By God I am King: David’s Rise to the Throne in Broader Context

The epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East, therefore, paint for us a broader picture, they reveal more of the depth of the tapestry that is the world of the ancient Near East. And the epigraphic texts remind us that ancient Israel was part of the ancient Near Eastern world.

See Also: Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010)

By Christopher Rollston
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow
September 2013

According to the Deutonomistic History, Yahweh commanded Samuel to fill his horn with olive oil, travel to the Bethlehem home of Jesse, and anoint Saul’s successor. David was found and he was anointed for kingship. The narrative of Samuel states that after this event, the ruah of Yahweh entered into David (1 Sam 16:1-13). To be sure, King Saul was still on the throne, but the succeeding verses of the narrative declare that the ruah of Yahweh had turned away from Saul. It seems that the winds of change were blowing, even quite literally. And not long after this, the Israelites were mustered for battle, encamped in the valley of Elah. Similarly, the Philistines were encamped between Socoh and Azekah (1 Sam 17). Goliath of Gath was the glorious Philistine hero, standing six feet and six inches tall (reading with Qumran and the Septuagint). The Hebrew text states that David was just a young man, a na‘ar. And although not part of the encamped Israelite army, David would volunteer to do battle with the tall Gittite warrior. According to the narrative, David proclaimed boldly that Yahweh had delivered him from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear and Yahweh would also deliver him from the hand of the Philistine giant (1 Sam 17: 37). And Yahweh did. And David severed the Philistine’s head, a sanguine prize of war. Not long after this, Saul’s son Jonathan becomes David’s friend and Saul’s daughter Michal becomes David’s wife (1 Sam 18). David’s stock was rising. And not long after this, Saul is mortally wounded in the battle of Gilboah. Knowing that he would not survive, he falls on his sword (1 Sam 31), ignominiously the editor suggests. And Saul’s son Jonathan died in the same battle, as did Saul’s sons Abinadab and Malchishua.

Saul had a surviving son, Ishba‘al, and it was he who succeeded his father on the Saulide throne, continuing the fledgling dynasty. And it was Abner who had made Ishba‘al king (H-stem of the root mlk, “king”), the text proclaims. But all was not entirely well. There was a long civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David. Because the word “house” is often a term for dynasty, there is some scintillating double entendre here. The text of the Hebrew Bible then proclaims that David was fortifying his base of regal power rather nicely, but the power of King Ishba‘al was in free fall (2 Sam 3:1). Reading the handwriting on the wall, Baanah and Rechab, two members of the military attaché of Ishba‘al, assassinated King Ishba‘al in his sleep (2 Sam 4). And according to the narrative, “David grew greater and greater and Yahweh, the God of armies, was with him.” Indeed, says the narrator, David knew that “Yahweh had established him as king of Israel” (2 Sam 5). Much blood had been spilled, but David was king and this was Yahweh’s will, and Yahweh’s doing, declares the text. By God David was king.

During my youth, I read these narratives as straightforward history, wie es eigentlich gewesen. I suppose that I am not alone in that regard. And there is a certain beauty in that sort of reading. But there is also a certain beauty in the epigraphic record, and the ways in which it can allow us to see and understand the larger tapestry of divine and human rule in ancient times, something more about the ways the ancients saw it. Consider the logia of the Tel Dan Stele, an Old Aramaic inscription from the 9th century BCE. Reading with Joseph Naveh, King Hazael proclaims in this inscription that “(The God) Hadad made me king (H-stem of mlk). And Hadad went in front of me (in battle).” By God, Hazael was king. After all, Hadad was the Syrian storm God and within this inscription, Hazael states confidently and piously that it was Hadad who made him king and it was Hadad who brought him success in battles against his regal foes (cf. 1 Kgs 19:17). That is, Hazael had divine support for his rise to power and for his successes in battle. According to the Hebrew Bible, Hazael had usurped the throne from Ben-Hadad, after suffocating the bedridden Ben-Hadad with a dampened piece of woven cloth. After recounting this, the biblical narrative soberly concludes, “And Hazael began to reign in his place.” (2 Kgs 8:15). A royal assassination had occurred, and a new king sat upon the throne. And this new king proclaimed that all of this occurred with divine support.

Consider also the Old Aramaic Stele of Zakir, King of Hamat and Luat. It begins with these words, “I am Zakir, King of Hamat and Lu‘at. I was a humiliated man, but Ba‘alshamayin rescued me, and Ba‘alshamayin arose with me, and Ba‘alshamayin made me king” (H-stem of mlk). This inscription goes on to state that many attempted to do battle against Zakir, but within the inscription he says, “and I lifted my hands to B‘alshamayin and he answered me [saying]…I made you king, and [I shall stand] with you, and I shall rescue you from all [these kings].” Again, therefore, within this Old Aramaic inscription from the 9th century BCE, Zakir proclaims that his God had made him king and his God had gone before him in battle, bringing him success in the face of great resistance. By God, Zakir was king. It is worth noting in this connection, that Zakir is often believed to have been a usurper.

Similarly, within the Old Aramaic Panamuwa Inscription of the 8th century BCE, the following words are etched into stone, “I am Panamuwa the son of Qarli, king of Ya’diya, who erected this stele for Hadad. In my youth, the gods Hadad and ’Il and Rešep and Rakab-’il, and Šamaš rose up in support of me. And into my hands, Hadad and ’Il, and Rakab-’il, and Šamaš, and Rešep placed the scepter of dominion. And Rešep rose up in support of me, so that whatever I might grasp for with my hand[s ….] succeeded [..] and whatever I might ask [for fro]m the gods, they gave to me.” The list of Gods in this text is longer, but the conceptual framework is the same. Panamuwa declares that he had divine support for his rise to the throne and the successes he had were a result of this divine support. By God, Panamuwa was king and by God he had victory in battle.

