Piety and Politics: The Dynamics of Royal Authority in Homeric Greece, Biblical Israel, and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia

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Piety and Politics: The Dynamics of Royal Authority in Homeric Greece, Biblical Israel, and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, by Dale Launderville. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003. Pp. xvii + 407. $75.00 (hardcover). ISBN 0802839940.

Launderville's thesis is that the religious warrants for royal authority in early Greece and the ancient Near East, Israel included, were fundamentally similar. Kings were believed to rule at the behest of the gods and were regarded as accountable to the gods for sustaining justice, peace, and prosperity within their kingdoms. Launderville demonstrates this "traditional pattern" for legitimating royalty by focusing on the Greek Archaic age (articulated in the Iliad and the Odyssey), the united monarchy of Israel (expressed chiefly in Samuel, Kings, and the Psalms), and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia (as voiced in the Code of Hammurabi and royal inscriptions). He recognizes that beyond a shared pattern of religious validation for monarchy, credited variously to Zeus, Yahweh, or Enlil, each of the three political cultures had its own distinctive version of the traditional pattern.

Launderville characterizes the religious legitimation of monarchy as a "traditional pattern" that is articulated in metaphor, symbol, and narrative rather than in logical discourse. Nonetheless, the rhetoric for legitimating kingship is a rudimentary form of political theory, even as it assumes the shape of "political theology." For instance, a controlling metaphor that Launderville finds in all three political cultures is that of the king as "shepherd" of his people, with its associations of feeding, guiding, and protecting those in his charge. Since all three of these ancient states were based far more on agriculture than on herding, one wonders about the preference for the sheep metaphor over an agricultural metaphor such as "gardener" or "vintner." Actually, in the Hebrew Bible Yahweh is pictured metaphorically as a vineyard planter and caretaker, but it is unclear if such a figure of speech is applied to the relation of king and people. Since Launderville does not catalogue the full range and incidence of political metaphors in the texts he examines, we are obliged to take his word that the shepherd metaphor stands at the top of the list.

Launderville undertakes political exegeses of the narratives in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the histories of Saul and David, the Gilgamesh Epic, and the autobiographical assertions of Hammurabi in the prologue and epilogue to his "code" of laws. Assuming that Launderville's critical understanding of the Greek and Mesopotamian texts is as sound as his perspective on the biblical narratives, he makes good on his claim that we can see something of how these ancients thought about politics by attending closely to their narratives as well as to their more symbolic texts such as the biblical Psalms and the Mesopotamian royal inscriptions.

Much as I enjoyed this guided journey through the royal rhetoric of three ancient political cultures, I had difficulties with the book on a number of points. Launderville defends his choice of the three cultures for his cross-cultural study not only because they have ample literary evidence, but also because each displays a circumscribed form of monarchy that is not assertively imperialistic. This may be the case with the Israelite example, but the Greek example appears to be a relatively weak instance of monarchy, and the Old Babylonian example typified by Hammurabi was, according to most historians of the period, a serious attempt at imperial control of Sumeria and the upper TigrisEuphrates region, following in the path of Sargon of the Akkadian Empire. To be more specific, if the Greek kings of the Archaic period could not raise taxes and did not have full authority to coerce their subjects, to what extent are they monarchs comparable to David and Hammurabi? And if Hammurabi was able to undertake imperial campaigns and projects, even though they fell short of the developed imperial administration of the Neo-Assyrians and Persians, should he be compared to Archaic Greek kings or even to David, whose wars on neighboring states were either defensive or aimed at booty and tribute rather than the establishment of a full-fledged empire? …