1 Kings - Introduction
First Kings continues the story of Israel begun in the early chapters of Genesis, carrying forward in particular the account of the period of the monarchy already begun in 1–2 Samuel. It opens with the transition of power from David to Solomon (chs 1–2 ) and proceeds to recount the reign of Solomon over a united Israel (chs 3–11 ) and the subsequent history of the divided kingdoms of (northern) Israel and (southern) Judah through to the reigns of Ahaziah of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah (chs 12–22 ). The artificial break between First and Second Kings right in the middle of the account of Ahaziah's reign (1 Kings 22.51–2 Kings 1.18 ) is evidence that 1 and 2 Kings originally formed one book, relating Israel's story under kingly rule from the death of David until the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon in 586 BCE. The division into two books was originally made in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint.
The book of Kings probably resulted from a long process of collecting, writing, editing, and revising diverse materials that themselves were based upon written documents and oral traditions. Among the written documents we must no doubt include temple and palace annals (for instance, the Book of the Acts of Solomon, 1 Kings 11.41 ; the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, 14.19 ; and the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah, 14.29 ). Some scholars have thought that the opening two chapters of 1 Kings belonged originally to an extended narrative about David's reign labeled the Court History or Succession Narrative. Among the traditions that were originally oral, we should think primarily of the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 17–19,21 and 2 Kings 1–8 , although other prophetical cycles of stories may also have existed. Decisive moments in this process of composition may have occurred as early as the reigns of the reforming kings Hezekiah (late eighth century BCE) and Josiah (late seventh century BCE), with revisions taking place after 586 BCE in light of the Judean exile. Those involved in the process seem to have been particularly influenced by the book of Deuteronomy, whose language and theological themes are prominent (for instance, in the long review of the history of Israel in 2 Kings 17 ). For this reason the books of Kings are often thought of as comprising part of a “Deuteronomistic History” that includes the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. The close connection between the books of Deuteronomy and Kings should not, however, distract attention from the many ways in which the latter also invite reflection in the light of Pentateuchal writings (especially the book of Exodus) and the prophetic books. The process of composition was also a process by which different biblical books were progressively viewed more and more as one scripture.
In summarizing the character of the books of Kings, we should emphasize three distinct but interrelated features. First, these books tell a story, bound together by multiple verbal and thematic links between its parts—they are narrative literature. The main characters in this story are the LORD God of Israel, various Israelite kings and prophets, and a number of significant foreigners. The plot concerns the attempt Israel makes (or more often, fails to make) under its monarchy to live as the people of God in the promised land, and how God deals with his people in their success and failure. It is a plot worked out in an ordered way, as the reign of each king finds its particular place in the framework (the so‐called “regnal formulae”) around which the books are constructed. This framework (e.g., 1 Kings 22.41–43,45,50 ) characteristically tells us when, in relation to another king, a certain monarch came to the throne; how long he reigned; and the name of his capital city. It gives us information about his death and burial and his successor, and tells us where to look for further information about him. It offers an evaluation of him in terms of his religious policy. In the case of Judean (rather than northern Israelite) kings, it tells us the name of his mother and his age at his accession to the throne. These formulas, with their general regularity of expression throughout 1–2 Kings, contribute much to the books’ sense of coherence. The narrative more generally also gives an impression of the care and artistry exercised by the authors as they composed it.
Second, the story told in the books of Kings is a story about the past. We are dealing here with historiographical literature. For all the narrative artistry involved in the telling, there is some concern to write about a real past that is shared by other peoples in the ancient Near East (whose own records frequently shed light on this period of Israel's history). The concern is probably evidenced in the frequent references to royal annals that could have been consulted by the original readers (e.g., 1 Kings 14.29; 15.31 ). The portrait painted of the past is naturally only one among the many that it was possible to paint. It is clear on any reading of 1–2 Kings that the authors do not tell us everything that happened in the region during the times about which they are writing, nor do they claim to do so. Theirs is a highly selective account, in which fairly long periods can be passed over very briefly, and periods of a year or less can occupy considerable space. They present a particular view of the past, with its own highlights and its own persuasive appeal. The political history of Israel for the authors of the books of Kings is important not in itself but for what it reveals about the moral and religious failure that eventually led to the loss of national identity and autonomy. This failure is rooted especially in the apostasy of Solomon (ch 11), which precedes the long and troubled story of the divided kingdoms, and of Jeroboam who, as the first ruler of the Northern Kingdom, fell away from God's (and David's) ways and paved the way in this respect for his successors (chs 11–14 ).
Finally, the books of Kings are didactic literature. They seek to teach their readers something about the God of Israel and his ways. Several themes are prominent in the story when viewed from this perspective. The first is that the LORD is indeed God, and must not be confused with the various gods worshiped within Israel and elsewhere, which are simply human creations (see 1 Kings 12.25–30; 2 Kings 19.14–19 ). The LORD is the incomparable creator of heaven and earth, distinct from the world that he has created, yet powerfully active within it. It is he, and not any god, who controls nature (e.g., 1 Kings 17–19 ). It is he, and neither god, nor king, nor prophet, who controls history (see 1 Kings 22.1–38; 2 Kings 5.1–18 ). This latter point is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the way that prophets generally function within 1–2 Kings, describing the future before God brings it about (e.g., 1 Kings 11.29–39; 2 Kings 17.13 ). A second theme is that as the only God there is, the LORD demands exclusive worship. Much of 1–2 Kings is therefore concerned to describe what is illegitimate in terms of worship. The main interest is in the content of this worship, which must not involve idols or images, nor reflect any aspect of the fertility and other rituals of “the nations” (see 1 Kings 11.1–40; 12.25–13.34 ). There is an accompanying concern about the place of worship, which is ideally the Jerusalem Temple, and not the local “high places” (see 3.2; 15.14 ). The books also elaborate the moral wrongs that inevitably accompany false worship (see 1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 16.1–4 ). Third, as the giver of the law that defines true worship, right thinking, and overall behavior, the LORD is also one who executes judgment upon wrongdoers. The world of the books of Kings is a moral world, in which wrongdoing is punished, whether the sinner be king (1 Kings 11.9–13 ), prophet ( 13.7–25 ), or ordinary Israelite (2 Kings 7.17–20 ). There is, on the other hand, no precise correlation between sin and judgment in 1–2 Kings, largely because of the compassionate character of the divine judge who accepts the repentant sinner, who does not desire final judgment to fall upon his creatures (see 2 Kings 13.23; 14.27 ), and who is always ready to find cause why such judgment should be delayed or mitigated (as in 1 Kings 21.25–28; 2 Kings 22.15–20 ). Yet sin can, nevertheless, accumulate to such an extent that judgment falls not only upon individuals but upon whole cultures, sweeping the relatively innocent away with the guilty (see 2 Kings 23.29–25.26 ). A final prominent theme in 1–2 Kings is divine promise, especially the repeated promise to David that he should have an eternal dynasty (1 Kings 11.36; 15.4 ); note also the reference to the promise to Israel's ancestors in 2 Kings 13.23 . These promises hold out hope for Israel that, even after the exile, there may be forgiveness in place of judgment (see 1 Kings 8.22–53 ) and a future for the Davidic line through the descendants of King Jehoiachin (see 2 Kings 25.27–30 ).