When the King Crosses the Line:
Royal Deviance and Restitution
in Levantine Ideologies

K. C. Hanson
Fortress Press
Minneapolis, MN 55440-1209


Published in Biblical Theology Bulletin 26 (1996):11-25
(© 1996; Reprinted here by permission of the publisher)


Despite the wonders of modern technology, we in industrialized societies are no more capable of controlling weather patterns than the ancients. We are in a stronger position to respond to disease and infestations. But a greater chasm between us and the ancient Mediterranean is our different perception and interpretation of what we call "the natural order": it was their common assumption that climatological, entomological, and virological patterns were modes of divine action, and often as punishment. This assumption is certainly not geographically limited to the Mediterranean, but it is there that a clear narrative pattern emerged which articulates the causal connection between royal deviance, divine punishment (in the form of plagues, famines, droughts, and storms), as well as the role of professional intermediaries and sacrifices.
Biblical scholars have occasionally noticed parallels between one or two of these "Royal Deviance Narratives." But often the parallels they adduce are at the most cursory level, and presented with little or no analysis. What I maintain here is that these narratives exhibit a whole complex of common character-types as well as motifs. Furthermore, these character-types and motifs emerge from societies with common social structures and cultural assumptions.
The character-types which are consistent in these narratives are:
The passages which manifest the narrative pattern discussed here share the following motifs:
After an examination of each passage and its use of the motifs, I will provide an analysis of the cultural and ideological assumptions of the pattern. Table 1 charts the motifs of each story. These Royal Deviance Narratives are of interest because they integrate a variety of assumptions which are important for our understanding of ancient Levantine (eastern Mediterranean) cultures in general, and ancient Israel in particular.

Table 1: Recurring Motifs in the Royal Deviance Narratives
Story & Kings Breach of
the Sacred
Deity &
Return or
1 Samuel 5–6
Philistine lords
ark captured
& placed in Dagon's temple
7-month plague: tumors & mice
priests & diviners ark returned gold figures as sin offering

2 Samuel 21
David & Saul
treaty with the Gibeonites broken Yahweh
3-year famine
"inquiry" Saul's sons turned over human sacrifices

2 Samuel 24
census taken of Israel & Judah Yahweh
3-day plague
Gad the
prophet & seer
burnt & peace offerings
1 Kings 16–18
forsaking Yahweh & following Baal Yahweh
3-year drought & famine
Elijah the prophet vow of loyalty & execution of Baal prophets burnt offering
KUB xiv.8
Mursilis & Suppiluliumas
treaty w/ Egypt broken & cessation of Mala sacrifices Storm-God
20-year plague
oracle prisoners returned sacrifices

Iliad 1.1-487
refusal to ransom priest's daughter Apollo
10-day plague
Calchas the seer priest's daughter returned hecatomb

murder of father/king and incest w/ mother Apollo
Teireisas the seer Jocasta: suicide Oedipus: exile Oedipus's bloody eyes

