Kings of the Jews: Israel
After centuries of being governed by authoritative judges, and faced with mounting threats from neighboring foes, the ancient Israelites agitated for a king who would centralize power and organize a formidable force to defend the territories of Israel’s tribal confederacy. What followed were centuries of monarchy, a divided kingdom, and scores of sovereigns—most of whom were corrupted by power and unfaithful to the ways of their ancestors and the divine commandments. The merit of the judges gave way to the might of the kings, the last of whom (Bar Kokhba) lost the realm in an ultimately unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Empire. Their biographies and histories are related throughout the 19 books of the Prophets section of the Bible—especially in Samuel I & II and Kings I & II—and in the Hagiographa section’s Chronicles I & II, and retold in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities.
- Saul (r. 1020-1004 B.C.E.) – Israel’s first king, the son of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin, who was privately anointed then popularly proclaimed at Mizpah. His capital was Givah. He was a tall warrior king who fought against Philistia, Ammon, Moab, Edom, Amalek, and others. A tragic figure, Saul’s reign is marred by his recurrent disobedience to the divine will, as communicated to him by the prophet Samuel, with whom relations grew tense. He appointed the acclaimed David as his armiger but grew increasingly jealous of him and tried repeatedly to kill him, even pursuing David to Ramah and elsewhere. In a fit of despair, Saul consulted the witch of Ein-Dor before engaging the Philistines in a doomed battle at Mount Gilboa, and then committed suicide to avoid being humiliated by his enemies. He was beheaded and had his body, along with those of his sons, hung on the walls of Bet She’an until the loyalists of Jabesh-Gilead recovered the cadavers, cremated them, and buried the ashes (these were later reinterred in Kish’s tomb at Zela).
- Ish-Boshet, a.k.a. Eshbaal (r. 1004-1002 B.C.E.) – Saul’s youngest and sole surviving son (the others fell against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa) reigned briefly from his capital of Machanaim in Gilead, east of the Jordan River. After the assassination of his protective older relative Avner, Ish-Boshet was decapitated during his midday sleep by his army captains Rechab and Baanah, who brought the king’s head to David. David had the murderers summarily executed for their regicide, and Ish-Boshet’s head was buried in Avner’s grave in Hebron.
- David (r. 1004-965 B.C.E.) – The youngest son of Yishai, from the tribe of Judah and the town of Bethlehem, and a direct descendant of Ruth the Moabite. A shepherd, musician, and poet anointed by Samuel, David proved his bravery and skill with a slingshot in a duel with the Philistine giant, Goliath of Gath. He served Saul but fled from his paranoid wrath, eventually overseeing Ziklag for the Philistine king Achish. After Saul’s death, David assumed the throne and ruled initially from Hebron for seven years before conquering Jerusalem and erecting himself a palace there. He repeatedly defeated the Philistines in battle, then brought the Ark to Jerusalem but was informed by the prophet Nathan that the Temple in which the Ark would be housed could not be built by a bloodstained warrior. David divided Israel into a dozen districts, each with its own civil, military, and religious institutions, and established Jerusalem as the secular and religious center of the country. His personal life was an utter disaster: he claimed the married Bat-sheva for himself, then had her soldier husband placed directly in harm’s way; his children committed rape and incest, rose in rebellion against him, and even drove him for a time from his throne in Jerusalem. He soon regained power and in time anointed his son (with Bat-sheva) Solomon as king.
- Solomon, a.k.a. Yedidya, Kohelet (r. 965-928 B.C.E.) – Anointed by Nathan, Solomon ascended to the throne following a purge of immediate threats to his rule. He quickly grew famous for his wisdom, which attracted foreign rulers such as the Queen of Sheba to his court. He consolidated his father’s expansive kingdom through marital alliances and reportedly had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. He wrote the Song of Songs, the Book of Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. Fulfilling his father’s dream, Solomon built the first Temple using wood from King Hiram of Tyre and a conscripted labor service consisting of Israelites and foreigners under his aegis. Using cedar, stone, and gold, his workers took 7 years to complete the Temple’s structure, decorations, and vessels. Solomon then dedicated the Temple in a public ceremony of prayers and offerings. He spent 13 years building his royal palace, and also built a city wall, the Millo citadel, a palace for Pharaoh’s daughter (one of his wives), and facilities for foreign traders. He erected cities for his cavalry and chariots, created storage cities, extended Jerusalem northward, and fortified cities near the mountains of Judah and Jerusalem. Solomon’s rule was challenged by the Edomites and Arameans. His wisdom left him in his later years: he took numerous foreign wives and not only allowed them to worship their gods but even built shrines for their sacrifices. He also exacted heavy taxation and troop levies on all Israelites while granting special privileges to the tribe of Judah, embittering the northern tribes. He was buried in Jerusalem.
