The rise of kings
The ‘judges’ who rule Israel are charismatic religious leaders who must defend the Israelites from their enemies. Society is chaotic, without a central power. The main message of Judges is summed up by one recurring lament:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. [Judges 17:6]
The Israelites fail to exterminate the indigenous Canaanite peoples, as they were meant to. They forget their unique destiny and start adopting Canaanite gods and rituals. To put a stop to this corruption, Israel needs a king: it is not possible to organise a state without a strong central power.
In 1 Samuel, the elders of Israel demand that the judge Samuel appoint a king. He warns them of some of the perils of monarchy, but fails to dissuade them. The first choice is Saul, who violates God’s instructions. His replacement is David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, who proves his worth when he defeats the Philistine champion Goliath armed only with a sling.
If Saul is the failed attempt at monarchy, David is the ideal. Under his kingship, told in the two books of Samuel, Israel is transformed from an alliance of theocratic tribes into a nation state. He fights a series of wars against the Philistines, Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites and Arameans, turning Canaan into a strong Israelite empire with its capital in Jerusalem, the ‘city of David’. For the Biblical writers, he is the Messiah (mashiach) or ‘anointed’:
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the sweet psalmist of Israel. [2 Samuel 23:1]
David is succeeded by his son Solomon, renowned for his wisdom, fabulous wealth and construction projects – it is Solomon who builds the first Temple (1 Kings 6). His fame is so widespread that the queen of Sheba travels over a thousand miles to pay her respects (1 Kings 10) .
This period, when Israel was a single kingdom under a single king, is known as the United Monarchy, the golden age of ancient Israel. (When the kingdom later splits into Israel and Judah, that unity is lost.) King David is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity. Yet paradoxically, the personal lives of David and his family are cruel and dysfunctional. David is repeatedly guilty of transgressions, such as adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. His eldest son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar; in revenge, David’s other son Absalom has Amnon killed. Absalom goes on to rebel against David, raping his concubines.
Solomon too is less than ideal. As the son of Bathsheba he is illegitimate. He has 300 concubines, as well as 700 wives who lead him into idolatry. His reputation for great wisdom is openly contradicted by what happened after his death – the Israelites were so discontented by his regime and the prospect of being ruled by his son Rehoboam that the ten northern tribes seceded and formed a new kingdom, dividing the mythical empire of David for good.
The main narrative of the Bible, from Abraham’s journey to Canaan to the Exodus and Joshua’s conquests, are probably entirely fictional. Only from the advent of the monarchy does archaeology begin to vaguely support the Bible narrative. The earliest evidence is a stele found at Tel Dan, dating to the second half of the 9th century BCE, that mentions the defeat of a king of the ‘house of David’, which at least suggests that someone at the time believed he existed, and is pretty good evidence that there was a historical David and a Davidic dynasty.
However, neither David nor Solomon is mentioned in Egypt or Mesopotamian records – both empires were in decline at that time but the absence is still surprising... until we look at contemporary Israelite culture more closely.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.
If we accept that David and Solomon were in fact historical figures, they probably ruled between c.1000-930 BCE. The Bible describes a huge territory with its capital at Jerusalem and stretching from the Red Sea to the Euphrates, with a number of nations such as the Philistines, Moabites and Aram-Damascenes becoming client or vassal states. The archaeology from that period, by contrast, suggests there was an Israelite culture of some extent but there is no sign of the infrastructure, literacy, wealth, or population necessary to support an empire.
The historical David was probably an exceptional and memorable leader, but only in a small pastoral community. The kingdom of Judah was barely populated and impoverished, with no significant towns: even its capital, Jerusalem, appears to have been a simple village rather than a major city. As for Solomon, with his reputation as a builder of cities, the archaeologist Yigael Yadin caused excitement by claiming that gates and stables excavated at Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor might have been part of Solomon’s building programme. But archaeologists now think the structures were built a full century too late. Solomon’s crowning achievement, the first Temple in Jerusalem, may have been obliterated by the works of Herod, or lie hidden under the present Temple Mount where political sensitivities preclude excavation. But any big building leaves physical remains behind, and none have been found for any of Solomon’s supposed great projects.
The location that did have monumental buildings and a strong king in the 10th century was Samaria, seat of the Omride dynasty and capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Unlike its southern neighbour, this kingdom was strong, fertile, prosperous and internationally connected.
