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Kings and Kingship in the Hebrew Bible

Song-Mi Suzie Park

According to the Bible, at one stage in its history Israel transformed from a loose confederation of tribal groups ruled by non-dynastic, charismatic military leaders called the judges into a centralized state ruled by a monarch. This political transformation is usually dated to the Iron II period, in the late second and early first millennia BCE. Though kingship in Israel would last for only a little over four centuries, it would have a lasting effect on Western civilization. Messianic and eschatological beliefs, central to several religious traditions, directly stem from ideas associated with Israelite kingship. The formation of kingship in Israel, hence, constitutes not only a significant event in Israelite history but in the history of humankind in general.

The formation of kingship in Israel resulted from internal and external forces. The Book of Samuel, part of the Deuteronomistic History, attributes the inauguration of kingship to the rising Philistine threat (1 Sam 9:16). However, other factors such as a rise in population, changes in settlement patterns and farming practices, as well as the advent of new technology also increased the need for a centralized state. A power vacuum created by the weakening of the powers of Egypt and northern Mesopotamia during the period further aided the consolidation of Israel into a nation-state.

While the biblical text describes the early monarchy at length, no ancient Near Eastern document from the eleventh or tenth century mentions Saul, David, Solomon, or the Israelite kingdom. This has led some scholars to argue that David and Solomon were fictitious characters created during the exilic period. However, two inscriptions from the ninth century include mentions of the Israelite state. The Tel Dan Stele refers to the "king of Israel" and the "house of David". The Mesha Stele mentions Omri as the "king of Israel" and also seems to refer to the "house of David". In the following centuries such references become more frequent.

The most detailed and lengthy account of the beginnings of Israelite kingship is found in the Bible, especially in the Books of Samuel and Kings. Although the historicity of the biblical accounts is debated, these books describe at length the reigns of the early monarchs of Israel. The first king of Israel, Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin is presented as a complicated, tragic figure. Similarly to the judges, Saul is said to have been a very successful military leader who had the spirit of God. However, two mistakes after his anointment (1 Sam 10:1, 24) ultimately cost Saul the dynasty and the kingship (1 Sam 13; 15).

The history of David’s rise, a pro-Davidic account in 1–2 Samuel, tells how David, from the tribe of Judah, replaced Saul as king of Israel. David is one of the most important individuals in the Bible. Aside from his legendary status as warrior, as evident in the narrative of David’s defeat of Goliath, David is also well known for his musical and poetic abilities. He is most famously associated, however, with Jerusalem, or Zion—" the city of David" (2 Sam 5:7)—which he establishes as Israel’s capital city. The dynasty that David founded would rule Judah until the fall of the state in 586 BCE.

For reasons that are unclear, David was unable to build the Temple. That task fell to Solomon, David’s son and successor, who not only constructed the Temple, the residence of God, but also consolidated the kingdom founded by his father by enlarging the bureaucracy and administration (1 Kgs 4:1–6). Solomon is criticized in the biblical text for his acquisition of foreign wives and concubines, and his oppressive labor conscription, which is said to have led to the breakup of the Israelite kingdom (1 Kgs 11:28; 12:10–11). However, more positive visions of Solomon are evident in the association of the king with wisdom and wisdom literature. After the death of Solomon, the nation split into the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel thus ending the period of the United Monarchy.

The accounts of Saul, David, and Solomon are a part of longer history of Israel designated the Deuteronomistic History. Scholars argue that an earlier version of the Deuteronomistic History was drafted during the reign of one of the Davidic kings, Josiah. An even earlier version of the History, some argue, might have been created during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah, who like Josiah undertook a religious reform.

Ideas and symbols associated with kings and kingship legitimated and supported the institution. The anointing of the king, from which comes the word messiah, as well as the description of the king’s relationship with God through the metaphor of sonship, worked to uphold the power of the king. The Davidic covenant likewise emphasized the everlasting covenant made by God guaranteeing the perpetuity of the Davidic line. Zion theology linked the divine choice of David and his family, with the selection of Jerusalem and the Temple in Zion as the dwelling place of God. Royal ideology is also evident in the royal psalms, hymns with the king as the central figure, which were probably composed for royal occasions such as coronations.

Other parts of the Hebrew Bible, however, convey more ambivalent feelings towards kingship. The story of Abimelech (Judg 9) shows that kingship can lead to disaster. Likewise, the law of the king (Deut 17:14–20), which places certain limitations on kingship, probably contains a critique both of royal ideology and also of certain monarchs. Unfavorable stories of David and Solomon, such as that of David’s affair with Bathsheba, likewise convey ambivalent feelings about kingship. Hence, though Israelite kingship, especially the dynasty founded by David, would have tremendous influence on future traditions, the institution is portrayed in the Bible as a mixed blessing.


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