1 Samuel 5:1–7:1
The so-called "Ark Narrative" is a hypothetical source of the Deuteronomistic History located in 1 Sam 4:1b–7:1 and 2 Sam 6:2-23, first isolated by Rost 1982 [1926]; see Campbell 1975; Miller and Roberts 1977; and McCarter 1980:23-26. The first part of the Ark Narrative recounts how the Israelite army took the ark of the covenant into battle at Ebenezer and lost it to the Philistine forces. Chapter 4 narrates the battle which ends with the ark's capture (4:11), followed by the death of Eli (4:18). In chapter 5 the Philistines shift the ark from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron because it brings an epidemic of unspecified tumors wherever it sojourns. And in chapter 6 the Philistines consult their priests and diviners in order to discover how to deal with the problem. I focus here on chapters 5 and 6, since these chapters go beyond a battle legend to explore narratively what the results of mishandling the sacred object are. (For a detailed analysis of these passages, see Campbell 1975:83-142.)
The breach of the sacred that occurs here is left unspecified. As Miscall observes, the specific reason the Philistines are afflicted remains unanswered by the narrator (1986:34). Is it simply the Philistines' possession of the ark, or the placement of the ark in the Ashdod temple of Dagon? One could assume it is the latter since no plague is mentioned until after the Dagon-temple incident (5:6). But this interpretation is problematic since the plague of tumors occurs in whatever town to which the ark is transported (5:6-12). Perhaps we should interpret the temple-scene as a specific incidence of the general defilement of the ark at the hands of foreigners, but the explanation remains open.
Yet whatever else the importance of the temple-scene, it is clear that the narrator wishes to convey Yahweh's superior power in comparison to that of Dagon: Yahweh's hand (read: power) is "heavy" (Hebrew: tikbad)—a metaphor for plague—while Dagon's hands are broken off (see Roberts 1971). Furthermore, it is Yahweh's honor that comes out on top in the stylized challenge–riposte contest between the physical representations of the two gods: Dagon's statue falls face down before Yahweh's ark (5:4). That the ark is an expression of Yahweh's honor is made explicit in the many wordplays on the Hebrew root kbd as a verb, noun, and adjective, as well as the explicit statement made by Eli's daughter-in-law: "Honor (kabôd) has departed from Israel, for God's ark has been captured" (4:22). The dangerous ark has been mishandled by the Philistines, and Yahweh's purity and sacrality will permit this treatment neither from Israelites nor foreigners (see Numb 4:15; 1 Sam 6:19-21; 2 Sam 6:6-10). Those who encroach upon Yahweh's honor do so at their own peril. Yahweh's hand is "heavy" (kbd; 5:11), and the only way to get him to "lighten up" (qll; 6:5) is to make restitution (Miscall 1986:32).
The agents of the purity/sacral violation might be taken to be the Philistine people in general, since they are usually referred to as a collective (5:1-2; 6:2, 10, 17, 21). But the "five lords of the Philistines" are mentioned as playing the directive role: they make the decision to move the ark (5:8), they follow the cart to Beth-shemesh (6:12), they witness the successful return of the ark into the custody of Levites and the Israelite sacrifice (6:16), and the number of culpability offerings is determined by their number (6:4, 18). The lords are representative figures, and are ultimately responsible.
The punishment on the Philistine cities is an outbreak of tumors (Q: techôrim; K: 'epholîm), and presumably also an infestation of mice or rats (5:6, 9, 12; 6:4; MT does not include the mice until the offerings are mentioned; LXX mentions mice at 5:6). What the nature of these tumors is the narrator does not specify, but perhaps boils (the term occurs elsewhere only in Deut 28:27). The epidemic and infestation (maggêphah) continue for a period of seven months—a traditional folkloric number (note also the three stricken cities: Ashdod, Gath, Ekron).
Such an affliction calls for a remedy; but the Philistines do not seek out the answer from healers or physicians. Neither do they request an interpretation of the cause-and-effect relationship between the scourges and their possession of the ark (6:2). They call upon their priests (kohanim) and diviners (qosemîm) to ask: What is the proper procedure for disposal of the ark? The term "diviners" in Hebrew refers to those who read signs of various types. In Ezek 21:28 [ET 21:23], it refers to shaking arrows, consulting teraphim, and reading livers (see also Numb 23:23; 1 Sam 15:23; 2 Kgs 17:17; Mic 3:6-7). Their precise method for determining the correct procedure is not indicated (for parallels to inquiry of the gods and movement of the gods' statues, see Miller and Roberts 1977:10-16, 77-87). But the procedure stipulated here may have been a standard one for such occurrences; the Hittites, for example, had such a "standard" procedure (see KUB ix,31 ii,43 –iii,14, "Ritual Against Pestilence," Goetze 1969:347). The specialists, however, also realize that the procedure is a contingent one: once they build a cart (pulled by two cows and loaded with the offerings), if the cows take the cart toward Beth-shemesh, then they will know that it is truly Yahweh "who has done us this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us—it happened to us by chance" (6:9; for a parallel to this contingency, see KUB xiv,8, below). As Brueggemann aptly points out (1990:41), they would be able to tell that the deity was at work because the natural instinct of the cows would be to return to their separated calves (6:7).
The specialists stipulate a procedure involving four basic elements. They rule out simply returning the ark (6:3a); this would be inadequate to address the gravity of the offense to Yahweh's honor. First, they would have to manufacture and send a culpability offering ('asham; 6:4-5); the offering would consist of five golden replicas of their afflictions: tumors and mice. This comports with notions of imitative magic: similia similibus "like addresses like." These were to be placed in a container (6:8). Second, they had to construct a new cart, pulled by two milk cows that had never been used for labor (6:7). This stipulation comports with general purity regulations for female sacrificial animals (see Numb 19:2; Deut 21:3). In the Akkadian ritual for covering the kettle-drum, the sacrificial bull must not have been "struck with a staff or touched with a goad" (TCL vi, no. 44; Sachs 1969:335 [A:i:6]). Third, the ark had to be placed in the cart along with the golden offering, and the cart sent on its path (6:8). And fourth, they had to give honor (kabôd) to Israel's God (6:5). This comports with the so-called "doxology of judgment," which entails not only an expression of acknowledgement, but admission of culpability (see von Rad 1962:357-58). This appears in both Israelite and early Christian narratives, for example:
For the plagues to abate, restitution had to be made: Yahweh's ark needed to be restored to Israelite territory and the care of Yahweh's priests. Making culpability offerings and returning the ark were necessary for cosmic harmony to return.
While the offering of the Philistines took the form of the golden replicas, the liturgical aspect of the story is brought to conclusion by the people of Beth-shemesh. They broke up the cart for fuel and slaughtered the milk cows as a burnt-offering ('olah) to Yahweh (6:14).

