History

History Of A State: Kingdom Of Israel (Israel Part 1 – Saul, David and Solomon)

1050 BC – 930 BC

I guess many people in the western world will be at least be familiar with the basics about this state, the United Monarchy of Israel, before it split into two countries, Israel and Judah. They had enemies, the Philistines, who I’m not going to cover as a separate entity as there’s very little about them as a people group except that they lived in Gaza and I’ve probably covered the basics in articles like Phoenicia, Moab/Ammon etc and the Sea Peoples. I assume no modern Philistines are going to complain. I mean, all it’d be is me saying ‘hey, they allegedly had Goliath and fought against the Israelites a bunch of times. And you know that. The evidence for Israel itself as a united monarchy besides religious texts is rather shaky, so I’m going to go into that and do my utmost to speculate in the way I do best. If you think this is going to cause controversy, don’t worry, it won’t. This has nothing to do with the modern state and is going to refer to the historical record (and alleged religious stories, if you believe them, that’s your thing) only.

Let’s go.

Location

Located pretty much in modern day Israel but with arms extending into Jordan and Lebanon, Israel sat astride between a number of people groups from the surrounding desert in a fairly fertile and rich land. There were certainly wildernesses, but the sources all tell us that Israel was in a lucky position and had loads of jealous enemies. Of course, that is exactly the case at the time and no one would question it. They had the Phoenicians on their northern shores trading, they had Egypt on their doorstep, but mostly they subdued and vassalised the nearby tribes of Edom, Moab, Ammon and when Philistia wouldn’t kow-tow, Israel went to war. There’s a thing though, there’s no real evidence for Israel being in a united monarchy at this time. The only thing we have to go on are the books of the Bible that describe this historical period and although I’d love to believe exactly what the Israelites said about their history, it does have to stand up to scrutiny from the historical perspective and make sure they’re not just making their ancestors look good.

Timeline

Let’s dive into what we sort of know about this kingdom at this time. Prior to 1050 BC, what we know of as Israelite tribes apparently lived in confederations under tribal leaders known as judges.  There’s doubt whether this period of history actually happened but in the Bible it leads to stories like the famous strongman Samson, the woman Deborah and the left-handed Ehud, both heroes of the Israelites. It’s entirely possible that a position like the one they held was in place, even if heroic deeds like those ascribed to those (killing all of his enemies and having the strength of a lion if his hair wasn’t cut, and assassinating an enemy king because he could conceal a sword) were probably fictitious. The twelve described in the Book of Judges are said to have been the leaders and ‘judged Israel’, so if the position existed, it was almost like a high king that was elected on the basis of whoever was best suited for the job. There’s still considerable doubt that what’s given in the biblical tradition is accurate but tribal leaders taking on a legislative role seems a reasonable jump to make, even if there were probably many more than described in the Bible. And they probably didn’t go around strangling lions. Yeah, Samson was more of an Israelite Hercules than anything else, there’s normally some figure like that in most ancient folklore.

In any case, the formation of the kingdom was an attempt to centralise a previously hugely decentralised tribal confederacy because of pressure from outside forces to make Israel more of a country, threats on the border and such. The first king was Saul, who was chosen by Samuel. Again, there’s insufficient evidence to determine whether a Saul was indeed the ruler and whether the kingdom was even united at this time but with the Late Bronze Age collapse happening all around the place and Egyptian power receding, it may have been that Israelite peoples wished to formally unite like that for protection.

Saul is known for eventually being succeeded by David after he fell on his sword. I mean, there’s plenty of other things that Saul is known for according to the Biblical story, but he’s mostly used as an example for the Israelites reading his story later in that he shows how a chosen one can become corrupted and replaced with another when this doesn’t work out. Saul could have started a line, instead, it was David’s line that supposedly ruled over the Kingdom of Israel. I doubt that Saul really existed, or if he did, he was a small king who eventually paled in comparison to David’s kingdom, if that existed. Saul may have been a military leader fighting against the Philistines, that was a key part of the Israelite identity at this point.

Then we get to David. Now, the thing about David, if all you know about him is that he played a harp, sang Psalms and put a man on the front lines to sleep with his wife (the Uriah Gambit) is that Israelite historians writing in later centuries attempted to portray him as the perfect man, the ideal man that all kings and Israelites and everyone should aspire to, that bit about killing another man so he could sleep with his wife aside. And they saw David as the founder of their line and this was very important for Israelites for centuries after, it was a mark of status if you could trace David in your ancestry, just like Muslims would do later with their Prophet. That held true all the way down to the Roman occupation and the birth of a certain well-known Nazarene (Jesus), who himself made a large amount of being a descendant of the House of David as well as being divine. So, naturally, this means that we have to question the historicity of this perfect man that David is portrayed as. It would be cool to think a perfect, just and wise king like David existed, leading Israel through a golden age and while we know the kings of later Judah were part of the House of David, we have nothing concrete to support the existence of David himself sadly. So his existence is also wishful thinking, although maybe there was a strong king that founded a memorable house called David, reports of him being perfect are probably exaggerated. It may have been that he only ruled Judah, that is a perfectly reasonable possibility, as the later northern kingdom did not have a House Of David ruling, ever.

David established Jerusalem as the national capital, supposedly, and that’s remained until today (after years of being ‘the Holy City’ so even if he never existed he did leave his mark on the world, in that the Israelites always knew of Jerusalem as their capital from time immemorial and chose David as the one who made it important.

Finally, for the United Kingdom, there’s Solomon, the hideously wealthy yet hugely wise king of Israel. He’s famously remembered for his temple and later Israelite constructions would refer to the Temple Of Solomon. His stories have him taking in many foreign dignitaries like the so-called Queen Of Sheba, which I’ll cover a bit when I get round to doing Saba. Again, there’s no material evidence of Solomon’s reign and in fact it’s quite the opposite, by which I mean that we have so little there may have been some form of collapse, although that may just be the collapse of the United Monarchy after his death, so his wealth and wisdom are probably yet more invented and idealised facts by later Israelite writers. And then after his death came the split.

See the thing is, these two nations, Israel and Judah, there may have been a political union but they wouldn’t have considered themselves as one nation as such, the ethnic differences were still rather well pronounced, hence why the union collapsed as quickly as it did, if it ever existed at all. One weak king, Rehoboam, was enough for the tribes in the north to go their own way believing themselves to have a better economic future under their own kings. Religious differences may have played a part as well, Solomon may have eased relations by building temples that could be for many different gods but only the south stalwartly worshipped the cult of what was then Yahweh (to evolve into the Judeo-Christian God), the north had incorporation of other deities like the Phoenician Baal (who they were near, to be fair) in their religion.
The split states will be covered soon, but for this Yahweh-worshipping state, if it ever existed as a united thing, its time was at an end.

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