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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Kinship and Kingship

The Early Monarchy

Carol Meyers

For nearly a century at the beginning of the Iron II period (ca. 1025–586 BCE), most of Palestine was organized as a national state with a dynastic figure—a king—at its head. During the preceding two centuries, coinciding with the emergence of loosely connected Israelite tribal groups, people had lived mainly in small settlements scattered throughout the central highland areas and in a sprinkling of small cities in the lowlands and valleys. Then, with startling rapidity, a centralized state was formed late in the eleventh century. By the middle of the tenth century, according to the biblical narrative, this state reached near-imperial proportions, complete with a capital city, complex regional centers, a royal court, luxury goods, and other social, economic, and political features associated with the concentration of power in a monarchy. The changes it wrought in the structure of society and the accompanying cultural expressions rank among the most important in ancient Israel's history.

The formation of a state in Iron Age Palestine, however its benefits and liabilities might be evaluated, was an extraordinary event. Never before in the millennia of sedentary life in the eastern Mediterranean had a territorial state existed in that land. And following the dissolution that would occur fairly soon, never again until the mid-twentieth century would this narrow stretch of the ancient Fertile Crescent be home to an autonomous cultural entity under local leadership. Brief as would be the lifespan of early Israelite kingship, its ideology would profoundly affect Western religious and political traditions. The very idea of the messiah in Judaism and Christianity is explicitly rooted in the dynasty of the “house of David.” The notion that the eschatological resolution of the world's social tensions and inequities will be manifest in a “kingdom” of God flows directly from the impact of the tenth-century BCE polity on its political and spiritual heirs. And the medieval concept of the divine right of kings would be based on biblical precedents associated with the Davidic dynasty.

Accounting for the origins of such a phenomenon requires us to consider the processes at work in state formation. We must identify the increasingly complex organizational structures that mark the development of a territorial state; and we must situate the emerging Israelite state within those trajectories of social, political, and economic development that across many different cultures constitute recognizable features of early, agriculturally based nation-states.

Yet addressing these crucial descriptive and analytical tasks is not enough. Profound moral issues hover in the background of the investigation of the Israelite monarchy, or of any such sociopolitical form. The monarchic state is an exceptionally powerful organizational construct. No matter how benign its rulers, it characteristically exists by dint of greater inequity in the distribution of resources than in virtually any other form of human collective. The pooling of resources can allow a state to make enormous changes, for better or worse, in the material and demographic shape of its territory. Furthermore, in giving up substantial amounts of individual or regional autonomy to state control, people may find themselves subject to despotic rule. Concentrating power in a single ruler and his or her support bureaucracies may often be beneficial, even essential, for the initial establishment of a state. Yet the famous dictum that power corrupts is everywhere evident in the often harsh and unjust policies that states impose on their populaces. Thus the empirical questions that we must ask in assessing the rise of the Israelite state, or any state, can never be separated from difficult philosophical problems of justice and equity in human affairs, of the sanction of violence, of the nature of political power and its abuses. Linking the Israelite state with the concept of divine favor makes the issue of morality all the more difficult, overshadowing all critical assessments. Yet the profound moral questions about the consolidation of power in the hands of a few should remain in the larger field of vision on which the specific shapes of Israelite monarchic rule will be sketched.

Let us begin with some conceptual and chronological definitions. Defining state is as difficult as defining the word tribe. Indeed, the comparison of state systems of sociopolitical organization with nonstate or pre-state systems often reveals no clear distinctions between them. Nonetheless, some salient features of a state, found consistently in many different geographical and temporal settings, provide useful components of a working definition. The organization of power and leadership along lineage systems or kinship units (whether real or constructed) characterizes segmentary societies, as in premonarchic Israel. In contrast, a state system involves the formal concentration of power on a basis other than kinship. States typically have a more or less stable hierarchy that can control resources and activities across the previously autonomous units that comprised its pre-state segments. Unlike other sociopolitical units—hunting bands, autonomous agrarian communities, perhaps even chieftaincies—states can overcome the tendency of such groups to split or subdivide as the result of local hostilities, competition for land and resources, and leadership struggles. Kinship ties within local communities remain integral to the activities of daily life; but as authority and status become detached from family or clan relationships and come to reside in national structures transcending local or traditional ones, kinship ceases to be the only determining factor in organizing community life. Kinship yields some functions to the power of kingship while maintaining others integral to daily activities and family life.

