After the death of Solomon, the United Monarchy came to an end and Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The Deuteronomistic historians continue to narrate the events as they unfolded during this period, although the descriptions of the northern kingdom are almost always negative. Moreover, many kings are discussed in only a cursory manner, as the historians mainly elaborate on figures and events that coincided with the historians’ perspective.
1 Kings 12–2 Kings 14 cover approximately 150 years of history in the Promised Land. Overall one primary theme is put forth by the Deuteronomistic historians: Israel must observe the teachings of Moses and especially the exclusive worship of Yahweh. Failure to follow these directives resulted in divinely ordained punishments. Along these lines, the Deuteronomistic historians interpreted both internal and external threats to Israel as divine punishments for transgressions against the law. Moreover, these ominous events are usually predicted by prophets and then fulfilled; this forms a sort of commentary within the framework of the narrative. Overall the Deuteronomistic historians were writing an ideologically biased history that denounced the northern kingdom while generally praising the kingdom of Judah. This is ostensibly because the northern kingdom broke away from the south and worshiped other gods.
During the tenth century BCE, nonbiblical sources begin to surface that corroborate the biblical narratives. This occurs because larger powers such as Assyria and Egypt begin to encroach on Israel’s territory. The invasion of the pharaoh Shishak in the late tenth century marks the earliest direct evidence, since his own records list several Israelite cities that were captured. Furthermore, Shishak is the first pharaoh who is explicitly named in the Bible. Israel is also mentioned in Assyrian texts of the next century. Three kings of Israel (Ahab, Jehu, and Jehoash) are listed as being defeated or paying tribute to Assyrian kings. What these sources demonstrate is that the books of Kings provide a rough but historical outline and chronology of events.
Synthesis of Sources
Since the books of Kings provide a history colored by an ideological agenda, many of the accounts of the lives of individual kings are perfunctory. Likewise, many events mentioned in external sources are not mentioned in the biblical texts and vice versa. What is clear is that after Solomon’s death Israel divided into two separate kingdoms, each with its own capital and places of worship. Although the two kingdoms were often rivals, they also could work together as allies against common threats. One such threat came from the kingdom of Aram-Damascus to the northeast. 1 Kings recounts two series of battles that the allied forces of Israel and Judah fought against the Arameans. An Aramean king erected a victory stela celebrating his defeat over Israel and Judah. What is perhaps most interesting is that this stela is the earliest nonbiblical reference to David and his dynasty. Moreover, the description of events recorded on the stela does not correspond to any biblical data. This is just one of many such Near Eastern texts that can help establish a more definitive history of events described in the Bible.
Since 1 Kings is so focused on certain selected components of history relating to Judah and Israel, there is little discussion about social life or institutions. However, some observations are made. The books of Samuel and Judges both demonstrate that the military was a growing concern for the states of Israel and Judah and that a career in the military could put the individual on the fast track to political dominance, as was the case with Saul, David, and several of the kings in the north.
In addition, Kings demonstrates the growing role and influence of royal women in Israel and Judah. For example, the gebira, which literally means “powerful woman” but is most appropriately translated as “queen mother,” begins to appear in the narrative about Judah. Although the precise function of this title is not clear, the gebira apparently held some status. There was also the notorious Jezebel, who presided over a collection of prophets who served in the worship of Baal and Asherah. Last is Athaliah, the only woman to serve independently as monarch in Israelite history.
Prophets and Prophecy
Much of this chapter focuses on the phenomena of prophecy and its varying forms. Prophets in antiquity performed a number of duties, including the interpretation of signs, the study of the movements of heavenly bodies, and the predictions of future events. Most ancient cultures regarded prophets as important since they functioned as powerful intermediaries between the divine and human realms. While many were diviners who could read signs or perform necromancy, the most exalted were the prophets who received divine messages and acted as spokespersons for the deity.
In Israel most prophets were probably trained professionals who often belonged to a type of guild. It is also clear that many prophets were connected to the kings since they could interpret divine will before important royal decisions were made. Also, prophets often designated the divinely chosen ruler. In the books of Kings, prophets conveyed divine rejection of the monarch.
Two prophets who figure prominently in the Kings narrative are Elijah and Elisha. The careers of these prophets are intertwined, and there are many doublets in which the two men perform similar actions. To the Deuteronomistic historians, these figures are critical, as they continually point out the shortcomings of northern Israel and especially its kings. The themes presented in the Elijah/Elisha cycle are essentially a running commentary on the main ideologies of the Deuteronomistic historians and a representation of how they were not being fulfilled. To the Deuteronomistic historians, Israel is in grave danger because of its failure to observe Moses’s teaching. Following this framework, the historians present Elijah as a new Moses, who also receives revelation from God on Mount Horeb. A second theme is the insistence on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. Related to this is a movement toward monotheism. The narrative demonstrates that the only god with power is Yahweh. Thirdly, the actions of Ahab and Jezebel against Naboth give rise to the theme of social justice. Elijah denounces the king and his wife for subverting the social order and breaking three of the Ten Commandments. The prophet then announces that the punishment for these crimes is nothing short of death and the extinction of the dynasty.
Implications for Our Study
The motives of the Deuteronomistic historians could not be stated more clearly than they are in 1 Kings 12–2 Kings 14. The goal of having a united people who all worship Yahweh at Jerusalem was derailed by the schism between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The historians are often hostile toward the breakaway north while at the same time supportive of the southern kingdom and its monarchs. To these writers, the worship of foreign deities was an all too real possibility in the north, and the foundation of temples outside of Jerusalem was an abomination. In the end, such apathy toward the laws of Moses could only result in divine retribution. Much of 1 Kings 12–2 Kings 14 features a series of battles that often see the Israelites defeated by foreign powers. However, as we will see in the following chapters, the worst was yet to come.