Most agrarian societies with some form of state - that is those that are no longer organized on a family/tribal basis - are monarchies. One person, the king, is the symbol of the nation and is responsible for peace, security and justice. Usually such kings are also able to command a professional military force to supplement the militia provided by the mobilization of ordinary folk in time of war.

Formation of the State

The change from family/tribal structures with many leaders to a centralized state (with one leader) is an important one. Examples from recent history, particularly in Africa, have helped us to understand the process in ancient Israel.

Earlier views of the process leading to the formation of a centralized state in Israel rested heavily on the pressure exerted by the Philistine incursion into Palestine. The book of Judges is thus seen as the early and largely doomed attempts of a tribal society to respond to the power of a centrally organized, militarily powerful and aggressive neighbor.

Although the Philistine threat was clearly a factor promoting the need for military co-operation, other influences were at work too. Canaanite city-states still occupied much of the best land and largely still dominated the inland trade routes. (Jerusalem, which controlled much of the Judean hills remained Jebusite till David captured it and made it his capital.)

The nature of life in the high-country exerted its own influence. While herding can support small populations, agriculture was necessary if such marginal land was to support relatively large populations. Steep land needs to be terraced and the dry climate required the construction of cisterns for irrigation.

Also, while a herding community could survive both social unrest and continual movement of population, an agricultural community needs stability of population and a measure of social stability too. Such societies depend on central structures with royal authority to arbitrate disputes, enforce judgments and coordinate defence against wandering bands who might otherwise destroy crops, terraces or cisterns.

Israel needed a king like other settled agrarian peoples.

Royal Ideology

Although rule by a good king was in the long-term interest of the whole community, kingly rule ran counter to the immediate interests of powerful clan leaders. Under such circumstances a number of factors were needed to support the monarchy.

Kings needed not only be just, they also had to be believed to be just; not only powerful but perceived to be so. This "public relations" need was met in a number of ways. One goal of Solomon's great building projects was to impress the Israelite tribes with his power and wealth. Symbols too were used as marks of kingship e.g. the scepter (Am 1:5, 8, Ps 110:2), crown (2 Kgs 11:12) and throne (2 Sam 14:9) were important.

Such symbols of royal authority, however served mainly as reminders (or claims) of divine approval. The declaration in Ps 110:1:

“Sit at my right hand
 while I make your enemies your footstool.”

not only claims a special relationship of the king with Adonai, but reflects a long international tradition in doing so. The drawing (right) based on Keel shows an Egyptian pharaoh seated on the god's knees with his feet resting upon a box containing his enemies.

The accounts of Israel's first steps towards kingship (1 Sam 8ff.), whether written at the time or later, preserve a feel for the ambiguity with which this new institution was adopted. On the one hand they contain a strong critique of the kind of misuse of royal power (1 Sam 8:11-18) that the prophetic books record. At the same time this account claims that David, and even that Saul, was elected by God, not merely the human choice for this vital role.

Ps 110 also suggests why many believe elements of the Judean conception of monarchy were adopted from Jebusite Jerusalem. In v.4 Adonai declares to the king: "You are an eternal priest in the order of Melchizedek." (cf. Gen 14:18-20 where Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek, king of "Salem", and offers him a tithe). In many ways Ps 110 (and Ps 2) seems closer to Ancient Near-Eastern ideas of kingship than to biblical theology of monarchy.

This page is part of the Hypertext Bible Commentary - Amos,

© Tim Bulkeley, 1996-2005, Tim Bulkeley. All rights reserved.