Kingdom of Israel by Steven L. McKenzie

What is the kingdom of Israel?

The phrase “kingdom of Israel” in the Bible may refer either to the “united” kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon, which incorporated some or all of the later kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel that Jeroboam established after Solomon’s death. This kingdom existed alongside the southern kingdom of Judah, which encompassed the more limited territory of the tribe of Judah.

The story of Israel in these two incarnations is recounted in the biblical books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. Chronicles’ main source was the books of Samuel and Kings, so it is not an independent history. Chronicles also lacks a running account of the divided kingdom of Israel, which its author considered theologically illegitimate.

According to these biblical works, the first king of united Israel was Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin. He was succeeded by David, who was from Judah. Saul’s failure to establish a dynasty is interpreted in the Bible as Yahweh’s rejection of his kingship. According to 1Kgs 2:11, David reigned 40 years (which may be a round number to indicate a generation). The Hebrew Bible credits him with establishing a minor empire around 1000 B.C.E. in Syria-Palestine, encompassing all the tribes of Israel and dominating neighboring Edom, Moab, and Aram (Syria). However, archaeological evidence of David’s reign is so sparse that scholars debate his historical existence, let alone his dominance.

David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king, despite not being the eldest son; Solomon focused less on military conquest and more on international relations. He built the temple in Jerusalem but is also blamed by the biblical authors for worshiping other gods, which were introduced by his foreign wives whom he had married in order to seal treaties.

Why (and when) did Israel become a separate kingdom?

The division of the united kingdom after Solomon's death (after another 40-year reign) is explained in 1 Kings as punishment for Solomon's tolerance of idolatry. In addition, 1 Kings also relates that Solomon imposed onerous taxes and forced labor on the northern tribes yet exempted Judah, leading the ten northern tribes to defect. 

The division of the once-unified Israel into two kingdoms occurred when Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, led the northern tribes’ revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. Jeroboam then built royal sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, the northern and southern ends of his kingdom, Israel. This was something that the much-later (and southern) writers of 1-2 Kings could not forgive, given their belief that the Jerusalem temple, located within the kingdom of Judah, was the only legitimate place for worshiping Yahweh. It is this “sin of Jeroboam,” perpetuated by every subsequent king of Israel in their continued maintenance of these sanctuaries, that earns them the judgment of “wicked” in 1-2 Kings. The judgment is anachronistic, though, because centralization of worship in Jerusalem was only first established as an ideological principle under King Josiah of Judah over two centuries later, around 622 B.C.E.

This “sin” hovers like a curse over the entire northern kingdom of Israel in its apparent inability to establish an enduring ruling dynasty through any of its kings—unlike its southern neighbor Judah, whose Davidic dynasty continued in unbroken succession. Jeroboam’s was the first of several northern Israelite royal dynasties. After the overthrow of the first two dynasties in only their second generations, the Israelite dynasty of Omri, in the ninth century, finally established itself, spanning the reigns of three more kings: Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram.

Omri’s line was the most powerful and important of the kingdom of Israel—so much so that Assyrian inscriptions continued to refer to Israel as the “house of Omri” long after the dynasty’s end. Its significance is also reflected, albeit negatively, in the preoccupation of 1-2 Kings with the characters of Ahab (an Israelite king) and his wife Jezebel. The overthrow of Omri’s dynasty by the usurper Jehu was one of the bloodiest episodes in Israel’s history, though 2 Kings 9-10 narrates the event almost with glee at the downfall of Jezebel and the purge of the worship of Baal that followed.

Jehu’s dynasty lasted through a total of five kings (2Kgs 15:12) and was followed by the brief reign of the usurper Shallum, the short-lived dynasty of Menahem, and the reigns of Pekah and Hoshea. The last two of these kings coincided with the rise of the Assyrian Empire, which destroyed forever the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.

In reality, from the 10th to the late eighth century B.C.E., the northern kingdom of Israel was likely always the superior power, with greater resources, whereas Judah continued in its shadow and as its subject. However, because Judah outlasted Israel, and because Judahite writers told the biblical history with their own theological spin, much of biblical literature portrays Judah as superior, at least morally, to its sister kingdom Israel.

Steven L. McKenzie, "Kingdom of Israel", n.p. [cited 18 Oct 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/kingdom-of-israel

Contributors

Steven L. McKenzie

Steven L. McKenzie
Professor, Rhodes College

Steven L. McKenzie is professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Spence L. Wilson Senior Research Fellow at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. His research and teaching interests include the history of ancient Israel, the literature of the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, methods of biblical interpretation, and archaeology.

“Kingdom of Israel” refers both to the united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon and to the northern kingdom of Israel, which separated from the united kingdom after the death of Solomon.

Did you know…?

  • The term “kingdom of Israel” can refer either to the united monarchy under Kings Saul, David, and Solomon or to the northern kingdom of Israel, which, after the end of the united monarchy, existed alongside the southern kingdom of Judah.
  • Jeroboam’s act of setting up golden calves at Dan and Bethel in 1Kgs 12:25-33 is foreshadowed in the episode of the Israelites’ creation of a golden calf at Sinai in Exod 32.
  • Although 2Kgs 17:5-23 states that the inhabitants of the northern kingdom of Israel were exiled to Assyria when that kingdom fell in 722 B.C.E., archaeological evidence of rapid growth in Jerusalem around the same time suggests that many inhabitants of the northern kingdom sought refuge in Judah rather than being deported to Assyria.
  • The Mesha Stela, a monumental inscribed stone written in the Moabite language and dating to around 840 B.C.E., describes how King Omri of Israel subjugated Moab, and it attributes this oppression to the Moabite deity Kemosh, who was angry with his people.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

The period from the late 10th through the early sixth centuries B.C.E., when the northern kingdom of Israel (until 722) and the southern kingdom of Judah (until 586) existed alongside one another.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

1Kgs 2:11

11The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

Of or relating to systems of ideas and commitments, often social and political in nature.

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The Israelite tribes that became a part of the northern kingdom of Israel: Asher, Dan, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, Ephraim, Gad, and Benjamin.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

2Kgs 15:12

12This was the promise of the Lord that he gave to Jehu, “Your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.” And so it happened.

A region in northern Mesopotamia whose kings ruled most of the ancient Near East in the 8th and 7th centuries B.C.E.

A gold cultic statue of a young bull, whose worship the biblical authors condemned. The calf first appears in the time of Moses (Ex 32), but golden calves were also worshipped in Northern Israel during the monarchy.

The national god of the Moabite people.

A stone inscribed in the Moabite language, commissioned by the Moabit king Mesha to celebrate his accomplishments, including a successful revolt against the kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 3).

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

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

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.

1Kgs 12:25-33

Jeroboam's Golden Calves
25Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and resided there; he went out from there and built Penuel.26Then Jeroboa ... View more

Exod 32

The Golden Calf
1When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for ... View more

2Kgs 17:5-23

Israel Carried Captive to Assyria
5Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it.6In the ninth year of Hoshe ... View more

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