The Politics of Dead Kings: Royal Ancestors and Dynastic Succession in the Book of Kings and the Eshmunazor Sarcophagus

In the narrative history found in the Book of Kings, the end of an Israelite king’s rule is summed up in a series of stock statements that begin with the poetic idiom for death: “and [the king] lay with his fathers.” The summary statements revolve around the problem of royal death and succession, encapsulated in a brief epilogue that consisted typically of a notice of burial (in the royal tombs) and the introduction of the successor. The purpose of this study is to place these epilogues within the socio-political context of death in the ancient Levant. This presentation will begin by examining the imagery of the formulaic statements against the background of burial customs in order to understand their social context. The study will then compare the same imagery with Phoenician royal funerary inscriptions, specifically the Eshmunazor Sarcophagus, in order to understand their political context. Both analyses will demonstrate that the central component of the epilogue’s ideology is a concept of ancestral identity, here expressed through the Hebrew term ’ab?t (literally, ‘fathers’). The royal ideology found in the epilogues of the Book of Kings is consistent with the political landscape of the Levant during the Iron Age, where kingdoms were often labeled according to the ancestral identity of their ruling dynasty, such as the ‘House of Omri’ for Israel. The formulaic epilogues certainly serve a literary purpose within the Hebrew Bible, yet they also reflect the importance of funerary rituals and royal tombs as means of confronting the political problems posed by a king’s death and the subsequent act of dynastic succession.