The Biblical Story of Israel.
Genesis 32.28 reports God's words to Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” As the biblical narrative continues, one reads that Jacob/Israel immigrated with his family to Egypt where, during a long sojourn, his twelve sons fathered twelve tribes. Eventually, these twelve “Israelite” tribes were led out of Egypt by Moses, wandered for forty years in the wilderness, and finally reached the plains of Moab east of the Jordan River. At that point in the biblical narrative, Joshua succeeded Moses and led the tribes across the Jordan into Canaan, where they took possession of the land and divided it among themselves. The book of Judges finds the tribes settled in Canaan following Joshua's death, without stable leadership and often oppressed by surrounding peoples. “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 17.6).
In the time of the prophet Samuel, when the Philistines were oppressing Israel, the people cried out to Samuel to give them a king. Against his better judgment, Samuel accommodated their desire by anointing Saul to be the first king of Israel. Thus Saul, followed by David and then Solomon, ruled over a kingdom that consisted primarily of the twelve Israelite tribes with their respective territories. When Solomon died, this Israelite monarchy split into two rival kingdoms—a northern kingdom, composed of ten tribes, which kept the name Israel, and a southern kingdom, composed of the two remaining tribes, Judah and Benjamin, which took the name Judah. These two kingdoms existed side‐by‐side for two centuries, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes at peace, until the northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria and its territory annexed by that great empire (722 BCE). Judah also fell under Assyrian domination, but it maintained its political identity for almost a century and a half, until it fell to the Babylonians (587/586 BCE).
Hopes of national recovery remained alive during the long years of Assyrian and Babylonian domination, however, and continued in the Jewish community (the remnant of the kingdom of Judah) that struggled for survival under Persian rule. These hopes are expressed in the prophetical books of the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, the hope was not just for recovery of Judah but for a united Israel as it had existed in the “golden age” of David and Solomon.
Thus, the biblical writers use the name Israel in different ways. It can refer to the patriarch Jacob (Gen. 35.21–22; 43.6–11); to the twelve tribes (constantly referred to as “the children of Israel” in the books Exodus through Judges); to the early united monarchy ruled over by Saul, David, and Solomon (1 Sam. 13.1; 14.47–48; 2 Sam. 8.15; 1 Kings 4.1; etc.); to the northern kingdom after the split of the united monarchy (1 Kings 14.19; 15.25; 2 Kings 17.21–23); or to the restored nation hoped for in the future (Amos 9.13–15; Zeph. 3.14–20).
Historical Uncertainties and Extrabiblical Sources.
The biblical story of Israel, when examined in detail, presents numerous internal inconsistencies—for example, the several enumerations of the Israelite tribes do not always identify the same twelve (compare Gen. 49; Num. 1.20–43; 26.5–50; Deut. 33), nor do they take into account other important tribal groups such as the Calebites and Kenizzites. Moreover, the story presupposes concepts that were generally accepted in ancient times but not today, such as the idea that each of the world's nations descended from a single individual (see Gen. 10).
An Egyptian inscription from the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah (ca. 1200 BCE) provides the earliest known nonbiblical reference to Israel, and the only such reference earlier than the ninth century BCE. The Merneptah inscription is a royal monumental text inscribed on a stele discovered at the site of ancient Thebes. Unfortunately, we learn no more from it regarding Israel than that a people known by that name was on the scene in Palestine by the end of the thirteenth century. Later texts from the ninth century are also royal inscriptions, one commissioned by King Mesha of Moab (see 2 Kings 3 and Moabite Stone), and several others from the reign of an Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE). Israel and Judah were separate kingdoms by the ninth century, and it is Israel that figures in these texts. Mesha reports that King Omri of Israel had “humbled” Moab and claims recovery of Moabite independence among the accomplishments of his own reign. Shalmaneser reports a series of military campaigns into Syria‐Palestine and mentions in that context two Israelite kings, Ahab and Jehu. Occasional references to Israelite and Judean kings appear in later Assyrian and Babylonian documents, usually in the context of military campaign reports. These references in extrabiblical documents are especially useful for establishing a chronological framework for the Israelite and Judean kings and for correlating biblical history with international affairs.