- Jeroboam I (r. 928-907 B.C.E.) – The son of Nevat and Zeruah the widow, and a high official under Solomon, Jeroboam ungratefully rebelled against the House of David and was forced to seek refuge in Egypt under Pharaoh Shishak after the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite informed Jeroboam of his impending appointment as king over the northern ten tribes. When these tribes wearied of Rehoboam’s heavy-handed rule, they selected Jeroboam as founder of the northern Kingdom of Israel. He reigned from his successive capitals of Shechem, Penuel, and Tirzah. In order to stem the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the people’s connection to the southern kingdom, Jeroboam erected two golden calves, one in Beth El and another in Dan, and made desultory changes to the priesthood and festivals. An unnamed holy man from Judah prophesied against Jeroboam’s altars and foretold the advent of King Josiah of Judah who would overturn these perfidies. Jeroboam lost the use of a hand as a punishment, which he then had restored with the holy man’s help. Still, Jeroboam continued to appoint random men as priests over the high places of sacrifice. Jeroboam lost a costly war against King Abijam of Judah, who seized territory and slew great numbers. When Jeroboam’s son Abijah fell ill, the monarch sent his disguised wife with gifts to the old, blind prophet Ahijah, who informed her that Jeroboam’s line would abruptly end and that the ailing Abijah would die, which soon transpired. Jeroboam was buried in his familial tomb in Tirzah.
- Nadab (r. 907-906 B.C.E.) – Jeroboam’s son who walked in his father’s footsteps, perpetuating the idolatrous cult of calves. After he besieged the Levitical town of Gibbeton to reclaim it from the Philistines, Nadab was conspired against and slain by his army officer Baasha, who usurped the throne and slew the remnants of Jeroboam’s line. Nadab does not appear in Chronicles.
- Baasha (r. 906-883 B.C.E.) – Ruling from Tirzah, Baasha the son of Ahijah entered into alliance with the Arameans and soon was at war with Asa of Judah for most of his reign. He fortified the border town of Ramah north of Jerusalem to obstruct traffic between the kingdoms. Asa persuaded King Ben-Hadad I of Aram to switch his allegiance and make war against Baasha; the Aramean king invaded Israel, forcing Baasha to forgo Ramah. Baasha continued down the path of the House of Jeroboam, and thus the prophet Jehu ben Hanani pronounced the end of the House of Baasha. He was buried in his family tomb in Tirzah.
- Elah (r. 883-882 B.C.E.) – The son of Baasha, who was killed while drunk in his steward Arza’s house by Zimri, a captain of his chariots, who wiped out the House of Baasha and claimed the throne for himself. He was probably buried in his family tomb in Tirzah.
- Zimri (r. 882 B.C.E.) – Little is known of this treasonous murderer of his master Elah. Like Baasha, Zimri on his accession slew the entire line of his predecessors, in this case of the House of Baasha (even killing friends of the dynasty). Zimri was but one of several senior military officers who now vied for the throne. He reigned only one week before the Israelite army at Gibbeton promoted Omri, a military captain, to the throne. Omri promptly besieged Tirzah with Zimri therein. When he saw that the capital had fallen, Zimri set fire to the royal palace and perished in the flames. His unknown burial place was likely in Tirzah. Zimri does not appear in Chronicles.
- Tibni (r. 882-878 B.C.E.) – As a rival to Omri supported by half the populace, Tibni son of Ginath ruled for 4 years over a portion of the kingdom of Israel until his death, likely in battle against the party of Omri. Nothing more is known of him.
