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Kingdom of Israel

Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Jean-Honoré Fragonard

What is the kingdom of Israel?

The phrase “kingdom of Israel” in the Bible may refer either to the “united” kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon, which incorporated some or all of the later kingdoms of Israel and Judah, or the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel that Jeroboam established after Solomon’s death. This kingdom existed alongside the southern kingdom of Judah, which encompassed the more limited territory of the tribe of Judah.

The story of Israel in these two incarnations is recounted in the biblical books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. Chronicles’ main source was the books of Samuel and Kings, so it is not an independent history. Chronicles also lacks a running account of the divided kingdom of Israel, which its author considered theologically illegitimate.

According to these biblical works, the first king of united Israel was Saul, who was from the tribe of Benjamin. He was succeeded by David, who was from Judah. Saul’s failure to establish a dynasty is interpreted in the Bible as Yahweh’s rejection of his kingship. According to 1Kgs 2:11, David reigned 40 years (which may be a round number to indicate a generation). The Hebrew Bible credits him with establishing a minor empire around 1000 B.C.E. in Syria-Palestine, encompassing all the tribes of Israel and dominating neighboring Edom, Moab, and Aram (Syria). However, archaeological evidence of David’s reign is so sparse that scholars debate his historical existence, let alone his dominance.

David’s son Solomon succeeded him as king, despite not being the eldest son; Solomon focused less on military conquest and more on international relations. He built the temple in Jerusalem but is also blamed by the biblical authors for worshiping other gods, which were introduced by his foreign wives whom he had married in order to seal treaties.

Why (and when) did Israel become a separate kingdom?

The division of the united kingdom after Solomon’s death (after another 40-year reign) is explained in 1 Kings as punishment for Solomon’s tolerance of idolatry. In addition, 1 Kings also relates that Solomon imposed onerous taxes and forced labor on the northern tribes yet exempted Judah, leading the ten northern tribes to defect. 

The division of the once-unified Israel into two kingdoms occurred when Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, led the northern tribes’ revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. Jeroboam then built royal sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, the northern and southern ends of his kingdom, Israel. This was something that the much-later (and southern) writers of 1-2 Kings could not forgive, given their belief that the Jerusalem temple, located within the kingdom of Judah, was the only legitimate place for worshiping Yahweh. It is this “sin of Jeroboam,” perpetuated by every subsequent king of Israel in their continued maintenance of these sanctuaries, that earns them the judgment of “wicked” in 1-2 Kings. The judgment is anachronistic, though, because centralization of worship in Jerusalem was only first established as an ideological principle under King Josiah of Judah over two centuries later, around 622 B.C.E.

This “sin” hovers like a curse over the entire northern kingdom of Israel in its apparent inability to establish an enduring ruling dynasty through any of its kings—unlike its southern neighbor Judah, whose Davidic dynasty continued in unbroken succession. Jeroboam’s was the first of several northern Israelite royal dynasties. After the overthrow of the first two dynasties in only their second generations, the Israelite dynasty of Omri, in the ninth century, finally established itself, spanning the reigns of three more kings: Ahab, Ahaziah, and Jehoram.

Omri’s line was the most powerful and important of the kingdom of Israel—so much so that Assyrian inscriptions continued to refer to Israel as the “house of Omri” long after the dynasty’s end. Its significance is also reflected, albeit negatively, in the preoccupation of 1-2 Kings with the characters of Ahab (an Israelite king) and his wife Jezebel. The overthrow of Omri’s dynasty by the usurper Jehu was one of the bloodiest episodes in Israel’s history, though 2 Kings 9-10 narrates the event almost with glee at the downfall of Jezebel and the purge of the worship of Baal that followed.

Jehu’s dynasty lasted through a total of five kings (2Kgs 15:12) and was followed by the brief reign of the usurper Shallum, the short-lived dynasty of Menahem, and the reigns of Pekah and Hoshea. The last two of these kings coincided with the rise of the Assyrian Empire, which destroyed forever the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C.E.

In reality, from the 10th to the late eighth century B.C.E., the northern kingdom of Israel was likely always the superior power, with greater resources, whereas Judah continued in its shadow and as its subject. However, because Judah outlasted Israel, and because Judahite writers told the biblical history with their own theological spin, much of biblical literature portrays Judah as superior, at least morally, to its sister kingdom Israel.

  • Steven L. McKenzie

    Steven L. McKenzie is professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Spence L. Wilson Senior Research Fellow at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. His research and teaching interests include the history of ancient Israel, the literature of the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, methods of biblical interpretation, and archaeology.