Archaeological excavations at Palestinian sites provide information about the material culture of biblical times and also allow for some correlations. For example, the time of the “judges” in Israel would seem to correspond roughly to the opening centuries of the Iron Age (ca. 1200–1000 BCE), which was a period of transition and change in Palestine. Many of the old cities that had flourished during the Bronze Age, especially in the lowlands, were destroyed. Most of them were rebuilt but on a much smaller scale. At the same time, there was a marked increase in the number of small village settlements in areas such as the central hill country, which seem to have been only sparsely populated during the Bronze Age. Note that most of the stories of the book of Judges have their setting among the villages in the north‐central (Ephraimite) hill country. (See Conquest of Canaan.)
The writer of 2 Kings 9.10–14 credits Solomon with building (or fortifying) several cities including Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. Excavations at all three of these places have unearthed remains of buildings and fortifications that date from approximately 1000 BCE; their relatively impressive scale is suggestive of royal architecture, and for this reason archaeologists generally associate them with Solomon. A somewhat more impressive royal building program from approximately the ninth century seems to be indicated by the ruins at Hazor, Megiddo, and Samaria. This second building program generally is associated with the Omride rulers of Israel, particularly Omri and Ahab. Remains from later phases of the cities and villages of Israel and Judah show a marked decline in material wealth, many of them ending finally with destruction in approximately the seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. No doubt these later phases correspond to the years of foreign domination by the Syrians, Assyrians, and Babylonians.
Contemporary Views Regarding the History of Israel.
Given the uncertainties that arise from the biblical story, the paucity of references to Israel or Israelites in extrabiblical documents, and the very generalized nature of evidence from artifacts, it is not surprising that present‐day scholars hold widely divergent views concerning Israel's history. At one extreme are those who hold that the biblical story is an essentially accurate portrayal of Israel's past; at the other are those who see the Bible as a virtually useless source for historical information and regard it as futile even to speculate on the details of Israelite history. Most biblical scholars and ancient historians hold a moderate position between these two extremes. There seems to be a growing consensus, for example, on the following points.
Nothing can be said with certainty about the origin of the various tribes and clans that composed early Israel and Judah. For the most part, these tribal groupings probably emerged gradually from the diffuse population of Late Bronze and early Iron Age Palestine rather than having entered the land from elsewhere. The name Israel probably referred in premonarchic times primarily to the tribe of Ephraim, settled in the north‐central hill country, but would have been understood to include certain surrounding tribes (such as Benjamin, Manasseh, and Gilead) that Ephraim dominated. This Ephraim/Israel tribal group would have been the Israel to which the Merneptah inscription refers; most of the stories in the book of Judges have to do with this tribal group; and it was the core of Saul's kingdom, which he appropriately called Israel.
One should not think of Saul's Israel as a highly organized kingdom with precisely defined boundaries. Moreover, loyalty to him probably varied from region to region, with Saul's strongest base of support being the Ephraim‐Benjamin‐Gilead‐Manasseh zone. There is nothing to suggest that the Galilean tribes were part of his kingdom. His campaign against the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15) implies thoroughfare through Judahite territory. Saul also received some Judean support in his attempts to arrest David (1 Sam. 23.12–13; 26.1–5). This, however, does not necessarily mean that he exercised any sort of permanent control over Judah. In Judah, as in other peripheral areas, Saul's authority probably lasted only as long as he was present with his troops or the local people needed his protection against some other threat.
The battle of Gilboa, in which Saul and Jonathan were killed, left the kingdom on the verge of collapse (1 Sam. 31.1–7). A surviving son (Ishbaal [Ishbosheth]) claimed the throne but transferred his residency to Mahanaim in Transjordan and soon was assassinated (2 Sam 2.8–10; 4.1–3). Thereupon the elders of Israel went to David, who in the meantime had established a kingdom in the south‐central “Judean” hill country, and recognized him as their ruler also (2 Sam. 2.1–4; 5.1–3). Later David would make Jerusalem his capital and expand his realm to include much of Palestine (2 Sam. 5.6–10; 8).
