Continuing Life in Kings

How definitive for writing the history of the northern kingdom of Israel is the testimony of the book of Kings?

See Also: Life in Kings. Reshaping the Royal Story in the Hebrew Bible (AIL 30; Atlanta: SBL, 2017).

By Graeme Auld
School of Divinity
University of Edinburgh
April 2017

  • Should we stop talking about “The United Monarchy” as a historical period?
  • Did the First Temple community practise prostration before God (or King)?
  • How definitive for writing the history of the northern kingdom of Israel is the testimony of the book of Kings?

These are just a few of the historical questions I am left with after completing Life in Kings. Reshaping the Royal Story in the Hebrew Bible (AIL 30; Atlanta: SBL, 2017).

I had already argued in Kings without Privilege (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), that the material shared by Kings and Chronicles, the so-called “synoptic text”, was the base text to which the rest of Kings was added; and I subsequently nicknamed this shared text the “Book of Two Houses” (BTH), because its topic was the story over some four centuries of the Jerusalem Temple (the house of YHWH) and of the Jerusalem dynasty (the house of David). My more recent research has explored the distinctiveness within (Samuel and) Kings of the material shared with Chronicles. BTH was not just the base text with which the rest of Kings became combined. It is better understood as the root text out of which most of the rest had developed. Here I am not rehearsing the arguments in the recent monograph. Instead – and in light of the fresh perspective they offer – I outline a few questions that deserve further scrutiny.

1.0 The familiar books of Samuel and Kings have often reattributed to earlier kings elements associated in BTH with later ones. Two important features have been retrojected from Rehoboam in Kings//Chronicles (or BTH) to David in Samuel. In the case of Rehoboam, these issues are intimately related: forced labour conscripted from the people of Israel, and the separation of Judah from the rest of Israel.

1.1 According to BTH (in 1 Kgs 12:1-19 and the almost identical 2 Chr 10:1-19), Israel refused to be ruled by Rehoboam, Solomon’s son: he had unwisely promised to treat them more harshly than his father. The resultant clamour of protest came from “all Israel” and was directed against the house of David (v. 16). Rehoboam did remain king, but only over “the sons of Israel who lived in the cities of Judah” (v. 17). When he dispatched his official “over the forced labour” (presumably to deal with the people on his behalf), Adoram was stoned to death by “all Israel” (v. 18), who remained in perpetual rebellion against “the house of David” (v. 19). Neither synoptic nor non-synoptic portions of the book of Kings ever talk about “the sons of Judah” – and this phrase features only in one or two passages in non-synoptic Samuel. The rather cumbersome “the sons of Israel who lived in the cities of Judah” (v. 17) certainly underscores that BTH reckoned Judah an integral part of “all Israel” until after Solomon.

1.2 Neither Judah separate from Israel nor forced labour conscripted from Israel features in BTH’s lengthy report on Solomon shared by Kings and Chronicles. But both are found in material unique to 1 Kgs 4-5: the happiness and security of “Israel and Judah” (4:20, 25), and a levy of thirty thousand men (5:13-18). The situation is similar with David. The earlier (synoptic) list of his officials (2 Sam 8:16-18) makes no mention of anyone responsible for forced labour; but the later and similarly worded recapitulation (20:23-26) at the end of a long non-synoptic section does include Adoram “over the forced labour”. In the older synoptic tradition, the elders of Israel who offered David kingship after the death of Saul had represented all of Israel (2 Sam 5:1-3//1 Chr 11:1-3). But the (later) book of Samuel depicts David becoming king over Judah first: he had cultivated the elders of Judah in the last days of Saul (1 Sam 30:26-31), and they made him king on Saul’s death (2 Sam 2:1-4). When we approach 2 Sam 5:1-3 afresh, via these non-synoptic reports, we have to suppose that “the elders of Israel” represented not all Israel but only northern Israel.

1.3 The older synoptic tradition took great care as it described the split within Israel – not between Israel and Judah – at the time of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. YHWH had been repeatedly invoked as “the God of Israel” by Solomon in his prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 8:15, 17, 20, 23, 25, 26). BTH does not identify YHWH as “the God of Israel” again till after the collapse of the northern kingdom: we find this only in the reports about Hezekiah (2 Kgs 19:15, 20) and Josiah (2 Kgs 22:15, 18). Similarly, “the sons of Israel” disappears from BTH after Rehoboam, not to reappear till the report on Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:2, 9). Admittedly, there is one single mention of “all Israel” in BTH between Rehoboam and Hezekiah; however, this marks no exception. When Micaiah says he “saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep without a shepherd” (1 Kgs 22:17), this “prophet of Yahweh” is warning against the proposed combined action over the Jordan by Jehoshaphat of the house of David and the king of Israel – against two kings attempting to put together again what YHWH had put asunder. For BTH, David and Solomon were simply kings of Israel, not kings of a united kingdom of Israel and Judah. More recent united crowns, such as of England and Scotland in the 17th century or of Austria and Hungary in the 19th, may provide analogies for the story re-created in Samuel-Kings of David and Solomon ruling Judah and Israel – but not for the older BTH.