These comments describe early or archaic states, not modern or industrial nations. Early states such as ancient Israel were without exception agrarian, with largely sedentary populations and mixed agricultural economies. Such states can be described as either pristine or secondary. Pristine or original states emerged from a less complex system without knowledge of or contact with existing states. Such states are known only through archaeology. Their formation was not conscious or intentional but probably resulted from endogenous stimuli that slowly moved a society to increasingly complex, centralized, and hierarchical structures. Examples of pristine states, of which there were no more than a few dozen, are Teotihuacán in central Mexico in the early centuries CE, ancient Sumer, Shang China, and perhaps early dynastic Egypt. Secondary states share many of the same characteristics as pristine ones, but their emergence and shape are affected by contact with or pressures from existing state systems. They often take the organization and actions of existing states as models. Perhaps the simplest case of secondary-state formation occurs when one state arises out of a preexisting one in much the same territory, like the division of the early Israelite monarchy into two discrete kingdoms in the late tenth century BCE. A much more varied and complex dynamic is at work, however, when states existing elsewhere serve as a model or stimulus to the creating of structures of political control in an emergent state. Such were the processes at work in the early or United Monarchy in ancient Israel.

Closely linked to the concentration of power across kinship lines is the personality of the individual who wields power over the population comprising the state. The term king or its equivalent in other languages is the most obvious and frequently found term for the (male) sovereign whose authority extends over a region and its inhabitants. The king not only stands at the apex of centralized power of a state but also becomes its chief symbol; his personal and political successes and failures are intimately and inextricably linked to the fortunes of the kingdom.

To this point, we have not named the kings at the apex of the early Israelite state. Our resort to abstraction in this and other respects is deliberate. It is important that we think of ancient Israel as a monarchy apart from the individuals who first occupied the throne. Particularistic historical writing, of which the Bible is a prime example, often ascribes social change to the talent, luck, or whim of a few highly visible leaders. Although the role of individuals in bringing about a royal state and in heading its organizational structures is significant, that role is not necessarily primary. We must set aside the “great man” notion of the emergence of the Israelite monarchy, as resulting from the charisma of a person and/or the supernatural direction of a deity, in order to examine the social dynamics and environmental features of state formation and organization. The rise of a state system in Israel is best comprehended by identifying the social pressures and patterns hidden beneath the layers of traditional theological and political explanations.

The rapidity with which states become established and the length of time they endure differ enormously. Variables that coalesce at the moment a state system becomes visible may have been present, latently, long before any semblance of a state appears. The duration of an existing state is easier to estimate, and for the early Israelite state a reasonable chronology can be established. Here, the biblical record of the reigns of three men and the archaeological traces of centralization and territorial integration together specify the individuals and dates associated with Israel's United Monarchy.

The three men are Saul, David, and Solomon. All provided leadership above the kinship level, although whether all unequivocally qualify as kings of a national state is debated. Scholars have established the chronology of their reigns by calculating backward from the death of Solomon, the last of the three. Not until the late sixth century BCE can a date in Israelite history be securely established by comparing biblical and nonbiblical sources. But the books of Kings' chronologies for the Israelite and Judean kings do permit us to calculate, with an error factor of about ten years, the regnal spans of all the monarchs in question. These calculations place the death of Solomon at about 928 BCE. Working back from that date, it would seem simple to use the biblical information about the reigns of David and Solomon, were it not that these two kings are each said to have ruled for forty years (1 Kings 2.11; 11.42 ), a suspiciously round and symbolic figure. In the absence of other data, and because both kings apparently had long and eventful reigns, the date of David's ascension to kingship is generally placed at about 1005 BCE.

Estimating the duration of the reign of the preceding king, Saul, presents a different kind of problem—textual corruption. The relevant biblical passage states that he was “a year old when he began to reign; and he reigned two years” (1 Sam. 13.1 ; my translation). That flawed information is usually adjusted upward. If there is any validity to the multitude of events that the Bible narrates for Saul's reign, he ruled for at least ten years but not much more than twenty-five. Add to that the brief two-year reign of Saul's son Ishbaal (or Ish-bosheth), which may have overlapped with the early part of David's reign, and the beginnings of the monarchy in Israel can be dated toward the end of the third quarter of the eleventh century BCE. From beginning to end, then, the combined reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon lasted about a century, at the beginning of the Iron II period (Iron IIA).

This correlation between the United Monarchy and the Iron IIA period is not universally accepted. Some archaeologists hold that the material culture of Iron I does not change substantially enough until the end of the tenth century to warrant a change in period designation until that time; and others claim that features of the tenth-century Iron IIA culture continue well into the next century. The division followed here links historical-political events with material culture. The archaeological evidence contains differentiations that can be related to processes of state formation and consolidation. With allowances for a time lag between complex events and their traces in the archaeological record, the designation of the late eleventh and most of the tenth centuries as a distinct period seems justified.

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