2 Samuel 21:1-14
Saul and his sons were killed in battle with the Philistines at Mt. Gilboa, as recounted in 1 Samuel 31. Since their bodies had not yet been properly buried with their ancestors (as the narrator indicates in 21:14), the story is evidently set early in David's reign. Budde has been widely followed in seeing its original place in the David narratives as following 2 Sam 8:18 (cited in Carlson 1964:198-99). The narrative begins with a three-year famine in Israel (v1a), and it is up to the king to discover the source of this on-going disaster. The timing of the incident is also clearly important to the narrator: the beginning of the barley harvest, which would place it near the spring equinox (see Borowski 1987:31-44, 91-92). The connection of the king and the restoration of fertility is fundamental here (Kapelrud 1979).
The king "inquired" or "sought out" (bqsh) the face of Yahweh (v1a). The narrator provides no details as to how this was done, but the meaning of the phrase emerges through comparison with other parts of the epic tradition. In 1 Sam 28:6 Saul "inquired" (sha'al) of Yahweh, and expected a response through one of three media: a dream, the Urim, or prophets (nebî'im) (see Iliad 1.62-63; KUB xiv,8 §2, and the analyses below). In 1 Sam 14:36-42 the Urim and Thummim are identified as lots for casting binary answers from Yahweh, executed by a priest (also Numb 27:21; 1 Sam 22:10-15). Judges 20:18-28 and 1 Sam 22:10-15 also indicate inquiries were made by priests at the Yahweh-shrines in Bethel and Nob. And a general statement appears in 1 Sam 9:9: "Previously in Israel, when a man went to inquire (drsh) of God, he said: 'Come and let us go to the seer (ro'eh).'" For other prophetic inquiries see also Exod 18:15; 1 Sam 28:6-14; 1 Kgs 14:1-5; 22:5-12; 2 Kgs 1:2-4; 3:11-12; 8:7-10; 16:10-16; 22:11-20; and for unspecified references to inquiry of Yahweh, see Judg 1:1-2; 18:5; 1 Sam 10:22; 23:2-4; 2 Sam 2:1; 5:19, 23-24; Ps 27:8; 1 Chron 21:30. Thus, while this story includes only a general statement of the king inquiring of Yahweh, it indicates one of the accepted Israelite media of priestly lots or prophetic divination.
The result of David's inquiry was that the sacral infraction was discovered to be Saul's breaking of an Israelite treaty with the Gibeonites. The two pivotal phrases are: "there is blood-culpability on Saul and on [his] house" (v1b), and "while the people of Israel had taken an oath regarding them, Saul sought to execute them" (v2). The conclusion is: the culpability of Saul's royal house by breaking the treaty had put the entire society in jeopardy. The narrative connection in the Deuteronomistic History is to Josh 9:3-27, where the Gibeonites trick Joshua and the Israelites into making a treaty with them, forming a patron-client alliance. The direct link is to Josh 9:18: "But the people of Israel did not kill them because the chieftains of the congregation had sworn to them by Yahweh, Israel's God." But beyond the Gibeonite treaty, Yarchin rightly points out that this passage assumes several parts of the Deuteronomistic History (1993:114): the oath between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18 and 20), Saul's tragic death (1 Samuel 31), and the preservation of Meribaal (2 Samuel 9).
The importance of the oath is that it identifies the sacral quality of the offence: it invoked Yahweh's name, and may have included a self-curse for a breach as well. One finds such a self-curse quoted when Ruth pledges her loyalty to Naomi: "Thus may Yahweh do to me and more also if even death makes a separation between me and you" (Ruth 1:17; see also 2 Sam 19:13). As with the Philistines' capture of the ark, Yahweh's honor is at stake. (For a broken treaty as the cause of a plague, see the case of the Hittites and Egyptians below: KUB xiv,8.) But it must also be noted that Saul's killing of Gibeonites is nowhere recounted in the Bible (McCarter 1984:441). In line with his argument that 1 Samuel 21–24 narrates the transition from a "warrior-king" model to a "shepherd-king" (viz. mediatory) model in ancient Israel, Yarchin argues that with 21:2 "the famine haunting Israel is revealed to the reader to be the devastating legacy of a warrior-king" (1993:81).
What the Gibeonites wanted as restitution was for the king to hand over seven of Saul's descendants for execution (v6). They dismiss any notion of a financial settlement since "silver and gold" are not appropriate reparations when the issue is vengeance in a blood-feud (v4). The objects of this exercise from the narrator's viewpoint were the achievement of purgation (kpr) of the blood-culpability (see Milgrom 1991:255-56, 306-7), and the restoration of relationships with the Gibeonites (v3). To accomplish this, blood vengeance was required by the Gibeonites, which they were loathe to carry out without the new king's assistance (see Pedersen 1926:383-85). David's strategy in having someone else execute his potential political rivals is not brought into focus by the narrator, but appears glaringly obvious (as noted by Kapelrud 1979:42); and Shimei's accusations in 2 Sam 16:6-7 indicate awareness about the connection of David's motivations and the death of the Saulides (Kapelrud 1979:43).
The executions of Saul's descendants take on the sacral quality of sacrifice. First, they are taken to Gibeon, which is described as "Yahweh's mountain" (v6). The location is problematic since the MT reads "Gibeah" (Saul's capital) and the LXX reads "Gibeon" (for a discussion of the textual problems, see McCarter 1984:438 and Yarchin 1993:66-67); the latter makes more sense since it is the Gibeonites home-turf, and this location is repeatedly referred to in cultic contexts (1 Kgs 3:4; 1 Chron 16:39-40; 21:29; 2 Chron 1:3, 13). Gibeon also had a "great stone" (2 Sam 20:8), which perhaps indicates their local cult-object. Second, the executions are carried out "before Yahweh" (vv6, 9), a traditional phrase employed in rituals (see e.g., Exod 34:23; Lev 3:12; Deut 31:11; 1 Sam 2:18). And third, their deaths have the same effect as David's sacrifices at Araunah's threshing floor: Yahweh again entertains petitions for the land (v14; see 24:25 and the analysis below). Thus, these are more than executions or vengeance killings—they are human sacrifices: seven victims slaughtered before Yahweh on Yahweh's mountain to effect purgation, reconciliation, and the end of famine. For the sacrifice of a king's child see Judg 12:30-40 and 2 Kgs 3:26-27, and possibly 2 Kgs 16:3 and 21:6. An oath sworn in Yahweh's name requires restitution before Yahweh: if Yahweh is the guarantor of the oath, then Yahweh must oversee any infringements and redress. But care must also be taken with how issues concerning Yahweh's anointed king are handled (see Knierim 1968).
With the burial of the seven victims ordered by David (along with the burials of Saul and Jonathan) at the ancestral tomb in the Benjamite village of Zela, resolution is brought to the incident. But one should also note that the narrator credits Rizpah, Saul's concubine, as keeping the incident in the public eye (vv10-11), and therefore prompting David's action. With the burial taken care of, Yahweh is satisfied: "And after that God was petitioned for the land" (v14); harmony had been restored.