Thus, the Davidic‐Solomonic monarchy was not exactly continuous with Saul's Israel. Moreover, the Israelites appear to have maintained their separate identity under David and Solomon—for example, there was some rivalry between the Israelites and the Judahites (2 Sam. 19.41–43), as well as ongoing opposition to Davidic rule. The Israelites played a central role in both Absalom's and Sheba's rebellions against David (2 Sam. 15–20); Solomon subjected them to forced labor in connection with his royal building projects (1 Kings 11.28); and when Solomon died they rebelled again, this time successfully (1 Kings 12.1–20). Thus was established the northern Israelite kingdom, which the biblical writers depict as a rebel and apostate state, but which the rebels themselves no doubt regarded as a restoration of pre‐Davidic Israel. At the core of the rebel (or restored) kingdom was the old Ephraim/Israel tribal area, but it included additional territories (e.g., Jezreel and Galilee) and cities (e.g., Shechem) that had been annexed by David. The small tribal area of Benjamin became a disputed frontier between the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
The northern kingdom of Israel lasted approximately two centuries (ca. 924–722 BCE), which may be divided into four phases.
Unstable beginnings (ca. 924–885).
Separation left both Israel and Judah weak, while mutual warfare drained their strength even further. Moreover, Israel suffered dynastic instability that resulted finally in civil war. (See especially 1 Kings 15.25–16.22.)
The Omride dynasty (ca. 885–843).
Omri, who emerged victorious from the civil war, founded a dynasty that continued through four kings. Under Omri and his son Ahab, Israel enjoyed a period of international prestige and internal prosperity that may have surpassed that of Solomon's day. Israel clearly overshadowed and probably dominated Judah during this period. Omri built a new capital for the kingdom, which he named Samaria. The Omride period was remembered, however, as a time of economic and social injustice, and of conflict between Baalism and Yahwism. Elijah and Jezebel were colorful characters of the Omride era. (See especially 1 Kings 15.21–2 Kings 10.27.)
The Jehu dynasty (ca. 843–745).
Simultaneous and related palace coups brought a new ruler to the thrones of both Israel and Judah in approximately 843 BCE. Jehu, who seized power in Israel under the banner of Yahwism, founded a dynasty that lasted approximately a century. Damascus, however, was already on the rise when Jehu seized the throne, and it totally dominated Israel during the reigns of Jehu and his son, Jehoahaz. Damascus, faced with problems from the direction of Assyria, eventually lost its hold on Israel, and Israel in turn enjoyed a brief period of recovery and prosperity. The moment of prosperity is to be associated especially with the reign of Jeroboam II. The Elisha stories reflect the difficult times experienced by the people of Israel during the early years of the Jehu dynasty, the years of Syrian domination. The book of Amos reflects the situation during the later years, when Israel is enjoying a recovery of prosperity, and implies that the problems of economic and social injustice remained. Zechariah, son of Jeroboam II, was assassinated soon after coming to the throne in approximately 745 BCE, and Tiglath‐pileser III ascended the Assyrian throne the following year. Israel's end was near. (See especially 2 Kings 9–10; 12.17–13.25; 14.23–29; 15.8–12.)
Assyrian conquest and annexation (745–722).
Already during the Omride era, Assyrian kings had threatened the little kingdoms of Syria‐Palestine in general and Israel in particular. Now Assyria turned its attention to the west and, under Tiglath‐pileser III (744–727), secured a firm grip on the whole region. Israel, which offered some resistance at first in coordination with Damascus, was reduced to vassal status and Hoshea confirmed as king. After Tiglath‐pileser's death, however, Hoshea attempted to throw off the Assyrian yoke. This was a disastrous move: Assyria conquered Samaria, annexed the kingdom's territory, exiled thousands of its leading citizens, and replaced them with foreigners from other conquered lands. (See especially 2 Kings 15.13–31; 17.)
The remnants of the kingdom of Israel usually are referred to in later literature as Samaritans, after the name of the kingdom's chief city founded by Omri (e.g., Luke 9.52; 10.29–41; John 4.1–42). A small group of Samaritans still survives in the vicinity of Nablus.
(For a chronological table of the Kings of Israel and Judah, see Judah, The Kingdom of.)