The Divine Kinsman: Yahweh and the Tribal Mechanism

Amy Hill Fisher, “The Divine Kinsman: Yahweh and the Tribal Mechanism,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 141–151.

The Divine Kinsman: Yahweh and the Tribal Mechanism

Amy Hill Fisher

Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, is not a passive figure. He plays an active role in the daily and civic lives of the children of Israel. At times he is a loving and gentle presence; at others, he appears angry or distant. The disparate personalities can be confusing to modern readers but are better comprehended when the children of Israel’s social context is understood. Much of the language of the Old Testament is rooted in ancient Semitic tribal organization, and certain prominent features of Semitic societal structure permeate the histories and teachings of the Old Testament. Without an understanding and appreciation of these aspects of Semitic culture, verified by extrabiblical texts such as the writings of Hammurabi and the Amarna Letters, the Israelite attitude towards their God cannot be perceived, as it was in biblical times, in terms of divine kinship. With this understanding, however, readers can recognize the rights, obligations, duties, status and privileges of both God and his covenant people within both temporal and spiritual frameworks. By so doing, the apparently discordant attitudes of the Old Testament Yahweh can be resolved.

Kinship in Small Social Units

The tribe was the central societal unit of ancient Israel, as it was in other Near Eastern communities. Modern readers are familiar with the “tribe of Judah” or the “tribe of Joseph,” but it is important to recognize that thousands of such tribes existed in the Near East and that specific hierarchies of leadership functioned within these tribes. In order to establish the hierarchy of kinship within the small social unit of family or local community, it is helpful to understand the operation of specific familial language. Familial language of the clan was employed to separate various stations: The word father, for instance, denoted the tribal leader and was a term of honor and respect. Because the clan almost always consisted of a large extended or joint family, this “father” was rarely the biological father of every person over whom he ruled.[1] The other men of the tribe (regardless of their actual blood relation to the tribal leader) were called “sons.” The sons used the word “brother” to refer to each other as equals in the clan. This language is used in the family organizations of the bible. In Genesis 49:2, for instance, Israel (Jacob) gathers his clan together before his death. He says, “Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your Father.”[2] Those titles were used at that moment to identify Jacob’s presiding authority and legitimize the patriarchal blessings bestowed soon after.

The familial names used to describe the kinship hierarchy were not casually employed; specific obligations were associated with the titles. Frank Cross discusses this inherent aspect of kinship, saying, “Kinship relations defined the rights and obligations, the duties, status, and privileges of tribal members.”[3] Evidences of these rights and duties are found in the books of Moses, where kinsmen avenge the blood of a murdered family member (see Numbers 35:19–27), redeem property sold by a poor kinsman (see Leviticus 25:25–33), redeem the kinsman sold into debt slavery (see Leviticus 25:48–49), and marry the widow of a brother or a near kinsman to secure his line (see Ruth 3:9, 12–13; 4:1–14).[4]

Kinship in Political Relationships

The tribal mechanism was so influential in the operations of community affairs (both nomadic and sedentary) that it expanded to function in the politics of the Near East as well. J. David Schloen notes that within the historical narrative “all those who exercise authority do so by virtue of their roles within preexisting networks of traditional personal relationships, and not because they occupy offices in a constitutionally ordered bureaucracy that reflects and enforces an ideal vision of society.”[5] In other words, rulers were able to obtain political power because of their antecedents’ ranks within a tribal hierarchy, and not through another form of constitutional election. Once these rulers were established, they remembered the rights and obligations of a tribal leader. This occurred even in the grandest political systems, as seen by the great King Hammurabi of the Old Babylonian Kingdom in Mesopotamia. In a letter to Shamash-hazir of Larsa, Hammurabi wrote: “From the fields that belong to the palace give one of one hectare near the gate of Larsa, a fallow field that is of good quality and lies near the water, to Sin-imguranni the seal-cutter.”[6] This excerpt shows that Hammurabi, as a kinsman king, dealt even with small, seemingly unimportant matters, at least ideally. He had the responsibility to provide for his people, and supplying fields and water for growing crops was a significant fulfillment of his careful providence. A king functioning within the known tribal mechanism was expected to show such concern.[7]

Hammurabi publicly defined his role as kinsman king in the introduction and conclusion of his famous law code. He recounts his military exploits and reminds the people that he brought water to their fields through extensive irrigation projects. He says, “I am indeed the shepherd [that is, nomadic tribesman both aware of tribal kinship code and functioning within it] who brings peace, whose scepter is just. My benevolent shade was spread over my city, I held the people of the lands of Sumer and Akkad safely on my lap.”[8] In this augmented arena, Hammurabi acts as patriarch of an extended tribe, providing for the everyday welfare of his subjects and granting safety and protection.

