10 Former Prophets (the histories)

Torah scrollMoving on from the Torah…

God choosing Israel from among the nations occurs for the first time in the Torah. By the time of Deuteronomy  the election of Israel as presented means that they see themselves as a holy people separated from others and connected to God. This also means that they believe they are set apart for a specific purpose.

This choosing of the people of Israel places them into God’s service. This service means an observance of the laws given to Israel and the rejection of any pagan practices. The privilege of having been singled out by God includes obligations and responsibility–they are to be a witness to the nations concerning Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 7:6-8

6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. 7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (NRSV)

In several places in the Torah it is made clear that only because the wickedness of the Canaanites is so great does Yahweh consider giving this land to the Israelites. It is a conditional gift.  Deuteronomy’s words state that the Israelites should not fail Yahweh or they will be driven out of the land just as the Canaanites were driven out.

So Deuteronomy is not simply the concluding book of the Torah, it’s also the first part of a much larger literary work–describing the establishment of a nation– that runs from Deuteronomy through to the end of 2 Kings.

The Former Prophets include the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. They read as if they were a historical narrative.  

12 tribes of Israel
approximate locations (sometimes debated) of the 12 tribes of Israel based on the book of Joshua

This material is a theologically oriented account of Israel’s history from the conquest of Canaan to the destruction of the state of Judah by the Babylonians in 597-586 BCE.  It is about building an actual nation, but the building process has religious overtones.

The Former Prophets, also called the Historical Books, contain various older sources that have been put together by a later editor.  They were, many of them, accounts that came from oral traditions. Some of the older written accounts may have come from royal archives, which contained lists of events, visits, conquests, but which also contained very little explanation of these events. These writings and oral materials were woven together into the form that exists now–these 6 books called Former Prophets.

The editor responsible for the final composition of these books put the materials together by inserting verses and speeches which would connect the older sources to each other, creating a common (and fairly united) storyline. The redactors’ linking and framing passages, and the revisions of the older sources, exhibit certain common features. They use the same themes over and over again, the same vocabulary and phrases, and they share certain assumptions about the materials being edited.


The Book of Deuteronomy, Debarim. Hebrew with translation in Judeo-Arabic, transcribed in Hebrew letters. From Livorno, Italy, 1894 CE. Moroccan Jewish Museum, Casablanca, Morocco.
The Book of Deuteronomy, Hebrew with translation in Judeo-Arabic, transcribed in Hebrew letters. From Livorno, Italy, 1894 CE. Moroccan Jewish Museum, Casablanca, Morocco.

Those features of the redactors and editors have a lot in common with materials found in the book of Deuteronomy. This reality is what led some scholars to decide that Deuteronomy and these historical books really form a unit, so that Deuteronomy not only looks back and finishes off the Torah narrative, it looks forward as the beginning of the historical account that is to follow.

J, E and P are no longer sources found in the Former Prophets.  D continues as a source, however, and the redactors for this set of materials coming immediately after Deuteronomy are known as the Deuteronomistic Historian, or the Deuteronomistic School.

The last dated event that is mentioned in 2 Kings (the last book of the Former Prophets) occurred in about 562 BCE, the date that King Jehoiachin was released from prison in Babylon. So the work of redaction on these materials was probably concluded shortly after that date.

The most important feature of the Deuteronomistic School is the conviction that Israel’s residence in the land depends on its continuing obedience to the covenant with Yahweh. And that conviction is going to color the presentation, evaluation and interpretation of Israel’s history and kings, from Joshua right through to 2 Kings.

A good modern historian might simply record current events close to when they happen, however selectively or partially, and might try to indicate some cause and effect for those events where possible.  This set of materials in the Former Prophets is not a history as such, however.  Instead this is a historiosophy — a philosophy of history. It’s seeking to understand the meaning of events in order to draw larger philosophical, ideological conclusions from the events of the history.  Historiosophy points to the larger purpose or design of history, not to say just “what happened?”, but to say why it happened and what it means for people in the future that it did happen.

So Deuteronomistic history is not simply a history of Israel that covers the time from the arrival of the people in Canaan until the destruction of Jerusalem, it is a historiosophy. It is making an argument and attempting to communicate the meaning and the significance of the events of that time, and it does so through a literary pattern of reward and punishment.

There are certain key features of Deuteronomistic thought that are evident from Joshua through 2 Kings.

  • One key idea is the belief in the divine election of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the city that is referred to in Deuteronomy when it says God will choose a place that the name of Yahweh will dwell. In these books, that place is Jerusalem.
  • There is also a belief in the divine election of David as the king of Israel, and in his dynasty to carry on his legacy.  In the entire Torah it is only the book of Deuteronomy that contains legislation applicable to having a king.  It is being written and redacted at a time when there is and has been a king in Israel,  providing laws for the construction of an ideal monarchy.
  • Another key theme is the emphasis on what we call the Yahwist prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha. These prophets are held up as heroes and champions of religious purity. They are completely against any kind of mixture of Yahweh worship with other elements, completely against any kind of syncretism.  (Their preferences didn’t work. There is always syncretism as religions develop.)
  • There is also a clear preference for Judah, the Southern Kingdom, as compared with a very negative presentation of the Northern Kingdom, Israel. The Northern Kingdom of Israel is going to come in for bad press at the hands of the Deuteronomistic writers, which shows that they favor– and likely come from– Judah.
  •  The other key theme is the negative presentation of the Canaanites.  There is little positive to be said about the people who were already present in the land. Since they are the people being replaced in the land, they cannot possibly be presented in any positive manner.

Where is all of this happening?

The book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelite tribes, and in Judges we see the early years of settlement. To gain an understanding of the emergence of tribes in this land, it’s helpful to know something about the geography of Israel.


trades routes in middle east
Some of the trade routes in 1600-600 BCE

In the past 4000 years more wars have been fought for the possession of the strip of land known as Canaan, Israel, or Palestine, than in almost any other part of the world. And the reason for this was that this very small piece of land — it’s about 150 miles long and 70 miles wide — lies on the way to three continents and the empires that came and went in those places.  Relative to Israel, Egypt lies to the southwest. Asia Minor and Mesopotamia are located to the north and east. There is not much value in this specific strip of land, but its importance is clear– there are three (or more) main trade routes that cross the country of Israel. They were used by caravans that would carry gold, grain, spices, textiles, and other goods between Egypt and the rest of the Fertile Crescent and up into Asia Minor and even into Europe.

Control of these trade routes brought a great deal of wealth and prosperity to the area.  In  times of war the land was perpetually invaded, as empires on their way to conquests in Egypt, or Asia Minor or Mesopotamia sent armies through the land of Israel. This helps explain the succession of rulers that have held the region: the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Israelites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Greek Ptolemies, the Seleucids, the Romans, and the list continues as we go on into the medieval and the modern periods.  They all wanted the strategic advantage that this pivotal location might offer them.


A Shiviti:   Psalms 16:8 “I am ever mindful of the Lord’s presence.”

Shiviti Moshe Ganbash1838/39
Shiviti  –Moshe Ganbash1838/39

A shiviti is a plaque or paper inscribed with Psalms 16:8 “I am ever mindful of the Lord’s presence.” This example is highly unusual in that its purpose as set forth by the biblical quotation at top center is combined with a detailed topographic map of holy sites of the land of Israel. The map is oriented from west to east with the Mediterranean Sea in the foreground and the Dead Sea at top right. This is the viewpoint found in the earliest printed Hebrew map published in Amsterdam in 1620/1 and widely dispersed in the map of the very popular Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695. Major sites on this map are distinguished by the title “the holy city;” they are Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron and Tiberius (in descending order of size and importance). An amusing detail is the steamship flying a Turkish flag in the foreground, which is explained by the artist’s inscription found in the bottom corners (at right) “The scribe…Moses Ganbash…written in Istanbul” (at left) “In the year ‘Look to the Lord; be strong and of good courage; O look…'” (Ps. 2 7:14).



You can slide between three maps in the image below to see various important information about Israel as a place.  The first map is geographical, with mountains, plains, etc.  The second is a general map with major locations identified. The third is a modern political map, with various problematic and contested spaces identified.



The land called Israel has three main geographical subdivisions.  Looking above this at the first map on the sliding option here shows that the west side of the country is low coastal plain. It is about 20 to 30 miles wide. That is the main highway to and from Egypt and the rest of Africa. Running north to south, next to that coastal plain, is a region of low mountains. These low mountains are cut by some valleys that run mostly east-west: you will see the Valley of Jezreel, in particular, that was a fertile valley.  The Plain of Megiddo also joins with the Valley of Jezreel. That is the most fertile part of the country, but it was also the site of many of the battles in Israel’s history. Next to that north-south central hill country, also running north to south, is the the Great Jordan Rift Valley, running the entire length of the country. It rises in the Sea of Galilee or Kinneret in the north, and then it flows about 65 miles down south to the Dead Sea. At the northern end of the Rift Valley is snow covered Mount Hermon, which is the highest point. The area by the Dead Sea at the other end of the Jordan River is semi-desert. North and west of the Dead Sea is an area called the wilderness of Judea.  You can slide to the 2 next maps on the widget above to see the maps of Israel today.


geographical relief map of Israel
geographical relief map of Israel

So within this area there are diverse geographies, and this reality had implications for Israel’s history.  The inhabitants of each region developed a distinctive cultural character. Small settled farmers lived in the more fertile areas.  Semi-nomadic shepherds occupied wilderness areas. There are city dwellers, usually craftspeople, merchants and traders, who handled the commerce on the trade routes and enjoyed broader cultural contacts. This geographical variety gives a cultural setting for the books of Joshua and beyond .





Joshua takes them into Israel?

Detail of a miniature of Joshua being bidden to take the people over the river Jordan. Image taken from f. 104v of La Bible historiale complétée (Genesis - Psalms). Written in French.
Detail of Joshua bidden to take the people over the river Jordan. Image taken from La Bible historiale complétée (Genesis – Psalms). Written in French.

The book of Joshua divides into two major parts. The first 12 chapters form a unit that conveys the invasion and conquest of the land.

The narrative in Joshua 2 to 12 describes the invading Israelites as a confederation of 12 tribes whose conquest is accomplished in a few decisive battles under the military leadership of Joshua. The Canaanites put up little or no resistance.  Joshua contains a streamlined, idealized account during which the Israelites managed –in a very short period– to take the central hill country as their own, confining the Philistines to a portion of the coastal plain.

The account of the conquest in Joshua 2 through 12 expresses the basic idea that Israel’s victories would not have been possible without Yahweh’s help.  The Ark marched before the people. And after the conquest, representatives of all of the tribes of Israel met and made a solemn covenant at Shechem to be the people of Yahweh.

The second half of the Book of Joshua (13-to the end) is basically about the apportioning out of the land to the tribes.

This shows a rapid conquest of Canaan for the Israelites, but it’s at odds with statements elsewhere in Joshua and in the book of Judges. The victories in Chapters 2 through 10 are confined to a very small area of land, mostly that which became the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. Even in Judges, it states that other parts of Israel were conquered much later, after Joshua’s death.

In addition, archaeological evidence contradicts the picture painted early in the book of Joshua. In the Ancient Near East, conquered cities tended to be leveled, and then a new city would just be built on top of the ruins. This is seen in slowly rising mounds with their many layers, which are called a tell. These tells show the successive layers of destroyed and rebuilt cities.

If one follows the Biblical account, one would expect evidence of thirteenth century BCE destruction of Canaanite cities. But archaeologists have found no evidence of extensive conquest and destruction in thirteenth and twelfth century BCE archaeological layers. Of 20 identifiable sites that were said to be conquered or captured by Joshua and the next generations, only two show destruction layers for this time–Hazor and Beth-el.

So the conclusion one can draw from all of this is that Joshua 2 through 12 is a kind of ideological construction.   Clearly the formation of the state of Israel was much more complicated than the material presented in Joshua 2 through 12.


Example: Britannica’s short video on Jericho

The Battle of Jericho?

What really happened in Jericho?  Get a short glimpse of the ruins and some explanation of this issues around this story.



Scholars have proposed three possible models to explain the formation of Israel.

  • The first is an immigration model. Since the main Canaanite cities that existed at that time were fortified or walled cities down on the plains, the Israelites might have chosen to occupy the sparsely populated central highlands. Archaeologists have found several sites from that period in the central hill country, and they were clearly newly established in the thirteenth, twelfth, or eleventh centuries BCE. These are thought to be Israelite settlements because they appear in places that the Bible identifies as strongholds of Israel. Remember the Merneptah stele of 1208 BCE, in which the Egyptian pharaoh states that he managed to wipe out Israel? It is obviously a boast, but it shows that there was an identifiable entity, Israel, by 1208 BCE. These particular settlements, however, are entirely Canaanite as far as jars and houses and lifestyle is concerned. (One interesting difference is the absence of any pig bones in these places). These two realities suggest that these settlements were established peacefully, and perhaps not by foreigners.


  • The second model is called the revolt model. This suggests that Israel began as a social revolution within Canaan. There are a set of historic letters referring to this idea, dated from the fourteenth century BCE. They were written by people in Canaan to the Pharaoh in Egypt, who still had control over Canaan at this time, complaining about groups causing turmoil in Canaan. The people causing the problems are called Habiru, or Abiru. They were not an ethnic group so much as a marginalized group of local people. Some have suggested that Israelites escaping from Egypt may have joined with these disaffected Canaanite Habiru to establish their own settlements and to worship a liberator god, Yahweh, rather than follow the rule and gods of Pharaoh.


  • A final model is one of gradual emergence, which simply holds that Israelites were Canaanites who had developed a separate identity and settled in the central highlands. The theory doesn’t try to explain why they separated themselves–possibly disaffection with the status quo or being pushed out by the invading sea peoples.  How and why they took up the worship of Yahweh isn’t really clear, but it seems to have been what marked them as distinct from other Canaanites. Yahweh worship may also have been introduced by people escaping slavery from Egypt and migrating to the area. Most scholars see the Exodus story as evidence for the presence of at least some escaped slaves among these highland Canaanite set of settlements.


The Samaritan's logo: Shma Israel in Samaritan ancient letters (kind of ancient Hebrew). Shaped as flame
The Sh’ma Israel in Samaritan ancient letters (similar to ancient Hebrew) in leaf format

So who are the Hebrew people at this point in the book of Joshua?

The Hebrews at this stage were probably not a united people from a single origin. Various elements likely went into the mix of people that would emerge as the nation of Israel.  Archaeology supports this picture of merging of peoples rather than conquest or even large-scale immigration, because the new settlements in this period show a great deal of continuity with the Canaanite past, not a complete break, nor the initiation of something radically new.

The mixed group joined together, then, to become Israel, accepted Yahweh, and eventually adopted the story of the Exodus as Israel’s defining story. The Hebrew tribes were likely still in the process of formation in the 13th century BCE, and the natural division of the land into these separate geographical areas would reinforce the tribalization of their society.


Example: Jericho

Ruins near Hisham's Palace, Jericho, Palestine
Ruins near Hisham’s Palace, Jericho, Palestine



Visit this fabulous website, from Durham University, on Jericho–you can watch videos, see how archaeology is done, check photos of various aspects of the work and much more:

Jericho: an Ancient City Revealed



So why does the book of Joshua provide such a different account of the settling of Canaan, that of a war led by the hosts of Yahweh? The Israelites march around Jericho for six days with seven priests carrying seven horns and the Ark of the Covenant, and then with a blast and a shout the walls tumble. The conquest is represented as a miraculous victory by God. It was God, not the sword or the bow, that drove out the enemy. This is interpretation or even reframing of the reality–not meant to be an actual history, but instead to be a story of faith.

One question that then arises is this– why would a Biblical writer or editor insist that the Canaanites be completely destroyed?  One possibility that arises as a solution to the question is that if the Israelites were, in fact, basically Canaanites who had withdrawn from the larger population, who insisted on the dominance of Yahweh, then Canaanites who did not join in worship of Yahweh became a special threat to the new group of Yahwists.  And so seeing the remaining Canaanites as a problem people, they describe the need for these people to be “destroyed for Yahweh”.


date_range Date 1372 place Location France create Source National Library of the Netherlands
1372 CE France  Fall of Jericho
National Library of the Netherlands

It is important not to ignore another voice that is found in the Biblical text, and it is a voice that adds a level of complexity–but also of completeness– to this picture of who the developing Israelites might be. Alongside the idealized portrayal of the Israelite conquest in the first half of the book of Joshua, alongside the call for the destruction of all Canaanites, are tales of alliances and the incorporation of various Canaanite groups into Israel. One of the heroines of the Battle of Jericho was a Canaanite woman, a prostitute named Rahab. She declared her faith in Yahweh and then delivered the city into Joshua’s hands.  The story of Rahab is just one example–there are many stories that show the adding of Canaanites–both groups and individuals- into membership in the tribes of Israel. There are covenants made with small villages or tribes outside of the 12 Israelite tribes. 

Michael Coogan, editor of the Oxford Annotated NRSV Bible, describes stories like Rahab as etiological tales,  explaining that various Canaanites clearly are included in the tribes of Israel, and there is a need to understand and explain that reality as much as the alternative narrative in which all Canaanites are obliterated.

A distinct Israelite identity is reiterated in Joshua’s farewell address in Joshua 23, and in the covenant renewal ceremony in chapter 24. The central idea is that there is one proper response to God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel, and that is obedience to the Torah, without intermingling with the peoples who are not followers of Yahweh.

Joshua 23: 11-13:

11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back, and join the survivors of these nations left here among you, and intermarry with them, so that you marry their women and they yours, 13 know assuredly that the Lord your God will not continue to drive out these nations before you; but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a scourge on your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land that the Lord your God has given you. (NRSV)

One last thought concerns the position of the Israelites in the sixth century BCE, during the time of the final editing of the Deuteronomistic history. The Israelites during the writing and editing process are sitting in exile in Babylon. They are trying to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them and the loss of their land. Consider how a text like Joshua 23 and Joshua 24 would go a long way towards explaining their fate while allowing them to retain their faith in Yahweh. When various things happened in these books, and when they were actually written down will have differing contexts!

The transition from Judges to the time of Kings

The transition from a tribal society under the leadership of elders and charismatic “judges” to a united nation under a monarch is traced through the books of Judges and Samuel 1 and 2. Early stories of local heroes are woven together into a larger history that conforms to the ideas of the Deuteronomistic School. An extended look at Saul and David (including God’s covenant with David) reveals some questions about monarchy as a form of leadership.


Page from the Book of Judges in a German Bible dating from 1485. Digitised by the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. Shelfmark: Bib. Germ. 1485 d.1. Folio CLXXXVI recto. More provenance information at http://incunables.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/record/B-331
Page from the Book of Judges in a German Bible dating from 1485.

Tribes are territorial units at the time of the Judges.  Within the tribes are clan elders, and these are the people who dispense justice. The scholarly consensus is that what you have in Canaan is an alliance of tribes, perhaps not precisely twelve, but something around that number.  (The naming of the 12 differs a bit–see both Genesis 49 and Numbers 26) These tribes have some loose obligations of mutual defense.

There are some elements of the Biblical narrative which suggest there was rather sporadic cooperation among the tribes. There are never more than one or two tribes acting in concert until the very end of Judges. This suggests that there was no super-tribal government at this early stage. The elders ran the individual tribes, but in addition to their authority is the authority of certain heroic individuals. These individuals are known as judges, and their stories are recorded in the book of Judges.

The book of Judges is set in that transitional period between the death of Joshua and the establishment of a monarchic system. This is a 200-year period, from about 1200 to 1000 BCE. The stories in Judges depict local tribal skirmishes against groups or nations surrounding the Israelites.

Like the book of Joshua, Judges consists of various sources that were fused together in a Deuteronomistic framework. It is a collection of varied stories that center on local heroes, several of whom are socially rather marginal. These are controversial characters. There is the illegitimate son of a prostitute,  and in another story there is a bandit. The stories are full of drama and a lot of local color.

Stories of the major judges  (there are six major and six minor judges) begin with Ehud in Judges 3.  Ehud leads the Israelites against the Moabites. In chapters 4 and 5, there is Deborah, who helps the Israelites in battle against Canaanite groups.

Roundel with Delilah Cutting the Hair of Samson North Netherlandish; circa 1520 –25 Medium: Colorless glass, vitreous paint and silver stain
Roundel of Delilah Cutting the Hair of Samson, North Netherland; circa 1520 –25  Medium: Colorless glass, vitreous paint and silver stain

There are four chapters recording the adventures of Gideon and in chapter 11 and a bit of chapter 12,  the story of Jephthah, who fights against the Ammonites — and the tragic story of his daughter, which echoes similar sorts of stories in Greek legend. In chapters 13-16 is the story of Samson, who fights against the Philistines.  He has a fatal weakness for foreign women, which is a strong theme in his stories.  Towards the end of the book chapters 17 and 18 tell the story of Micah and his idolatrous shrine, and finally there is the horrifying tale, beginning in chapter 19, of the story concerning the Levite’s concubine and the civil war that breaks out amongst the tribes.

The editor’s theology of history in Judges is seen in the preface to the book. Chapter 1 lists the areas that Joshua had failed to take from the Canaanites, despite the impression that is given in the conquest story earlier.  Then in Judges 2:1-5, an angel appears before Joshua’s death, and recounts God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt and quotes God as saying: “I will never break my covenant with you. And you, for your part, must make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you must tear down their altars.”

And then comes the passage that expresses the editor’s judgment on the nation of this period. “Another generation arose after them, which had not experienced [the deliverance of] the Lord, or the deeds that He had wrought for Israel. And the Israelites did what was offensive to the Lord,” literally what was evil in the eyes of the lord.


So in short, it is the view of the Deuteronomistic historian expressed here in Judges, that Israel’s crises are caused by infidelity to Yahweh, through the worship of Canaanite gods, and for this sin, God sells the Israelites to their enemies. Eventually, moved to pity when Israel cries out under the oppression, God raises leaders to deliver Israel.


This pattern of sin, punishment, repentance and deliverance is the recurring pattern throughout the book of Judges.

Deborah was a prophetess and the fourth, and the only female, Judge of pre-monarchic Israel in the Old Testament (Tanakh). Date 1553 Source "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum" Author Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589)
Deborah was the fourth and only female Judge of pre-monarchic Israel in the Tanakh.  1553 CE
Source “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”
Guillaume Rouille

The leaders called judges refer to human leaders who exercised different powers or functions, not merely judicial.  An Israelite judge was primarily a military leader, commissioned with a specific task. (It is important to note that there was one female judge, Deborah, who was both a military leader and judicial authority.)

In these stories the judges were not chosen for their virtue. Many of them seemed to fall into the literary type of the trickster, with the various judges acting much like the patriarch Jacob in his youth.  Gideon is explicitly chosen because he was a ruthless fighter, but he was clearly not a devout Yahwist. Jephthah was an outlaw. Samson was a womanizer. So these were not meant to be idealized heroes, but instead were popular and often charismatic heroes, and most importantly people who could lead the armies of Israel.


There is an interesting tension in the book of Judges that will continue beyond into the two books of Samuel regarding kingship. Many of these individual stories seem to suggest a deep-seated distrust of kingship.

In Judges 8, the people ask Gideon to become king. Gideon responds in this way: “I shall not rule over you, nor shall my sons rule over you. Yahweh shall rule over you”.  The position of judge is temporary, as God was viewed as the permanent ruler in Israel. But the book of Judges as a whole seems to suggest a progression towards kingship in spite of this attitude, and this emerges from some of the editorial elements and interpolations.

The final chapters of Judges indicates Israel’s slow slide into horror, rape, murder, civil war, kidnapping, forced marriage–it is complete disorder within Israel by that time. Judges 18 opens with an ominous statement that recurs throughout the final chapters. “In those days, there was no king in Israel.” Then follows in chapter 21:25 this statement:  “And everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  It is a wonderful phrase, “no king in Israel”– no human king, and perhaps also (given their behavior) no divine king. Every person is doing as they please, and the situation in Israel reached by the end of Judges is barbaric.


Saul, David and Solomon, Thesuarus Sacrarum, Historiarum, Gerard de Jode 1585
Saul, David and Solomon, Thesuarus Sacrarum, Historiarum, Gerard de Jode 1585 CE

And so, the Kings take the lead

The Deuteronomist’s explanation for the problems Israel faces at the end of the period of the judges is Israel’s continued infidelity to Yahweh. And the answer suggested by the tribes to these problems is to get a king for Israel, to be a stronger leader and defender than the judges had been.


Icon of the prophet Samuel from the 17th century. Tempera on wood. In the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum.
Icon of the prophet Samuel from the 17th century. In the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum.

Samuel, the reluctant kingmaker

In their search for a new political order, the people of Israel turned to the prophet Samuel.  The two books of Samuel deal with the transition from the period of the judges to the period of the monarchy. So in the first book of Samuel, in the opening chapters, is the record of the birth and career of Israel’s last judge, Samuel. Chapters 8-15 give us a story of Samuel and Saul, who will be Israel’s first king. Chapters 16 to 31  give us the story of Saul and David.

Samuel has several functions in his career. He is a priest, a seer, and a prophet, and eventually he anoints the kings. He is a judge in the sense that he leads Israel to military victory, as did previous judges. He also travels a circuit acting as a judge in a judicial sense, although most of the places he goes to are located within the confines of the tribe of Benjamin.

But even Samuel is unable to provide Israel with the kind of leadership that the text suggests is desired by the tribes. Representatives of the tribes come together to appeal to Samuel to find them someone to act as a king for the whole nation. Samuel is therefore a kind of a transition figure between Israel as a semi-democratic confederation and Israel as a monarchy.

1 Samuel contains contradictions and duplicate stories, as is expected in these edited writings. There are three different stories of the choice of Saul as king. There are two accounts of Saul finally being rejected by God. There are varying accounts of how David came to know Saul and enter Saul’s service. More than one account exists of David’s escape into Philistine territory, and of his sparing Saul’s life.  Goliath is killed twice, and on only one of those occasions is it by David.


Most important in these writings is the existence of sources that hold opposing views of the institution of kingship.  Some passages are clearly anti-monarchic and some are clearly pro-monarchic.


1 Samuel 8 is a classic example of the anti-monarchic perspective. Samuel is initially opposed to the whole idea. He apparently resents the usurpation of his own power until God says to Samuel in verses 7-9,

7 … “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” (NRSV)

Samuel warns of the tyranny and rapaciousness of kings, the service and the sacrifice required of the people in order to support a luxurious court life, and the bureaucracy of a monarch and their army.  But the people won’t listen, and say, “No… We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles” [1 Samuel 8:19-20].

This is a rejection both of Yahweh and of Israel’s distinctiveness from other nations.  Samuel finally retires saying, “See, it is the king who leads you now. I am old.” and then chastises the people one last time for having asked for a king.

There is some implication that despite positive evaluations of Israel’s kings at the time of the kings, from the perspective of the editors a few years later and even from those sitting in exile 400 years later, that the institution of kingship was a disaster for Israel. That negative assessment is introduced by the Deuteronomistic redactor who gives many earlier warnings that a king in Israel had the potential to be disastrous.

So the end result is a complex narrative in the text, with both pro and anti-monarchic views battling all through.

Saul and David

ernardo Cavallino (1616–1656) Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q822982 q:it:Bernardo Cavallino Edit this at Wikidata Bernardo Cavallino: David plays for Saul Title German: David spielt vor Saul Edit this at Wikidata David plays for Saul
Bernardo Cavallino: David plays for Saul

Not only is there ambivalence about the institution of kingship, there is also a great deal of ambivalence about the actual first king, King Saul.

There are varied accounts of how Saul became king. In 1 Samuel 9, Samuel anoints Saul as king with oil in private.  Then in 1 Samuel 10, Saul’s appointment is represented as being by a lottery, presided over by Samuel, and the lot falls to Saul to be appointed king. In the next chapter Saul is victorious in battle and so then is elected king by popular acclaim.

These could all be complementary ways of Saul slowly securing the kingship. They could be seen as competing accounts. Saul is certainly seen as an important and striking figure. Nevertheless there seems to have been some controversy about Saul and it is preserved within the sources. On the one hand, he is described in very positive terms. He is tall, handsome, winning, and charismatic. He is hailed by the tribes as a war leader. As king he had some significant military victories. He drove the Philistines from their garrisons, and he was such a popular and natural leader that even Samuel, who at first resented Saul and resented the idea of a king, came to appreciate him and was said to really grieve for him upon his death.

But once David enters the story there begin to be negative assessments of Saul.  In time, with his support eroding, Saul seems to sink into a deep depression and paranoia. Toward the end of his life, he is depicted as being completely obsessed with David and the threat that David poses to Saul himself, but also to Saul’s dynasty. Saul is angry that his own son, Jonathan, who presumably should succeed him to the throne, has a deep friendship with David and, in fact, throws his support behind David instead of to his own father. In addition, because Saul doesn’t obey Samuel’s instructions about being a king to the letter, he loses the support of Samuel and, eventually, the support of God.


Detail from a 1878 oil painting. by Ernst Josephson, David and Saul, faound in Stokholm Museum
Detail from a 1878 oil by Ernst Josephson, David and Saul,  Stockholm Museum

In several jealous rages Saul attempts to kill David or to have him killed.

It is likely that the portrayal of Saul as a raving and paranoid man who is obsessed with David probably reflects the views of later writers who were supporters of the House of David.


Positive views of Saul’s character weren’t entirely extinguished by the redactors. David’s own lament, when he hears of Saul’s death by suicide, and of Jonathan’s death, may reflect Saul’s tremendous popularity. David orders the Judahites to sing what is called the Song of the Bow in praise of Saul and Jonathan.

Your glory, O Israel,
Lies slain on your heights;
How have the mighty fallen!

Saul and Jonathan,
Beloved and cherished,
Never parted
In life or in death!

They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions!
Daughters of Israel,
Weep over Saul,
Who clothed you in crimson and finery,
Who decked your robes with jewels of gold.

How have the mighty fallen
In the thick of battle —
Jonathan, slain on your heights!
I grieve for you,
My brother Jonathan,
You were most dear to me.
Your love was wonderful to me
More than the love of women.
How have the mighty fallen,
The weapons of war perished! [2 Sam 1:19, 23-27]


Showing David as mourning Saul and Jonathan in these terms would have served to clear David of any part in, or even desire for, the death of Saul.


The Tel Dan Stele on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Found in 1993, and referring to the house of David, The Tel Dan Stele on display at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Then begins the story of David and his encounters with Saul, running through the end of 1 Samuel and into the first few chapters of 2 Samuel.  Given that the ruling family in Judah was referred to as the House of David for several centuries, and given an archaeological find dating from the ninth century BCE — a Syrian inscription that refers to the House of David —  given those two pieces of evidence, most scholars would see David as a person who actually lived. Most scholars also say that David is likely the first person in the Bible to be clearly identified as having really existed.

Few details from the Biblical account can be confirmed, but the scholarly consensus is that David was not just a story. David is in most accounts shown to be very human, even though he is the king. He is not considered divine, and he is not presented as highly virtuous. The first installment of his story through about 2 Samuel 5 is clearly sympathetic to David. But it is not obsequious or flattering, which is what very often comes out of ancient Near Eastern texts that deal with royalty.


A bit more about Tel Dan and the House of David stele

In 1993, Avraham Biran discovered a piece of Aramaic writing that set the worlds of Archaeology and Biblical scholars ablaze–mention of the House of David.  There had been, up to this point, no physical evidence of David being an actual person instead of, perhaps, a story character.  But here it was!  Read a bit more:  Some evidence concerning King David


David is portrayed as a hero at times, but he is also seen as an opportunist. He served as a mercenary for the Philistines some of the time, and acted unscrupulously at other times. So this account isn’t royal propaganda in the simple sense. David will fare much worse in the second installment of his story.


Why was King David chosen?

This story appears in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures. (In the Qur’an, David and Goliath are called Daud and Jalut). David is an important figure in the three Abrahamic faiths as he is believed to have been chosen by God to be both a prophet and a king.

David was a surprising choice as he was the youngest of seven brothers, and it was unusual for someone in his position to be selected for leadership. However, as is made clear in the chapter before this story, God is not concerned with human ideas of status.


There are 3 accounts of of how we meet David.

After the death of Saul, David will be publicly anointed king in Hebron over his own tribe, Judah. He then manages to either win over or kill off the rest of Saul’s household–anyone who might be a threat to his claim to kingship based on descent, including within the northern region of the tribes. Eventually those northern tribes also elect David king. Once his reign seems secure, and the nation is consolidated behind him, David then captures and renames Jerusalem and launches attacks against Israel’s neighbors. And the text says that the Lord gives him victory.


In this graphic about early historical Israel, the pink area is a rough approximate map of the near-maximum boundaries of the lands that were inhabited by Israelites or under direct central royal administration during the United Monarchy period of ancient history (according to the Bible) -- excluding states (such as Damascus, Geshur, Ammon, Moab, Edom, and the Philistine city-states) which sometimes acknowledged some degree of Israelite suzerainty or overlordship, but were never integral or directly-administered parts of the unified Israelite kingdom of David or Solomon. This is basically what is referred to by the Biblical phrase "from Dan to Beersheba"The Bible depicts David as the master of an empire that stretches from the desert to the sea. There is very little evidence that Israel actually established lasting control over all this region. It is likely that David was able to take advantage of a power vacuum at that time. Egypt’s hold on the area was weak, and there was migration inland of the “peoples of the seas”, and other peoples pressing into the region from the desert. This reality upset the two major powers of the time– Mesopotamia and Egypt.

David and the Israelites were able to establish an small but independent state. This independent state was probably able to dominate the area for a little while, ending the Philistine threat, and possibly even collecting tribute from some of the surrounding or neighboring states, Ammon and Moab and Edom.

The Davidic Covenant

It is the prophet Nathan who transmits God’s promise to David that will become the basis for faith in the eternity of the Davidic kingdom. That happens in 2 Samuel, chapter 7:8-17, a very important passage in the construction of what we see as a royal ideology.

This is Nathan speaking now, quoting God:

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever. 17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (NRSV)

King David Playing the Harp (1622) by Gerard van Honthorst
King David Playing the Harp (1622 CE) by Gerard van Honthorst

With this passage the idea of an eternal and unconditional covenant between God and the House of David is founded. This is the fourth Hebrew covenant. 

Now there exist the Noahide covenant, the patriarchal Covenant, the Sinaitic Covenant, and the Davidic covenant. Note that God says that David and his descendants may be punished for sin, but that God will not take the kingdom away from them as God did from Saul.

So God’s oath to preserve the Davidic dynasty meant that David became the paradigmatic, idealized king. Even when the kingdom finally fell to the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the promise to David’s House was believed to be eternal. The community looked to the future for a restoration of the Davidic line or Davidic king, or a messiah.

Now the Hebrew word messiah simply means anointed; one who is “meshiach” is one anointed with the holy oil. That refers to the fact that the king was initiated into office by means of holy oil poured on his head. King David was the messiah of God, the king anointed by or to God. During the Babylonian exile Israelites would pray for another messiah, meaning another king from the House of David, appointed and anointed by God to rescue them from their enemies and reestablish them as a nation at peace, in their own land, as David had done.

Israelite hope for a messiah was always political and national. It always involved yearning for the restoration of the nation in its own land under a Davidic king.  Royal ideology begins to emerge and challenge the older Sinaitic and covenantal ideology. This shows up in the writings and sayings of the Latter Prophets, in particular.


Learning about the Star of David

Star of David from Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France
found at Cimetière du Montparnasse, Paris, France

Most people know the symbol called the Star of David, which shows up on gravestones, synagogues, and in more nefarious situations, such as the stars forced to be worn by European Jews during WWII.  It might be useful to know what its history is, and why it is called the Star of David.  Take some time to read about the use of this symbol during the Nazi Era as well.  The first link gives history of the star, the second, from the US Holocaust Museum, gives some WWII history.

Magen David

Jewish Badge during the Nazi Era


One important thing to note is that the king in Israel was not divine, as he was in Egypt, or even semi-divine. The king didn’t play a regular role in worship leadership, nor was he worshiped. The king was  called by the deity to end wickedness, to enlighten the land, to be the channel of prosperity, and a divine blessing for the nation. All of this was considered true of Canaanite kings as well as the kings in Israel.  In both cultures the king was spoken of as God’s son. It is a metaphor of sonship, and it expressed the special relationship between the king and the deity.  It was not thought that the king was an actual son of God.

Think of this sonship as a kind of adoption, with the king serving God loyally and faithfully, but as a son, also being susceptible to chastisement. That reality is what is seen in Nathan’s prophecy to David.

This attitude towards the king was a deliberate effort to replace an earlier understanding according to which the entire nation of Israel was God’s child. During the plagues in Egypt, God refers to Pharaoh as having oppressed God’s own child, Israel, the firstborn.

As Yahweh’s child, the king now is standing between God and the people as a whole–an intermediary.  The messianic ideas that follow in future prophecies come from this perception–the messianic (anointed) king interceding for the people of Israel.

There are three characteristics of David which stand out from stories about him:

  • The first is that he is quite proficient in music and poetry and so later tradition is going to attribute to him not only the invention of various instruments but also the composition of the Book of Psalms. It is possible that he wrote some, but also likely that he did not write all, of the psalms.
  • Secondly, he is credited with great military and tactical skill and confidence. He deploys his army on behalf of Israel but he also, once he is king, deploys his army within Israel against his rivals.
  • Third, he is depicted as a very shrewd politician. It was David who created permanent symbols of God’s election of Israel, God’s election of David himself, and God’s election of David’s dynasty to rule over Israel in perpetuity. It is said that David conceived the idea of a royal capital. He captured the city of Jebus— it was a border town so it was free of any tribal association, (like Washington, D.C.), not located within any one tribe.  And this city he re-named Jerusalem.

And so Jerusalem becomes a symbol of God’s presence, of Israel’s kingdom, of the monarchy and it becomes a symbol of the dynasty of David. Jerusalem  is eventually referred to as the City of David.


Example: the City of David

Drag the button on the slide across from the left to the right to see the change in the city over the centuries.  In the modern city, each small orange square indicates a specific place–hover over each of them for more detailed information:

Interactive Jerusalem Tour


David transfers the Ark of the Covenant to the city of Jerusalem and makes it the home to the Sinaitic Covenant. The added implication to this act is that the Davidic dynasty then inherited the blessings of the Sinai covenant. The centrality of the ark in Jerusalem shows that David is also helping  fulfil the promise God made to the patriarchs. The people of Israel now inhabit this land and they have created a nation for themselves.

David planned a temple to become the permanent resting place for the ark. The building of this temple was left to Solomon, but according to the Biblical record it was still David who made the chosen city and the temple into permanent and deeply interconnected symbols of the religion of Israel. It is really with David that the history of Jerusalem as the Holy City begins.

Biblical assessment of David is initially relatively positive, but this changes shortly after his ascension to the throne. Beginning in 2 Samuel 9 to 20 and then on into the first couple of chapters of Kings, there is a stretch of text referred to as the succession narrative of David. Who will succeed David? He has many children but one by one his sons are killed, displaced or disqualified in one way or another, until finally just Solomon is left.


1650–55, Pen and brown ink, heightened with white gouache, Nathan Admonishing David, drawing, Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn)
1650–55, Pen and brown ink, heightened with white gouache, Nathan Admonishing David, drawing, Rembrandt (Rembrandt van Rijn) Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is a rather unusual portrait of David as the narrative continues. He is shown as weak, indecisive, almost struggling to be a leader. He stays home in the palace while other people are off leading battles and fighting the wars. David enters into an illicit relationship with a married woman, Bathsheba and sends her husband to be killed in battle to cover up this affair. It is this combined act of adultery and murder that earns him a serious rebuke from the court prophet Nathan. God even punishes David with the death of the son of that adulterous union. It is really from this point on in the story that we see David losing control over events around him.

Eventually, over time, David becomes almost completely senile. David is depicted in very human terms. (The flattery and whitewashing that is seen in the books of Chronicles are really just a retelling of the material here in the former prophets. There is no mention of Bathsheba in Chronicles, for example.) All of the flaws, all of the weaknesses of David are shown in clear detail in the books of Samuel and Kings. The prophet Nathan and Bathsheba (whom David eventually marries) plot to have Bathsheba’s son, Solomon, named the successor of David even during David’s life,  and there is no point in the process showing that there is any divine choice of Solomon as king. The choice of the third king of Israel happens through palace intrigue.

The reign of Solomon: tensions in Kings I and II

1 and 2 Kings contain the history of Israel from the death of King David until the fall of Judah in 586 BCE, and the narrative follows the people into the exile in Babylon. These books also appear to be based on older sources.  There is some reference to these older sources in Kings, works including the Book of the Acts of Solomon, the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, and the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah. Annals and chronicles were regularly maintained in royal courts throughout the Ancient Near East. These annals generally listed important events in the reign of a given king. They tended not to have much narrative to them and the beginning of the first 16 chapters of 1 Kings has that kind of feel.


artist Simeon Solomon, King Solomon Date1872-74, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
artist Simeon Solomon, King Solomon, 1872-74, National Gallery of Art, Washington


It seems with the beginning of Solomon’s reign that the three crises noted in the Book of Samuel are resolved. The crisis of succession is resolved.  The military crises seem for now to have been resolved.  And the religious crisis is resolved.

The resolution of these crises came at a cost. They produced fundamental changes in Israelite society. From a loose confederation of tribes, however idealistic that picture was, united by a covenant, there is now a nation with a strong central administration, headed by a king. That king seems to enjoy a special covenant with God. And preserved in the Biblical sources is a tension between the old ideas of covenant theology and the new ideology of the monarchy. This new royal ideology combines loyalty to God and loyalty to the throne, so that treason or rebellion against God’s anointed is also also rebellion against God.



The Davidic covenant is between God and a single individual, the king.  The contrast with the covenant at Sinai is very clear. Where Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai was with the whole people, and was conditional on the good behavior of the people, the covenant with David and with his dynastic house (and by implication with David’s city and the temple on Mount Zion), that covenant will be maintained under all conditions.


Scholars have tried to account for these two strands of tradition in Biblical literature in different ways; the covenant theology with its emphasis on the conditional covenant with Moses contracted at Sinai; the royal ideology and its emphasis on the unconditional covenant with David focused on Mount Zion.

  • One explanation is chronological — that early traditions were centered around the Sinai event and the covenant theology. They emphasize that aspect of the relationship with God, and later traditions under the monarchy emphasize royal ideology.
  • Another explanation is geographical. The northern kingdom breaks away from the southern kingdom (David’s line does not rule in the northern kingdom) so the assumption is that the northern kingdom, which rejected the house of David de-emphasized a royal ideology and its focus on Zion and the house of David, and instead emphasized the old covenant theology and the Sinai theology. And by contrast the southern kingdom, in which a member of the house of David reigned right up until the destruction, the southern kingdom emphasized Zion and its attendant royal ideology.
The Second Jerusalem Temple. Model in the Israel Museum.
The Second Jerusalem Temple. Model in the Israel Museum.

But the Sinai and the Zion traditions are found in both early texts and late texts,  and both northern texts and southern texts. David’s house was criticized in the south just as roundly as it was criticized in the north, and emphasis was placed on the Sinai covenant over against the royal ideology in both places as well.

So the two traditions, emphasizing either Zion or Sinai, coexisted in tension with one another in Israel. Eventually they would work together. Mount Zion became a symbol of Sinai located in Jerusalem. It became seen as the place of the Torah.  The king himself was not exempt from the covenant conditions set at Sinai, so even though the king would never be deposed for violating the Sinaitic Covenant, he would be punished for any violations of the law.

Solomon is given mixed reviews by the Deuteronomistic historian, similar to those given to Saul and David. He ascends to the throne through intrigue, as there is really no indication of his being a divine choice or having divine approval.  But in spite of this, he is said to reign over a golden age. His kingdom is said to stretch from Egypt to the Euphrates River.

Solomon made political alliances and economic alliances throughout the region. He sealed these alliances with many marriages (much to the dismay of the people, as the women frequently worshiped some other god than Yahweh)  The text claims that Solomon built a daunting military establishment.


Looking at tels: Unesco’s  Biblical Tels–Megiddo, Hazor and Beer Sheba  (go check out the many photos!)


There were fortified cities — Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer — as bases for his professional army. Solomon exploited Israel’s natural position straddling the north-south trade routes and was able to bring great wealth to the state. He worked closely with the Phoenician King Hiram in developing a merchant fleet and exploited trade routes through the Red Sea. All sorts of exotic products are listed as coming in to Jerusalem from Arabia and the African coast. There is the famous story of the visit of the queen of Sheba. And of course he is known for his magnificent building operations of temple, city walls and his palace.


Model of Tell Megiddo
Model of Tell Megiddo, Tel Megiddo National Park, Israel

There are few material remains that attest to a fabulous empire on a scale suggested by the Biblical text concerning Solomon’s era.  Archaeologists have found that Jerusalem was a very small town until the end of the eighth century BCE when it absorbed refugees from the fall of the northern kingdom. Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer, the three places mentioned as fortified military bases, have been excavated and although they show some great gateways and some large chambers, even some stables, archaeologists differ radically over the dating of these structures.

Most scholars and archaeologists concur that Israel was, at the time of Solomon, the most important power in its region, but it would have been small and relatively insignificant compared to Egypt or Mesopotamia, or any of the great civilizations at either end of the Fertile Crescent. It would have been an important state in that area for a short time,  and probably was able to have some dominance over a few neighboring areas as well.


A modern artistic depiction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, also known as Solomon's Temple. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel Date29 January 2022
A modern artistic depiction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, also known as Solomon’s Temple. Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 29 January 2022


There are three things that Solomon is noted for:

  • First, he is praised for his wisdom, and because the Biblical text praises him for his wisdom, tradition will attribute authorship of the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes to him.
  • Second, he’s praised for constructing the temple, and in fact the primary focus of the biblical story of Solomon is the building and the dedication of this temple for the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. He continued the close association of religious and political leadership, and he appointed himself a high priest. So the juxtaposition of the house of the king and the house of the deity on Mount Zion was quite deliberate.
  • However, third–Solomon’s primary flaw in the Deuteronomistic historians’ view is his syncretism, which is prompted by his marriages to the foreign women who brought their own cultures’ cults to Jerusalem. His religious infidelity is said to be the cause of his numerous problems and ultimately the division of the kingdom that will follow upon his death.

The temple came to represent an ideal and sacred realm for Israel, and became the object of intense longing, both before and after it was destroyed. Many of the Psalms will express this intense longing–if one could just sit in the temple, if one could just be in that space, that sacred space —  this longing is expressed all throughout the Psalms. In a passage describing the dedication of the temple, Solomon declared that the temple was a place where people had access to God. They pray, offer petitions, and atone for their sins. It was a house of prayer, he said, and it remained the central focal point of Israelite worship for centuries.

So his great wisdom and his great virtue in constructing the temple notwithstanding, Solomon is very sharply criticized for, among other things, his foreign worship. His new palace complex had plenty of room for his harem, which is said to have included 700 wives and up to 300 concubines. Many of them were foreign princesses and many of them would have been acquired to seal alliances.

These numbers are likely exaggerated, but Solomon’s diplomatic alliances likely necessitated marriages that would be condemned by the Deuteronomistic historian. Solomon is said to have loved foreign women, from the nations that God had forbidden, and he succumbed to the worship of their gods and goddesses, which is his key problem.

In creating this more elaborate form of the Israelite monarchy, it also created an urban structure that was imposed on the more traditional agricultural life of Israel.  This lead to all sorts of class divisions between, on one hand, the officials, bureaucrats, merchants, large-scale landowners, and on the other, smaller farmers and shepherds who are living at more of a subsistence level.

This is all a great change from the ideals of the tribal democracy.  The list of social and economic ills that were enumerated by Samuel when he was trying to speak against establishing a monarchy (remember that list of ills? — a standing military to support, having to do labor for the state, having all kinds of taxes and special levies, being virtually enslaved)  seem to have been realized, the Deuteronomistic historian would like us to believe, in the reign of Solomon.


Approximate map showing the Kingdoms of Israel (blue) and Judah (orange), ancient Southern Levant borders and ancient cities. The map shows the region in the 9th century BCE.
Approximate map showing the Kingdoms of Israel (blue) and Judah (orange), ancient Southern Levant borders and ancient cities. The map shows the region in the 9th century BCE.

The Divided Kingdom

When Solomon died in 922 BCE the structure that had been erected by David and Solomon fell into two rival states, neither of them very strong. The northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom referred to as Judah each had its own king: Jeroboam in the north, Rehoboam in the south. At times they were at war, in other times they worked in alliance with one another, but 200 years after the division of the state,  the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian empire in 722 BCE.

After this conquest, the Assyrians came down to the border of Judah, and although the southern kingdom remained viable, it was reduced to vassal status submissive to the new Assyrian power. The Babylonians eventually rose and conquered the Assyrians and assumed control over the Ancient Near East, and in the process took over the southern kingdom of Judah in about 597 BCE and destroyed it completely in 586 BCE.

The story of the northern kingdom, Israel, that is presented in Kings is colored by a Judean perspective, and it is primarily negative. It shows that upon the death of Solomon, the nation was was to be lead by his son, Rehoboam. But the ten tribes of the north revolted when Rehoboam refused to relieve their tax burden. They came to him and asked if they could have some relief and he answered them harshly, so they revolted and a separate kingdom was set up under the rule of the Israelite Jeroboam, at the end of the tenth century BCE. Divided now into these two kingdoms, both begin to lose power, including any control they may have had over outlying territories.

The Northern Kingdom: Israel

The northern kingdom of Israel was more divided by tribal rivalries and religious traditions than southern Judah. There were ten tribes in that region. Right from the beginning King Jeroboam didn’t seem to be able to establish a stable rule. 1 Kings 12 tells us of Jeroboam’s effort to break the connection with Jerusalem in the south. He established his government at Shechem, already revered in Hebrew tradition as the place where the covenant renewal ceremony was held by Joshua. He then established royal shrines on each of the borders in Dan (north) and Beth-el (south).

Jeroboam is said to have made unacceptable concessions to Canaanite practices of worship, and is criticized for this. Despite his best efforts, his kingship is fairly unstable, and in fact in the 200-year history of the northern kingdom of Israel there will be seven different dynasties occupying the throne.


Kings of Northern Israel

If you scroll down in this link, you will find a chart of dates from 3 different scholars, William Albright, Edwin Thiele, and Gershon Galil, for the complete list of kings in Northern Israel:  Kings of the Northern Kingdom



Mesha stele.or the Moabite Stone, celebrating the victory of the king of Moab over the king of Israel, Omri. Louvre Museum, Paris
Mesha stele, or the Moabite Stone, celebrating the victory of Moab over the king of Israel, Omri. Louvre Museum, Paris

One of these northern kings, Omri, is noteworthy because he is the first king from either kingdom to be mentioned in sources outside the Bible. A large stone referred to as the Moabite Stone or the Mesha Stele boasts of Moab’s military defeat of King Omri of Israel.

Omri fortified Samaria as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and archaeology does reveal that this was a magnificent city at this time.  Omri’s son, Ahab, also is mentioned outside the Bible. An inscription from an Assyrian king describes a coalition of Israelites and Aramaeans who fought against the Assyrians, and Ahab is mentioned in that inscription. Omri and Ahab were clearly very powerful and influential in the region.

Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel, established an extravagant court life, and for this they are condemned by the Deuteronomistic editors–there are a number of nasty digs in the connecting narrative. When Jezebel tried to establish the worship of her Phoenician god Baal as the official cult of Israel, the prophets Elijah and Elisha declared a holy war against the monarchy. Ahab and Jezebel met a tragic end, as the general Jehu was anointed king by the prophet Elisha.  With that power, Jehu promptly took a bloody revenge on Jezebel and the priests of Baal, who were all slaughtered, along with every worshipper of Baal.  This took place in about 842 BCE and thus returned the northern kingdom to the worship of Yahweh.


Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Clay Prismoid Cylinder with Inscription of Sargon, King of Assyria, Khorsabad, late 8th C. BC
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Clay Prismoid Cylinder with Inscription of Sargon, King of Assyria, Khorsabad, late 8th C. BC

By the eighth century BCE, however, the Assyrian empire was on the rise, and in 722 BCE the Assyrian king Sargon reduced Israel to the status of a province. There is an inscription by Sargon that confirms the Biblical report of this defeat. In this inscription Sargon says, “[I besieged, conquered]” Samaria “…led away as prisoners [27,290 inhabitants of it…. [The town I] re[built] better than (it was) before and [settled] therein people from countries which [I] myself [had con]quered.” In this description we see population transplanting on the part of Assyria.

It continues:  “I placed an officer of mine as governor over them and imposed upon them tribute as [is customary] for Assyrian citizens”.

Many of the Israelite governing class, the wealthy merchants, tens of thousands in all, were carried off to northern Mesopotamia and they were lost to history. These are the ten lost tribes of Israel.  Some Hebrew farmers and shepherds,  continuing in their old ways, would have been allowed to stay behind, but as was consistent with their policy, the Assyrians imported new peoples to repopulate this area and to break up any local resistance to their rule. The combination of older local and new imported people would make up the population of the province of Samaria from that point on.


Map of the Assyrian Empire
Map of the Assyrian Empire


This ethnically mixed group created by Assyria’s policies would practice a form of the Israelite religion, but the Deuteronomistic editor does not view this religious expression as legitimately the worship of Yahweh. Ultimately these Samaritans were going to be despised by the Jews of Judah, who considered themselves true Israelites.  So there became a tremendous rivalry between the Jews of Judah and the Samaritans. (Hence, the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan begins to make sense — any Samaritan was a hated person.)

The Southern Kingdom: Judah

Judah was comprised of the two remaining Israelite tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and it generally enjoyed relative stability. It remained loyal to the house of David ruling in Jerusalem. Shortly after northern Israel fell in 722 BCE to the Assyrians, the Judahites also became vassals of Assyria. But Hezekiah, the king at the time, began to prepare for rebellion against Assyria, making alliances with Judah’s neighbors. This prompted the Assyrians to march in and lay siege to Jerusalem in about 701 BCE, and this siege is described in Assyrian sources, so there are independent records describing this.

The Assyrian sources say: “As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I laid siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts,”– “I drove out…200,150 people…. Himself I made prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage”. But Judah was able to withstand the siege, preserve their own kingship, and eventually Assyria withdrew.


Ruins of the North Palace of the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II at the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. 6th century BC.
Ruins of the North Palace of the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II at the ancient city of Babylon, Iraq. 6th century BC.

The Assyrian empire fell in 612 BCE to the rising Babylonians. The Babylonian empire conquered Judah under Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 587 – 586 BCE. The walls of Jerusalem were dismantled, the temple destroyed, and many members of the governing classes, priests, scribes, craftspeople, the educated–the wealthier classes– were carried off into exile in Babylon. This is the event officially known as the Exile, as opposed to the event where the northern 10 tribes were taken from their homes. That the Hebrews in Babylon didn’t fade into oblivion after the loss of political independence and their geographical base, is due in large part to their interpretation of events provided by the Deuteronomistic school.  And that is what kept the Israelites going–they did not accept that their faith or their culture was permanently done or destroyed.

One more look at Historiosophy of the Deuteronomistic School

It is important to talk a bit more about this theological approach to the history of Israel, given how the Bible developed. As mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy isn’t just the end of the Torah’s narrative, it’s also the first part of a longer literary history.  Since this Deuteronomistic School is looking back at the history of Israel up to and including the defeat and exile of the Israelites in 587-586 BCE, the final form of the work of the Deuteronomistic School clearly is post exilic. There are various layers within that larger work, however, that are hard to date with precision.

The scholarly methodology that led to the conclusion that there is such a thing as a Deuteronomistic School  is called redaction criticism. Redaction criticism grew out of frustration with some other forms of Biblical criticism and their constant fragmentation of the Biblical text into older sources or into older genres or into older units of tradition in order to map out a history of Israelite religion. These other methods seemed to pay little attention to either the text in its final form or the process by which the text reached its final form. Redaction criticism rejects the idea that the person or the persons who compiled the text from earlier sources did a mechanical scissors and paste job. Redaction criticism focuses on identifying the purpose behind the final form of the assembled sources. It is a method that wants to uncover the intention of  the people who produced the Biblical text in roughly the shape that it finally takes.

One can usually identify linking passages that join narrative to narrative or unit to unit, in an attempt to make the text read more smoothly or just to ease the transition from one source to another. These linking passages are assigned to R as a nickname for the source called the Redactor. Also assigned to R are any interpretative passages. That means it is important to look at passages that comment on the text or interpret the text in some way.  So when the narrator turns and says, “That was when the Canaanites were still in the land,” that would seem to be from the hand of a redactor putting the sources together. When an etiological comment in inserted,  a comment such as, “And that is why the Israelites do such and such ritual observance to this day,” that also seems to be written from the perspective of a compiler of sources.

Join all such passages together and assign them to R, and very often there are tremendous stylistic similarities in these connecting passages. They use the same rhetoric over and over again, with a perspective that isn’t in the source materials that they are linking together. This is how one arrives at some understanding of the role of the Redactor in the final production of the text, how the Redactor has framed any understanding of the source materials that have been gathered.

And the Deuteronomistic historian who is responsible for the redaction of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings provides not just a history in the sense of documenting events as they occur (as if there’s ever documentation without interpretation) but provides an extremely strong interpretation of Israelite history, really more of a philosophy of their history.

The Deuteronomistic historian was attempting to respond to the first major historical challenge to confront the Israelite people and the Hebrew religion. That challenge was the complete collapse of the Israelite nation, the destruction of God’s sanctuary, and the defeat and exile of the Israelite people.

God had promised the patriarchs and their descendants that they would live in the promised land. God had promised that the house of David would stand forever.   But here the monarchy had collapsed, the people were defeated and they were in exile, far from home. So the challenge presented by this twist of history was really twofold: Is God the god of history,  omnipotent,  capable of all?  If so then what about the covenants with the patriarchs and with David? Had God faithlessly abandoned those? Well, that was unthinkable to the Israelites and to the redactors. If God hadn’t faithlessly abandoned the covenants with the people and with David, was God unable to save the Israelite people?


It was a fundamental tenet of Israelite monotheism that God was at once the god of history, capable of all, whose will is absolute, whose promises are true and at the same time a god of faithfulness who does not abandon the people–so God is and was both good and powerful, according to Hebrew belief.


So how could the disasters of 722 BCE and 586 BCE be reconciled with the conviction that God controlled history, and the eternal covenant made by Yahweh with the patriarchs and with David? The historiosophy of the Deuteronomistic school is the response of the Israelite community to these questions.

Although God is omnipotent, humans do have free will, so they can corrupt the divine plan.  In the Deuteronomistic history the leaders of Israel have the choice of accepting God’s way or rejecting it. God tries to help them. God is constantly sending them prophets who yell at the kings and tell them what it is God wants from them, but those kings continue to make bad choices. They sin and ultimately that brings about the fall, first of Israel and then of Judah, and it is the idolatrous sins of the kings that makes this happen, as they are the leaders of the people and set the direction for their nation.

With the death of the last Davidic king, Zedekiah, the Deuteronomistic school reinterpreted the Davidic Covenant in conditional terms that resemble those of the Sinaitic Covenant, so that God’s favor toward the king depends on the king’s loyalty to God, and in this way the fall of the house of David could be seen as justifiable punishment for disobedient kings or rulers.

Remember– the Davidic Covenant that Nathan proclaimed in 2 Samuel 7 explicitly said that God would punish and chastise his anointed. That is what it means to be a son, to receive correction, discipline and punishment.

So for a few examples of that chastisement:

  • Solomon’s misdeeds in allowing the building of altars for the worship of foreign gods to please his many foreign wives, is blamed for the division Israel into the two kingdoms, but the punishment was deferred until after his death and the time of his sons, and then comes this split between north and south with Jeroboam and Rehoboam reigning separately.
  • In the northern kingdom, Jeroboam I came to the throne and installed two cultic centers at Dan and Beth-El. The Deuteronomist sees Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 BCE as deferred or delayed punishment for this sin of Jeroboam I.  The creation of these cultic centers, which veered away from pure Yahweh worship, was seen as a sin, for which the nation was punished 200 years later.
  • In the southern kingdom of Judah,  Manasseh, who reigned for a large part of the seventh century BCE, turned the Jerusalem temple into a pagan temple, and it was a time of great misery for those who were loyal to Yahweh, a time of great terror.  The fall of Judah is a consequence of the evil happenings during Manasseh’s reign.


Map of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest territorial extent, under its final king Nabonidus. Follows the map of the Babylonian Empires produced by National Geographic (link), with the conquests in Arabia by Nabonidus removed.
Map of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its greatest territorial extent, under its final king Nabonidus.


This is the Deuteronomist school’s attempt to account for what happened (contrary to the covenants) within their historiosophic view. In this view defeat of the two nations did not lead to despair or apostasy because it could all be explained by the Deuteronomistic school as fitting into God’s scheme. These events did not deny God’s reign and power over the universe, they were proof of it. God was punishing Israel for the sin of idolatry, which was in violation of his covenant. And to punish Israel, God had raised the Babylonians to act merely as God’s tool.

But if the Deuteronomist laid the blame for the tragic history of the two kingdoms at the door of the sin of idolatry, and particularly the idolatry of the royal house, a different answer will be provided by Israel’s classical prophets — no less an answer, no less an interpretation, and no less an interpretation that was intended to shore up faith in this God that one might think had abandoned His people.

The prophetic answer to this great crisis that faced the Israelites comes next.

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Christine Hayes, Introduction to the Old Testament, Yale University: Open Yale Courses, http://oyc.yale.edu (April 2022). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA Some materials here used from Yale University, copyright 2007 Some rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated on this document or on the Open Yale Courses web site, all content is licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0).





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