Establishment of the Kingdom of Israel Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Kingdom of Israel marked the high point of Israelite political unity, and its memory has been a focal point of Jewish identity even into the present. The existence of this ancient kingdom is the justification for the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.

Summary of Event

Around the turn of the first millennium b.c.e., the pressing problem of the Hebrews was to forge a group of independent tribes into a strong functioning nation in order to conquer Canaan and subdue the Philistines and their allies. Although there had been some feeling of unity among the Hebrew tribes that settled in Canaan, it took approximately two hundred years for a unified state to evolve. Even when organized, the kingdom apparently never overcame the vested interests of groups and individuals, for it survived for less than a century. Sheba Solomon Rehoboam Jeroboam I Ahijah

At first the tribes acted together, occasionally under the temporary leadership of a hero called a “judge” in the Bible. By 1000 b.c.e., it became evident that a more stable unity under a permanent king was desirable, and Saul was called on to rule the double kingdom of Israel and Judah. Saul’s death at the hands of the Philistines on Mount Gilboa allowed David, who had to some extent already usurped power under Saul, to be declared next leader of the united tribes. He appears to have won confirmation as king through a covenant with the tribes that left them some autonomy as well as the right to confirm his successors in office. Symptomatic of the lack of full acquiescence, especially on the part of the northern tribes, were the rebellions by David’s son, Absalom, and by Sheba, a Benjamite. According to 2 Sam. 20:2, only “the men of Judah followed their king steadfastly.”

An artist’s depiction of King David, holding Goliath’s severed head.

(Library of Congress)

Resentment against the monarchy increased, especially in the north, during the reign of Solomon. The heavy exactions in money and men necessitated by his ambitious building programs became increasingly distasteful, as did his commercial alliance with Tyre involving repayment for supplies and services employed in the construction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The tribal covenant entered into by David was virtually ignored; Judah, the kingdom and tribe of the ruling family, was preferentially exempted from many of the onerous provisions demanded of the other tribes. More disturbing was Solomon’s program of centralization, which weakened the power of individual tribes by destroying their traditional boundaries through the creation of new administrative districts.

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After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam was immediately accepted as king by Judah. When Israel demurred, Rehoboam went to Shechem, the historic covenant center where Jacob had gone after his return from Harran and where the national assembly had been held in the time of Joshua. The assembled Israelites demanded that the oppressive rule imposed by Solomon be lightened, and they reminded Rehoboam that a king could not take the principle of hereditary monarchy for granted; nor did they intend to tolerate a second Solomon with a resplendent court resulting in extravagant demands for taxes and labor drafts.

When Rehoboam unfortunately heeded the advice of his luxury-minded young courtiers to ignore the demands of the northern Israelites, Jeroboam, a seditious leader of one of Solomon’s labor battalions who had been forced to flee to Egypt for asylum, returned to take advantage of the new discontent. He was supported by the prophet Ahijah, who announced symbolically, by tearing a garment in ten pieces, that ten tribes would follow Jeroboam. Consequently, Jeroboam was proclaimed king at the Shechem assembly. He established his capital first at Shechem and then at Tirzah, placing sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel, thus ending the united kingdom.

Although the immediate cause of the breakup was the heavy-handed reign of the despotic Solomon, which curtailed tribal freedoms and favored the south, the schism had deeper underlying causes. The hilly terrain encouraged sectional insularity. Each section had a different geography and therefore a different economic orientation. The north, facing toward the plains, was agricultural and commercial; Judah, oriented toward the desert, was pastoral and nomadic. Moreover, the original separation of the northern or Jacob Hebrews and the southern or Abraham Hebrews was too deeply rooted to be wiped out in one or two generations. Although Jeroboam and others had a personal interest in the breakup of the kingdom, the vital factor was the constant reassertion of tribal sympathies with all their religious implications. Whenever the northern Israelites established new religious centers, they implied the tacit rebellion of localism against the centralized regime in Jerusalem.

The northern branch of the Hebrew nation proved much stronger in population, economic resources, and cultural initiative. It possessed more fertile lands, and its plain of Esdraelon controlled international highways. However, when great new empires arose in the vicinity, the more isolated and poorer Judah survived longer. Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 721 b.c.e. and became another “lost nation”; the survival of Judaism was left to the weaker Judah.

Significance

The period of the united Hebrew kingdom was the high point of ancient Jewish history, even though it soon decayed. During a single century, the United Kingdom of Israel solved many serious problems and precociously passed through all the successive stages of development: youth, manhood, and declining old age. Saul awakened the nation to a consciousness of its strength. Under David it reached its zenith of power and entered on a course of vigorous development. During the reign of Solomon the first signs of decadence appeared; advances in expansion of trade, increase in wealth and luxury, and other refinements of civilization were dimming the great goals of the nation.

The unity imposed on the Jews was purchased dearly at the price of absolute, disciplined tyranny. Pompous religious ceremonial betraying a secularizing spirit obscured Israel’s distinctive, yet simple, spiritual mission and character. Jeroboam adroitly marshaled the attitude of general disaffection with the monarchy. As an overseer of the work on the fortifications for Jerusalem, he had a good opportunity to learn the temper of Solomon’s subjects and apparently sympathized with their complaints, encouraging a spirit of sedition. His action forced him into exile in Egypt. After Solomon’s death Jeroboam returned to lead the rebellion.

The division of the kingdom was fatal to the nation’s prosperity and disastrous in other respects. The elements of inner discord, which had been conciliated or suppressed while the kingdom was united, now revived and prevented further growth. The nation wore itself out in fifty years, never again to rise to its former glory. Religious life also suffered irreparably. Rather than advancing along the line David chartered for it, the state reverted to the conditions of previous anarchic periods.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, David Michael. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Chapters 4 through 6 cover the periods of the judges, the early monarchy, and the ages of David and Solomon. Includes maps, chronology, and a general bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2001. Two well-known scholars present the archaeological case against a historical reading of the Bible’s narrative of Israelite history. They hold that the historical books of the Old Testament were codified in the seventh century b.c.e. in order to create and promote Jewish identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isserlin, B. S. J. The Israelites. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 2001. A good overview of what is known and what is conjectured about the history of ancient Israel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shanks, Herschel, ed. Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. 2d ed. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999. Chapters 4 and 5 of this volume edited by the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review cover the period of the united and divided monarchies. Includes color plates, maps, charts, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999. A dense but well-argued case against the historicity of the ages of David and Solomon.
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