Ask a Scholar

Royal Succession by Julye Bidmead

Q. What is known about the succession rules in Israelite kingship and the surrounding area? Was it a simple agnatic primogeniture, or was it more complicated than that? Also, how did the status of the mother affect succession?

A. Kingship/Succession

The succession rules of kingship varied throughout the ancient Near East.  Normally kingship was dynastic and hereditary in principle, though not necessarily through simple agnatic primogeniture—passing from the king to a son (preferably the first-born) or other male relative.

Kingship in ancient Israel was not originally hereditary. The Hebrew Bible records three varied accounts of how Saul was appointed as the first king of Israel. In 1Sam 9:1-10:16 Saul was anointed privately by the prophet and ruler Samuel. In 1Sam 10:20-24, he was selected by lots in a public gathering and lastly in 1Sam 11:1-15, his victory over the Ammonites gained him popular appeal.

God eventually rejects Saul’s kingship (1Sam 13:7-14, 1Sam 15:10-29). With Saul’s decline, Samuel anoints David, the youngest son of Jesse, as king. Later, the people anointed David as king of Judah.

Hereditary kingship began after David’s death. His son, Solomon, though not his first-born son, succeeded David on the throne.  After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into two: Israel, or the northern kingdom and Judah, the southern kingdom.  Each kingdom, with its own monarch, followed different means of succession.  In Judah, God promised King David that his “house” or lineage would rule the United Monarchy forever (2Sam 7). The Davidic dynasty prevailed in Judah, beginning with Solomon’s son, Rehoboam until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Dynastic succession was never fully established in the north due to rebellion, warfare, and coups; Israel was ruled by an alternating series of ruling families and independent kings until its destruction in 722 BCE.  Jeroboam, who was an administrator in Solomon’s court and not a relative, was installed as first king of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Primogeniture

In ancient Israel, the firstborn son held legal and social privileges and duties, such as inheritance property rights, paternal blessing, and responsibility of the household. Deut 21:15-17 required the father to acknowledge his first-born son as his heir and provide him his birthright, a double share of his property.

A concubine is a secondary wife who, while enjoying the same rights as a legitimate wife, did not have the legal standing of a first wife.  Each male child of the same father had equal rights regardless of his mother’s status, so if he was the first-born son (of a concubine) he should be the heir. However, agnatic primogeniture was often not enforced, as the biblical narrative attests.  For example, in Gen 21, Isaac, the second born son was preferred over Ishmael, the first-born.

Julye Bidmead, "Royal Succession", n.p. [cited 18 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/royal-succession

Contributors

Julye Bidmead

Julye Bidmead
Associate Professor, Chapman University

Julye Bidmead is associate professor of religious studies at Chapman University.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

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.

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.

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.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

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 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.

1Sam 9:1-10:16

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1Sam 10:20-24

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1Sam 11:1-15

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1Sam 13:7-14

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1Sam 15:10-29

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2Sam 7

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Deut 21:15-17

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Gen 21

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