The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy, Rachel, and the Garden of Eden

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The question?

Discuss the issues surrounding Israel’s move to having a human king as their ruler. What role, if any, do women play role in ancient Israel’s transition to monarchy?

What may or may not be my answer:

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The tribal system which had long connected the Hebrew peoples together was coming to a finale quickly due to the paradigmic evolution then-current in the developing political structures of the Ancient Near East. Powerful kings were rising up with economic powerhouses and military machines at their command which were actively destroying the enemies of the State. The Semitic tribes which inhabited Canaan were at constant peril, not only from the outside forces, but so too the internal forces brought on by Near Eastern kinship structures which might find tribes renegotiating kinship based on these predator nations. Examining the book of Judges, we see the increasing moral depravity brought on by the anarchist mentality of the rulers of Israel, namely the people themselves, would become a factor in the eventual enthronement of the king of Israel. When in times of great desperation, a divinely appointed Judge would rule, in an almost Arthurian way[1], until the crisis had passed. Several times in the book of Judges, this rise and fall of decentralized leadership was criticized by the Deuteronomist who regularly noted that, ‘In those days, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’  But, it wasn’t until rapidly successive judges began to appear that the idea of hereditary Kingship over temporary kinship (i.e., temporary alliances which created kinship) began to develop as something desirable to offset the growing fear from the tribes’ neighbors.

Theologically speaking, the act of asking for a King was a sin, not merely for the fear which replaced the devotion and reliance upon YHWH, but for the denial of the basic humanity of and God’s divine mission for the Tribes. In Genesis 1.26, God is said to make humanity in the image of Himself (and his heavenly court). For the early reader of this tract, it would have been read as God declaring all of humanity as royalty, removing the socio-political structure which was separating out of the larger mass a select family which other peoples were developing as hereditary rule[2]. By creating an oligarchy, or at the very least, a ruling elite, they also created a division of those who could and could not represent the gods on earth. The king was the gods’ agent and only through him could divine edicts be issued or prayers made. Seth L. Sander’s 2010 book, The Invention of Hebrew, strongly argues that the central difference between the Scriptures and other religious works of the period (and indeed, any written works) is that for the first time, it wasn’t the king who was addressed by a god, but the people.

Ronald Hendel, notes that for the Ancient Near East, the image of the King and the image of God where nearly married in the mind of the people,

“The close relationship between the image of the god and the image of the king is an important part of the ideology of kingship in the ancient Near East. The king was regarded as the earthly representative of the gods, and as such the image of the god was a symbol of the legitimacy of the earthly king. The divine image was pictured and was treated as a king, therefore serving as a reminder of the divine authority of the king.”  He cites as the strongest evidence “a 13th-century Middle Assyrian text, the ‘Tukulti-Ninurta Epic,’ that described the king as the salarti Illil däru, ‘the eternal image of Enlil.’ The phrase salarti DN, ‘image of the god,’ is also used of the king in later neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian texts, but the meaning of the phrase reflects the common royal ideology of Mesopotamia—and, we might add, the common West-Semitic ideology as well. The ‘image of the god’ was the king himself.” (CBQ 1988)[3]

Hendel and others are correct. We must make the point that if the Tribes were now seeking to replace the transcendent YHWH which walked and spoke with His people directly with a King, they weren’t just asking for a ruler like the other nations, they also wanted a god like the other nations, with a direct representative on earth, a position which they were abdicating. They had asked for a forbidden knowledge: that they were no longer worthy to walk and talk with YHWH. No longer were temporary leaders to be made available when Israel had digressed into moral depravity, but now a king was desired to perhaps constantly remind them of YHWH and in doing so, they quite easily rejected the imago dei as they had abandoned their roles as God’s agents, abdicating it as an answer to fear[4]. The people had put up a wall between themselves as the Children of God and God; they had sinned.

For the feminine involvement in the transition to monarchy, it could be easily noted that Hannah’s dedication of Samuel provided God a man to lead the Israelites as both Judge and King. Or perhaps it was Abigail’s[5] prevention of David’s bloodguilt which allowed him to later become King; however I believe that such an easy view might take away from the woman who plays not only a very central part, but is mentioned only once and then as a memorial: Rachel. On the heels of the moral decay which came to fruition by the almost complete destruction of the Tribe of Benjamin, a king was selected from that tribe. Not only was this true, but the prophet who anointed the King was himself a resident of the Tribe of Benjamin. Further, as a signal to the future king, he was told that he would find the proof of his impending royalty at the Tomb of Rachel. To further bring to light Rachel’s background role in the matter was the fact that she, the most beloved of Jacob’s wives, died while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35.16-21). Later in (chronological, not necessarily literary) history, YHWH would speak to Jeremiah, saying,

This is what the LORD says: “A cry is heard in Ramah– deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted– for her children are gone.” (Jeremiah 31:15 NLT)

Ramah is not only the prophet’s dwelling place, but so too the scene of the anointing of King Saul after the people of the tribes at met, at Ramah, to ask Samuel for a King. It may be that Rachel is seen in the historical background of the writers of 1st Samuel while Jeremiah has the denial of the imago dei in mind which fulfilled YHWH’s oracle in 1st Samuel 8.10-18. It was at Ramah that Rachel’s children died to the sin of knowledge.


[1] Or perhaps, akin to the Roman Dictatorships which would arise when times of troubles required it, and often times chosen by the two elected Consuls. Ironically, the story of the corruption of Samuel’s two sons preceding a time of trouble which required a King seems similar to the act which brought about the end of the Roman Republic.

[2] Collins notes in his book, King and Messiah as Son of God, two current scholars which have produced work to counter the notion that kings were seen as the incarnations of the gods.

1) Silverman: “A pharaoh might be: named as a god in a monumental historical text, called the son of a deity in an epithet on a statue in a temple, hailed as the living image of god in a secular inscriptions, described as a fallible mortal in a historical or literary text, or referred to simply his personal name in a letter”;

2) Leprohon: “The evidence shows that the living pharaoh was not, as was once thought, divine in nature or a god incarnate on earth. Rather, we should think of him as a human recipient of a divine office. Any individual king was a transitory figure, while kingship was eternal”.

In responding to these conclusions, Dr. Michael Bird, writes, “But since “image of god” was used quite often to describe ANE kings, it means perhaps no more than humanity is royal in God’s eyes and is charged with the delegated divine function of ruling over creation.”

[3] Source: Peter J. Leihart, November 2010.

[4] For further reading, Peter Enns, a senior fellow at the Biologos Institute has written multipart piece which explores the Image of God in ANE literature and how it applies to the biblical understanding.

[5] I believe that there may be more to the story between David and Abigail, but this is not the time to explore that arena. CF 1st Samuel 25.31 and v35 especially.

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Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

One thought on “The Rise of the Israelite Monarchy, Rachel, and the Garden of Eden”

  1. Well, one role they played works along this line: every single monarch had a mother.
    Seriously though, Israel demanded a king because other nations had kings. God gave them an earthly king to prepare us all for the coming of the real King in both his humility and soon His glory

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