Epigraphic Windows into Ancient Israelite Conceptions of National Theodicy
By Christopher A. Rollston
Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literature
George Washington University
Context is everything. This is true in the modern period and it was true in antiquity. Therefore, among the most useful resources for understanding the contents and perspectives of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are inscriptions from the ancient Near East, that is, textual data from the broader cultural context of Ancient Israel and Judah. Among the facets of the ancient world which I have long found rather fascinating is “theodicy.” Often this term is used in discussions that attempt to account for calamities that an individual has suffered, and this is certainly a leitmotif of the book of Job (e.g., the solutions proposed by Job’s friends). But it is “national theodicy” on which I wish to reflect at this time, that is, the attempts of ancient peoples to come to terms with national disasters. And it is national disasters associated with military defeats that will constitute the primary focus of this brief discussion.
Of course, within the Hebrew Bible, the Deuteronomistic literature contains many statements about national theodicy in the context of military defeats. For example, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Shalmaneser V (and Sargon II) of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in ca. 721 BCE and the Deuteronomist accounts for this national defeat by stating that “(this) happened because the sons of Israel sinned against Yahweh, their God, the One who brought them from the land of Egypt, out from under the hand of Pharaoh King of Egypt” (2 Kgs 17:7). Some manuscripts of the Septuagint have an interesting plus at the beginning of this verse, “The anger of Yahweh was against Israel.” Similarly, the Detueronomist provides an analogous commentary on Judah’s fall to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon in ca. 586 BCE. Namely, the Deuteronomist states that Judah had sinned and so Yahweh was “angry” with “Judah and Jerusalem” and thus “removed them from before his face” (2 Kgs 24:20). Naturally, the Deuteronomist uses the same hermeneutic in the books of Joshua and Judges, as military losses are attributed to the sins of the Israelites. Therefore, according to the Deuteronomistic world view, the sins of the country and its kings angered God and brought destruction, often at the hands of a foreign conqueror. But the story does not end there.
The epigraphic material about “national theodicy” provides a rather nice window into the broader world of the ancient Near East. For example, in a monumental inscription commissioned during the 9th century by King Mesha of Moab, he (Mesha) states that his country had been brought under the hegemony of the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the reign of the powerful Israelite King Omri (cf. 2 Kgs 3). Notice especially the language Mesha uses in his stele so as to account for Moab’s military losses: “Omri the King of Israel subjugated Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry with his land.” Kemosh was the national God of the Moabites and this inscription demonstrates that just as the Israelites and Judeans could attribute their military defeats to Yahweh’s anger (that is, to their national God), so also the Moabites could attribut their military defeat’s to Kemosh’s anger. In short, with the change of the divine name (i.e., replacing the name Kemosh with the name Yahweh), the language used in the Mesha Stele could be from a page out of the Hebrew Bible, as the sentiments are so similar. Thus, the Deuteronomistic means of accounting for serious military losses (the anger of God) is not unique to the Hebrew Bible at all. Rather, it is found within a 9th century Moabite monumental inscription as well.
In fact, such sentiments are not even limited to the Levant, as the Cyrus Cylinder uses the same basic language. Here are the essential contours of the historical context. The Babylonian Empire had just fallen to the Persian monarch, King Cyrus the Great, in ca. 539 BCE. King Nabonidus had been on the Babylonian throne at the time. Cyrus commissioned the text we know as the Cyrus Cylinder to detail and frame the victory. Naturally, he could have touted one of his own Persian Gods (e.g., Ahuramazda) as the divine power behind the victory, and he may indeed have done so in the Persian version. But in the Babylonian version, he felt it important to articulate the reasons for his victory, and for and the Babylonian losses, in a manner that was palatable for a Babylonian audience. Therefore, he commissioned the Cyrus Cylinder to do just that: Babylon fell because of the sins of King Nabonidus. That is, Nabonidus had woefully neglected the proper worship of Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon and for this reason, Marduk’s anger burned against Nabonidus. Therefore, Marduk raised up Cyrus to settle the score. Sin had led to destruction at the hands of a foreign monarch.
