The Deuteronomistic History and Israel's Kings

The perspective of Dtr [Deuteronomistic Historian] is clear: Israelite worship should be centralized. As such, he uses Jeroboam as a literary tool to construct the portraits of and pass judgment on northern kings. As rivals to the Davidic throne, northern kings, are almost always judged negatively. The bad kings are like Jeroboam. The standard by which they are measured has little to do with their comprehensive behavior as kings, but instead is concerned with their actions for and against uncentralized worship and (in)fidelity to the deuteronomistic covenant. This issue becomes of the utmost importance in the eyes of the historian. Despite other kings’ wrongdoing—emptying the temple treasury (Jehoash, 2 Kgs 11:15), warring against the other kingdom (Asa, 1 Kgs 15:16), even idolatry (Omri, 1 Kgs 16:25-26) — for Dtr, Jeroboam remains the evil king par excellence.

See also: Portrait of the Kings: The Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics (Fortress Press, 2015).

By Alison L. Joseph
Swarthmore College
June 2016

The book of Kings narrates the history of the Israelite monarchy from the death of David and the accession of Solomon in its first two chapters until the end of Judahite sovereignty with the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE in the last two chapters—an approximately 450 year period. The chronology of the kings is roughly corroborated by extra biblical sources (Miller and Hayes 2006, 241, 246). The book includes the deeds and reigns of the more than forty monarchs—the famous, infamous, and obscure. Some kings are given full accounts, while others barely get a few verses. The names of Solomon, Jeroboam, Ahab, Hezekiah, and Josiah are likely familiar, while others are lost to the selectivity of historical memory. But all kings are held up to the same standard and judged, frequently quite harshly.

The kings are sorted into two categories: those who “do evil in the eyes of Yahweh” and those who “do right in the eyes of Yahweh.” For the most part, kings fall into the former group. A distinct few, eight to be exact, fall into the latter group, said to have done what is right. Only three receive the greater praise of being like David, the founder of the Judahite dynasty. If judged by the standard of a modern royal history, the book of Kings and the history contained in it would not fare well. At best, it would be seen as incomplete and tendentious. One valid critique would be that the rule of some long-reigning kings like Azariah (52 years, 2 Kgs 15:1-7) are described in only a handful of verses, while the relatively short reigns of other kings may receive chapters of attention; for example, Ahab’s reign (ca. 20 years, 1 Kgs 16-22) fills six chapters. At worst, the history could be seen as biased, propagandistic, and inaccurate, a fictionalized reimagining of the past. Instead of “real” figures, the kings are presented as stock characters—heroes and villains—and measured against one another.

Scholars attribute the composition of the book of Kings to the Deuteronomistic Historian (Dtr), who is also identified as the theoretical author of the books of Deuteronomy through Kings. Since the 17th century CE, scholars have discussed these books as a collection reflecting a consistent ideology, based on the laws of Deuteronomy. This perspective focuses on loyalty to Yahweh, demonstrated by observance of the law, centralization of the cult to Jerusalem, and a strict system of reward and punishment. The Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) is the product of a single scribal school (for more see, Weinfeld 1992; Person 2002). Dtr may have been a group of people, but scholars often refer to them as the “Deuteronomist” in the singular. Dtr, as the historian of this corpus, was both an author and redactor stringing together his inherited sources and framing them with original composition. I identify the production of the primary edition of this history in the pre-exilic period, likely late 7th century BCE (Cross 1973), with continuous scribal updating into the exilic and post-exilic periods, while many scholars pinpoint an exilic date for the entirety of the Deuteronomistic History (Noth 1957; Smend 1971).

According to the biblical record, during the reigns of the first three kings, Saul, David, and Solomon, the tribes of Israel were loosely organized into a “united kingdom.” Most biblical scholars and archaeologists agree that the “united kingdom” was not as large as described in the biblical text (Finkelstein 2010). Soon after the accession of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah. These two kingdoms coexist, often in competition, for about 200 years, until 721 BCE, at which time the northern kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. The people are exiled and deported, many fleeing south to Judah. The southern kingdom of Judah, with its Davidic king, continues for another 140 years until 586 BCE, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians.

