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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.

Conclusion

The biblical historiographers attributed the rise of kingship in ancient Israel to external stimuli. Foremost of those military threats were the Philistines from the coast, who were occupying key settlements leading up to the highlands and planting garrisons in the heartland of Israel. Recent biblical scholarship, following anthropological models, has emphasized internal dynamics within the social system which led to kingship in Israel, minimizing the external threats. There was nothing in the social structure of premonarchic Israel that prevented the rise of a more permanent warlord, or ruler, later known as a king; in fact, just such permanence of leadership had been attempted in the cases of Gideon (Judg. 8.22–23 ) and Abimelech (Judg. 9 ). Structurally there was always a place under the deity and above the tribal leaders for a patrimonial ruler, known as melek, or “king.” Monarchy was not a foreign or urban institution grafted onto a patrimonial order; it could have occurred in nascent or fully developed form at any time during the period of the tribal confederation. When kingship finally was established and acknowledged by the tribal polity, it was the external military threats that served as the catalyst for kingship.

Like others in the Israelite community, kings were to be subject to customary law and tradition (Deut. 17.14–20 ), and there were condemnations of royal excess (1 Sam. 8.11–18 ), but kingship could easily fit into the structure between the divine authority and the nested tribal authorities already established in premonarchic Israel. This seems clear from the language of house and household (bayit) used by the biblical writers to refer to the deity (bêt Yahweh), to the king, his household, and his dwelling (bêt ham-melek), and to the notables or heads of household (bêt 'āb). Each patriarch was sovereign over overarching domains, from joint families and their lineages, to clans, to tribes, to the king whose family and household included the whole kingdom. Because the landed patrimony was handed down from father to son(s), great importance was attached to orderly succession—the usufructuary right, whether to ancestral estate or to royal estate (the kingdom). And the patriarchal deity held ultimate sovereignty and proprietorship over the human estate and state(s), as well as over all creation. Thus the king and the state were the household and family estate writ large, and the national deity was the paterfamilias writ larger still. Domains of authority and dominance were not structurally incompatible, and kingship in Israel, “like other nations” (1 Sam. 8.5 ), was patrimonial. The real problems with kingship were not of principle or structure but of function. How could power and dominance be pragmatically exercised without infringement on the various overarching domains? Answers to that question led to various assessments of each king as he held office. The tensions and balance of power among divine, royal, and familial forces provide much of the stuff of Israelite history.

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Oxford University Press

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