It is quite common for those of us within the field of Hebrew Bible to refer to the Deureronomistic notion of divine retribution for sin. This is understandable and quite accurate. But I would suggest that it is also useful for us always to remember that this sense of “retribution” or “theodicy” is not something that is confined to the Deuteronomist, or to the Hebrew Bible. Rather, these conceptions were part of the broader cultural tableau of which ancient Israel and Judah were a part. The epigraphic evidence demonstrates this so beautifully.
Before concluding this brief article, I should like to close with one final note. Namely, someone might query about the deeper rationale for the attribution of military defeat to the anger of one’s own God. I think that it is probably this: when faced with a military defeat, the ancients had two viable means of accounting for it, namely, (a) the God(s) of our enemy are more powerful than ours; or (b) we have angered our God(s) and so this is our deserved punishment. Of those two options, the ancients normally preferred the latter as the more palatable one. In any case, the epigraphic material regarding “national theodicy” broadens our horizons and allows us to see and understand yet again the larger cultural tapestry of which the Hebrew Bible is a part. Naturally, modern historians attribute national victories and defeats to things such as military prowess and strategic foreign alliances; this makes good sense and even the ancients did this at times as well, but the "divine" element was often even more strongly emphasized in the ancient Near East (at least at the rhetorical level), and thus victories and losses attributed to the favor or anger of the Gods.
Shouldn't we distinguish between the ideas of divine anger with a people, as in Dt, and divine anger with a ruler or dynasty, as in the Cylinder? With the latter, a guilty party is identified and the punishment is administered accordingly. With the former bad things happen (it seems) without much discrimination, as in the problem discussed over Sodom in Genesis. Only when the whole people is punished for sins of which some of them may have been innocent does a problem arise which is both political and theodicy-related. That problem seems to be answered in many ways in the scriptures. Ezekiel's description of sinful Jerusalem implies that absolutely everyone is guilty. The Deuteronomic History argues, I think, that God has no alternative but to act indiscriminately if sin is both prevalent among the people and permitted, even grudgingly permitted, by the government: everyone becomes tainted even if they'd rather not be. Job argues that God has no alternative but to be mysterious. I read somewhere that the seventeenth century New England colonists had, though they believed that individual salvation was unrelated to good works, a 'federal theology' in which community fortunes were explained along Deuteronomist lines. Federal theology does have a special relationship with the Hebrew Bible and I'm always rather surprised to find it elsewhere. To me the Cylinder does not offer a true parallel. The Mesha stela does indeed offer one. Here I have a sin of my own to confess. The very existence of that parallel is one of the reasons - the other being the unutterably dodgy discovery story - why I keep thinking that the Mesha stela must be a forgery. It just seems to rip off Biblical theology. I know that no expert shares this suspicion and I'm ashamed of myself for entertaining it.
#1 - Martin - 07/30/2013 - 10:05
Thanks for the question and comment. (1) Actually, Dtr does sometimes mention particular kings in connection with culpability, for example, with Jeroboam I for the North and Manasseh for the South among the most prominent (please see the full context for the texts I cited, among others). That is, it is not just the Cyrus Cylinder which does this. (2) As for your belief that the Mesha Stele is a forgery...that is simply not possible, as prior to its discovery in the 19th century, the script was not understood well enough for someone to forge a 9th century Moabite inscription, in a fine 9th century script, in good 9th century orthography, and employing good Moabite phonology. In sum, the Mesha Stele is certainly ancient. Thanks again for the question and comment.
With all best wishes and kind regards,
#2 - Christopher Rollston - 07/30/2013 - 19:44
I'm guessing (this is off the top of my head, since I have nothing in front of me) that you could carry this back even further. I seem to recall that the anger of the gods is not infrequently mentioned as a reason for defeat in Mesopotamian inscriptions and mythology. Don't compositions like the Lamentation over Sumer and Ur, or the Curse of Agade speak of cities being deserted by gods (or goddesses) for whatever reason, thus leading to their eventual defeat?
