God's Coronation on Rosh Hashanah
The Connection of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot to Rosh Hashanah
The earliest evidence that we have for the kingship of God as a significant theme for Rosh Hashanah is from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 4:5-6), where malchuyot, “kingship (of God),” is included among three special sections of the mussaf of Rosh Hashanah. This Mishnah reflects a practice different from the contemporary liturgy—specific verses are not established, and the number of scriptural verses and their order is debated. Yet all these traditions agree that three special sections are called for: malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot.
Of these sections, shofarot is most easily associated with biblical Rosh Hashanah, which in Lev 23:24 is “commemorated with loud blasts (זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה).” But this connection is not rock-solid, since teru’ah need not specifically refer to the blast of a shofar. It connotes a loud noise, whether made by a trumpeter (Num 10:5), a human outcry (Josh 6:5), or a shofar (Lev 25:9).
Thus, even the blessing shofarot is not necessarily connected to the biblical Rosh Hashanah since a shofar blast is a possible, but not necessary, understanding of the biblical zichron teru’ah. In one case in the Torah, teruah is explicitly associated with kings (Numbers 23:21 “king’s acclaim [תְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ]”), and the related root is associated with royal coronations (see 1 Sam 10:24). So shofarot may be connected to malchuyot biblically (see the blowing of the shofar as part of the coronation at 1 Kgs 1:34, 39, 41) even if it isn’t necessarily connected with Rosh Hashanah in the biblical text.
The connection of the other two special blessings, malchuyot and zichronot to biblical Rosh Hashanah is even less clear.
The association between divine memory and Rosh Hashanah is not obvious, though divine memory was a significant enough theme that it also determined the Torah reading according to the Talmud for Rosh Hashanah, which begins (Gen 21:1): “The LORD took note of Sarah as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.” This reading is more primarily connected to Rosh Hashanah than the akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is read on the second day as a continuation of that passage. Divine remembrance is thus an early rabbinic, central theme for Rosh Hashanah.
The association of divine kingship to Rosh Hashanah seems especially tenuous since nothing in the biblical text connects kingship to this festival. In part for that reason, in the twentieth century, the German scholar Paul Volz (1871-1941) and the Swedish scholar Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965) posited that a number of psalms that explicitly mention God’s kingship as well as many in which this is an implicit theme, originated in a Temple-based festival in which God was (re)enthroned annually as king. This most likely occurred at the (agricultural) new-year, which may have been commemorated at Sukkot and later moved to Rosh Hashanah.
Volz and Mowinckel based much of their argument on Mesopotamian analogies, especially the Babylonian akitu festival, in which the Babylonian high-god Marduk was (re)enthroned at the new year with the words “Marduk is king!” This hypothesis, which continues to be debated, remains conjectural. It does offer, however, a compelling reason why the kingship of God is so closely associated with Rosh Hashanah. In fact, the phrase יְ-הֹוָה מָלָךְ is parallel to the phrase used of Marduk in the akitu festival, and may be interpreted grammatically as “The LORD has become king,” emphasizing the reenthronement of God.
Kingship in the Bible and Rosh Hashana Mussaf
The Paucity of References to God’s kingship in the Torah
Strikingly, God is rarely called king in the Torah. The middle blessings of the Rosh Hashanah mussaf now open with three Torah verses and close with a fourth. In so doing, malchuyot quotes:
- Exodus 15:18, “The LORD will reign for ever and ever!”,
- Numbers 23:21 “No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. The LORD their God is with them, And their King’s acclaim in their midst”
- Deuteronomy 33:5 “Then He became King in Jeshurun, When the heads of the people assembled, The tribes of Israel together.”
It is not even certain that this last verse refers to God as king (rather than to Moses). But at least all three contain the word melech, king.