2 Samuel 24:1-25
Because of Yahweh's anger at Israel for unspecified reasons, the deity incites David to take a census of Israel and Judah (24:1). David does so, delegating the task to Joab, his military commander (vv2-9). But upon the completion of the census, David confesses that this is a sinful act: "I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O Yahweh, please remove the culpability of your servant; for I have acted very foolishly" (v10b; see also v17). The truly unique aspect of this story is that Yahweh is identified as the instigator of the sacral breach. (Note how the Chronicler solves this theological "problem" by substituting a dualistic perspective, changing the instigator to Satan in 1 Chron 21:1.) Meyers connects the census with David's need for conscripted labor from among native Israelites (1987:368); and McCarter, connecting the census with military conscription, interprets the punishment for the census as a result of the lack of ritual purity necessary for such an undertaking (1984:512-14; see e.g., Exod 30:11-16; Numb 8:19).
The divine response to David's confession and request comes by means of Gad, the prophet and seer (nabî' and ro'eh; v11). Gad had received Yahweh's word, indicating an audition (aural, rather than visual), and was commanded to deliver three choices of punishment to the king (v12). Thus, the cause-and-effect connection between David's breach and the pestilence is established even before the punishment occurs. The three choices offered are listed in descending time-lengths: seven years of famine, three months of enemies' pursuit, or three days of plague (v13; LXX reads three years of famine, following 1 Chron 21:12, and thus maintains the parallel). As David points out, the plague has the advantage of being under God's merciful control rather than that of David's human enemies (v14). What is left unstated is that it is also the briefest punishment. Seventy thousand men die as a result (v15); but if one follows Mendenhall (1958) and others in interpreting Hebrew 'elep, not as "one thousand," but as a "contingent" of five to fourteen, the numbers would be 350 to 980. Yahweh's mercy manifests itself in withholding the plague from Jerusalem (v16).
The second Yahweh-word is delivered by Gad to David: "Go up and erect an altar to Yahweh on the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite" (v18). Even though a time-limit was placed on the plague, sacrifice is still the necessary conclusion to the incident. After negotiations with Araunah, David buys the threshing-floor, wood, and oxen for fifty shekels of silver. David stipulates that he cannot accept them as a gift, because he does not want any question that the sacrifices are from him rather than Araunah (v24). The sacrifices are of two types: burnt and fellowship (or "peace") offerings ('olôt and shelamîm, v25). As Anderson argues, this may indicate sacrifices wholly for the deity and sacrifices to be consumed by the community respectively (1992:878-79). The sacrifices here have the same result as the death of Saul's sons: "Then Yahweh heeded petitions for the land, and the plague was restrained from Israel" (v25; see above 21:14 and Iliad 1.454 –457).
It is important to note that this is the one story among those we are considering in which the king cannot effectively change his actions. Once the census was taken, it could not be undone.