#3 - Lance Allred - 07/31/2013 - 00:59
Great to hear from you. Yes indeed, just as you suggest...it's a pretty pervasive theme in multiple genres. As for Mesha and Cyrus, I just pulled out these two examples, as I often use them in class to illustrate this motif. In short, I completely agree with you. Thanks again, so very much, for your note and comments.
With all best wishes and kind regards,
#4 - Christopher Rollston - 07/31/2013 - 02:56
I fully accept that divine punishment spreads its net rather widely in many stories and statements from many cultures, as with Virgil's Romans paying the debts of Troy, though I think that there is something rather distinctive about the way the problem is presented and rendered problematic in the Bible - even intensified by the idea of a prophet commissioned to give a warning that will not, according to plan, be heeded until the cities lie desolate.
#5 - Martin - 08/01/2013 - 20:07
On the Mesha Stela - I feel rather like a believer in flying saucers. However, is it really out of the question that a small collection of genuine Moabite documents, of boring content, had been found in the 1860s and fallen into the unscrupulous hands of people who wished to kick-start a trade in fakes (like that shortly afterwards operated by Moses Shapira) and who fabricated a wonderful story of kings and battles and angry gods?
I rather think that it's little short of a moral obligation of our times to reexamine very critically all information derived from Victorian narratives about stupid and greedy natives, who are crucial characters in the Stela's story. Well, I suppose that some stories that are both improbable and racist do turn out to be true. But there are maybe some other problems. Why did Captain Warren of the Palestine Exploration Fund, who must have had more money in his pocket than any European rival, in effect decline to become involved? Could Ganneau's servant really have found the Stela so easily on the basis of third-hand information, ie from Klein - or not from Klein, since as I understand it the earliest French account, by Heron de Villefosse, omits Klein (who was after all French) from the story, which is at least curious.
A few years ago I was visiting Washington and found the Frere Museum putting on a show of fakes that had been palmed off on its earlier buyers by Chinese forgers around 1900. This started me thinking about Bible-related artifacts. It was a very different context, I know, and context is very important, as you say. But forgers make money because they are very clever and very good at covering their tracks.
#6 - Martin - 08/02/2013 - 11:43
As for prophecy and condemnation in the ANE more generally, you will find, for example, that prophetic texts from Mesopotamia (e.g., prophetic materials in OB Mari Letters, Neo-Assyrian prophetic texts) and Extispicy texts contain motifs that are fairly similar...that is, threats of condemnation and destruction on the one hand and promises of revitalization and national deliverance on the other hand. Ultimately, there is nothing entirely new under the sun (as said Qohelet long ago) and there is precious little that is unique to any nation, either in antiquity or in the modern period. Such is the nature of human existence, I suppose. Cultures do not exist in a vacuum, but in a complicated nexus of reciprocal influences and conflate origins.
With all best wishes and kind regards,
#7 - Christopher Rollston - 08/02/2013 - 13:49
Job dismisses this explanation for disaster on a personal level. Does this reflect the view that God deals differently with nations than individuals,or is it a thoughgoing rejection of the dominate ancient theodicy.?
#8 - Peter G Berman - 08/05/2013 - 01:21
The Job story absolutely does not fit the 'We're bad so God's mad' pattern. Job rejects his comforters' attempts to justify God's work but eventually accepts God's own comment, amounting to 'Surely you know that I cannot explain myself to you'. His only bad thought is that God should be justified and God is not exactly 'mad' or enraged about this but fully ready to restore Job once he accepts that there must be mystery in these things. Well, it's an interesting play with paradox upon paradox.
There's no 'We', only an 'I', about Job. There's no suggestion that he might be suffering because he belongs to a bad people or is subject to a bad king.
#9 - Martin - 08/06/2013 - 16:56
In addition to to Rollston's response to to your comment about Mesha, may one add that some familiarity with NW Semitic findings from that general period would have dispelled your concern.
#10 - Uri Hurwitz - 10/10/2013 - 16:57