The Book of Kings: Religion Meets Geo-Politics, Ancient Style

The Judean and Israelite monarchies from the rise of King Solomon to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem

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Kings is the ninth book of the Hebrew Bible and the fourth book in the Prophets (Nevi'im), the second section of the Hebrew Bible. In most English Bibles, it is divided into First Kings and Second Kings, but this division is late. The division appears first in the Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and only entered Jewish [bibles] with the printing of the Venice rabbinic Bible in 1517. In Jewish tradition, Kings is treated as one book.

Kings tells the story of the Kingdoms of Israel and of Judah from the beginning of King Solomon's reign (roughly 960 B.C.E.) until the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The first eleven chapters of Kings deal with Solomon. After Solomon's death, the united monarchy of Israel split in two: ten of the tribes of Israel left the rule of Solomon, and established a rival kingdom in the North [the southern kingdom’s capital remained in Jerusalem]. 

king solomon

King Solomon, 1872 or 1874,
by Simeon Solomon.

The capital of the Northern kingdom, usually known as Israel, moved from Shechem (known in Arabic by the Roman name Nablus) to Tirzah to Samaria. Kings from different dynasties ruled over the Kingdom of Israel, with the longest lasting being the House of Omri (882 BCE-842BCE) and the House of Jehu (842-747 BCE). In the south, the tribe of Judah remained loyal to Solomon's descendants, who continued to rule over what becomes the Kingdom of Judah until 586. The capital of Judah remained in Jerusalem.

Historical Data From Other Sources

The period that the book of Kings covers is rich in historical data from non-biblical sources.  Much of this data correlates with the data in the book of Kings and helps us to construct a cogent and well-sourced history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  From 858 BCE on, the neo-Assyrian empire had contact with the kings of Israel and later, with those of Judah as well.  Several of the kings of Israel (Ahab, Jehu, Joash, Menahem, Pekah, Hosea) and of Judah (Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh) are mentioned in the royal inscriptions of the neo-Assyrian kings.

Other extra-biblical sources of historical data include the royal inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (found in Transjordan in the 19th century, currently in the Louvre) and a royal inscription of Hazael, king of Aram Damascus (found at Tel Dan, Israel, in 1993, currently in the Israel Museum). Both these texts date from the ninth century BCE and shed light on the political history of Israel and Judah at the time.

Evaluating the Performance of Kings

The book of Kings conveys historical data, but is not a history in the modern sense.  Much of the book is concerned with evaluating the performance of the twenty kings of Judah and nineteen kings of Israel who followed Solomon.

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.