While Kings reports on the major historical events of the period, including the Babylonian exile, the destruction of the northern kingdom, the siege on Jerusalem in 701 BCE by the Assyrians, as well as some battles and confrontations with foreign kings, Dtr focuses on individuals (i.e. the kings) as literary vehicles to convey his own ideology. Those who follow Yahweh’s laws are rewarded. At least theoretically, good kings have long and peaceful reigns, while those who are unfaithful to Yahweh and do not keep the covenant are punished. Dtr employs the covenantal quid pro quo theology of Deuteronomy (see Deut 4:30, 5:29-30, 17:19-20, also 1 Kgs 3:14) to evaluate the actions of the kings and people. “Bad kings” lead their kingdoms to ruin.

A few “bad kings” figure prominently: Jeroboam, Manasseh, and Ahab. Jeroboam is the first king of the divided northern kingdom. 1 Kings 11 and 12 describe his rise to power and the dual causes of the northern tribes’ secession. In 1 Kings 12, the elders of the northern tribes approach Rehoboam, son of Solomon, and request a very reasonable reduction in their corvée labor. Instead of lightening their load, Rehoboam increases it. The northern tribes then reject Rehoboam and appoint Jeroboam of the tribe Ephraim king over them. 1 Kings 11 tells a different story—one with a theological bent. God designates Jeroboam king of a new dynasty as punishment for Solomon, who in his old age turned away from Yahweh (1 Kgs 11:4). Because of Solomon’s sin the kingdom will be torn away from his son, with the greater part going to the newly-established rival northern monarchy. Solomon’s punishment is not complete as two tribes remain under a Davidic king, “for the sake of David” (1 Kgs 11:34) and the eternal promise made to him by Yahweh in 2 Samuel 7.

While initially Jeroboam is chosen by Yahweh and anointed by Yahweh’s prophet Ahijah (1 Kgs 11:29-39), he is ultimately judged negatively by the historian. Yet the “sin” for which Dtr judges him is perfectly justified. In an attempt to maintain his political independence from Judah, Jeroboam believes that his people must have religious independence as well: “If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of Yahweh in Jerusalem…the heart of this people will return to their lord, to Rehoboam, king of Judah…” (1 Kgs 13:27). Therefore, Jeroboam erects shrines in the north and south of his territory to discourage people from worshipping in Jerusalem. The decision to establish rival shrines made good political sense. To maintain the separation from Judah, Israel needs to be both religiously and politically self-sufficient. For this, the historian vilifies Jeroboam as the “worst” king (1 Kgs 14:9). The subsequent kings of Israel follow in his “evil” footsteps, literally “walk[ing] in the way of Jeroboam[’s sin]. E.g. Nadab (1 Kgs 15:26), Baasha (1 Kgs 15:34), Omri (1 Kgs 16:25-26), Ahaziah (1 Kgs 22:53), and Jehoahaz (2 Kgs 13:2).

The historian’s portrayal of Jeroboam as evil is a function of the historian’s own time, likely at least 300 years after Jeroboam’s death and once the ideology of the centralization of Jerusalem temple cult was established. Dtr is focused on promoting a theology that requires strict adherence to the law and centralization of the cult to Jerusalem, forbidding worship at any other location. At Jeroboam’s time his acts would have been acceptable. Reading between the lines of the text’s bias, it appears that Jeroboam was well-intentioned in his establishment of the shrines. The goal was to keep his people from Jerusalem, not from Yahweh. Jeroboam erects Yahwistic shrines. They contain calf iconography, which in an early period was common in Israelite religion (Stager 2006, 409). In the tenth century, there was nothing religiously problematic about Jeroboam’s shrines. Even after the inauguration of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem (10th century BCE), worship was not centralized until a later date, roughly the 7th century BCE, and only among certain parties. But Jeroboam’s fate as the exemplar of the evil king is constructed by the 7th century Deuteronomist in an attempt to promote the program of centralization. In Dtr’s mind, Jeroboam’s sin was one akin to idolatry, the worship of foreign gods. Almost all of the subsequent kings of Israel “follow the sin of Jeroboam,” which was allowing the people to worship outside Jerusalem.

