What is the Divine Council in Ancient Near Eastern Religious Mythology and Literature?

All Ancient Near Eastern religions recognize the notion of a divine council or assembly.

The divine council is a gathering of gods who meet intermittently to make decisions regarding the destinies of individuals or groups, cities, or even all of humanity. The concept affirms a divine realm modeled on human assemblies presided over by a king, such as the human royal and judicial courts.

Across Mesopotamia, including in Syria and Phoenicia, gods of a city or state constituted a community. Ugaritic and Phoenician sources viewed this community as a “circle”, indicating that the community was a closed, exclusive group or network. 

The assembly is not in any sense democratic. Instead, it is hierarchical and typically led by a Supreme Being. Mesopotamian gods Anu (the sky god and father of the gods) and Enlil (the storm god) led and presided over the assemblies. Within the Ugaritic texts, El occupies this same role. According to Enuma Elish, the gods often drink and feast during the meetings before discussing solutions to crises and hearing the final decisions of the main god or gods.

In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh’s heavenly court was composed of a variety of heavenly beings such as an assembly of the holy ones (Psalm 89:5) and the sons of god (Job 1:6). Yahweh presided over the assembly: “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him” (1 Kings 22:19). 

The gods in the divine council have different functions. Discussions within it illustrate the structure of the pantheon and the different functions of the gods. For example, Enki, the god of water, addresses Anu or Enlil and also challenges their decisions to protect humanity from punishment and destruction. Ishtar not only inspires prophecies but also functions as the divine intercessor in the council on behalf of the earthly king.

The councils also become stage performances. Inanna asserts her claim for a realm without limits while Marduk, who volunteers to resolve crises, demonstrates himself to be superior to the other gods. Some stories narrate violence, anger, and drunkenness on behalf of the gods, which suggests moral failings that may threaten to compromise a balanced management of the world.

Some decisions made by the assembly result in calamities for human beings and their settlements. The city of Ur is destroyed and in the flood myth there is the annihilation of humanity. The divine council also blesses people. In the Ugaritic Kirta story, a young prince is blessed via the “meeting of the gods” on the occasion of his marriage.

As early as the eighteenth century BCE, Letters from Mari, as well as many other texts and oracles over the following millennia, narrate that prophets participated in the council of the gods. The prophet was perceived as an intermediary between the gods’ decisions in the council and the earthly kings. His primary function was to attend the sessions of the assembly and proclaim its decisions.

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