BU religion professor examines ancient kings who claimed God was on their side

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A new book of articles by religion scholars from around the world includes a chapter by a Brandon University professor, and he says the sometimes-violent ancient religions he studies still echo in today’s world.

Dr. Kurt Noll

Dr. Kurt L. Noll, a professor in BU’s Department of Religion, is the author of “The Patron God in the Ancient Near East,” which is the first chapter in the new book. Other contributors are from the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, Israel, South Africa, and Argentina. The other Canadian academic in the book is Ehud Ben Zvi of University of Alberta.

The book, “Patronage in Ancient Palestine and in the Hebrew Bible,” was published in May by Sheffield Phoenix Press in Sheffield, England. It was edited by Emanuel Pfoh of National University of La Plata, Argentina.

The chapters deal with aspects of patron-client relationships in the Middle East in the second millennium BCE, in ancient Palestine during the first millennium BCE, and in the texts of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), according to the publisher.

Dr. Noll’s contribution looks at ancient religion using the model of the patron-client relationship, in which the patron was the king who promised to lead and protect the clients, the people who paid the taxes that supported the nobility and the professional warriors.

“The patron-client structure was also the common religion of the ancient Near East,” Dr. Noll writes. “Just as the patron promised to guide and protect his clients, he claimed to possess the guidance and protection of a god who had chosen him for this task.

Detail from the front cover of the book, which is a photo of part of an ancient stone monument. The monument was erected by the Assyrian emperor who stands (left). His patron god, Ashur, is depicted as a solar disk with eagle’s wings, just above and to the right of the emperor. To the right of the patron god is a secondary goddess, Ishtar, depicted as the morning star, Venus.
Kneeling before his human patron is the king of Israel, King Jehu, who is mentioned in the biblical book called 2 Kings. This scene is not, of course, mentioned in the Bible. But King Jehu was a regional king who was vassal to the imperial lord, the King of Assyria.
The gesture of obeisance that Jehu performs is identical to the act of prayer that a human performed before the patron god (whichever patron god it happened to be, Ashur of Assyria, or Marduk of Babylon, or Hadad of Damascus, or Yahweh of Jerusalem).
People imagined that their god had the same personality as their human king. Just as a human king demands obeisance, so also the divine patron demands obeisance. This same ancient gesture of worship survives in Islam, as the Salat prayer. (The god of Islam is depicted as a patron god in the Qur’an.)

“The patron-client relationship was theoretically a three-tier hierarchy: the top tier was occupied by the patron god who had chosen the human patron for the middle tier so that he might rule over the human clients in the bottom tier.”

Dr. Noll cites examples from ancient Babylon, Assyria, Israel, and other societies to illustrate the concepts. He says there are also many modern-day examples of similar religious thinking.

“Divine patronage has a long reach and is alive and well in many parts of the world,” he says. “As I tell my students, patron-god religion was not benign. It legitimated power, and that power could kill you. Not for nothing is the god of the Bible called ‘king’ and ‘Lord’ and a ‘warrior.’”

Dr. Noll says that after the Enlightenment, when governments began to seek popular legitimacy for their rule, rather than divine right, many in the Western world began to take religious freedom for granted. Living free from religious rule has led many to believe that religion is typically benign. Not necessarily so, says Dr. Noll.

“Some even claim that if religious people commit an act of violence in the name of religion those people have ‘perverted’ the religion. This naïve idea is a by-product of living in a country where every individual has the right to make personal religious choices,” he says. “Meanwhile in Iran, women are in prison right now because they failed to adhere to the religious government’s laws about mandatory wearing of the hijab. Women in Afghanistan are being persecuted because the Taliban believe that their version of Islam must dictate the beliefs, the behaviour, even the educational level, of women.”

This interpretation may be on the rise in North America as well, he points out.

“Evangelical Christians in the U.S. have embraced Donald Trump because he delivered on his promise to stack the Supreme Court with Christians who will impose their version of Christianity on US law,” Dr. Noll says. “The Enlightenment did us a huge favour by killing off the idea that kings have a divine right and insisting instead that government should be separated from religious truth-claims. Religious leaders do not have a legal right to dictate what members of their religious community must believe or do. Individuals can choose their own religious path, which was not the case in an ancient patron-god religion.”

The new book is available online, and the article is based on a chapter from a textbook by Noll, “Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: A Textbook on History and Religion,” which was published in 2012.

Dr. Noll has taught at Brandon University since 2005.


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