Dtr makes comparisons between kings, but is inconsistent in his superlatives; he maintains several worsts and several bests. While Jeroboam is portrayed as the worst king, so too are Omri and his son Ahab. Omri, “did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh; he was worse than all who preceded him” (1 Kgs 16:25). Omri’s sin is that of Jeroboam, and Dtr adds further that he caused Israel to sin against the God of Israel with idols (1 Kgs 16:26). Despite this harsh critique of Omri, the narrator quickly moves on from Omri to Ahab. Omri reigned for about ten years and established the most evil dynasty, but his reign is reported in only twelve verses (1 Kgs 16:16-28).

Most of the evil kings continue Jeroboam’s sin, but Ahab exceeds it. The text makes this clear: “And as if it had been a light thing to follow the sins of Jeroboam son of Nabat, he took as wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Phoenicians, and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar to Baal in the temple of Baal which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah. Ahab did more to anger Yahweh, God of Israel, than all the kings of Israel who preceded him” (1 Kgs 16:31-32). Ahab introduces Baal worship into Israel (1 Kgs 16:31-33), which Ahaziah, his son, continues. Ahab marries a foreign woman, has Naboth killed to seize his property, defies Yahweh’s prophets, and worships Baal! It is not surprising that Ahab’s reign is filled with fighting between Israel and Judah and against foreign kings, and that he dies on the battlefield in a “random” act that is seen as such a stroke of luck that the coincidence can only be attributed to Yahweh’s will (1 Kgs 22:34-38). Yet, even after the end of the Omride dynasty, bad kings continue to be compared to Jeroboam.

The last significant evil king—this time in the south—is Manasseh (687–642 BCE). Manasseh, like the other wicked kings, is said to have done “what is evil in the eyes of Yahweh” and like the Omrides, his acts “cause [Yahweh] to anger” (2 Kgs 21:6). Unlike the others, Manasseh is a king of Judah, but has northern affinities. For example, his name is shared with a northern territory (Stavrakopoulou 2005, 253). Manasseh “rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed” (2 Kgs 21:3). Dtr depicts Manasseh as similar to the Israelite kings who build and worship at the high places and who follow the sins of Jeroboam. Manasseh not only continues these practices, but also “returns” to them, rebuilding the sites that his father Hezekiah destroyed, restoring the practices of the kingdom of Israel in Judah!

Dtr blames the later destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem and Judah’s subsequent exile at the hands of the Babylonians on the infamously wicked Manasseh:

Because of what Manasseh king of Judah did, these transgressions, he did [more] evil than all that the Amorites who were before him did and also caused Judah to sin with his idols. Therefore, thus said Yahweh God of Israel: “Behold I am bringing evil on Jerusalem and Judah, all who hear [of] it, his two ears will ring. I will stretch the measuring line of Samaria over Jerusalem and with the plummet of the house of Ahab and I will wipe [out] Jerusalem as one wipes clean the bowl, wiped out and turned over on its face” (2 Kgs 21:11-13).

The judgment passed on Manasseh is unequivocally negative, yet Manasseh has one of the longest (55 years) and most peaceful reigns of all the kings. Historically, he may have been one of Judah’s most successful monarchs. Beginning his reign in the late seventh century BCE, he facilitated Jerusalem’s recovery from the Assyrian siege in 701 BCE, and the kingdom flourished during his long reign (Stavrakopoulou 2005, 248). Nevertheless, he is Dtr’s scapegoat for the destruction of Judah. The historian recasts his reign as “deserving” of extreme punishment, highlighting the correlation between the kings’ actions and the fate of the kingdoms.

The evaluations of these bad kings and Dtr’s continual use of the evil superlative indicate a larger literary strategy. The comparisons of these kings are made by affirming their incomparability. The significant kings, good and bad, are better or worse than all others, preceding or succeeding them (for more on incomparability, see Knoppers 1992). In the beginning of each king’s account, Dtr details the king’s background and reign along with an evaluation, measuring him according to the deuteronomistic standards of strict adherence to the law and cultic centralization. The regnal formulae synchronize the narratives about the kings of Israel and Judah, clarify the chronology of events and reigns, segue, and create uniformity in the presentation of the information about each king, and most importantly, apply the major concepts of deuteronomistic theology. While these formulae are secondary editorial additions to the source material of the text, they are nevertheless important historiographical tools Dtr used to frame and mold the story of each king, integral to the writing of the narratives.