Indeed, the same sort of language is used in many epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East. Within the Mesha Stele, King Mesha presupposes the support of the Moabite God Kemosh. And in a Mesopotamian text, Cyrus declares that it was Marduk who brought him to the throne and made him victorious in battle against his enemies. And Egyptian texts contain the same basic motif. Sesostris declares in a building inscription, “I will settle firm the decrees for the God Harakhty. He begat me to do what should be done for him, to accomplish what he commands to do. He appointed me shepherd of this land.”

The epigraphic texts from the ancient Near East, therefore, paint for us a broader picture, they reveal more of the depth of the tapestry that is the world of the ancient Near East. And the epigraphic texts remind us that ancient Israel was part of the ancient Near Eastern world. Thus, just as Hazael, and Zakir, and Panamuwa declared that heaven itself supported their rise to the throne, so also did the Hebrew narratives about David proclaim the same. After all, kings became kings at the pleasure of God. Perhaps I should mention that I do not believe the epigraphic material weakens the fabric of the biblical narratives. Rather, I believe that it brings strength to the cloth, sewing layers of knowledge onto our conceptions of the cloth of ancient biblical life.

Comments (7)

Dear Christopher,
Thank you very much for these observations. Comparable texts can be found in full support of your analysis as I have argued on several occasions (see, e.g., T. L. Thompson: 'Kingship and the Wrath of God: Or Teaching Humility,' RB 109 (2002), 161-196; 'A Testimony of the Good King: Reading the Mesha Stele,' in Lester Grabbe's Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (London: T&T Clark)236-292; 'Mesha and Questions of Historicity,'SJOT 21/2 (2007), 179-216.
Best wishes,

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#1 - Thomas L. Thompson, Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen - 09/11/2013 - 13:50

Dear Thomas,

Thanks so much for the note. I will definitely take a look at your articles. I'm working on a WAW volume on NWS Royal Inscriptions and was struck anew by these sorts of parallels in the primary literature, but I haven't done any looking into the secondary literature on the I am very pleased to have these references and I look forward to reading your articles.

With all best wishes and kind regards, my friend,


#2 - Christopher Rollston - 09/11/2013 - 17:52

The coins I use every day inform me that Elizabeth II is Queen by the grace of God. In fact it is quite difficult to believe in a divine power without thinking that that power has some role in the appointment of secular rulers, don't you think?
As children reading the Bible you and I presumably believed that David was indeed somehow divinely elected. I'm not quite sure what changes with all that epigraphy. Even as a child I might not have been surprised to find that many ancient rulers made similar claims - many modern ones do, as well. Even as a 12 year old receiving religious instruction I thought that there must be something problematic about God's election of this very disturbing personality. However, even now I think, sceptical Christian that I still am, that there might, for all the problems and difficulties, be an element of theological truth in the claims made for David that was lacking in many of the others.
I am now aware that there are great difficulties in believing that there was in real history a king with that name and with the triumphant record that demonstrates, or so the Biblical text seems to suggest, that he was genuinely God's elect.
In all this, I can't quite see that the epigraphic evidence throws much light on any point at issue. If there was a King David, he doubtless made theological claims. Almost all governments do this in whatever terms are suitable for their culture. If there was really no such person there could still have been stories full of the high-sounding claims that real rulers made in those and in these days. The epigraphy would be the same whether David was a real historical person or not. Is there somehow a thread of divine providence in history centred on Our Lord Jesus Christ, David's heir? Maybe: but the epigraphy doesn't really help me to make up my mind. It does seem to help you but I can't, with all respect, quite see how.

#3 - Martin - 09/11/2013 - 21:47

As you said, the extra-biblical examples you offered in your fine prsentation, are only a few of many.

As for the vast array of discovered ANE material which influenced early Israelite religion, those interested in the subject can find it in chaps. 4 and 5 in the excellent Israelite Religions by Richard Hess.

Uri Hurwitz

#4 - Uri Hurwitz - 09/12/2013 - 21:28

Dear Christopher,

You may find interesting at least two other papers:

P. K. McCarter, 'The Apology of David', JBL 99 (1980), 489–504;

H. Hoffner, 'Propagand and Political Justification in Hittite Historiography," in Unity and Diversity Essays in the History, Literature and Religion of the Ancient Near East (ed. H. Goedicke, J.J.M. Roberts; Baltimore/London 1975), 49-62.

With my best regards,
Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spano
University of Warsaw

#5 - Łukasz Niesiołowski-Spano - 09/13/2013 - 21:09

> Is there somehow a thread of divine providence in history centred on Our Lord Jesus Christ, David's heir? Maybe: but the epigraphy doesn't really help me to make up my mind. It does seem to help you but I can't, with all respect, quite see how.

I by no means speak for Prof. Rollston, but how does it help me decide the question? It reminds me of the Dire Straits lyrics - "two men say they're Jesus. One of them must be wrong." In other words, the fact that every king of the time felt he was the chosen of God makes rather ludicrous the thought that one of them was correct.

#6 - ryanwc - 09/14/2013 - 04:14

Dear Uri and Lukasz,

Thanks for the notes and bibliographic notations. I am grateful for all of them, and especially to see among the list an article that has long been a favorite of mine, namely, the article by my beloved Doktorvater Kyle McCarter (indeed, my interest in this subject hails from his tutelage). This article of mine on this web site is semi-popular in nature....hence, only primary resources used and the absence of footnotes of either primary or secondary literature....but this topic is part of a broader research interest of mine and so I welcome any and all bibliographic references, some of which I will no doubt have and some of which I will no doubt not have. I am using the following e-mail address: With all best wishes and kind regards, Chris Rollston.

#7 - Christopher Rollston - 09/14/2013 - 10:43

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