A Kingdom for a Stage

Political and Theological Reflection in the Hebrew Bible

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Mark W. Hamilton
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , March
     2018.
     256 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783161555053.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book A Kingdom for a Stage, Mark W. Hamilton attempts to explore the political philosophy of ancient Israel through a rhetorical and comparative analysis of selected texts from the Hebrew Bible. As Hamilton makes clear, the work is not intended to be a definitive summary of Israel’s political philosophy; instead, the book is aimed at “initiat[ing] a number of soundings in the biblical texts in order to get a sense of the issues animating Israelite thought” (15). What follows are a number of learned and thoughtful essays that seek to illumine ancient Israel’s perspectives on kingship and the landed class, while also examining the nature of Israel’s political discourse.

A large portion of the book focuses on ancient Israel’s reflections on the monarchy. In chapter 2, Hamilton describes the different ways in which the biblical texts talk about kingship, which include narrative (27–29), reports of royal rituals (30–38), and references to monuments (39–47). After briefly interacting with examples from each, Hamilton reaches two initial conclusions: first, Israel’s perspectives on kingship are too complex to be captured by the anti- versus pro-monarchic binary, and second, Israel’s perspectives on kingship reveal theological and ethical commitments (48).

Hamilton revisits the subject of kingship in a later chapter, where he argues that Isaiah 32 should be understood as a cohesive text intended to “make a case for Yhwh’s benevolent rule and its instantiation in the life of a monarch” (132). Then again, in his ninth chapter, Hamilton compares Psalm 72 to royal inscriptions from the ancient Near East in order to argue that both in Israel and in neighboring cultures, kings were expected to provide for their people and to redistribute wealth taken from tribute (186–87). Last, in chapter 10, Hamilton goes beyond the Hebrew Bible and examines how two texts from the Second Temple period, namely, the Letter of Aristeas and the Temple Scroll, demonstrate the existence of different streams of political theology within Second Temple Judaism. Hamilton finds that these two sources sought to restrain royal power through two different approaches: the former attempted to shape the king into a good ruler (193), and the latter envisioned the use of political structures to keep rulers in check (195–97).

In addition to Israel’s reflections on kingship, Hamilton is also interested in Israel’s perspectives on societal elites. So in chapter 5, Hamilton contends that 1 Samuel provides both a negative and a positive portrayal of the landed gentry in its respective stories about Nabal and Barzillai. According to Hamilton, the accounts of these two characters show that elites had a legitimate function within Israel’s society, though they could unfortunately succumb to the tendency to cling too tightly to their place within the social order (94–96, 100–103). In chapter 8, Hamilton reads Job 29–31 as “a sophisticated defense of a particular set of ideals about nobility” (153). Moreover, Hamilton calls on readers to recognize Job’s monologue as a piece of literature that continues to aid reflection on the nature of wealth, power, and social class (169).

Last, Hamilton also attempts to demystify the rhetoric by which the Hebrew Bible makes political arguments. So, for instance, Hamilton tackles the Deuteronomistic History (DH: the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings) in order to contend that historical reflection was among the ways in which ancient Israelites expressed their political philosophy. In his essay on the DH, Hamilton seeks to prove that the work “crystallizes a running tradition of political reflection centered on historical concerns” (66). Accordingly, the DH does more than simply retell Israel’s past; through periodizing history and the use of extended discussions at transitional moments (56–58), the work attempts to “shap[e] memory in order to pave the way for a viable future” (66).

In a separate chapter, Hamilton compares Deuteronomy 1:19–16 to the Epic of Gilgamesh in order to “illustrate different options for politically-oriented speech-making in the ancient Near East” (69). On the basis of the contrast with Gilgamesh, Hamilton concludes that “Deuteronomy deconstructs an older tradition, in which a rhetor-hero shares with an audience assumptions and predilections toward actions that they find praiseworthy. Or rather Deuteronomy reaffirms it while denying that the Israelites participate in it or can do so” (85). Finally, Hamilton also explores the political messaging of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40–66), arguing that the work creates a new identity for Israel and invites its audience to a higher form of politics through narrative-making (138–42), through a focus on the metaphor of sight (142–43), and through the reconfiguration of the audience’s mental geography (143–50).

Hamilton’s work displays an impressive breadth of knowledge and includes many keen insights into the nature of political argumentation. Even where one disagrees with his interpretation of biblical passages, Hamilton raises questions that are stimulating and will lead readers to notice features of the text that may have otherwise escaped them. In addition to its erudition, the book is also a pleasant read, which is in itself a worthy achievement.

Nevertheless, A Kingdom for a Stage is not without flaws. Not all of Hamilton’s exegetical arguments and conclusions are persuasive; on the contrary, his interest in politics seems at times to unduly color his reading of certain passages. Furthermore, the book could have been strengthened had Hamilton provided a rationale for its overall organization. As it stands, it is somewhat apparent that the majority of the book’s chapters were originally published as separate essays. Last, readers may also wonder whether Hamilton attended to the biblical texts that were most pertinent to his stated project. Despite these limitations, those interested in the subject of Israel’s political philosophy will likely find The Kingdom for a Stage both instructive and enjoyable.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard M. Blaylock is an online teaching assistant and doctoral candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark W. Hamilton is Professor of Old Testament at Abilene Christian University.

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