The culture of David and Solomon doesn’t register in the historical records because it wasn’t worth registering. There is virtually no physical evidence of any sort, outside the Biblical text, of either man. Historically, they were probably local folk heroes whose importance was wildly exaggerated by later myth-makers – they were certainly not great kings.
Judah, Israel and Josiah
As we saw in our last article, the Israelite culture seems to have emerged in about the 12th century BCE from sparse pastoral communities, responding perhaps to pressures created by the Bronze Age collapse. Canaanite towns ruined by the turmoil of the period were rebuilt as Israelite towns. The two Israelite kingdoms of Israel and Judah arose in the same period. In the more fertile north the population grew, agricultural output increased, there was specialisation and literacy. In the south, a remote, highland country poor for agriculture, Jerusalem remained a mere village in a weak state.
This relationship was turned on its head when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom in approximately 722 BCE. (We have explained the unfolding of these events on a previous occasion.) A few years later the Assyrians returned, but after destroying Lachish, they pulled back from a siege of Jerusalem upon receipt of a heavy tribute and Judah survived. With the northern kingdom of Israel defunct, not only did Judah become the centre of Israelite culture, it also ended up writing the histories. For this reason, the United Monarchy is approached in the Hebrew Bible from the southern point of view. The northern Omrides are castigated by the Bible as decadent and – the ultimate crime – polytheistic:
[Ahab the son of Omri] took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him. [1 Kings 16:30-31]
A common interpretation of the passage is that the famous queen Jezebel is responsible for bringing the cult of Baal to Samaria, when she ought to have submitted to Israelite customs like the exemplary Ruth. Later, in 1 Kings 18, she has prophets of Yahweh killed.
Finkelstein and Silberman argue that in the Judah of King Josiah in the 7th century BCE, the story of the empire of David and Solomon was transformed into a prophecy of a united kingdom of Israel. In the Deuteronomistic History, which was probably written at that time, the wealth of the northern kingdom is transferred, by the magical stroke of a pen, to the house of David. It imagines an era when the northern and southern kingdoms were one mighty state, and supplies a narrative about how they became separated. The reasons for this feat of literature were geopolitical: with Assyria in decline, Josiah saw an opportunity to conquer the territory of the former northern kingdom, under one king of the Davidic dynasty, based in Jerusalem. Josiah would be a new David who would reunite the Israelites:
And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. [2 Kings 22:2]
The book of Joshua describes the boundaries of the territory Josiah wished to take over, and David and Solomon were projected as kings of all Israelites, based in Jerusalem, a model of the power and luxury that would be enjoyed if Josiah succeeded. All Israelites would be united under a Davidic king, and all Israelite cult would be united in a single Temple. To realise this, the Israelites had to obey God’s laws as laid out in the Torah, a policy that had the happy effect of allowing Josiah to centralise power and ideology from the royal palace in Jerusalem.
But as so often, the grandiose promises ascribed to Yahweh by one earthly authority or another would be proved hollow:
In his days Pharaoh Neco king of Egypt went up to the king of Assyria to the river Euphrates. King Josiah went to meet him, and Pharaoh Neco killed him at Megiddo, as soon as he saw him. [2 Kings 23:29]
The great leader was snuffed out, and his son Jehoahaz was put in bonds by the Pharaoh “that he might not reign in Jerusalem”.
It should be pointed out that there is little direct evidence to support Finkelstein and Silberman’s interpretation. It is constructed from the (often scanty) archaeology and from cautious readings of the Bible. We cannot prove, for example, that King Josiah even existed, let alone that he introduced religious reforms, or ordered the writing of key texts. But for me, this is for now the most convincing account of what might have happened all those centuries ago to produce those Bible texts.
The label of ‘anointed one’ or Messiah, previously a comment on the legitimate succession of the Davidic line to the throne in Judah, now changed its meaning. From an imminent historical event, the coming of the Messiah was put off until a vague time in the future: one day, a leader would appear who would realise the divine mission to create a kingdom of the Israelites. This myth became one of the bedrocks of Judaism.
The Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. Another world religion thinks he has already come: the myth survived into the Roman age and helped to define Jesus of Nazareth.
 Scholars generally agree that Sheba was the Arabian kingdom of Saba in modern-day Yemen.