key political discourses in Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, the Hittite Empire, Achaemenid Persia, and Greece, illustrating the diffusion of ideas as well as their local coloring in response to native traditions and the needs to respond to particular events.

  • Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

    Works out a classic theory of domination and the three types of authority (legal, monocratic, and patrimonial) as well as ways in which charisma becomes routinized through bureaucracy and the cultivation of status honor. Weber shows how monarchs gained and lost power and influence, interacted with other loci of power, and faced limits to their power from law and prophecy.

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