While the evil kings are judged for following the sins of Jeroboam, the good kings are constructed in the model of David, but this is a David who is completely different from the David in Samuel. In Samuel, David is a grossly flawed individual. While a devotee of and warrior for Yahweh, he is also a usurper, womanizer, adulterer, and murderer. In the book of Kings, David is recast as one who is faithful to the deuteronomistic covenant. In his deathbed instructions to his son and successor Solomon, David makes clear what it means to be a good king: “Keep the mandates of Yahweh your God, following his ways, keeping his statutes and commandments, laws and warnings, as is written in the instruction of Moses, so that you will be successful in whatever you do and to whatever you turn” (1 Kgs 2:3-4). While he does not explicitly say, “Just as I did,” we presume that the David portrayed in this passage behaved in this way. Prosperity and dynastic continuity rely on the king following the laws and commandments, statutes and testimonies of the Law of Moses.

Dtr employs David as a royal prototype. In my book, Portrait of the Kings, I deem this the “Davidic Prototype Strategy” (Joseph 2015). Dtr constructs a typology in which all kings are cast in a specific model. Each king is evaluated according to the prototype to assess his fidelity to the deuteronomistic covenant and his loyalty to Yahweh. The portrait of David as the prototype of the good king is developed initially in the Solomon story. First, David is the exemplar for Solomon and then, at the end of Solomon’s reign, the standard against which Solomon is measured and found wanting. Solomon, who was given specific instructions as to how to be a good king, helps us define what that role means.

Dtr uses this prototype strategy to depict the bad kings, as well; Jeroboam is the anti-David. Jeroboam is introduced as a second David, using the words of David’s charge to Solomon (1 Kgs 11:31, 2:3-4), but he is unable to live up to the literary expectations. He is depicted as deliberately rejecting his Davidic potential and then is established as the anti-David, the prototype of the evil king, based on an oppositional portrait to the Davidic prototype. Jeroboam embodies the evil king, the standard against which the subsequent bad kings of Israel are measured. This intentional literary casting of Jeroboam illustrates the ideological and literary focus of the historiography of the monarchy.

The historian’s literary plan is clearest in his presentation of King Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23. The account of Josiah’s reign is the climax of the Deuteronomistic History, not only because Dtr judges him to be the best king, but also because of the intertextual connections between Josiah’s all-important book finding, subsequent religious reform, and the rest of the book of Kings. Like all the other kings, Josiah too is evaluated according to the usual regnal formula (2 Kgs 22:2). According to Dtr’s evaluation, Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh. And he walked in all the way[s] of David his father. And he did not stray to the right or left” (2 Kgs 22:2). He was the best of kings and initiates a major reform. His reform rights the wrongs of the former wicked kings. Josiah eliminates the shrines built by Solomon (2 Kgs 23:13), removing the reason for the schism between north and south and “reuniting” (literarily, as the northern kingdom ceased to exist) the kingdom; he also destroys Jeroboam’s shrines (2 Kgs 23:15). And he completes the reforms of his predecessors—Hezekiah, Asa, and Jehoshaphat—destroying the high places and completely removing the qĕdēšîm (cult prostitutes). Furthermore, Josiah eliminates Baal worship from Judah. He destroys Manasseh’s altars (2 Kgs 23:12), removes all the implements of Baal, Asherah, and the host of heaven (2 Kgs 23:4), and does away with the idolatrous priests (2 Kgs 23:5). For this, he receives the historian’s highest praise.

The portrait of Josiah as the best of kings is not limited to the account in 2 Kings 22-23, but instead is invoked strategically throughout Kings, thereby revealing an intentional literary plan throughout the book. Three hundred years before his reign, in the account of Jeroboam, a man of God predicts Josiah’s future appearance in 1 Kgs 13:2. Josiah and Jeroboam are foils for each other: the hero and the villain. The phrase “to walk in the way(s) of Yahweh” is used throughout Deuteronomy, as an expression of covenantal loyalty (Deut. 8:6, 19:9, 26:17, 28:9, 30:16, Weinfeld 1992, 333–34). Josiah walks in the way of David, following Yahweh and deuteronomic law, while the kings of Israel “walk in the way” of Jeroboam’s sin. Josiah undoes all the evil deeds of the bad kings; he re-does the reforms of the few good kings; he out-does the model of good kings, namely David: “And like him there was no king before [Josiah] who turned back to Yahweh with all his heart and all his soul and all his might, as all the instruction of Moses. And after him, no one arose like him” (2 Kgs 23:25). Also, compare 2 Kgs 23:25 and 1 Kgs 2:3 in fulfillment of Deuteronomy 6:5 (Joseph 2015, 164–177). The incomparability of Josiah is made explicit.