- Omri (r. 882-871 B.C.E.) – Acclaimed by the army, Omri reigned 6 years from Tirzah then moved to his newly-purchased hill of Samaria which he built up and made his new capital. King Mesha of Moab’s stela (discovered in Sidon in 1868) suggests that Omri conquered Moab and made it into a vassal state that rendered him tribute. During Omni’s relatively brief but eventful rule a treaty was concluded between Israel and the Phoenician king Ethbaal of Sidon, sealed by the marriage of Omri’s son Ahab and Ethbaal’s daughter Jezebel. Omri’s reign was a period of stability and economic prosperity. The prophet Micah refers to the long-standing statutes enacted by Omri, who was buried in Samaria. Omri does not appear in Chronicles.
- Ahab (r. 871-852 B.C.E.) – Omri’s luxury-loving son was heavily influenced by his wife Jezebel, and so dedicated himself to Baal-Melqart and Asherah worship. The royal couple killed off the God of Israel’s prophets except for Elijah, who foretold the coming drought. Elijah had Ahab arrange the showdown with the 850 priests of Baal and Asherah atop the Carmel mountain range. Ahab was a brave warrior who was victorious against King Ben-Hadad II’s Arameans at Samaria and Aphek. Like Saul (who spared Agag of Amalek), Ahab spared the defeated Ben-Hadad in exchange for towns restored to Israel from Aram and trading rights in Damascus. The royal wickedness peaked with Jezebel’s arranging for the killing of Navot the Jezreelite and Ahab’s subsequent expropriation of the deceased’s vineyard, which elicited Elijah’s prophecy of doom for the House of Omri. Ahab humbled himself and earned himself a reprieve. He fielded 10,000 soldiers and 2,000 chariots against Shalmanesser’s Assyrians in the Battle of Qarqar, but he received a fatal arrow wound in battle against Aram at Ramot-Gilead. In a noble gesture, Ahab had himself propped up in his chariot so as not to lower the morale of his fighters. He died that evening in his bloodstained chariot. When the chariot was rinsed by the pool of Samaria, dogs licked up the king’s blood, as Elijah had prophesied. Ahab was buried in Samaria.
- Ahaziah (r. 852-851 B.C.E.) – Ahab’s and Jezebel’s son ruled for just 2 years, in which he served Baal and followed the ways of his parents. He joined King Jehoshaphat of Judah in shipbuilding at Ezion-Gever with plans to send a fleet to Tarshish and Ophir to import gold, but these ships were wrecked in a storm. Mesha of Moab rebelled against Israelite suzerainty and Ahaziah took no steps to stop him. Ahaziah fell out of an upper window of the royal palace in Samaria. In his injured state he sought counsel from the oracle of Baal-Zebub in Ekron to learn of his recovery prospects. For this impious act, the prophet Elijah denounced him thrice and predicted his death, which soon ensued. Ahaziah left no heirs and was succeeded by his brother Jehoram. He was likely buried in Samaria.
- Jehoram, a.k.a. Joram (r. 851-842 B.C.E.) – Another son of Ahab and Jezebel, who, unlike his brother Ahaziah, did not fully follow the path of his parents; Jehoram rid Israel of Baal-Melqart worship, though not of the golden calf cult Jeroboam I had instituted. Jehoram humbly sought out the prophet Elisha, a musically-inspired miracle-worker who caused a dry riverbed to be filled with water (which at sunrise seemed to Mesha’s Moabites to be blood), saving the thirsting armies of Jehoram and his allies King Jehoshaphat of Judah and the deputy ruler of Edom. Jehoram was wounded in battle versus Hazael’s Arameans at Ramot-Gilead and went to Jezreel to recuperate, but the conspiring army commander Jehu slew him—with an arrow through his back that protruded from his heart—in the former vineyard of Navot the Jezreelite where Jehoram was inhumed.
- Jehu (r. 842-814 B.C.E.) – The son of Jehoshaphat ben Nimshi of the tribe of Manasseh, who, like Baasha and Zimri before him, put to death the remnants of the preceding royal house. After slaying Jehoram, Jehu had Jehoram’s mother Jezebel thrown out of a window to her death; he then collected the heads of Ahab’s 70 sons, killed off all of Ahab’s officers, friends, and priests, and finished off Jehoram’s sons and nephews. Thus Jehu extinguished the Omride dynasty. He then laid a trap for the devotees of Baal by convening an assembly in that pagan god’s temple and appointing 80 men to slaughter the worshipers once they sacrificed to their deity. Baal’s temple was destroyed and turned into a garbage dump. By annihilating the House of Omri, with its marriage ties to both the Kingdom of Judah and the Phoenicians, Jehu found himself surrounded by hostile neighbors, and thus turned to Assyria for assistance. He paid tribute to Shalmanesser III of Assyria to rescue Israel from the invading Arameans (and is mentioned on that king’s black obelisk). Assyria campaigned against Aram, which nonetheless recovered and continued to plague the kingdoms of Israel and Judah alike. The prophet Hosea warned of retribution against Jehu’s line for its horrors. The much-bloodied king was buried in Samaria.