Familial language is also especially manifest in the general treaty language of the Middle to Late Bronze Ages. Letters between royal equals were addressed to the king’s “brother.” For example, Tushratta of the kingdom of Mittani writes, “Tell Nimmureya, king of Egypt, my brother . . . whom I love and who loves me.”[9] Vassal kings, however, or those who were obligated to pay tribute to neighboring kingdoms, refer to the suzerain as “father,” and “son” was used by both parties to refer to the vassals. In Amarna letter 1.2 (one of the thousands of letter fragments found at the el-Amarna archaeological site in Egypt), for instance, vassal ruler Abi-Samar calls Zimri-Lin of Mari his “father,” and stresses his allegiance to him by affirming that “(my) house is your house and Abi-Samar is your son.”[10]

By using familial language in political treaties, Near Eastern leaders placed themselves in the context of tribal responsibilities and obligations. Unsurprisingly, the most important obligations centered around the protection and support of those entities involved. Schloen explains:

The ideology of protection or mutual aid . . . was characteristic of the unequal relationships between political superiors and their subordinates. The imperial overlord and each king who was subject to him had a reciprocal obligation to “protect” . . . one another and to give “aid”. . . . which often involved military assistance but encompassed any necessary act in support of a ruler and his dynasty. Great stress was placed on the element of personal fidelity . . . that underlay this reciprocity.[11]

That is to say, the vassal kings would pay the tribute and give their full loyalty to the suzerain in return for full military protection. Because the Near East was such a volatile area subject to invading armies, this protection was often well worth the vassalage. The extra income, loyalty and power associated made the union desirable to the commanding kingdom as well.

Kinship Application in Deity Perception

Just as the political relationships of the ancient Near East were an “enlargement of the mechanisms of mutual protection and support that [were] typical of the family and local community,” the religious relationships between God and his people were an even greater enlargement of that same mechanism.[12] This relationship is seen both in the language used between God and his children and in those rights, obligations, duties, statuses, and privileges demonstrated by both the Divine Kinsman and his sons.

Kinship language is detected throughout the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 31:9, God says to the children of Israel, “For I am ever a Father to Israel.” In 2 Samuel 7:14, God, through Nathan his prophet, tells David concerning his royal successor, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me.” (It is important to note that if the king of Judah is the son of God, the people of Judah are also the sons of that God.) Isaiah 63:16 says, “You, O Lord, are our Father; From of old, Your name is ‘Our Redeemer.’”

We expect, of course, that with the title of tribal father comes a set of responsibilities, as was the case in both the family unit and the political sphere. Indeed, the roles of the Divine Kinsman have been set forth as follows: He “leads in battle, redeems from slavery, loves his family, shares the land of his heritage . . . , provides and protects.”[13] These were the obligations that the children of Israel expected their God to meet, and he does indeed function within these established expectations. For example, the God of Israel redeems his people from slavery. Clearly this responsibility is significant in the story of the exodus from Egypt. In Exodus 4:22, God tells Pharaoh through Moses, “Israel is my first-born son. I have said to you, ‘Let My son go, that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your first-born son.” Here, God reiterates his role as guardian and threatens those who endanger his children. The subsequent deliverance and exodus of the children of Israel has been a symbol of God’s love and redemptive power ever since.

Not only was God acting as tribal leader when he delivered his children from slavery in Egypt, he also acted as tribal leader when he led the Israelites through the wilderness. He reminds the people of his providence, saying, “The Lord your God . . . led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; [and] who fed you in the wilderness with manna” (Deuteronomy 8:14–17). Here, God takes clear authority as leader of a desert tribe. He guides his children through the wilderness, protects them from dangerous creatures, and finds them adequate food and water.

This guidance and protection was not given freely, however. The reciprocity of the political manifestation of the tribal mechanism applies to the religious manifestation of the same mechanism; kinship obligations are necessarily mutual. In other words, God will give his protection and guidance only if “the family of the deity rallies to his call to holy war . . . obeys his patriarchal commands, maintains familial loyalty . . . , loves him with all their soul, [and] calls on his name.”[14] After reminding the children of Israel of his help through the wilderness, the Lord warns, “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws. . . . If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish; like the nations that the Lord will cause to perish before you, so shall you perish—because you did not heed the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:11, 19–20). The children of Israel are strongly reminded of their obligation to obey the kinsman’s patriarchal commands. If they do not, God will withdraw.

This reciprocal relationship is presented in 2 Chronicles 14, as the Lord leads his people in battle and thus fulfills another responsibility of the kinsman. In 2 Chronicles 14, the Nubian army comes against King Asa and the kingdom of Judah. In verse 10, Asa calls to the Lord, saying, “Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on You, and in Your name we have come against this great multitude. You are the Lord our God. Let no mortal hinder You.” Asa reaffirms Judah’s allegiance to God (“the Lord our God”), and gives God the reins, saying that he, as king, expects God to go before him and lead the battle. Judah has come trusting in God’s power to fight the battle for them. And, because of their faith in him, God “routed the Cushites before Asa and Judah, and the Cushites fled” (2 Chronicles 14:11). King Asa took the opportunity to chase the Cushites (or Nubians) during the Nubian retreat, and once again the biblical record credits God with the victory, saying, “Many of the Cushites fell wounded beyond recovery, for they broke before the Lord and His camp.” In other words, this was not King Asa’s army; this was the army of the Lord, and he led them to a decisive victory.

