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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.

Biblical Sources for Reconstructing the Early Monarchy

The task of understanding how and why Israel's monarchy emerged, and the changes it brought about in the lives of many Israelites, involves the use of a variety of materials and methods. Foremost among them is the Bible. Indeed, an earlier generation of historians of ancient Israel, confronting problems of the historicity of biblical texts and of large gaps in the record, were often frustrated in their attempts to reconstruct the ancestral history of Israel and to delineate the premonarchic period. They came to the monarchic era with a sense of relief. Here at last, they felt, was extensive textual documentation replete with specific places, times, and events—the stuff from which history can be written. The whole of 1 and 2 Samuel, along with the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings, were deemed exceptionally full and of great historical value. Although not actual historical records themselves, the biblical texts seemed to draw on eyewitness accounts and to provide a fuller picture of monarchic beginnings than of any other period in Israel's long history.

This optimistic perception meant that scholars holding divergent views about the ancestral and premonarchic periods often produced remarkably similar reconstructions of the beginning of the monarchy. That sequence began with the disastrous collapse of the tribal confederation in the face of severe military pressure from neighboring peoples, continued with the heroic deeds of Saul and David in rescuing the beleaguered people from the Philistine menace, and culminated in the development by David and then Solomon of a dynastic monarchy with a brilliant royal court and a glorious temple in Jerusalem. Opposition to these developments recorded in the biblical narratives was read as conservative resistance to change.

More recently, the traditional assessment of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1–11 as reliable sources for understanding monarchic history has been turned on its head. Literary studies have cast new light on the narratives about the first three kings, and also on those about Samuel, the charismatic figure whom the texts present as kingmaker in relation to both Saul and David.

Well before the advent of these newer literary analyses, scholars recognized that the dramatic tales of Samuel and Saul, and of David and Solomon, are embedded in the so-called Deuteronomic History (DH). A “school” or group of traditionists, probably originating in the northern kingdom of Israel after the division of the monarchy when Solomon died and shifting to Jerusalem after the collapse of that kingdom in 722 BCE, collected and told stories about Israel's emergence and history, beginning with the “conquest” of Joshua and extending to the demise of the southern kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE. An early version of this narrative formed part of the propaganda associated with Josiah's expansionist policies and economic and religious centralization in the seventh century. A final edition must have been shaped in the sixth century, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of many Judeans. These two formative epochs in later monarchic history are the interpretive lenses through which the DH views all previous episodes of national life.

The biblical materials dealing with the rise and duration of the United Monarchy thus bear the mark of a distinctive DH style and perspective. As in Joshua-Judges, the Samuel-Kings narrative contains speeches and prayers, anticipatory leads and evaluative summaries, all of which put an unmistakable spin on the events recounted: the deeds of the people and their leaders are measured against the standards of the Torah of Moses. The DH knows how the story will end: the monarchy will divide, and each kingdom in turn will collapse. The DH's editorial framework and its inserted theological interpretations anticipate and explain the horror of those events. The last edition even gives a hint of repentance and restoration.

Table 5.1 Relative Lengths of the Narratives about Saul, David, and Solomon

Percentage of materials a in 1–2 Samuel, 1 Kings 12½ b 67½ 20
Number of chapters in 1–2 Samuel, 1 Kings 7 c 40 9
Number of chapters in Chronicles 1 19 9

a Calculated on the basis of the total space of the component chapters and verses (not the total number of chapters, which vary in size).

b Increases to 21 percent if overlapping David-Saul materials are included.

c Does not include the overlap with David.

One of the best examples of the DH perspective comes in Solomon's long address in 1 Kings 8 at the dedication of the Temple. While he invokes the idea that God had covenanted with David to establish an eternal dynasty, Solomon also warns that the people will repeatedly disobey God and will have to be carried away into exile. But, he goes on, if they repent they will earn God's forgiveness and presumably will be restored to their homeland (vv. 22–26, 46–53 ). Other major instances of the DH worldview in the account of the early monarchy are Samuel's speech in 1 Samuel 12 about choosing to have a monarchic government, and the speech of the prophet Nathan with the accompanying prayer of David in 2 Samuel 7 about the divine promise of a “house” (that is, a temple) for God and of an eternal “house” (a dynasty) for David.

So effectively did the DH combine authentic sources with interpretive additions that it is difficult to read the narratives in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1–11 without being caught up in the ideological concerns of the ancient editors. The legitimization of the Davidic dynasty, the sacralization of its capital in Jerusalem, and the attribution of an active role to Yahweh (symbolically present in the ark and then in the Temple), have been inextricably interwoven into the shape, sequence, and content of materials selected for inclusion in the DH's dramatic portrayal of this epoch.

David—the epitome of the royal figure and the embodiment of the later hope for restoration—is the DH's central figure in its account of the early monarchy. A statistical glance (see table 5.1 ) at the balance, or rather imbalance, of materials about the first three kings reveals David's centrality.

