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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

1 & 2 Kings - Introduction

The books of Kings contain the history of Israel and Judah from the time of King Solomon to the period of exile, i.e. from the middle of the tenth to the middle of the sixth century BCE. They cover the entire duration of the state of Israel apart from the reigns of its first two kings, Saul and David, who feature in the books of Samuel. Israel existed before and after this period without being a state. According to the Bible, it was present as the people of the God YHWH long before it became politically organized—indeed, even before it had its own land—and remained so during its period as a state; it continued even after the two states founded on that land had been destroyed by great oriental powers and a large number of their citizens dispersed abroad. Monarchical constitution was more or less merely an experiment in the history of the people of God: one that partly succeeded impressively, but which finally failed. The biblical history of the four long and eventful centuries is described in such a way that light and darkness are in constant alternation—where, however, light predominates at the beginning and darkness overwhelms at the end. The impression is given of an unstoppable, increasing decline terminating in exile.

Several eras can be distinguished during this period of history: the era of the united kingdom under Solomon in the tenth century (1 Kings 1–11 ), the era of the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah from 926 to 722 BCE (1 Kings 12–2 Kings 17 ) and the era of the remaining kingdom of Judah between 722 and 587 or 562 BCE (2 Kings 18–25 ). The history of the two great Israelite dynasties of Omri (1 Kings 16–2 Kings 8 ) and Jehu (2 Kings 9–15 ) emerges from the lengthy middle era. There is a stylistic variation between passages which are narrated in an attractive and detailed manner (1 Kings 1–3; 10–12; 17–22; 2 Kings 1–11; 18–20 ) and those in which information is passed on in a sober and curtailed form (1 Kings 4–9; 13–16; 2 Kings 12–17; 21–5 ). In the narrative, the prophets gradually replace the kings as protagonists. Indeed the history of Israel seems to be as much the story of its prophets as the story of its kings.

The colourful diversity of the narrative and historical information is all held together by a structure which repeatedly reorientates the reader within a sequence of time. As a rule, each king is introduced at the time of his accession to the throne with an introductory formula and taken leave of with a concluding formula on his death. This so-called king-frame almost always includes the same formulae with slight standard variations between the northern and southern kingdoms (apart from exceptional cases showing larger variations).

The King-Frame

Introductory formula:

  • • synchronized date reference (‘X/Israel became king in the year of Y/Judah’)

  • • age at accession (only with kings of Judah)

  • • length of reign (including the year of accession and co-reign, if applicable)

  • • name of the queen mother (only with kings of Judah)

  • • religious judgement (using the first commandment as a guideline)

Concluding formula:

  • • source reference (often including special events and accomplishments)

  • • acknowledgement of death

  • • statement on funeral ‘with the fathers’ (only with kings of Judah)

  • • naming and accession of the successor

The introductory formula almost always includes a verdict on the relevant king. Grades ranging from the extremes, ‘He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD’ and ‘He did what was right in the sight of the LORD’, were handed out. For this verdict, kings were not assessed on their political accomplishments, but on their attitude towards the commandment requiring the exclusive worship of YHWH. Right from the beginning, the northern kings bear the heavy burden of maintaining state sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan, in the south and north of the country, and later even in the capital Samaria, which, according to the authors of the Bible, had heathen influences or were in fact heathen. It was only possible to worship YHWH properly in the temple of Jerusalem, which was naturally accessible only to the kings of Judah. Inevitably, many Judean kings described in the Bible did not confine themselves to this one holy site, but also maintained or tolerated ‘high places’, holy places in Judah. Some are said to have paganized even the temple in Jerusalem.

Thus the religious line of the books of Kings is that the temple of Jerusalem is the only legitimate place to worship YHWH, evidenced by the number of reports on the building, its decoration and maintenance, its occasional plundering, and the final destruction of this house of God. All points clearly to a specific period in the religious history of Israel: in 621 BCE, King Josiah carried out cultic reforms the core of which centralized the cult at Jerusalem (cf. 2 Kings 22–3 ). Such reforms relate to the corresponding order of law in Deut 12 . Their object was to ensure that the entire people of Judah serve YHWH alone and no other god. The first commandment, ‘I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me’ (Deut 5:6–7 ) was given prominence. The authors of Kings in effect reviewed the history of Israel and evaluated each king on the grounds of his adherence to the first commandment, ordering exclusive worship of YHWH. Josiah receives an especially good rating (2 Kings 22:2; 23:25 ); in fact all his predecessors and his few successors are compared to him and his actions. In this way the fall of the state of Judah in 587 BCE is seen (like the fall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE) as the result of countless breaches of the first commandment.

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