- Jehoahaz, a.k.a. Joahaz (r. 814-800 B.C.E.) – Jehu’s son continued the molten calf cult, and also continued to be afflicted by the aggressive Arameans under Hazael and Ben-Hadad III, who captured many Israelite towns and greatly reduced Israel’s armed forces. Jehoahaz besought the God of Israel for a deliverer, a prayer that seemed to be answered with the advent of the king’s son Jehoash or grandson Jeroboam II. Jehoahaz was buried in Samaria. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Jehoash, a.k.a. Joash (r. 800-784 B.C.E.) – The son of Jehoahaz, who persisted in the calf cult but, like Jehoram before him, humbly sought out the God of Israel’s prophets. He was deeply attached to the prophet Elisha and sorely grieved the latter’s death. On his deathbed, Elisha had laid his hands on those of the king who was grasping bow and arrow, and had the king shoot an arrow of victory out an open window facing eastward and then strike the arrows on the ground, which Jehoash did thrice, a sign that he would thrice gain victory over Aram. Aided by the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III’s assaults on Aram, Jehoash repeatedly defeated the weakened Arameans and retook the Israelite towns which Hazael and Ben-Hadad III had claimed from his father Jehoahaz. Under Jehoash, one of Israel’s greatest monarchs, the kingdom’s armed forces were significantly replenished. He later went to war against the hubristic King Amaziah of Judah at Bet Shemesh at the latter’s behest and was triumphant, taking Amaziah prisoner and claiming hostages and plunder from Jerusalem and dismantling part of its walls. He died soon thereafter and was buried in Samaria.
- Jeroboam II (r. 784-748 B.C.E.) – The son of Jehoash, and the greatest ruler in Jehu’s dynasty. The long-reigning ruler captured Damascus and Hamath, subdued Moab, and restored the borders of Israel to the territorial limits of King Solomon, as foretold by the prophet Jonah who encouraged Jeroboam in his wars. The prophets Amos and Hosea, however, protested the ethical failings of the wealthy landowner class spawned by Jeroboam’s expansions, which engendered exploitation of the poor by the mighty, though no action was taken against Amos when his statements were reported to Jeroboam. He was likely buried in Samaria with his predecessors. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Zechariah (r. 748-747 B.C.E.) – The son of Jeroboam II, who ruled Israel for half a year and continued the calf worship before being publicly murdered by the conspiring Shallum, who thus ended the House of Jehu, the only dynasty of Israel ruling for 5 lineal generations. Zechariah’s brief reign marks the beginning of the northern kingdom’s final state of dissolution. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Shallum (r. 747 B.C.E.) – The son of Yavesh, who brazenly killed his royal predecessor before the people and with legal impunity, though not without a timely reckoning. Shallum reigned but a month in Samaria before Menachem slew him in turn. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Menachem (r. 747-737 B.C.E.) – The son of Gadi, who arose from the old capital of Tirzah and went to Samaria where he killed and usurped the usurper Shallum. He then assaulted the town of Tifsach (possibly identical with Ein Tapuach on the Ephraim-Menashe border) which defied him, and cruelly ordered all its pregnant women to be ripped up. He perpetuated the calf worship of his predecessors. Late in his reign, Menachem was forced to pay the invading king of Assyria, Tiglath-Pileser III, a hefty protection bribe that was exacted from Israel’s wealthy citizens. He is mentioned in a contemporary Assyrian inscription as a subjugated tributary. He died a natural death, a rare feat in this period of monarchical anarchy. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Pekahiah (r. 737-735 B.C.E.) – The son of Menachem, who ruled for 2 years and continued the calf worship until his overthrow at the hands of his rebellious army captain Pekah, who killed the king in the palace. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
- Pekah (r. 735-733 B.C.E.) – The son of Remaliah, who terminated the House of Menachem with the help of 50 Gileadites. Pekah may have reigned in Gilead for some years before assuming the throne in Israel. Once installed in Israel, he perpetuated the calf cult. He conspired with Rezin of Aram to remove King Jotham of Judah from his throne near the end of the latter’s reign, probably in an effort to coerce Judah into an alliance against Assyrian hegemony. The kings invaded Judah and besieged Jerusalem, but failed to capture it. Still, Pekah slew 120,000 valiant Judahites in a single day and had 200,000 captive Judahites carried off to Samaria. At the urging of the prophet Oded, these captives were promptly returned to Jericho in Judah. When Jotham’s son Ahaz acceded to the throne and with the usual bribe enlisted the help of Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria, Pekah and Rezin were forced to retreat northward to their own respective domains to defend them from the advancing Assyrians, who among other things invaded Galilee and exiled a multitude of its inhabitants. Pekah was murdered by the conspiring Hoshea, who brought the House of Pekah to an abrupt end.