In this instance, King Asa was successful because he remained loyal to his Divine Kinsman. If the family is not loyal, however, God withdraws his protection. Such an occurrence transpires not long after the Nubian defeat. When the northern kingdom of Israel threatened Judah’s borders, Asa turned to Syria for help instead of the Lord. Hanani, the prophet, warned Asa, “Because you relied on the king of Aram and did not rely on the Lord your God, therefore the army of the king of Aram has slipped out of your hands. . . . For the eyes of the Lord range over the entire earth, to give support to those who are wholeheartedly with Him. You have acted foolishly in this matter, and henceforth you will be beset by wars” (2 Chronicles 16:7, 9). Because the kingdom of Judah did not give God, their Divine Kinsman, their full loyalty, they were left without the protection of the Lord and were thereafter “beset by wars.”

In one further example of abandoned loyalty, Israel threatened Judah’s borders in the north. In fear, Judah sought political protection from Egypt. Isaiah 31:1 says, “[Woe to] those who go down to Egypt for help and rely upon horses! They have put their trust in abundance of chariots, in vast numbers of riders, and they have not turned to the Holy One of Israel, they have not sought the Lord.” The children of Israel had forgotten to trust God to lead them in their wars and protect them from their enemies. Instead, they trusted in unstable nations. The Lord foretold the fall of those nations and warned Judah of the terror and grief they would feel because their borrowed protectors would ultimately fail:

The king of Assyria [shall] drive off the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Nubia, young and old, naked and barefoot and with bared buttocks—to the shame of Egypt! And [Judah] shall be dismayed and chagrined because of Nubia their hope and Egypt their boast. In that day, the dwellers of this coastland shall say, “If this could happen to those we looked to, to whom we fled for help and rescue from the king of Assyria, how can we ourselves escape?” (Isaiah 20:3–6)

In this case, God expressed fear that Judah would not repent of their neglect. Instead, Judah would ignore their Kinsman God and fall into despair, thinking there was no other path to salvation. This shows that, unfortunately, the children of Israel allowed the tribal mechanism to fail; the continuous divine support they could have received could not function. It is important to consider that this was not a flaw in God’s mercy; rather, the children did not fulfill their obligations in a recognized system of rules and responsibilities.

The Tribal Mechanism in the Spiritual Affairs of Israel

For modern readers, difficult Old Testament histories can be better explained through recognizing the elements of Semitic tribal organization and understanding that Yahweh oversaw the temporal affairs of Israel as Divine Kinsman. In addition, passages regarding the spiritual relations between the Lord and his people can also be better understood. For example, God redeems men from spiritual slavery just as he redeemed the Israelites from physical bondage in Egypt. He made the payment, not of money, but of something far more valuable—his own blood. Isaiah 53 describes the way in which Yahweh redeems his children, saying, “He was wounded because of our sins, crushed because of our iniquities. He bore the chastisement that made us whole, and by his bruises we were healed . . . [though] my people . . . deserved the punishment. He bore the guilt of the many and made intercession for sinners” (Isaiah 53:5, 8, 12). We see that the Divine Kinsman took upon himself the slavery debt, the pain and sorrow associated with sin. He “bore” the debt for us and made the intercession necessary because we were unable to pay our own way free. It is our reciprocal responsibility, as dictated by the tribal mechanism, to love and honor our Lord in order for the Atonement to work fully in our lives.


The many references to God’s role in the spiritual and temporal affairs of the people of Israel is strong evidence that Israel believed in a kinsman God. The writers of the Bible recognized that God offered tailored provision to his children when they presented him with sincere loyalty and kept his commandments. When they failed, however, the mechanism itself failed, and God was unable, justly, to provide in the same careful way. We see, then, that Yahweh is neither capricious nor temperamental; instead, by understanding Semitic hierarchy and its function within the writings of the Old Testament, we see that Yahweh is the ever-providing patriarch who desires the greatest spiritual and temporal welfare for his people.


[1] Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 36.

[2] All biblical references are taken from The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[3] Frank Moore Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 3.

[4] Cross, From Epic to Canon, 4.

[5] David J. Schloen, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol: Patrimonialism in Ugarit and the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001), 69.

[6] Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000–323 BC, 2nd ed. (Malden, MD: Blackwell, 2007), 113.

[7] Van De Mieroop, Ancient Near East, 113.

[8] Van De Mieroop, Ancient Near East, 113.

[9] Van De Mieroop, Ancient Near East, 129.

[10] Schloen, 256.

[11] Schloen, House of the Father, 261.

[12] Mario Liverani, International Relations in the Ancient Near East, 1600–1100 BC (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 128.

[13] Cross, From Epic to Canon, 7.

[14] Cross, From Epic to Canon, 7.