At the latest, the Hebrew Bible was compiled between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE. In other words, over 2200 years separate us from the cultures in which the Hebrew Bible was compiled. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible reflects traditions as far back as the 11th centurie BCE. So, nearly 3000 years separate us from some aspects of the cultures and traditions reflected in the Hebrew Bible. This vast distance of times can make it difficult to understand what is happening in a text of the Hebrew Bible. After all, people living in ancient Syria-Palestine, or the ancient Near East more generally, did not see the world the same way as us.
I hope to demonstrate this by offering a Psalm as a case study. In it, I want to show how many people in the ancient world understood created order, the divine realm, humanity, and politics to be intrinsically intertwined, if not the same things. This may be strange in a culture where people constantly refer to the separation between state and religion. In the ancient world, political was religious and religious was political.
Following is my own translation of verses (vss.) 2-5 of Psalm 89:
(2) The devotion of Yahweh is eternal; I sing to it from generation to generation. I make known your fidelity with my mouth (3) For I have declared: eternal devotion will be built; (in) the heavens you will establish your fidelity in them.
(4) I have cut a covenant with my chosen one; I have been sworn to my servant David. (5) Until eternity, I will establish your offspring; and I will build your throne from generation to generation – Selah.
In vss. 2-3, a person is speaking the 1st person. The individual speaks towards Yahweh. In vss. 4-5 the speaker is Yahweh. Yahweh first speaks about his covenant with David. Following, he speaks towards the Davidic dynasty.
In order to illustrate how the various spheres overlap (divinity, created order, and humanity), I will first show where they appear within this small selection of verses. Regarding Yahweh, the deity, it is clear that he plays a role in this Psalm. He acts in such a way that demonstrates his fidelity and devotion. The human speaker even declares Yahweh’s fidelity and devotion. What exactly, though, does Yahweh do in order to demonstrate his fidelity and devotion as a deity?
Verse 3 is a helpful avenue to explore, as it assists in working out how the ancient author may have understood his world. In vs. 3 devotion is built and fidelity is established in the heavens. Both of these concepts, though, are abstract. In other words, they have no material reality. If vs. 3 is meant to recognize Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity, his actions must have some material benefit to humanity, not just a feeling of devotion and fidelity. When we consider how ancient Judeans may have seen the world, though, it becomes clear why vs. 3 exemplifies Yahweh’s devotion and fidelity.
As early as 1910, biblical scholars realized that ancient Judeans may have seen the sky as a real structure. Genesis 1:6 references the firmament, namely the sky. The word used to describe the firmament has to do with flattening a material like metal. Consequently, Genesis 1:6 may demonstrate that some ancient Judeans thought the sky was a large, metal structure above them (Driver 1910, 21; Speiser 1964, 7).
If this imagery is at play in Ps. 89:3, it offers insight into the logic of the writer. Devotion is “built” and fidelity is “established” in the heavens because Yahweh has built the sky and established the heavenly structure. Consequently, the heavenly structure holds back the pre-creation, primeval waters (Genesis 1:1-2). In other words, a deity literally built a structure which (1) prevents a return to the primeval waters and (2) protects all humanity.
If this is the world view of the Psalmist, then it is quite reasonable for Yahweh’s devotion to be demonstrated through devotion being built and his establishing the heavens, namely the sky. Created order is sustained by the deity, which in turn allows humanity to live. What better way to show devotion and fidelity than to prevent a massive flood through building the sky?
While it clear that the divine realm, humanity, and created order are connected in some regard, how does it relate to politics?
Vss. 4-5 detail Yahweh’s covenant with David. Vs. 4 specifies that he made a covenant. Vs. 5 details how Yahweh will establish and build David’s line. Notably, vs. 5 uses the same words as in vs. 3. In vs. 3, “establish” and “build” are used in context of Yahweh’s building a giant structure, namely the sky. In vs. 5, those same verbs are used to describe Yahweh’s commitment to enable the line of David to maintain its places on the throne. In other words, Yahweh commits to supports the line of David in its political endeavors. He makes this commitment in the same way that he upholds the dome structure above humanity, namely the sky.
Use of the same words to describe (1) Yahweh’s upholding the sky and (2) covenant to the line of David suggests they are correlated. Although it is difficult to tell to extent to which they are correlated in these particular verses, one thing is clear: Yahweh’s role in created order is used to legitimize and justify the political authority of the Davidic line. In turn, David is to act as a special servant to the deity.
This sort of relationship between a king-figure and deity is consistent with other regions, groups, and Empires throughout the ancient Near East. Notably, though, it was not an issue to people in the ancient world. To them, it was completely normal for a king to be supported by the a deity, a deity who supported created order itself. In turn, it was completely normal for a king to serve the deity as a particularly special servant.
These roles, though, were one and the same. To be legitimized by the deity in political terms was also to be legitimized by the deity in religious terms. This legitimization of kingship was often times supported by recognition that the sponsoring deity also kept creation in order.
Many texts in the Hebrew Bible reflect the aforementioned notions. With this awareness, we should be careful to immediately assume that something is either religious or political. In many cases, it is both. They are one and the same. If we don’t work with this notion, we do a disservice to ancient Judeans. They were a people group who, like any culture, should have their own autonomous and independent voice. It is up to us to decide whether or not we want to hear and understand what their world was like and what they have to say.