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Ancient Jewish History: 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 religion.


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 years. 

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 history—this 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 else.


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 emerge.

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.