2.0 My next example of a fresh perspective offered by focusing on the synoptic tradition underlying Samuel and Kings concerns the Hebrew verb hštḥwh. Often rendered into English as “worship”, its literal meaning is more precise: “bow down” in reverence, or “prostrate oneself”. “Worship” is an imprecise and rather bland translation, and obscures the matter at stake. Some linguistic arguments in Life in Kings may prove useful in the ongoing debates about dating biblical Hebrew. However, the issue here is neither the age of the verbal form nor its meaning, but simply when prostration became current practice in the community that developed the biblical traditions.

2.1 In BTH, the verb hštḥwh is very rare. Only four texts common to Samuel-Kings and Chronicles use it: (a) The Jebusite ruler of Jerusalem prostrates himself before David (2 Sam 24:20). (b) Solomon is warned in his Jerusalem vision against prostration before “other gods” (1 Kgs 9:6, 9). (c) Wicked King Manasseh is condemned for such prostration before “other gods” (2 Kgs 21:3). (d) The Assyrian envoy outside the walls of Jerusalem tells his hearers that Hezekiah their king has removed YHWH’s shrines and altars and ordered them to prostrate themselves “before this altar” (2 Kgs 18:22). “Otherness” or “foreignness” is part of all four contexts. And two inter-related questions follow: (i) should we trust the enemy Assyrian envoy’s good faith and/or his claim about Hezekiah’s actions, and (ii) does banning prostration before other gods imply that prostration before YHWH was either normal or expected of his people? Of course they knew about prostration; but was it something that only other people did? When prostration to YHWH is commended in 2 Kgs 17:36, this is unique within the non-synoptic portions of the book.

2.2 Evidence from elsewhere in HB encourages pressing the question. We find hštḥwh 11x in Isaiah relating to foreigners but only twice of Yahweh-worship – at the end of chs 27 and 66, both recognized late contexts. Most often in Jeremiah, it is part of the warning against service of other gods (1:16; 8:2; 13:10; 16:11; 22:9; 25:6); and prostration “to YHWH” is part of a substantial plus (Jer 7:1, 2b) in the traditional Hebrew text (MT) of Jeremiah – the only other reference is to “those coming to prostrate themselves in YHWH’s house” (26:2). The verb is rare in Ezekiel: exception is taken to prostration eastwards towards the sun with backs turned to the temple (8:16); and only the vision at the end provides for prostration in the new sanctuary (46:2, 3, 9). Within the Book of the Twelve, idolatry is the topic of Mic 5:12; worship of YHWH along with other gods, of Zeph 1:5; foreigners succumbing to YHWH, of Zeph 2:11. Only in (late) Zech 14:16 is prostration to YHWH commended. Explicit commendation of prostration before YHWH is thus very infrequent in the Latter Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. The few relevant passages belong to a period when sustained exposure to Babylonian or Persian practice may have rendered acceptable what in earlier times had been practised only by others. Arguably the evidence from the Pentateuch and elsewhere is similar; but this needs to be carefully tested.

3.0 The third relates to the story of northern Israel, to the extended series of inter-connected prophetic episodes in the central third of the book of Kings (1 Kgs 17–2 Kgs 10). Life in Kings argues (chap. 8) that major narratives in the Elijah-Elisha cycle were written using language and themes derived from two substantial narratives in BTH that had dealt with the house of Ahab: the story that features Micaiah ben Imlah and the account of the overthrow of Queen Athaliah.

3.1 2 Kgs 3 has links with just one of these synoptic narratives. As in 1 Kgs 22 (and its almost identically worded parallel in 2 Chr 18), the king of Judah is recruited by the king of Israel to join him in battle east of the Jordan and they consult “a prophet of YHWH”, this time Elisha. The discussions between the kings and the appeal to the prophet are both conducted in very similar terms to the synoptic narrative (and the shared “a prophet of YHWH” happens to be a very rare phrase). The king of Judah is still Jehoshaphat as in the Micaiah story, but the king of Israel is no longer Ahab but Jehoram his son.

