Royal Assassination in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East: A Brief Synopsis

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By: Christopher A. Rollston, Tel Aviv University/George Washington University
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow

Royal assassinations were not particularly rare events in the ancient world. Indeed, within ancient historical and literary sources one reads fairly often about the assassination of a king, a queen, a prince, a princess, a royal governor, and, at times, multiple members of an entire royal family. I am not referring to the death of a royal personage in a pitched battle against an enemy, but rather to the death of a royal family member in a plot, or some sort of coup. Among the most famous of the royal assassinations in the great power centers of the ancient Near East were the assassinations of the Assyrian Kings Tukulti-Ninurta I and Sennacherib, the Egyptian King Ramesses III in the Harem Conspiracy, and the Hittite Kings Murshili I and Zidanta I. The gruesome beheading of Qarni-Lim of Andarig surely falls under the same rubric.

Royal assassinations occurred in the Levant as well, with the assassination of a governor of Tyre mentioned in the Amarna Letters, and, of course, the assassination of King Eglon of Moab in the Book of Judges. Other biblical assassinations include Saul’s son King Ish-ba‘al (who was also later assassinated at the literary level, his name being changed from Ish-Ba‘al, “man of the lord” to Ish-bosheth, “man of shame”). In the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Kings Nadab, Elah, Shalum, Pekahiah, Pekah, and Queen Jezebel were all assassinated. In Judah, Queen Athaliah and Kings Joash and Amaziah, and the Judean Governor Gedaliah were all victims of similar fates. As was the Syrian King Ben-Hadad who was assassinated in the coup of Hazael. Some might wish to put David’s son Absalom on this list as well. Of course, on an ancillary note, many generals in the literature are said to have suffered similar fates, with biblical narratives, for example, mentioning the deaths of Sisera, Abner, Joab, and Judith’s Holofernes. Xerxes I and II, and Darius III, Philip of Macedon, Seleucus I and Antiochus II of Syria, and Ptolemy VII of Egypt also died at the hands of assassins and this is still only a brief selection.  It seems that life in antiquity could be rather sanguine (in the etymological sense of the term) for the royals.

Violent internal struggles within a royal court are sometimes the precipitating factor for royal assassinations, with brothers killing brothers, fathers killing sons, sons killing fathers, wives killing husbands, husbands killing wives. Regional conflicts can sometimes be the most significant contributing factor to a coup. For the Levantine periphery (e.g., Israel, Judah, Syria, Lebanon, Philistia, Ammon, Moab), there is often an additional facet that contributes to severe internal tensions: namely, the power centers (Mesopotamia and Egypt) often attempted to assert and maintain hegemony over the Levantine kingdoms. Indeed, sometimes both Mesopotamia and Egypt pressured Israel or Judah simultaneously, for example, in Judah during the few decades prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

We have substantial textual data from the ancient Near East (in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, and Northwest Semitic, including in the Hebrew Bible) about the national, regional, and international socio-politico world. Therefore, it is productive to analyze the totality of the data in a synthetic fashion so as to limn more clearly the nexus of factors that constitute the Sitz im Leben of royal assassinations. Because of my own interest in, and emphasis on the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitics, I have focused most heavily on royal assassinations in Israel and Judah, especially on the role that international politics and pressure played in some of these assassinations.

RollstonNaturally, the subject of kingship and queenship in the ancient Near East, as well as assumptions about divine patronage that were standard components of kingship language (e.g., Yahweh’s support of King David of Israel, Yahweh’s removal of support from King Saul, Hadad of Sikanu’s support of Hadyithi, or Marduk’s support of Cyrus the Great), are important components of the discussion. “Royal apologia” was often a correlative of the complex socio-politico-religio nexus as well. That is, royals often considered it sage to employ apologia to justify both their rise to the throne (especially in the cases of real or perceived usurpation) and their retention of it (arguably the case for the Israelite King David and Idrimi of Alalakh). This, too, is a foundational component of the equation and so also part of the material with which I am engaging.

At this juncture, a word of thanks is very much in order. For four and a half months, I was privileged to be able to reside and work at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, focusing on the subject of royal assassinations, as well as to put some of the finishing touches on my monograph on the (long) history of textual forgeries. I am deeply grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for funding this research, to the Albright for its sterling library resources, and to all the wonderful, helpful, and collegial administrators, staff, and fellows at the Albright. Paramount among this group are the Director Seymour Gitin and Assistant to the Director Helena Flusfeder, Chief Librarian Sarah Sussman, and Institute Manager Nadia Bandak. Of course, the cuisine of Chef Hisham M’Farreh was consistently exquisite, rounding out the totality of the Albright experience in a marvelous way. In addition, I am very grateful to my research assistant, Marne Taylor of the Rothberg School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and George Washington University for all of her work. During the coming months, I hope to put the finishing touches on this monograph focusing on ‘Royal Assassination in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East,’ and it will be with a strong sense of a great debt I owe to all at the Albright that I do so.

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