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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The most important criterion driving this evaluation seems to be the extent to which the king inculcated sole loyalty to the God of Israel.  Did he tolerate the worship of other gods, in place of or together with the worship of the God of Israel? Did he extirpate sacrifice outside of Jerusalem? This evaluation in the book of Kings corresponds to the priorities of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah. (Deuteronomy emphasizes sole loyalty to God and the importance of sacrificing only in Jerusalem [that is, in the central location].)

For this reason, academic scholars speak of the Deuteronomistic component in the book of Kings. Evaluations such as that of King Ahaz of Judah (II Kings 16:1-4), in which Ahaz is criticized for following the ways of the idolatrous kings of Israel, for following the cultic forms of the Canaanites, and for sacrificing outside Jerusalem, are examples of the Deuteronomistic component.

A Judean Bias

The general consensus among academic biblicists is that this component dates from the time of one of the last kings of Judah, King Josiah (639-609 BCE). II Kings chapters 22 and 23 tell of how Josiah launched a major national reform, in which extirpating polytheism (worship of many gods), syncretism (worshiping the God of Israel using cultic forms of other deities or together with other deities), and worship outside Jerusalem [all] figure prominently.

Consequently, it is important to remember that Kings ultimately comes out of the political and religious ideology (and hindsight) of a late monarchy of Judah, and should not be expected to reflect an "unbiased" (particularly in connection with the Kingdom of Israel), or contemporary, assessment of each of the kings being evaluated.

All of the kings of the northern Kingdom, Israel, fare badly in Kings' Deuteronomistic evaluation, while the evaluations of the Kings of Judah vary. Among the kings who suffer from particularly negative assessments are Ahab, the king of Israel from the House of Omri (873-852 BCE), who had close political ties with Phoenicia, and the other kings of that dynasty. Hezekiah (727-698) and Josiah (639-609) of Judah receive particularly positive evaluations.

Approving a Strong Foreign Policy

There seems to be a general correlation between kings' foreign policy and the Deuteronomistic evaluation of their reign.  Kings who take a strong and independent line in foreign affairs and attempt to avoid vassalage (such as Hezekiah and Josiah) receive more positive evaluations, while those who actively pursued foreign alliances, such as Ahab, receive negative ones.

There is a geo-political reason for this, which we learn from the Assyrian texts: the kingdom of Israel was on the whole more actively involved in foreign relations, which (at least from Judah's perspective--Kings is redacted from a Southern point of view) suggested a correlation between the Kingdom of Israel's openness to trade and foreign alliances, and the greater tolerance of polytheism and syncretism in the North.

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