Mark W. Hamilton, The Body Royal: The Social Poetics of Kingship in Ancient Israel
(Biblical Interpretation Series, 78; Leiden/Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005). Pp. xv + 316. Cloth, €88,00, US $119.00. ISBN 90-04-14541-9.
Reviewed by Dale Launderville
OSB, Saint John’s University School of Theology/Seminary, Collegeville, MN 56321

This dissertation (Harvard University, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, 2000; readers: Peter Machinist, Jo Ann Hackett, and Sarah Coakley) argues that “kingship, far from being an alien intrusion on Israelite life, became a bundle of signs quintessentially representing its notions of human and divine power and nurturance” (pp. 30-31). Hamilton examines how the body of the king in its appearance and functioning participates in a network of signs (i.e., a code) that links the king to the divine realm and to the body politic. His attention to the language about the king’s body and the king’s use of and attention to his body uncovers ways that these bodily actions shaped relationships of power in Israel. Operating according to an interpretive model informed largely by the semiotic theories of Charles Sanders Pierce and Umberto Eco, Hamilton shows how the king’s display, discipline, and care for the royal body constituted an essential part of the politics of monarchic Israel. Hamilton aims to articulate “how” the language of the royal psalms and other biblical narratives evoked the networks within which the meaning of the king’s social body was debated by participants from various social locations in the polity (pp. 15, 31, 112).

To uncover the royal body language, Hamilton undertakes a historical-critical analysis of the royal psalms, narratives from the Deuteronomistic History, and a few passages from the prophets. His careful analysis of the royal psalms (chapters 2-3) creates a necessary context for interpreting royal body language and, at the same time, yields a number of interesting proposals for translating and interpreting difficult verses. The royal psalms, as identified by Hermann Gunkel and dated to the preexilic period (Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 101, 110, 132), provide a window into the Davidic dynasty’s understanding of the person of the king. Drawing upon the model mapped out by the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz (The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957]), Hamilton identifies three types of bodies: (1) the male body of the king, (2) the body politic or social body of the king, and (3) the permanent or “immortal” body of the King. On the relationship of the earthly king to the divine king Yhwh, Hamilton argues that the royal psalms present “a sliding scale” between the divine and human dimensions of the royal person. Hamilton makes daring, controversial claims about the identity of the king’s body with that of Yhwh, where a dissenting opinion would want to place more emphasis on the difference between the king and Yhwh and understand the points of identity in more metaphorical terms.

As a contrast to the “official” view of the royal psalms on the king’s body, Hamilton presents (chapters 4-7) a more ambivalent view toward the kingship from various DtrH narratives that doubt the exalted claims of a “petty ruler” to be the “universal sovereign” (p. 116). H. pays special attention to descriptions about the king’s height, heart, eyes, and other body parts. He repeatedly argues against reducing these body parts to mere metaphors of invisible processes. For example, in 1 Sam 16:7, Hamilton claims that Yhwh actually knows the shape of David’s heart rather than simply knowing his “inner goodness” (p. 129). But Hamilton’s bias toward rescuing the physicality of body language from metaphorization encounters difficulty in passages such as 2 Sam 5:1–3 where the Israelite elders proclaim that they are David’s bone and flesh. Hamilton sees in this expression the notion of the king’s body as “ ‘literally’ embodying the nation in his own body” (p. 133). Although the Israelite elders accent in this phrase their biosocial connection with David, the identification of their collective existence with the king’s physical body can only be made figuratively. The difference between the king’s body and the body politic must be acknowledged at the same time their identity is promoted. Hamilton recognizes the figurative character of the Israelites’ identification of their body with that of David but seems to want to accent something more stable than metaphorical truth in this identification. In the coronation rituals, Hamilton pays more attention to the dynamic, creative character of the relationships constituting the body politic. With regard to Joash’s installation as king (2 Kings 11), Hamilton claims that the body of the king created by ritual is the one that makes a difference politically (p. 143).

Hamilton claims that royal burial practices illustrate the Israelites’ belief that there was a sacral dimension to the royal person. When Saul’s head was displayed on the walls of Bethshean, the people of Jabesh-Gilead rescued his head and remains, burned them, and then conducted a mourning period. Hamilton claims that Saul’s superhuman status is a reason for the extraordinary action of cremating his remains. Hamilton insightfully associates this cremation with the later report in 2 Sam 21:13–14 that the bones of Saul and Jonathan were transferred to the land of Benjamin and buried with the remains of his seven sons who had been executed by David as expiation for Saul’s breaking a treaty with the Gibeonites. There was a curse hovering over Saul that needed to be countered.

Hamilton shows how foreign kings—e.g., the king of Tyre, Ben-hadad, and Hazael of Aram—were evaluated according to the same standards as Israelite kings. So just as the Israelite king was viewed as both dangerous and endangered, so also were the kings of Tyre, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. The same sliding scale between God and king in the royal psalms is operative in the Israelite depiction of foreign kings.

Hamilton has presented a well-researched interpretation of a coherent range of texts in which he highlights the semiotic character of the king’s body. His emphasis on the physicality of the king’s body will spur further examination of how to articulate more accurately the measure of physicality in the relationships between God, king, and people.