The Book of Kings: Religion Meets Geo-Politics, Ancient Style

The Judean and Israelite monarchies from the rise of King Solomon to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem

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Kings is the ninth book of the Hebrew Bible and the fourth book in the Prophets (Nevi'im), the second section of the Hebrew Bible. In most English Bibles, it is divided into First Kings and Second Kings, but this division is late. The division appears first in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and only entered Jewish [bibles] with the printing of the Venice rabbinic Bible in 1517. In Jewish tradition, Kings is treated as one book.

Kings tells the story of the Kingdoms of Israel and of Judah from the beginning of King Solomon's reign (roughly 960 B.C.E.) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The first eleven chapters of Kings deal with Solomon. After Solomon's death, the united monarchy of Israel split in two: ten of the tribes of Israel left the rule of Solomon, and established a rival kingdom in the North [the southern kingdom’s capital remained in Jerusalem]. 

king solomon

King Solomon, 1872 or 1874,
by Simeon Solomon.

The capital of the Northern kingdom, usually known as Israel, moved from Shechem (known in Arabic by the Roman name Nablus) to Tirzah to Samaria. Kings from different dynasties ruled over the Kingdom of Israel, with the longest lasting being the House of Omri (882 BCE-842BCE) and the House of Jehu (842-747 BCE). In the south, the tribe of Judah remained loyal to Solomon's descendants, who continued to rule over what becomes the Kingdom of Judah until 586. The capital of Judah remained in Jerusalem.

Historical Data From Other Sources

The period that the book of Kings covers is rich in historical data from non-biblical sources.  Much of this data correlates with the data in the book of Kings and helps us to construct a cogent and well-sourced history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  From 858 BCE on, the neo-Assyrian empire had contact with the kings of Israel and later, with those of Judah as well.  Several of the kings of Israel (Ahab, Jehu, Joash, Menahem, Pekah, Hosea) and of Judah (Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh) are mentioned in the royal inscriptions of the neo-Assyrian kings.

Other extra-biblical sources of historical data include the royal inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (found in Transjordan in the 19th century, currently in the Louvre) and a royal inscription of Hazael, king of Aram Damascus (found at Tel Dan, Israel, in 1993, currently in the Israel Museum). Both these texts date from the ninth century BCE and shed light on the political history of Israel and Judah at the time.

Evaluating the Performance of Kings

The book of Kings conveys historical data, but is not a history in the modern sense.  Much of the book is concerned with evaluating the performance of the twenty kings of Judah and nineteen kings of Israel who followed Solomon.

The most important criterion driving this evaluation seems to be the extent to which the king inculcated sole loyalty to the God of Israel.  Did he tolerate the worship of other gods, in place of or together with the worship of the God of Israel? Did he extirpate sacrifice outside of Jerusalem? This evaluation in the book of Kings corresponds to the priorities of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah. (Deuteronomy emphasizes sole loyalty to God and the importance of sacrificing only in Jerusalem [that is, in the central location].)

For this reason, academic scholars speak of the Deuteronomistic component in the book of Kings. Evaluations such as that of King Ahaz of Judah (II Kings 16:1-4), in which Ahaz is criticized for following the ways of the idolatrous kings of Israel, for following the cultic forms of the Canaanites, and for sacrificing outside Jerusalem, are examples of the Deuteronomistic component.

A Judean Bias

The general consensus among academic biblicists is that this component dates from the time of one of the last kings of Judah, King Josiah (639-609 BCE). II Kings chapters 22 and 23 tell of how Josiah launched a major national reform, in which extirpating polytheism (worship of many gods), syncretism (worshiping the God of Israel using cultic forms of other deities or together with other deities), and worship outside Jerusalem [all] figure prominently.

Consequently, it is important to remember that Kings ultimately comes out of the political and religious ideology (and hindsight) of a late monarchy of Judah, and should not be expected to reflect an "unbiased" (particularly in connection with the Kingdom of Israel), or contemporary, assessment of each of the kings being evaluated.

All of the kings of the northern Kingdom, Israel, fare badly in Kings' Deuteronomistic evaluation, while the evaluations of the Kings of Judah vary. Among the kings who suffer from particularly negative assessments are Ahab, the king of Israel from the House of Omri (873-852 BCE), who had close political ties with Phoenicia, and the other kings of that dynasty. Hezekiah (727-698) and Josiah (639-609) of Judah receive particularly positive evaluations.

Approving a Strong Foreign Policy

There seems to be a general correlation between kings' foreign policy and the Deuteronomistic evaluation of their reign.  Kings who take a strong and independent line in foreign affairs and attempt to avoid vassalage (such as Hezekiah and Josiah) receive more positive evaluations, while those who actively pursued foreign alliances, such as Ahab, receive negative ones.

There is a geo-political reason for this, which we learn from the Assyrian texts: the kingdom of Israel was on the whole more actively involved in foreign relations, which (at least from Judah's perspective--Kings is redacted from a Southern point of view) suggested a correlation between the Kingdom of Israel's openness to trade and foreign alliances, and the greater tolerance of polytheism and syncretism in the North.

Israel was one of several kingdoms, in the area between what is now northern Syria and what is now central Israel, who competed for regional hegemony and control of trade routes by alternately making alliances and fighting among themselves. (These kingdoms included Aram Damascus, Aram Hamath, Sidon, and Tyre.) Judah, in contrast, was relatively more politically isolated, at least until the end of the eighth century BCE.

How Rulers Treated Their Subjects

But the book of Kings does not evaluate the rulers of Judah and Israel solely in terms of their attitude to polytheism [or their foreign policy, as noted above]. The way that the rulers treat their subjects is of extreme importance to prophets such as Elijah the Tishbite (Eliyahu ha Navi in Jewish legend.) After Ahab, king of Israel, allowed his Phoenician queen to engineer the theft of the vineyard of a subject by having him executed on false charges (I Kings 21:1-16), Elijah accused him: "Have you not only murdered but also inherited the victim's land?" (I Kings 21:19).

The interactions of Elijah and his successor Elisha with the kings of Israel (and occasionally also with the kings of Judah) is in itself another important element of Kings. The two prophets demand that the king recognize God's role in sending famine and plenty (I Kings 18; II Kings 6:24-7:20), and that he recognize the correlation between obedience to God's word and military success (II Kings 3:4-27 and 6:8-23). The central motif in these stories is an attempt by the prophets to force the king to recognize Divine sovereignty. This theme is further developed by later "literary prophets," such as Amos.

The books of Kings expose many of the challenges that are created by the interaction of divine commands with political reality. Kings is a story of religious demands meeting geo-politics, and the story of leaders' successes and failures in dealing with this challenge.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.