The Hebrew Monarchy
(c. 1050 - 920 BCE)
After two hundred years of only marginal success in occupying
and holding lands in the Land of Israel, the Hebrews united to form
a single state under a single monarch. During the early centuries in
what the Romans later called Palestine, the Hebrews were ruled loosely
by "judges," who seemed to exercise a limited amount of judicial,
legislative, and even military control over the otherwise independent
Hebrew tribes. At times,
various "deliverers" would lead some or all of the tribes
against non-Hebrew oppressors or aggressors, and then fade again into
history. Still, the tribes faced down the constant threat of invasion
and oppression, and they still had not even remained firm in their Yahweh
The Hebrews, however, began to desire more permanent
solutions to their political and military troubles. Looking to the Egyptian
and Mesopotamian models of monarchy, particularly among their neighbors the
Canaanites, Philistines, Moabites, and Ammonites, the Hebrew tribes began
agitating for a king. As recounted in the I Samuel and II Samuel, the
Hebrews approached Samuel, the "judge" of Israel, and demanded a
king. The account makes clear that both Samuel and Yahweh considered the
desire for a king to be an act of disobedience towards Yahweh; the Hebrew
people, according to Samuel, would greatly suffer for this disobedience.
However, Yahweh, as happened with Moses and all other deliverers in Hebrew
history, selected a king for the Hebrews and Samuel formally anointed this
new king with oil to symbolize his election as monarch. This was Saul;
according to Hebrew history, he was chosen by popular acclaim by the Hebrew
people (which seems likely among a group without a king). He was chosen for
his height and his good looks, but soon proved to be ineffectual. Saul was
not, however, a standard Near Eastern king; he seems to have been largely a
military leader. There are no accounts of him exercising monarchical power
outside of military exploits. The Hebrews, after all, were still tribal
people, so the transition to a monarchy must have been slow.
Saul was certainly not a wealthy monarch; the accounts
of his kingship imply that he was no wealthier than any tribal leader. The
Hebrew history of Saul, however, emphasizes his disobedience; because he
repeatedly fails to carry out Yahweh's instructions as spoken by Samuel,
Yahweh immediately chooses another king, David. Saul ruled as king only two
While it's hard to assess Saul's monarchy, one very
important pattern emerges. It's clear that the monarchy is viewed as a
negative development in Hebrew historythis is amazing considering that
the account is written after centuries of Israelite and Jewish monarchs. In
the Hebrew view of history, it represents the Hebrew refusal to be ruled by
god in favor of a human ruler. In the history of the settlement of Canaan,
the book of Judges , when Gideon is offered the monarchy, he
replies, "You have no king but Yahweh." So the institution of the
monarchy creates a new conflict: the conflict between Yahweh and the Hebrew
monarchs. This conflict first rears its head in the relationship of Samuel,
as judge of Israel, and Saul, as king of Israel. Samuel speaks the words of
Yahweh; Saul disobeys them. This conflict would form the basis of a massive
change in the nature of Hebrew religion, the "prophetic revolution,"
which is played out against the backdrop of the incongruence between rule
by Yahweh and rule by a king. The most far-reaching, however, of the
innovations of the monarchy was the centralization of government in
Jerusalem, which had been unimportant up until that point. Under Solomon,
Jerusalem would become the cultic center of the Yahweh religion; sacrifice
to Yahweh would now only be possible in Jerusalem's temple and no-where
The most difficult king
to assess in the Hebrew monarchy is the
second one, David.
Before Saul has even become king, Yahweh
chooses another candidate on account of
Saul's disobedience. He is a young and beautiful
adolescent who becomes wildly popular in
the court of Saul. Deeply suspicious, Saul
at several times tries to kill the young
David, but the youth flees into the hills.
When Saul kills himself, David returns and
becomes king. The account of his kingship,
however, is deeply ambivalent. While David
is clearly a hero during the reign of Saul,
his character gradually changes as king,
until he commits a crime greater than any
Saul had committed: he murders a man in
order to marry his wife.
While the Hebrew judgment of David seems to be
ambivalent, his accomplishments in his forty year reign are undeniable.
After centuries of losing conflict, the Hebrews finally defeat the
Philistines unambiguously under the brilliant military leadership of David.
His military campaigns transform the new Hebrew kingdom into a Hebrew
empire. An empire is a state that rules several more or less independent
states. These independent states never fully integrate themselves into the
larger state, but under the threat of military retaliation send tribute and
labor to the king of the empire.
Most importantly, David unites the tribes of Israel
under an absolute monarchy. This monarchical government involved more than
just military campaigns, but also included non-military affairs: building,
legislation, judiciaries, etc. He also built up Jerusalem to look more like
the capitals of other kings: rich, large, and opulently decorated.
Centralized government, a standing army, and a wealthy capital do not come
free; the Hebrews found themselves for the first time since the Egyptian
period groaning under heavy taxes and the beginnings of forced labor.
It is the third and last king of a united Hebrew state,
however, that turned the Hebrew monarchy into something comparable to the
opulent monarchies of the Middle East and Egypt. The Hebrew account
portrays a wise and shrewd king, the best of all the kings of Israel. The
portrait, however, isn't completely positive and some troubling aspects
What emerges from the portrait of Solomon is that he desired to be a king along the model of Mesopotamian kings.
He built a fabulously wealthy capital in Jerusalem with a magnificent palace and an enormous temple attached to that palace
(this would become the temple of Jerusalem). He took 700 wives and over
300 concubines, most of whom were non-Hebrew (in the book of Judges, Yahweh forbids all male Hebrews to marry non-Hebrews). All of
this building and wealth involved imported products: gold, copper, and
cedar, which were unavailable in Israel. So Solomon taxed his people
heavily, and what he couldn't pay for in taxes, he paid for in land
and people. He gave twenty towns to foreign powers, and he paid Pheonicia
in slave labor: every three months, 30,000 Hebrews had to perform slave
labor for the King of Tyre. This, it would seem, is what Samuel meant
when he said the people would pay dearly for having a king.
While the author of II
Samuel, the biblical account of Solomon's reign, portrays Solomon
as a good king it's clear from the account that the Hebrews living under
him did not think so. Groaning under the oppression of Solomon, the
Hebrews became passionately discontent, so that upon Solomon's death
(around 926 to 922 BC) the ten northern tribes revolted. Unwilling to be ruled by Solomon's son, Rehoboam, these tribes
successfully seceded and established their own kingdom. The great empire
of David and Solomon was gone never to be seen again; in its place were
two mighty kingdoms which lost all the territory of David's once proud
empire within one hundred years of Solomon's passing.
Sources: The Hebrews:
A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker,
reprinted by permission.