3.2 The famous and exciting tale of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel (1 Kgs 18) blends elements from the synoptic narratives about Micaiah ben Imlah and the kings of Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 22) and about the overthrow of usurping queen Athaliah inspired by the Jerusalem priest Jehoiada (2 Kgs 11//2 Chr 23). Ahab is again the featured king of Israel, but this time there is no role for Jehoshaphat. Then, just as Micaiah had been the sole “prophet of YHWH” over against Ahab’s 400 court prophets, so too here Elijah is sole “prophet of YHWH” – now over against 450 prophets of Baal as well as 400 prophets of Ashera supported by queen Jezebel. Wicked Jezebel in 1 Kgs 18 corresponds to wicked Athaliah in 2 Kgs 11. The revolt against Athaliah had been organised by Jehoiada, priest of YHWH; and not only was the queen put to death, but the temple of Baal in Jerusalem was pulled down and the priest of Baal killed in front of its altars. Elijah in 1 Kgs 18 blends features of Micaiah and Jehoiada, both true champions of YHWH. The opposing multiple prophets of Baal (and of Ashera) are a blend of the 400 prophets on whom synoptic Ahab relied and synoptic Athaliah’s priest of Baal – and their massacre corresponds to the violent deaths of Athaliah and her priest of Baal at the restoration of Joash as king in Jerusalem. Elements of the story of Jehoshaphat of Jerusalem recruited by Ahab of Samaria have become fused with elements of the story of the overthrow of Baal-worship in Jerusalem, in the creation of a powerful new account of the overthrow of Baal supporters in the north.

3.3 We find a second such purge in 2 Kgs 9-10, this time associated with Jehu’s putsch that brings to an end the house of Omri and Ahab in Samaria; and this narrative again uses several key terms found elsewhere only in synoptic 1 Kgs 22 and 2 Kgs 11 and the related story in 1 Kgs 18. Life in Kings provides all the details.

3.4 The question I do not raise there is how far it is possible to trace traditions about Elijah, Elisha, and Jehu behind the substantial presentations in 1 Kgs 18, 2 Kgs 3, and 2 Kgs 9-10. These, at the very least, have been heavily influenced by key elements in synoptic 1 Kgs 22 and 2 Kgs 11. Jehu, like Ahab (and his multiple prophets), is at least part of the synoptic story; but that story had had nothing to tell of Elijah or Elisha. The synoptic report about Athaliah and the temple and priest of Baal in the Jerusalem she ruled attributes her mischief to her being part of the family of Omri in Israel. But BTH nowhere tells the story of Baalism in the north. Who were Elijah and Elisha, and what were they like, before 1 Kgs 18 and 2 Kgs 3 were told? How are 1 Kgs 18 and 2 Kgs 3 related to the other parts of the Elijah/Elisha cycle?

4.0 A second issue relating to northern Israel arises from a possible tension within Life in Kings; and so it is a question to myself in the first instance, rather than a challenge to others.

4.1 In the book of Kings, David and Solomon have the same number of successors (nineteen) in the northern kingdom of Israel as in Jerusalem. Chapter 8 argues that this was no accident, for the list of northern kings had been deliberately modelled on the southern. However, Life in Kings also notes (chap. 9) and demonstrates (chap.12) that it is much harder than earlier in BTH to reconstruct a basic narrative of the last four kings in Jerusalem shared by Kings and Chronicles. This makes it quite possible that a prior draft of the synoptic text had once ended with the reign of good king Josiah, the sixteenth after David. If Josiah was once the climax of BTH, then that synoptic text did not itself provide the template for the present number of northern successors to David and Solomon.

4.2 One answer could start from the observation that several of Israel’s reported kings are quite ephemeral. Their names may have been added to the story of the northern kingdom to restore equivalence within the developing book of Kings once it had been decided to add Josiah’s four successors to the end of the Jerusalem story. However, questions still abound – lively study of Kings continues.

Comments (1)

May I speculate idly on the question of prostration? If your main act of devotion is animal sacrifice to a God who dwells on high the logical posture is first to stand over the beast as you kill and burn it and then immediately to look up - so prostration is unhelpful - in the hope of some sign that the deity, normally looking down to survey the world, will notice your deed of devotion and raise his glance towards you, lifting up the light of his countenance. You would also want to raise your lift up your hands in the sanctuary to waft
the smoke upwards and to expose your palms in symbolic request for the deity to reach down and accept a gift from you. This sort of posture is quite widely evidenced even among the pagans, I think. At that rate, prostration would be rather exceptional, only when some special humility is called for, when you do not dare even to lift your eyes to heaven. Perhaps if you have a theology saying that it is not safe for us if God comes near, even that we cannot look on his face and
live, then certain special moments of visitation, for direct instruction in
prophecy, perhaps, would call for prostration as a symbol of submission matching the importance of the instruction. But this would not be part of the normal ritual.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/14/2017 - 14:09

Add new comment

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