Monday, October 29, 2012

Rethinking the Ancient Kings of Genesis

Rethinking the Ancient Kings of Genesis
Rabbi Yehudah ben Shomeyr

When we read the Scriptures and run across the word “king” we can’t help but have our westernized Greco-European trained minds to kick in and think of Kings with golden crowns in fortified palaces ruling over a vast land and people. But the kings in Abraham’s day were much different than the kings in David and Solomon’s day.

In Abraham’s time, kings were more like tribal rulers and patriarchal rulers over tribes and clans; a people that came from one man, his sons (tribes) and their families (clans). Such “kings” were Bedouin/Nomadic type people living in tents and ruling over thousands of people. “Kings” in this day were just beginning to settle and establish fortified towns and cities, such as the king of Sodom.

Abraham and Isaac were on par with such “kings” of their day, for they ruled about as many people, but could not call themselves kings proper on account that they had no tribes and clans to rule over. However, their wealth and possessions rivaled such Bedouin/Nomadic type kings of their day.

In Genesis 14 we have 4 kings battling it out against 5 with Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family getting caught in the crossfire of this battle royal and as a result were taken captive. Abraham who was rich in livestock, possessions and servants took just 318 men trained in warfare out of perhaps a thousand or more men, women and children and rescued Lot and his family and peoples from the kingdom of Sodom.

First of all, we see the enigmatic Priestly-King Melchezidek who comes out and praises and treats Abraham as a king returning victorious from war (14:17-20). Jealous, envious of the attention given to Abraham and not to be outdone and in a gesture to elevate himself above Abraham, tries to pay off Abraham for rescuing his people, the people of Sodom. Wise Abraham sees this move that reeks of desperation and shoots him down because he could, because of his wealth and people under him, he was on par with the king of Sodom and said;

“I have lift up mine hand unto the Lord, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth, That I will not take from a thread even to a shoelatchet, and that I will not take any thing that is thine, lest thou shouldest say, I have made Abram rich: Save only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion.” – (Gen. 14:22-24)

When Isaac was alive, the Philistines were not the vast empire they were in David’s day. They too were tribes and clans under a patriarchal type ruler, if not, why else would the Philistine King Abimelech (Father-King) feel threatened by Isaac’s wealth, possessions people under him (Gen. 26:12-14). Why else would Abimelech say:

“Go from us; for thou art much mightier than we.” – (Gen. 26:16)

Only later to make a peace treaty with him (Gen. 26:26-33) unless he considered Isaac a ruler, a type of king that could conquer him and thus change the balance of territory and power in the region?

Jacob becomes a powerful man whom his father-in-law, Laban, was a local ruler and intimidated by and thus oppressed Jacob in order to keep him under his thumb. But eventually, Laban had to recognize that Jacob was more powerful than he and in order to protect himself from Jacobs reprisal, forged a treaty with him (Genesis chapters 29-31).

Jacob was seen as a king in the eyes of Shechem, for by this time Jacob had not only much wealth and possessions, but tribes and clans under him which he led as a patriarchal ruler. Shechem knew how powerful Jacob was and feared revenge for the rape of his daughter and wanted to neutralize his power and influence in the land by merging into one kingdom through intermarriage. Jacobs’s sons; Simeon and Levi smelled a scheme and devised a plan to turn the tables on Shechem and neutralize them as a tribal kingdom and powerhouse in the land and ended up slaughtering them. This gave notice to others settled and nomadic tribal kingdoms of the land that a new superpower just entered the game. Jacob realized this, scolded his rash and hot-headed sons for making them a target.

Esau becomes the father of the Edomites (Gen. Ch. 36) and already during Jacob’s day had reached the status of a tribal and patriarchal king with clans under him and Jacob tries to appease and honor his powerful brother like a king by sending gifts ahead of him (Genesis chapters 32-33).

By the time of David and Solomon, many of these tribal, patriarchal kings and kingdoms, settled, multiplied and expanded their territory as well as advanced in technology as did Israel, to become what we typically imagine ancient kings and kingdoms to be.