I’ve been reading up on a Sumerian ruler named Gudea of Lagash in order to learn more about how his statues functioned as “images” of the king. There are some parallels between this mode of representation and how cult statues functioned as “images” of gods. The following is a (draft) excerpt from my book-in-progress, in which the concept of humans as the “image of God” in Genesis 1 features quite heavily. As I was wading through the inscriptions on the Gudea statues in order to write this narrative section, it reminded me of how texts like these can inform our understanding of the relationship between gods, kings, and temples in the ancient Near East and in the Bible (but I’ll talk more about that below).
His oval, dark green diorite eyes stared at me, unblinking. His whole face was carved of the same smooth, green stone, his pursed lips framed by a strong, dimpled chin and full cheeks. The nose, too, was full and round, like an unbroken dewdrop on a date palm leaf. A sturdy royal crown encircled his forehead. He was seated, his hands clasped together, firm and dignified, at his waist. The top of his robe was gathered to his left shoulder, leaving his strong right arm bare and unflinchingly still. The hem of his robe reached to the tops of his naked feet, and was covered with line upon line of cuneiform script. On his lap was what looked to be a board or book of some kind.
The statue of Gudea of Lagash was less than a meter high, but those eyes, perfect and impenetrable as a crow’s, seemed to take in the room. The glass display case that separated us did little to mute their gaze.
“He can’t see you, you know.” The voice belonged to a rotund, straight-backed woman with a docent tag pinned to her navy blazer.
“Can’t he?” I tilted my chin to look at her. Her long, silver hair was stretched taut from the edge of her high forehead and coiled into an unimpeachable bun in the middle of her skull.
“The ancient Mesopotamians thought he could, but only when he had undergone the proper rituals and been set in a special room in the god’s temple. Until then, our friend Gudea was just a block of cold diorite–blind, mute, deaf.”
“What’s this writing on his skirt?”
“We’re very lucky that the writing on this statue is intact,” she said, her painted eyebrows raised with excitement (which made the bun quiver a little). “We have the remains of twenty-seven Gudea statues in museums around the world, but many of them are severely damaged or, in some cases, just fragments. But this little guy,” she said, gesturing toward Gudea with one leathery, manicured hand while the other remained calmly at her side, “tells us a lot about himself.”
“He’s a king, no?” I said. “Why is he sitting? I thought only gods sat.”
“Gudea was deified after his death, and this statue may be trying to reflect that. But what’s most interesting–well, what I find most interesting–is how this image functioned as a representation of the flesh-and-blood Gudea. Over the course of his life, Gudea built temples to the gods in the places he governed, many in the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu. Kings like Gudea believed that they had been chosen by the gods, or a particular god, to be the ruler (or ‘shepherd’) of the region. Building temples to the god who had chosen the king accomplished two things. It showed gratitude toward the god and also showed the people, in a very public way, that the right ruler was on the throne, endorsed by the gods. The writing on the image’s robe extols Gudea as the shepherd chosenby the god Ningirsu out of 216,000 people, and tells the story of how Gudea built a house, the temple Eninnu, for Ningirsu. Once he built Eninnu, Gudea fashioned an image of himself out of diorite mined from the mountains of Magan, placed it in the temple before the cult image of Ningirsu, and commanded it to speak to the god on his behalf. ‘Statue,’ Gudea says, ‘tell my lord, Ningirsu…’–and then proceeds to tell the statue the details of how he built the house and installed his statue in order to convey messages to Ningirsu.”
The inscriptions on the Gudea statues frequently refer to Gudea as “the shepherd,” and emphasize that he was chosen by the god to whom he built the temple. The Gudea texts are not unique in this regard, as rulers in the ancient Near East were often called shepherds. It comes as no surprise, then, to find out that the biblical writers portray King David as a shepherd in the days prior to his becoming king. What better way to remind your readers that David is a king than to show that he was an actual shepherd before becoming a metaphorical “shepherd” as king?
David, as you’ll remember, wanted to build a house for YHWH. He believed that he was YHWH’s chosen king, God’s anointed. It was good religion and good politics to build a temple. What better way to express his gratitude to YHWH for choosing him as king than by building him a house where the people could worship? And what better way to show the people that David was God’s man than by building the temple? David’s son, Solomon, ends up building the temple for YHWH, but it serves the same purpose. God promised to David that he would establish his dynasty, that a son of David would continue to sit on the throne (2 Sam. 7).
When we get to the Gospels, Jesus emerges in various ways as a New Solomon. In Matthew’s genealogy, Jesus is the messiah (“anointed one”), the son of David (Matt. 1:1). He is not just the temple and temple-cleanser, but the temple-builder like Solomon (except here, Jesus builds the “temple” of his body by raising it from the dead) (John 2:19).
By rebuilding the temple of his body, Jesus accomplishes two goals. His resurrection is the public declaration that he is YHWH's chosen ruler, the messianic son of David who is the king, the son of God. Rebuilding YHWH's temple is also an act of gratitude. Jesus thanks YHWh for establishing his kingship by creating a place for YHWH's presence to rest, where people can come to worship him. And that temple is Jesus.
At least, that's my working theory. There’s obviously a lot more to explore here, but these are some initial thoughts.