By Andrew Knapp
There are two sides to every story—even when the public comes together to cry foul against a certain party. Take the story of the three little pigs. Every child knows that the pigs are innocent victims of the ruthless and insatiable big bad wolf. But the villain also has a tale to tell. Ancient Near Eastern kings felt the same way.
In Jon Scieszka’s masterful True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Alexander T. Wolf informs the audience, “Nobody knows the real story, because nobody has heard my side of the story.” He was baking a cake for his grandmother’s birthday and visited his neighbor, the first pig, to try to borrow a cup of sugar. Afflicted with a cold, the wolf accidentally sneezed, blowing the pig’s pathetically constructed domicile down, and so on. Every alleged misdeed of the wolf is justified but he is eventually framed by the third pig and arrested.
The True Story of the Three Little Pigs is an apology (or apologia), in which an accused party presents a defense against accusations of malfeasance. Such fare has become common with the success of Wicked (the apology of the Wicked Witch of the West), Hoodwinked (an apology for another big bad wolf, in this case from the Little Red Riding Hood story), and Maleficent (the evil witch from Snow White).
But such other-side-of-the-story fictional retellings trade on a real phenomenon common to all human societies. The term apology (in the sense of self-defense, not an admission of guilt) derives from Plato’s Apology, his account of Socrates’s defense against the charge of corrupting the youth.
Several royal apologies—defenses of a monarch’s conduct during his rise to the throne and reign—have survived from the ancient Near East. Usurpers in particular needed to explain how their seizure of power was justified. Given the sweeping authority possessed by many ancient kings, this may be surprising, but while ancient Near Eastern civilizations were uniformly autocratic, no monarch—however tyrannical or despotic—could rule without the acceptance of the governed. When confidence in a king waned, questions about his legitimacy inevitably arose; if they reached a critical mass he would be removed from power, one way or another.
Ancient Near Eastern monarchs understood the importance of establishing a narrative. In a world where dynasties were perceived as having a divine mandate, regime change involved ousting a king who had been established by the gods. This never occurred peacefully; the incumbent was typically murdered, often with his progeny, since no one wanted young scions to avenge their father and reclaim the throne. Even the most successful coups established a new regime on a foundation of conspiracy and assassination. No matter how hated the previous monarch was, this opened the new ruler up to criticism about his fitness for office. Kings might have had absolute authority, but they were expected to be pious, upright individuals, not murderers.
Knowing the fragility of his situation and the need to shape his narrative, a successful usurper would take to the airwaves, so to speak, to justify his takeover. Several ancient Near Eastern usurpers disseminated royal apologies, propagandistic retellings of their seizure of the throne, justifying their actions and legitimizing their place on the throne. Several such apologies have survived, which testifies to how critical this propaganda was and how thoroughly it was disseminated.
For example, the thirteenth-century BCE Hittite ruler Hattusili III unseated his nephew Urhi-Tessup, the rightful king, in what the Assyriologist Hayim Tadmor called “an obviously illegitimate act.” But Hattusili depicts himself as a pious public servant who had no aspirations to be king. Eight hundred years later, Darius the Great of Persia seized power after assassinating his predecessor. Rather than attempt to cover up the (apparently well-known) incident, he publicized it in the famous Bisitun Inscription, asserting that he was restoring the proper dynasty to power.
Although royal apologies take different forms, the underlying rhetoric is remarkably similar for texts that span a wide geographic region over more than a millennium. Two motifs that appear in nearly every apology are divine election, the idea that the new ruler was specially chosen by a deity and elevated to kingship, and the unworthy predecessor, a series of charges against the ousted ruler showing how he had disqualified himself from kingship through impious acts. The usurpers discussed above each emphasize these motifs in their respective apologies. Hattusili, for example, invokes divine election by stating, “Ishtar, my lady, gave the kingship of Hatti to me. So I became king, and she took me, a prince, and Ishtar, my lady, released me for kingship.” He mentions Ishtar forty-six times in the text, nearly always in the context of her “providence” on his behalf. With regard to the unworthy predecessor, Hattusili portrays his predecessor Urhi-Tessup as an irreverent, paranoid king. Urhi-Tessup repeatedly stripped Hattusili of his lands despite the latter’s unimpeachable loyalty; only after seven years of suffering such humiliation did Hattusili, after consulting the gods, take action to oust his nephew.