In highlighting David and his deeds, the DH captures the sympathy of the audience. It is difficult to follow David's story without being caught up in his heroic rise from shepherd boy to dynastic paragon. That he perpetrates violence and brutality along the way, the DH takes for granted. What other recourse has he against his enemies, who are cast as God's enemies as well? One of the best examples of the aggrandizement of David is the Goliath story; the accomplishment of Elhanan in slaying the Philistine warrior (2 Sam. 21.19 ) becomes part of the David legend (1 Sam. 17 ).

The larger narrative context of the biblical account of the early monarchy—the entire history of Israel in the land, from Joshua to the exile—has also shaped the ancient editors' choice and arrangement of materials. Samuel's prominence as a “judge,” for example, links him to the sequence of stories about charismatic leaders in the preceding block of DH materials. Remarkably, the etymology given for Samuel's name in 1 Samuel 1.20 , the announcement in verse 28 that Samuel is to be dedicated to God, and the various references in 1 Samuel 1 to “requests” from God all contain wordplays on Saul's name rather than Samuel's. A narrative of Saul's birth has apparently been appropriated for Samuel, to give him thematic prominence as the connector between the rule of judges and of kings, and also because of the text's generally negative portrayal of Saul.

Within the interpretive setting provided by the DH, several major thematic segments can be discerned in the narratives of 1–2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1–11 :

  • • A set of Saul stories, including an old cycle in which Samuel probably played no part, and later materials in which Samuel's role as kingmaker is prominent, are found in 1 Samuel 8–15 , though Saul's story continues in subsequent chapters because his career overlaps with that of David until his tragic battlefield death.

  • • The account of David's rise to power, and of Saul's diminishing effectiveness, is given in 1 Samuel 16 to 2 Samuel 5 .

  • • The Court History of David, part of which is sometimes called the Succession Narrative, appears in 2 Samuel 9–20 and climaxes with the final days and death of David in 1 Kings 1–2 .

  • • The reign of Solomon is set forth in 1 Kings 3–11 .

In addition to these substantial blocks of material, several smaller but thematically important sections appear in the two books of Samuel:

  • • The birth and call narrative of Samuel in 1 Samuel 1–3 , with its supplement in 1 Samuel 7 , connects the rule of kings with the preceding rule of judges. It also accounts for the legitimacy of the Zadokite priesthood, which prevailed in Israel from David's time until the exile and beyond, thereby replacing the priesthood of Eli and his family, which played a central role in premonarchic religious affairs.

  • • The story of the ark of the covenant, a central icon of early Israel, appears in 1 Samuel 4–7.2 , and has links to 2 Samuel 6 and 7 .

  • • A miscellaneous appendix in 2 Samuel 21–24 of psalms, lists, and narratives connected with David.

This bare listing does not, however, reveal what literary analysis makes clear: the historiographic framework embraces segments that are highly legendary and folkloristic, if not novelistic. The account of the early monarchy is replete with traditional literary materials, including stylized motifs such as the sending of messengers or the hiding of spies; repeated type-scenes such as battle accounts and news of defeat; private dialogues in settings that preclude eyewitness records; strong interest in the private life and character of a few individuals at the expense of details about their public works and worlds. These artful literary constructions depict tensions and conflicts in the personal lives of the first kings, and in so doing they convey, more subtly and successfully than explicit history writing could, the moral questions inherent in the concentration of power in the hands of a few.

Recognizing the complexity and diversity of the biblical sources for the early monarchy and acknowledging their biases does not, however, mean discarding them as lacking in historical value. On the contrary, some passages exhibit features of archaic language going back nearly to the time of the events that they narrate. Others contain details about procedures and propositions that reflect aspects of the sociopolitical dynamics of state formation. Such details are probably not later inventions; rather, they derive from the authentic reports of persons who experienced the transition from pre-state to state society.

The information about the material world of the early monarchy, especially in the passages describing Solomon's construction of a temple and palace in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5–7 ) and the wealth of his kingdom (1 Kings 10 ), is sometimes viewed as hopelessly exaggerated if not outright fictive. Yet as we shall see, the accounts of conspicuous wealth and grandeur, even if royal hyperbole, contain details of architectural and artifactual style that are rooted in the visual vocabulary of royal courts in the early Iron II period.

Mentioning the Bible's reports of the early kings' building projects brings us to a second major source of information, archaeology, that we shall consider more fully below. Recent archaeological surveys, for example, do confirm the historical value of topographical details and place-names in the narratives of 1 and 2 Samuel, and they indicate that sites newly founded in the late eleventh and early tenth centuries correspond with places mentioned in the Samuel narratives, particularly in connection with David.

