The Politics of Dead Kings

By Spronk, Klaas | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2012 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Dead Kings


Spronk, Klaas, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


The Politics of Dead Kings. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe, vol. 48. By MATTHEW J. SURIANO. Tuibingen: MOHR SIEBECK, 2010. pp. xvi 203. [euro]54.

This is a revised version of a dissertation supervised by W. M. Schniedewind at the University of California, Los Angeles. It takes up the old discussion about the precise meaning and background of the customary epilogue in the books of Kings at the end of a Judahite or Israelite king's life with the reference to his death ("and he lay with his fathers"), a notice of burial in the royal tombs, and the introduction of his successor. Suriano suggests that it is possible to shed new light on its interpretation by placing it in the sociopolitical context of death in the ancient Near East during the Iron Age. This would show that the primary function of the funerary rituals and royal tombs mentioned in these epilogues was to deal with the political problems which could be posed by a king's death and to ensure the dynastic succession. In this respect there would have been no basic difference between Israel and other cultures in the ancient Near East in this period. Within the narrative in the book of Kings the formulaic epilogues also serve the literary purpose of expressing the uninterrupted succession of the Davidic dynasty in contrast to the many usually short-lived dynasties in Israel.

In the first chapter Suriano makes a number of methodological observations explaining the need for a socio-political approach, in which he combines an anthropological approach with a syntactic, an archaeological, and a religio-historical approach. In his study this leads to positive results. One could question, however, whether all the evidence really points in the same direction. The assumption of a political role for venerated royal ancestors may have been too dominant in this research, leading to circular reasoning. The author wants to avoid academic speculation, but in regard to some well-known difficult issues like the discussions about deuteronomistic redactions or the cult of the dead he may have exchanged speculation for harmonization.

All the same, this study offers a good survey and evaluation of the relevant primary and secondary sources. In the second and fourth chapters Suriano offers a detailed discussion of the phrase "to lie with the fathers" and related expressions. He convincingly argues that it should be read within the framework of the secured inheritance. But he seems to overstate his case when he indicates that the passage in Judges 2:10 with the hybrid form "(after that whole generation had been) gathered to their fathers" would also signify in the first place that the Israelites had been able to take possession of their inheritance and that this "marks an important transition point in the Deuteronomistic History" (p. 49). Both statements, however, are more questionable than Suriano indicates and would at least deserve more discussion.

In chapters three and five Suriano discusses the funerary rites, including the archaeological evidence concerning royal tombs in Israel and the neighboring cultures. With regard to the latter he pays much attention to the evidence of intramural burials in Ugarit and especially to the intriguing recent finds in Qatna with clear indications of a cult of the dead. He also refers to the custom of desecrating royal tombs as attested in many Assyrian texts and also found in the Old Testament, especially in the eradication of the house of Saul. The archaeological evidence from Jerusalem and Samaria is scarce. Suriano discusses the "archaeological quest for the tomb of David" at length, only to conclude that discussion of its location and that of the later royal tombs in the Garden of Uzza "will never move beyond speculation" (p. 111). Nevertheless he thinks it safe to conclude that throughout the ancient Near East it was customary that royal tombs be located within the city and contain the collective remains of the dead kings. …

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