Darius likewise asserts his divine election, invoking the deity Auramazda so routinely that the unwary reader is almost hypnotized by statements such as “by the favor Auramazda I am king; Auramazda granted me kingship.” Darius’s delegitimization of his predecessor via the unworthy rival motif is more interesting. After the Persian king Cambyses died, his brother Bardiya was crowned. Darius, with the backing of a small court cabal, then murdered Bardiya and assumed the throne—or so most scholars believe. According to Darius’s apology, the true Bardiya had been killed long before, and the alleged Bardiya whom he slew was actually an impostor named Gaumata. Historians have no way of proving or disproving Darius’s account and I am skeptical. Regardless, the rhetoric is easily understandable. Darius justified, even celebrated (“No one dared to act against Gaumata the magus until I came”), the assassination as the removal of a diabolical fraud.
Usurpers from a variety of civilizations and periods appealed to the same means to justify the coups that placed them in power. On the one hand, the specific shared rhetoric among the disparate apologies reveals much about ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. These texts underscore the necessity of divine patronage to establish a ruler’s legitimacy and the importance of at least a pretense of piety. On the other hand, the fact that ancient Near Eastern usurpers took pains to convince the public of their propriety should not surprise us, as this type of self-defense is common to politicians throughout history. A cursory glance at recent American politics reveals that even legitimate rulers (and would-be rulers) often need to defend themselves against accusations of malfeasance. The unworthy predecessor motif seen frequently in ancient Near Eastern apologies resonates closely with the delegitimization of one’s predecessor’s administration in contemporary politics.
Ancient Near Eastern apologetic has special relevance for biblical studies. Many scholars have detected hints of royal apologetic in some historiographical passages of the Hebrew Bible, such as the accounts of Solomon’s consolidation of power (involving the slayings of many political opponents) after his intrigue-fueled coronation in 1 Kings 1-2, and Jehu’s murderous coup in 2 Kings 9-10.
But the most fascinating such narrative is that of David’s rise to power depicted in 1-2 Samuel. The origin of the Samuel text has long perplexed scholars: Why is David’s rise given such an extended and detailed treatment? Why is the text so defensive? The text of Samuel resulted from a complex process of redaction and transmission of original sources, but many scholars suggest that the present narrative drew extensively from propaganda disseminated by those closely associated with David.
The average Israelite in David’s day presumably would have known little of what landed David on the throne beyond the fact that Saul fell in battle to the Philistines (1 Sam 31)—a group with whom David had recently been allied, and in whose ranks he had even marched to that very battle (1 Sam 29)—and that David took the throne after a war with Saul’s son, Ish-Baal (2 Sam 3-5). Moreover, David possessed both Saul’s regalia (2 Sam 1) and Ish-Baal’s head (2 Sam 4). Many undoubtedly would have connected the dots and assumed that David had orchestrated all of these events for his own gain. It makes sense that David would have commissioned apologetic propaganda to explain what “really” happened and assert his innocence in everything.
Assuming the propaganda disseminated widely, as was its purpose, it stands to reason that these stories of David would have been well known and would have eventually filtered down into the Hebrew Bible. The fact that the biblical narrative goes out of its way to place David in incriminating situations only to absolve him each time strengthens this reconstruction, as do comparative examples. The David narrative shares many motifs with other royal apologies from the ancient Near East— the unworthy predecessor and divine election, for example, are everywhere in the David narrative in the besmirching of Saul’s character and in the leitmotif that “Yahweh was with him [David],” respectively. These were the ultimate defense for a king that many historians have come to see as a big bad wolf.
Andrew Knapp is acquisitions editor in Biblical Studies at Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. He holds a Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University.
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