Such external validation, while relatively rare, should not go unheeded. Nor should one ignore the Bible's own self-conscious claim to use ancient but no longer extant sources, at least for the presentation of Solomon (1 Kings 11.41; note also 2 Sam. 1.19 ). Indeed, the variety of styles and materials—from lists to legends, from poems to polemics—as well as the presence of conflicting items, imply that a rich array of traditional materials has gone into the canonical story of the early monarchy. The very inclusion of disparate materials suggests that the DH's ancient editors recognized their value. Authentic and ancient documentation of aspects of Israelite state formation is embedded in the final literary production, although it is difficult to separate the legendary embellishment from the record of historical experience. Yet the extent of the historical core of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1–11 is roughly indicated by the amount of material that is annalistic rather than literary. One can tabulate the extent of explicitly annalistic coverage—of economic activities, administrative decisions, military operations, and international affairs—as opposed to the space that the texts devote to legendary, folkloristic, and poetic materials. For Solomon, 45 percent of the coverage is annalistic, but for David it is only 8 percent and for Saul less than 5 percent. In short, although the bare outlines of the history of the early kings are found in these three biblical books, the preponderance of nondocumentary passages makes them less useful to the historian than their historiographic cast and vivid prose suggest.

First and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1–11 are not the only relevant biblical materials for the early monarchy. Additional information appears in 1 and 2 Chronicles, products (along with Ezra and Nehemiah) of early postexilic chronicle writing. These works have clear biases, especially in their glorification of Jerusalem and idealization of the two kings, David and Solomon, who were founders of the capital and its Temple, the sacred center of Israel. Because of these preoccupations, the authors of Chronicles include virtually nothing about Saul, who had no connection with the establishment of Jerusalem as a capital and center of worship.

First Chronicles begins with nine chapters of genealogy, and the rest of the book (nineteen chapters) presents the kingship of David. Solomon's reign is set forth in 2 Chronicles 1–9 . For the most part Chronicles repeats, often word for word, large blocks of material from Samuel and Kings; but Chronicles also omits some Samuel-Kings traditions, especially when they cast David or Solomon in unfavorable light. In addition, Chronicles occasionally includes information, often little more than expositional expansion, not found in Samuel-Kings. Yet in a few instances the Chronicler drew on authentic ancient sources other than a protocanonical version of Samuel-Kings, preserving supplemental details or perspectives that cannot be dismissed as part of the Chronicler's bias. Furthermore, the topographical information in some of the genealogies and lists in Chronicles most closely approximates the settlement pattern that modern research has reconstructed (using archaeological excavation and survey) for the Iron IIA period or, more narrowly, the period of David.

With varying degrees of reliability, several other biblical works may also be related to the early monarchic period. Classical historical-critical study of the Bible postulates that the Pentateuch in its present form weaves together four major literary strands, assembled in the first five biblical books to tell the story of preterritorial and prenational Israel from the creation of the world to the moment of entry into the Promised Land. One, perhaps the corporate work of many talented storytellers, is called the Yahwist because of the prominence of the name Yahweh for God in the book of Genesis. This source, or its author(s), is also known as J, from the German spelling of God's name, “Jahweh.” The existence, nature, and dates of four sources of the Pentateuch are continually debated by biblical scholars. Thus, in considering J as a creation of the early monarchy, which is the dominant historical-critical judgment, the larger issue of the formation of the Pentateuch must be kept in mind.

Scholars favor placing J in the mid-tenth century BCE primarily because of the way it favors Judah, the eponymous progenitor of the tribe from which the Davidic dynasty is said to have come, as well as the territory that became the monarchy's geographical core. In this interpretation, the successes of the first Israelite kings kindled nationalistic fervor and led to the composition of an epic that recounted the period before the monarchy, culminating in the glorious establishment of a territorial state whose dynastic ancestor was Judah. Thus, the promise to Abraham (in Gen. 15.18–21 ), for example, provides an etiology for later Davidic conquests of the peoples surrounding Israel's tribal core. Whatever its origin, J represents a powerful and artful presentation of the proto-Israelite story, and it is plausible that the royal court of tenth-century Jerusalem, which probably produced monumental architecture of world-class quality, also gave birth to a superb work of literature.

Both David and Solomon are also traditionally associated with significant blocks of material in the Ketubim, or Writings, section of the Bible, a product of the post-exilic period. David's musical abilities are highlighted in several legendary vignettes in Samuel, so it is no surprise that the superscriptions of seventy-three psalms name the king himself as their author; thirteen of them even report the situation under which the psalm was composed. Similarly, Solomon's legendary wisdom links him with the authorship of the wisdom books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and the report of his extensive marital liaisons similarly connect him with the Song of Solomon. Such claims for Davidic and Solomonic authorship of significant portions of the Writings are clearly late and unreliable. Yet some of the materials in the putative Davidic and Solomonic compositions may have tenth-century features. Davidic charisma and Solomonic diplomacy, characteristics integrally connected to the socio-political roles these men played, make it reasonable to trace the beginnings of Israelite psalmodic and sapiential traditions back to the early court in Jerusalem.

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