Dtr’s construction of kings using the prototype model belies his real intent: to write a theologically based history with a didactic function. The characters of history, the real kings of Israel and Judah, are represented as literary types. Through telling their stories, the historian attributes historical and political events to theological causes, demonstrating that everything that happens is a result of God’s working in history and is the result of human fidelity to the deuteronomistic covenant. Individuals, kingdoms, and nations are punished when they violate the tenets of deuteronomistic theology. The royal portraiture is a literary vehicle to convey Dtr’s theological program. The Deuteronomist categorizes the kings into two groups: those who do what is right and those who do what is evil in the eyes of Yahweh, highlighting a few specific kings to make clear what behavior is to be tolerated and praised in his kings. While the history of the monarchy spans half a millennium, only those kings who contribute to the Deuteronomist’s metanarrative are constructed using this prototype. The other kings are literal place holders, filling in historical time between those of ideological and literary import.


Cross, Frank Moore. 1973. “The Themes of the Book of Kings and the Structure of the Deuteronomic History.” In Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel, 274–89. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Finkelstein, Israel. 2010. “A Great United Monarchy? Archaeological and Historical Perspectives.” In One God -- One Cult -- One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann, 3–28. Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Fur Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 405. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter.

Joseph, Alison L. 2015. Portrait of the Kings: The Davidic Prototype in Deuteronomistic Poetics. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Knoppers, Gary N. 1992. “‘There Was None like Him’: Incomparability in the Books of Kings.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (3): 411–31.

Miller, James Maxwell, and John Haralson Hayes. 2006. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2nd ed. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox.

Noth, Martin. 1957. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien. Die Sammelnden Und Bearbeitenden Geschischtswerke Im Alten Testement. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer.

———. 1981. The Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield: JSOT Press.

Person, Raymond. 2002. The Deuteronomic School: History, Social Setting, and Literature. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Smend, Rudolf. 1971. “Das Gesetz Und Die Völker: Ein Beitrag Zur Deuteronomistischen Redaktionsgeschichte.” In Probleme Biblischer Theologie, 494–509. Munich: Kaiser.

Stager, Lawrence E. 2006. “The House of the Silver Calf of Ashkelon.” In Timelines: Studies in Honour of Manfred Bietak, 403–10. Leuven: Peeters.

Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. 2005. “The Blackballing of Manasseh.” In Good Kings and Bad Kings: The Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE, edited by Lester L. Grabbe, 248–63. London: T & T Clark International.

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1992. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Comments (1)

Some comments and questions.
Is not more emphasis required on the fact that Josiah is a loser? It's not his fault, of course, but it is surely very important that Kings believes in guilt or merit by heredity - Josiah's good deeds are too little and too late to overcome the burden of guilt left behind by Manasseh et al.. There's a major contrast with Chronicles. In Kings, a King is an incarnation of something spanning longues durees and all that. This gives a kernel of hope for the future, but it also seems to mean that we never know quite where we are with God: of what generation is he thinking when he awards good and evil here and now?
Secondly, I'm quite surprised at the idea that the portrayal of David in Kings is positive. A dying man suspended between being thoroughly duped and thoroughly vengeful, supporting a succession process via a military coup and a bloody purge seems nothing short of deeply sinister to me. I'm trying to think of a form of ancient morality that suggests otherwise, but I fail so far.
As to the ideology of today, what makes the Kings of Judah 'Israel's Kings'? Is it that they actually claimed that title over the generations when the ten Israelite tribes were lost to them? Was this claim advanced for the first time by Josiah - if so, rather unlikely to have been sustained by Jehoiakim? Do we judge and proclaim that the Judahite Kings were legitimately Kings of Israel and had a right to claim the title even if in reality they did not?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 07/23/2016 - 16:45

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.