In contrast, the concluding Torah verse is from Deut 6:4:
- “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone”
The verse doesn’t even contain the root m-l-ch! The composer of this liturgy was indeed stuck, for there are no other verses in the Torah which connect this kingship root to God, and he is assuming that the image of the Shema prayer is about God as king. Perhaps he was influenced by the rabbinic idea (see e.g. m. Berachot 2:5) that the Shema deals with accepting ol malchut shamayim—the yoke of the reign of heaven. The use of this verse at the conclusion reflects the paucity of explicit references to God as king in the Torah.
God as king in Nevi’im and Ketuvim
In contrast, this image is very common outside of the Torah, in the nevi’im and ketuvim, and anyone searching for verses in which God is explicitly, unambiguously king would have many to choose from. These verses project upon God many aspects of human kingship; he has heavenly advisors, just like human kings (see esp. Job 1-2), sits on a throne in a palace (see esp. Isa 6:1), serves as a military leader (thus the phrase “the LORD of hosts (י-הוה צבאות)”) and is a judge (see below).
In fact, God as king is the predominant metaphor or image used of God in the Bible, more common than God as parent or husband. Even the famous metaphor of Ps 23:1, of God as a shepherd, may be a sub-metaphor of God as king, since in Israel, as in the ancient Near East, kings were called shepherds.
God Dispensing Justice like a King: Verses not Used on Rosh Hashanah
Many of the verses that call God “king,” or depict God as king, emphasize God’s justice. This follows a well-known pattern in the ancient Near East, including the Bible, where the king had a judicial role; though in Israel it was God the king, rather than the human king, who legislated laws.
The exact role of the king in the ancient Israelite judicial system is unclear, but according to 2 Samuel 15:4, Absalom succeeded in rebelling against his father David in part because David did not properly fulfill this judicial role: “And Absalom went on, ‘If only I were appointed judge in the land and everyone with a legal dispute came before me, I would see that he got his rights.’” Kings are often criticized for ignoring this responsibility; Ahab, for example, is castigated by Elijah for abusing his judicial power when misappropriating the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kgs 21). And it is only the future ideal king, what later Jewish texts would call the Messiah, who would mete out justice fairly (Isa 11:4-5).
Biblical texts suggest that God as king is a fair-minded judge, superior to human kings. The psalms that talk about God as king that we recite as part of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night exemplify this. For example, Ps 96 concludes “at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples in faithfulness” and 99:4 reads “Mighty king who loves justice, it was You who established equity, You who worked righteous judgment in Jacob.”
Given how common this entailment of God’s kingship is—God as the best, most-fair judge—it is striking that none of the verses chosen for malchuyot emphasize this aspect of God’s kingship. For us, Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a ten-day period of judgment, culminating in Yom Kippur, and verses about God the king’s fairness as judge would be the most appropriate ones to choose for the liturgy. This may suggest that malchuyot was originally associated with Rosh Hashanah not because it deals with themes such as God sitting in judgment—what we now consider to be the theme of Rosh Hashanah—but for different reasons.
God’s Power and God the Creator: Verses used on Rosh Hashanah
Most of the verses chosen for malchuyot from nevi’im and ketuvim focus on two themes: God’s power and God as creator. Both power and creation are related to kings, who lead armies and engage in great building projects. (The latter was especially true of non-Israelite kings, but in the Bible Solomon, for example, is depicted as a great builder.) God as king is incomparable: he defeats all enemies and has not built mere buildings, but the entire world.
Two verses from malchuyot reflect the idea of God as creator (The latter verse does not explicitly use the root m-l-ch.)
- Psalm 93:1 – “The LORD is king, He is robed in grandeur; the LORD is robed, He is girded with strength. The world stands firm; it cannot be shaken.”
- Isaiah 44:6 – “Thus said the LORD, the King of Israel, Their Redeemer, the LORD of Hosts: I am the first and I am the last, And there is no god but Me.”
