PTS Report: 2012 Alexander Thompson Lecture
PTS awarded the annual endowed 2012 Alexander Thompson lecture to one of its own, Dr. J.J.M. Roberts, the William Henry Green Professor of Old Testament Literature Emeritus (see the PTS press release for more information). Dr. Sakenfeld introduced the lecturer, firstly and officially rehearsing his ample resume as an OT scholar and Assyriologist, and then more personally as a friend and former colleague, known for his hospitality, abiding Christian faith, and unconventional 3-point shot.
Dr. Roberts began by saying that a superficial reading of the 1, 2 Samuel narratives about David’s ascendancy yields a picture of a king who, despite some faults, was a man after God’s own heart. The Chronicler sweetens this already positive picture and omits even the few dark spots of his source, leaving, in Wellhausen’s opinion, a “feeble holy picture, seen through a cloud of incense.” Dr. Roberts suggested that consultation with ANE materials revealed a much more complex and human portrait of this pivotal biblical figure. His presentation to that end took three parts: public opinion, royal apologetics, and imperial ideology. Throughout his lecture, Dr. Roberts played wittily (but pointedly) off present-day politics.
In the interest of not giving away Dr. Roberts’ entire lecture, I will discuss only his third point: imperial ideology. ANE kings justified their rule in their home countries by appealing to their construction projects and military victories, cancelling cities’ debts, and leading religious processionals and festivals. However, when subjugating other peoples outside their home turf, sovereigns required even further public justification (as today). Assyrian and Amorite records attest to the development of an imperial ideology whereby the gods of militarily subject cities and peoples cede supreme authority to the high god of the conquering king’s home city. Thus a cosmic and theological action preceded and warranted an earthly king’s territorial expansion. The growth of human power mirrored the perceived growth of divine power, and kings shared imperial titles (communicatio idiomatum?) with their god: Tiglath-Pileser became the King of Kings and Lord of Lords at the same time as his deity. Notably, these imperial titles endure even after the disintegration of the political realities that first gave them birth.
In this context, Dr. Roberts gave a brief history of Israelite religion, beginning with the archaic text Dt 32:8-9 wherein El the high god apportions each nation to its god, and YHWH receives Jacob. At the stage of this text’s production, Israel acknowledged that other nations legitimately had their own national deities. However, as YHWH’s authority grew – and his titles became more universal and imperial, the legitimacy of these other gods receded (Ps 47, 95). Dr. Roberts cited here the strange Ps 82 in which YHWH casts down the other gods for not executing justice.
When did this expansion take place? Dr. Roberts argued that this religionsgeschichtliche event occurred in David’s day: “YHWH’s elevation coincided with David’s,” on analogy with other nations’ theological/political histories. Hence a piece like Ps 2, which envisions foreign enemies as vassals rebelling against the imperial sovereign, YHWH. Dr. Roberts directed this history to a twofold conclusion: against minimalists in biblical interpretation who gainsay the existence of David and his kingdom, Dr. Roberts proposed that the ANE provides no analogies for a people who retrojected imperial glory back onto a past era from a present situation of political weakness. Rather, imperial ideologies always date from the reign of their first instigators and no later. This constitutes a strong argument for David’s historical reality and the (relative) expanse of his kingdom. Secondly, Dr. Roberts pointed out the theological longevity and potency of this imperial ideology, long after the era of Israel’s political disappearance – in the prophets, who continued to believe the universal rule of YHWH, but also, finally, in the New Testament’s Christology and eschatological expectation.
[*Note: Collin Cornell is a PTS MDiv student and friend of DET. He runs a blog named, Kaleidobible: Zephyrous. Kaleidoscopic. Biblical., which deserves your attention. Of special interest to DET readers will be a series of posts wherein Collin works through the interaction between Karl Barth and OT scholar Otto Bächli.]