"Shepherd" Rulers in the Ancient Near East

I suppose I should take a brief pause from handing out BiblioBlogger theme songs and write something related to Biblical Studies (Just kidding … as if theme songs for BiblioBloggers is unrelated to Biblical Studies).  Anyway … I’ve been reading a bit from Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation edited by Chavalas.  I know and have discussed in my own teaching that shepherd imagery is, at least sometimes, royal imagery in the Old Testament.  I’m thinking of places like  1 Kings 22.17-18:

17 Then Micaiah​​ said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’ ” 18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?”

In this prophecy, the king of Israel is cast as a shepherd.  Another fairly clear place that this shepherd – royal imagery is quite clear is Ezekiel 34.  It’s extensive, so I won’t cite the whole chapter here.  But, it should be easy enough to see for yourself.

I have also known that this kind of imagery, i.e. the king as shepherd, was rooted in broader Ancient Near Eastern thought.  However, until reading  Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation I didn’t realize quite the extent of this.  It is almost despicable how often kings refer to themselves as shepherds or gods refer to kings as shepherds (or at least these words are placed in the mouths of kings in legendary writings).  Here are just a few references:

“I am a king who has not looked after his land, and a shepherd who has not looked after his people…” (Naram-sin)

“For Ningirsu, the mighty warrior of Enlil, Gudea, whose name endures – the ruler of Lagash, the shepherd called (chosen) in the heart by Ningirsu, …”

“… Shu-Suen (the purification priest of An, the anointed priest – clean of hand – of Enlil and Ninlil and of the great gods, the king whom Enlil affectionately revealed in his heart as shepherd of the land …”

“… I am the king of the four corners. I am the keeper, the shepherd of the black-headed ones …” (Shulgi)

This is only a very small sampling. I searched the term shepherd in Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation and it turned up 47 results (though not all of those were in the inscriptions themselves most of them are).

Considering how firmly rooted this imagery is, I think I will probably take a bit more pause when I see the word shepherd as I’m reading scripture.  When is a shepherd just a shepherd?  When is shepherd imagery royal imagery?  I’m sure someone has written something about that, but then again my primary area of research is applied linguistics….

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