1 Kings 16:29—18:45
These chapters form a complex narrative which comprises not only multiple scenes, but stories set within stories. After king Ahab succeeds to his father Omri's throne in Samaria, he marries the Sidonian princess Jezebel. This leads him to build a Baal-temple and altar (16:32) and "an Asherah" (16:33). These acts provoke Yahweh so that Elijah delivers the message of judgment: "As Yahweh, Israel's God, lives before whom I stand, there will be no dew or rain, except by my word" (17:1). This parallels the story in 2 Samuel 24 in that the prophet does not simply interpret the disaster, but announces it. Again, Yahweh's honor is challenged—this time by an Israelite king having divided fealty. Ahab offers to the Baals and Asherah what, in Israelite ideology, rightly belongs to Yahweh alone—the vassal's allegiance to his suzerain: "and he went (halak) and served ('abad) Baal and worshiped (shatach) him" (16:31).
Ahab's disloyalty to Yahweh results in the devastation of the land, with particular severity in Samaria (18:2; note that Yahweh spared Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 24). But the effects even overflow the borders of Israel; for when Elijah flees to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, the widow who offers him hospitality is ready to die because of the famine (17:12, 14). Thus, both Ahab's kingdom and Jezebel's homeland suffer. The drought lasts into the third year (18:1; see 2 Sam 21:1).
One of the twists in this narrative is that Elijah, rather than the king, sacrifices the burnt-offering ('ôlah) to Yahweh (18:30-38). Like the rest of the Elijah–Elisha saga, this scene incorporates several folkloric numbers: the altar is built of twelve stones corresponding to the twelve Israelite tribes (v31); Elijah orders four jars of water poured over the sacrifice three times (another twelve, vv33-34); and the three ritual elements include the burnt-offering (v38), the vow of loyalty (v39), and the execution of the Baal prophets (v40). For other folkloric numbers in chapters 16–18, in addition to the three-year drought, we find Elijah stretching himself on the dead child three times (17:21), the three none-responses of Baal (17:26, 28,29), and Elijah's servant looking for signs of rain seven times (18:43-44).
The abatement of the drought and famine occurs in the wake of the three-fold ritual response: sacrifice, vow, execution of opponents. The death of the Baal prophets is tied to the animal sacrifice. And the sacrifice elicits the appropriate response on the part of the people a vow of loyalty: "Yahweh, he is the god! Yahweh, he is the god!" (18:39). This vow echoes the phrasing and theological concerns of the Shema (as well as the Deuteronomistic History in general), and provides a negative parallel to Ahab's actions: