The Rights and Duties of Kingship in Israel by Marvin A. Sweeney

The kings of Israel and Judah were believed to serve as Yhwh’s agents to rule the nation. They were expected to observe his covenant and laws, to defend the nation and engage in offensive war when deemed necessary, and to rule the people with justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedaqah). Although they were granted wide powers to carry out these tasks, the ancients believed that the kings would suffer divine punishment if they violated the covenant and laws. Yhwh’s prophets would generally announce such judgment against wayward kings when the court officials and priests failed to act.

Biblical authors claim that the kings of Israel and Judah were divinely chosen and that they were expected to abide by the covenant (see, for example, Deut 17:14-17, 1Sam 8-12, 1Kgs 2:3-4). Ps 2 calls the Davidic king a “son” of Yhwh. In a similar way, powerful kings in ancient treaties called their lesser allies “sons.” Thus, Israelites saw their king as a lesser agent of their god, ruling on his behalf (see Hag 2:20-23). Since Yhwh was in charge, he was responsible for protecting the king of Israel from threats by enemies (2Sam 7, Ps 2) and for punishing him and even removing him if he did not fulfill divine expectations (1Sam 13-14, 2Sam 7, 1Kgs 11:29-39). Ps 72 calls upon G-d to grant the king divine justice and righteousness so that he might rule the people properly, and Isa 32:1-2 calls upon the king to rule in righteousness so that his officers will govern with justice (see Isa 9:5-9, Isa 11:1-9).

Israel was not always happy with the idea of kingship. Samuel’s speech to Israel in 1Sam 8:10-18 indicates that the king has the right to take men for military service; women for domestic service; and land and a tenth part of the harvest, flocks, and herds for the support of the monarchy, and to require state service by both the people and their animals. Friction over these rights of the king, especially the right to forced labor, may even have led to the dissolution of the united monarchy (1Kgs 12:1-19).

Biblical law codes provide some instruction about kingship. The people had to respect the office of the monarch: Exod 22:27 forbids the people from cursing G-d or the prince (nasi, a term sometimes used for the monarch). But more important, the book of Deuteronomy provides many rules to limit the king’s power (Deut 17:14-20): the king must be from the people of Israel and chosen by their deity; he must not multiply horses for himself or send the people back to Egypt to acquire them; he must not multiply wives for himself; and he must not acquire excessive silver and gold for himself. The king is to study the Torah daily under the supervision of the levitical priests so that he might observe Yhwh’s commandments properly and understand his proper role as king. 2Kgs 22 portrays King Josiah’s officers reading a newly discovered Torah scroll to him, and he subsequently declares a program of religious reform and national restoration in Judah and Israel (2Kgs 23:1-31).

According to the Torah, kings were not in charge of the judicial system. Deut 16:18-17:20 calls for an independent judiciary of officers and priests in which the high priest serves as the chief justice. Consequently, the kings of Israel are subject to Yhwh’s law via an earthly court. And when these courts failed, the prophets stepped in. When David commits adultery with Bathsheba and engineers the murder of her husband, the prophet Nathan condemns him, although Yhwh forgives David when he repents (2Sam 12). When Ahab condemns Naboth to death on false charges of sedition against the monarchy in order to seize his property in Jezreel, Elijah condemns both Ahab and his dynasty, although when Ahab repents, Elijah grants him the mercy to die so that he does not see the downfall of his family (1Kgs 21).

Marvin A. Sweeney, "Rights and Duties of Kingship in Israel", n.p. [cited 30 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/rights-and-duties-of-kingship-in-israel

Contributors

Marvin A. Sweeney

Marvin A. Sweeney
Professor, Claremont School of Theology

Marvin A. Sweeney is professor of Hebrew Bible at the Claremont School of Theology and professor of Tanak at the Academy for Jewish Religion California. He is the author of Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Fortress, 2012) and 1 and 2 Kings: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2007).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

A variant way of writing the word for the biblical deity, meant to display piety by avoiding spelling out the name in full. The practice derives from a desire to avoid having to discard an item on which the name of the deity is written, as it could be perceived as a desecration if the name were spelled out in full.

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Following to the biblical text, the period of Israelite history in the 10th century B.C.E. when all the Israelite tribes were unified under a single monarchy, headed first by David and then by his son Solomon. The united monarchy ended after Solomon's death, when the northern tribes rebelled and became their own kingdom (Israel). The tribe of Judah alone remained in what became the southern kingdom and continued to be ruled by a king of the Davidic line. Some scholars debate whether there was really a united period or whether the two kingdoms were always separate.

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Deut 17:14-17

Limitations of Royal Authority
14When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and y ... View more

1Sam 8-12

Israel Demands a King
1When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; ... View more

1Kgs 2:3-4

3and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written ... View more

Ps 2

God's Promise to His Anointed
1Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?2The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel tog ... View more

Hag 2:20-23

God's Promise to Zerubbabel
20The word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month:21Speak to Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,2the king said to the pro ... View more

Ps 2

God's Promise to His Anointed
1Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?2The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel tog ... View more

1Sam 13-14

Saul's Unlawful Sacrifice
1Saul was . . . years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . . and two years over Israel.2Saul chose three thousand out of Isr ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,2the king said to the pro ... View more

1Kgs 11:29-39

29About that time, when Jeroboam was leaving Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him on the road. Ahijah had clothed himself with a new garment. T ... View more

Ps 72

Prayer for Guidance and Support for the King
Of Solomon.
1Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king's son.2May he judge your people wi ... View more

Isa 32:1-2

Government with Justice Predicted
1See, a king will reign in righteousness,
and princes will rule with justice.2Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
... View more

Isa 9:5-9

5For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.6For a child has been born for us,
a son g ... View more

Isa 11:1-9

The Peaceful Kingdom
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the sp ... View more

1Sam 8:10-18

10So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.11He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over y ... View more

1Kgs 12:1-19

The Northern Tribes Secede
1Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king.2When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was st ... View more

Exod 22:27

27for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I ... View more

Deut 17:14-20

Limitations of Royal Authority
14When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and y ... View more

2Kgs 22

Josiah Reigns over Judah
1Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Jedidah daughter of ... View more

2Kgs 23:1-31

Josiah's Reformation
1Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him.2The king went up to the house of the Lord, an ... View more

Deut 16:18-17:20

Municipal Judges and Officers
18You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they ... View more

2Sam 12

1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.2The rich man had ve ... View more

1Kgs 21

Naboth's Vineyard
1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.2And Ahab s ... View more

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