- Hoshea (r. 733-724 B.C.E.) – The son of Elah, who for unspecified reasons was accounted less wicked than his predecessors. Hoshea ascended to the throne with the aid of Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria and remained loyal to that ruler. Upon the latter’s death, however, Hoshea sought to regain Israel’s independence and conspired with Pharaoh So (Osorkon IV) of Egypt against the Assyrians, whose new ruler Shalmanesser V (son of Tiglath-Pileser III) did not take kindly to the Kingdom of Israel’s discontinuation of tribute and who soon imprisoned Hoshea (and perhaps blinded him) and besieged Samaria for 3 years. In 722 B.C.E., Israel’s capital was finally conquered by Shalmanesser’s successor (and possible brother), Sargon II, and thereafter 27, 290 of the kingdom’s residents were exiled variously to Halach, Havor by the Gozan River, and to the Median cities ruled by Assyria. Thus was the Kingdom of Israel officially reduced to a province of the Assyrian Empire. An Assyrian governor was appointed over the province’s remaining inhabitants who were allowed to retain their property. The House of Hoshea ended with its eponymous sovereign. He does not appear in the Chronicles.
The Assyrians transferred foreign populations from the province of Babylonia and elsewhere to Samaria and throughout Israel. An exiled Israelite priest was restored to Beth El so as to teach the new arrivals “the manner of the God of the land,” though it is unsurprising that a practitioner of Israel’s long-corrupted religious observance was unable to instill in his charges a disdain for their imported idols, to which they predominantly reverted (albeit adulterated by God of Israel worship). The northern Kingdom of Israel was outlived by the southern Kingdom of Judah by 136 years.
The Kingdom of Israel was ruled by a total of 24 kings (including those of the United Monarchy) from 11 royal houses: 5 houses reigned for only 2 lineal generations, and 4 for just 1 lineal generation. As to their rectitude—or conspicuous lack thereof—the biblical accounts make it clear that the difference among the kings was mostly one of degree, not of kind. Apart from the House of David, which is upheld as the golden era of Hebraic monarchy, the story of the kings of Israel is one of rebellion and usurpation, rivalrous military commanders and murderous successors, encroaching neighbors and warring alliances. There is a definite sense of the fleeting that suffuses these machinations; indeed, the only apparent constant in the northern kingdom throughout most of its 300-year history was idol worship, of varieties both homegrown and imported.
The overarching narrative emerging from the biblical accounts portrays the gradual devolution from independence to vassalage to conquest and imperial incorporation. There are seminal lessons to be gleaned from the historical events regarding the solicitation of foreign participation in domestic matters: both the Arameans and Assyrians at various times were substantively involved in the Kingdom of Israel’s internal affairs, and both neighbors repeatedly attempted to exert increasing control over Israel until its downfall.
The overall message of Kings and Chronicles is unmistakable: long before the Ten Tribes of Israel were geographically lost, they were spiritually lost. The arch-rebel Jeroboam I formulaically bears the blame for Israel’s demise, although the introduction of idolatry can more accurately be ascribed to an aging Solomon and his foreign harem. As Kings II has it, Israel’s monarchs “went after things of nought, and became nought…”.