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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Israel was one of several kingdoms, in the area between what is now northern Syria and what is now central Israel, who competed for regional hegemony and control of trade routes by alternately making alliances and fighting among themselves. (These kingdoms included Aram Damascus, Aram Hamath, Sidon, and Tyre.) Judah, in contrast, was relatively more politically isolated, at least until the end of the eighth century BCE.

How Rulers Treated Their Subjects

But the book of Kings does not evaluate the rulers of Judah and Israel solely in terms of their attitude to polytheism [or their foreign policy, as noted above]. The way that the rulers treat their subjects is of extreme importance to prophets such as Elijah the Tishbite (Eliyahu ha Navi in Jewish legend.) After Ahab, king of Israel, allowed his Phoenician queen to engineer the theft of the vineyard of a subject by having him executed on false charges (I Kings 21:1-16), Elijah accused him: "Have you not only murdered but also inherited the victim's land?" (I Kings 21:19).

The interactions of Elijah and his successor Elisha with the kings of Israel (and occasionally also with the kings of Judah) is in itself another important element of Kings. The two prophets demand that the king recognize God's role in sending famine and plenty (I Kings 18; II Kings 6:24-7:20), and that he recognize the correlation between obedience to God's word and military success (II Kings 3:4-27 and 6:8-23). The central motif in these stories is an attempt by the prophets to force the king to recognize Divine sovereignty. This theme is further developed by later "literary prophets," such as Amos.

The books of Kings expose many of the challenges that are created by the interaction of divine commands with political reality. Kings is a story of religious demands meeting geo-politics, and the story of leaders' successes and failures in dealing with this challenge.

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