King David and the Illusory Judah

Judah appears remarkably few times as central player in 1–2 Samuel. If the Judah material were indeed primary to the David story, the story would collapse from lack of self-standing, independent lore. In contrast, the majority of the story of David as king is focused on David’s rule of Israel alone. The biblical evidence invites us to reconsider the political and social landscape of the early monarchy, defined not by the so-called “united monarchy,” nor by Judah alone, by the one important entity in these centuries: Israel.

See also: The House of David: Between Political Formation and Literary Revision (forthcoming, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016); and “Judah Bookends: The Priority of Israel and Literary Revision in the David Narrative,” VT 65/3 (2015): 401-413.

By Mahri Leonard-Fleckman
Assistant Professor of Theology
University of Scranton
May 2016

Click here for article.

Comments (4)

Israel is a very theological term, surely, meaning those who are especially close to God, of whom they have some knowledge, and therefore struggle most intimately with his mighty will. Canaan is the place where knowledge of God is awaited or lost, the Israelites always being in danger of becoming Canaanites or becoming so again. One feature of the Israelites' self-will is their belief in elective monarchy. This may, I suppose may well, reflect real political customs at a time when Egyptian overall control was slackening or becoming indirect. It might have been sensible for an outsider, someone who as you so persuasively argue is external to the people, to be elected on the basis of military competence and independence of local factions, hence the information that David was not of pure blood but in part of the highly suspect blood of Moab.
By contrast the ideology of - or later attributed to - the House of David is of monarchy hereditary in the bloodline to which, regardless of its impurity, God has made
solemn promises. Maybe Judah was originally the name of an ideological group supporting hereditary monarchy who, losing support elsewhere, re-grouped in Jerusalem with some success. As the great external monarchies pressed on the area it may have been necessary for self-confidence to make very strong assertions of divine protection of the tiny Jerusalem kingdom and its royal house and to write history emphasising that the King and People of Judah had always been at one - how very, very different from those Israelites!
But I'm trying to perceive a reality behind the great theological essays that became the Books of the Kingdoms and maybe that is foolish.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 05/21/2016 - 15:40

It has seemed to me that criticisms of the bible especially starting with Judges are overblown and unfair. Histories in all ages are written by the home team and exaggeration is to be expected. But the core of most of these histories is usually accurate up to a point. To start with Judges, the stories seem to very accurately reflect what Archaeology suggests. Israel, was a conglomeration of tribes, loosely attached who sometimes banded together to face external danger and had similar religion. Local leaders were remembered for fighting to protect their Tribes against local and more powerful city states. These heroes exploits may have been exaggerated but there is no good reason to disbelieve the outlines of the stories even if Sampson was not quite as strong as reported. The Philistines are accurately described as being perhaps the biggest problem for Israel after Egyptian power was reduced. The part of Israel most vulnerable to the Phillistines was Judah which Archaeologists have identified as populated by peoples very similar to other tribes, but with a smaller population and less agriculture but who having a culture almost identical to the other tribes. Judah would probably be best described as a "March" of Israel and its members were likely veteran warriors with more experience and expertise in warfare than their brothers more to the north who did not have the same level immediate threats from powerful and aggressive non-Israelite neighbors. Judah was an ideal place for a talented man to hone his talents as a military leader and gain successes, even if limited, against more powerful neighbors and thus become a hero to all Israel. That Israel would finally get tired of being pushed around by its neighbors and unite under a king is hardly an unlikely scenario and the first king was not likely to come from the southern march. But once the first king started to fail in his duties to protect all the tribes, his replacement by a Marcher warrior who had gained success fighting Israel's worst enemies would be very plausible. So the David "story" is not hard to believe at all, Goliath or no Goliath. Modern Middle East history actually has a number of strongman from minority groups in their polity (Assads and Saddam Hussein). David's early success under Saul and the latter's fear of him makes complete sense as does David's fleeing from Saul and becoming a mercenary who hired himself out to the highest bidder. David's success as a mercenary might be scary at first to the rest of Israel, but his becoming the "Chief" of Judah who fights the Philistines would make him look all the better. David's early success as king of Israel would lessen the threat he was "hired" to defeat, but to a free and independent tribes, it would ultimately cause dissatisfaction over the long run. David's exploits as King were probably real but greatly exaggerated. If he neutralized the Philistines, he faced no strong opponents at the time until he reached Northern Syria and that Mini-empire was much like Israel in at least one regard---it was the biggest minnow in a very small pond, big enough to beat weaklings, not big enough to fight Assyrians and Egyptians, even in their weakened state. David's empire would have very likely consisted of overlordship of Canaan, Amman, Moab and Edam with treaties with Damascus (or its neighbors) some Phoenician states. David's "empire" was not likely all that large or all that rich (nor was Solomon's), but his control of trade routes might be expected to have gain Israel a modest level of prosperity in an otherwise "Dark" age. If David and Solomon did not exist, we there would have to invent or surmise the existence of people who did much of the same things to replace them and is what seems to me to be most implausible.

#2 - Fred Schroeder - 05/22/2016 - 23:15

Well, a lot of good things to be said about this article—and I have ordered the book—but the conclusion is a little vague. It is assumed that the difference between Israel and Judah was not very marked, say in the early Iron Age. This may be true, but the fact is that we already in the Amarna letters get a clear impression of the difference between the northern part of the central highlands and the southern part. We have the Jerusalem letters of Abdi-Heba severely denouncing Labaya of Shechem, but also, after Labaya’s death, a third part’s identification of Abdi-Heba as just another Labaya. The dichotomy between north and south may go a long way back, and people who knew the area in much later times would argue that it still prevailed until the Israeli occupation I 1967. But it is interesting that in the eyes of an outsider (Shuwardata, EA 280), this difference between the north and the south is not very conspicuous. I will not disagree with people who think that Finkelstein’s recent book about the forgotten kingdom is a bit ‘imaginary’, but Finkelstein may have seen something that is important, and never ended, except in literature. I have a number of times referred to my old teacher Eduard Nielsen’s thesis from 1955 about Shechem, tracing the differences between the north and the south in many places in the OT. The problems referred to in Nehemiah, as well as later narratives about the Hashmoneans’ actions against the north also indicate that the difference was never solved.

#3 - Niels Lemche - 05/23/2016 - 17:08

Niels--Your observations are very interesting, particularly regarding the Amarna evidence, and I agree: there were differences in the land of Israel going way back. The question is, what kinds of differences are we talking about? It is clear that Judah was an old geographical name, for one, and that there was a separate Israel of more modest geographical scope prior to the ninth-century expansions under Omri and Ahab. This limited, “Little Israel” (to use a term coined by Dan Fleming and Lauren Monroe) was focused on the central highlands, and was obviously distinct from the areas surrounding it further north and south (e.g. note the geography in the Saul-David material in 1-2 Samuel; in the core accounts of military conflict in Josh 2-10, minus the two regional campaigns; and in the Benjamin war of Judg 20). Yet for me, the most compelling questions have to do with naming and political development, especially during the early monarchy. More specifically, I am fascinated by the name and development of Judah as a body politic, the possibility that this Judah polity could develop out of something called the House of David, and the relationship between the early monarchy and Israel, the House of David, and Judah.

#4 - Mahri Leonard-Fleckman - 05/30/2016 - 14:04

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