I believe that the choice of verses about creation reflects the natural idea that God created the world on Rosh Hashanah, a tradition known in rabbinic and earlier texts (b. Rosh Hashana10b), and found in the piyyut chanted after shofar blowing “the world was conceived today (היום הרת עולם).”
The remainder of the verses, however, reflect God the warrior-king. For example Ps 22:29 notes “for kingship is the LORD’s and He rules the nations” and Zech. 14:9 states, “And the LORD shall be king over all the earth; in that day there shall be one LORD with one name.” These are both images of power, and perhaps this collection of verses is saying that on Rosh Hashanah we again want God to be fully powerful, as God was in creating the world. Creation and power are connected, as seen e.g, in Isa 51:9-11:
9 Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor. O arm of the LORD! Awake as in days of old, As in former ages! It was you that hacked Rahab in pieces, That pierced the Dragon. 10 It was you that dried up the Sea, The waters of the great deep; That made the abysses of the Sea A road the redeemed might walk. 11 So let the ransomed of the LORD return, And come with shouting to Zion, Crowned with joy everlasting. Let them attain joy and gladness, While sorrow and sighing flee.
These verses, spoken by this sixth century prophet in the Babylonian exile, call upon a creation story that differs from those found at the beginning of Genesis, and is well-known in Canaanite and Mesopotamian sources. They are insisting that the “good ole’” God reassert himself and powerfully lead Israel back from exile—the exact two themes of power and creation, found in malchuyot. Indeed, the image of God as king is the central image of this section of Isaiah, and this verse assumes that God as king is both a creator and a powerful warlord.
The Underlying Theme of the Malchuyot
This observation, that the main theme of the malchuyot verses is God as powerful and creator, returns us to the hypothesis of Volz and Mowinckel, that in its prehistory Rosh Hashanah was an annual festival in which God was crowned anew as king. This would most likely have been commemorated on the day of creation, when God could first be imagined as king—for only after creation did God the king reign over a territory (the world) and have subjects.
At the time of creation, God demonstrated great power; the other verses assert that God will again demonstrate comparable power. Since the world has already been created and will not be destroyed and recreated, the main way in which the power of God’s kingship could be imagined was of God the warrior, vanquishing enemies. Just as the Babylonian god Marduk became king after slaying his enemies, who were led by the goddess Tiamat, and the Canaanite Baal became king after killing Yamm and his helpers, God became king during creation.
If the observation that the kingship verses in malchuyot do not highlight God as a just king, but God as a powerful creator king is significant, then it is likely that malchuyot does not reflect the role of Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the penitential season. Instead, malchuyot retains echoes of an ancient festival in which God was annually (re)enthroned as king, on the world’s birthday, and expresses the hope that the power that God manifested then will be seen again.
Rosh Hashana Musaf as Reflecting God’s Coronation
It is even possible that shofarot and zichronot are tied to God becoming king: as noted above, a king’s coronation was accompanied by the teru’ah or the shofar, and upon ascending the throne, the king had to remember which enemies to punish and which friends to reward (see 1 Kings 2:1-9, of Solomon). Thus, the thematic choice of all three of the central sections of the mussaf, malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot, may reflect this ancient ritual of divine coronation.
This may even be reflected in several places in the machzor that use language of enthronement, such as the introduction to melech elyon on the first day of the mussaf of Rosh Hashanah: “and thus may we enthrone you, o superlative king (ובכן נמליכך מלך עליון).” Only later did the Rosh Hashanah liturgy fully absorb the theme of divine judgment and especially forgiveness.
Thus, a close look at the Rosh Hashanah liturgy even now shows how its reinterpretation through the ages has left in place vestiges of its early theme and function—the (re)enthronement of God as a king, including: a coronation (malchuyot) accompanied with great noise (shofarot), which was an occasion for God the king to remember all that was done, and to react accordingly (zichronot).
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September 5, 2014
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author, most recently, of How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is cofounder of Project TABS (Torah and Biblical Scholarship) – TheTorah.com.
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