Kings, Book(s) of

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Name and Division. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of 12 Kings are one continuous book, called simply "Kings." The ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint (LXX), split the text into two books, as it did as well with the preceding book, "Samuel." It then named the four resulting books 14 Kingdoms. The Vulgate, translated by Jerome in the fourth Christian century, followed the LXX, though it drew slightly closer to the Hebrew tradition by naming the books 14 Kings. Although the Protestant tradition moved even closer to the Hebrew by naming the books 12 Samuel and 12 Kings, Roman Catholic tradition retained the practice of the Vulgate until the mid-twentieth century. This resulted in the confusing situation of 12 Kings in Protestant translations being the same as 34 Kings in Roman Catholic versions. Since the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), however, when Pope Pius XII urged Roman Catholic biblical translators to base their work on the original language texts rather than on the Latin Vulgate, Roman Catholic Bibles, like Protestant ones, title the four books 12 Samuel and 12 Kings. The artificiality of the division between 1 and 2 Kings is nevertheless clear, since the last three verses of 1 Kings contain the formulaic introduction to the reign of Ahaziah, which is continued and completed in 2 Kings 1.

Content and Organization. The two Books of Kings tell the story of the Israelite monarchy from the accession of Solomon, son of David (around 960 b.c.), through the division of the single Davidic realm into the two kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south, to the destruction of both kingdoms: Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 b.c., Judah to the Babylonians in 587 b.c.. A brief addendum tells of the release of Jehoiachin, exiled king of Judah, from Babylonian prison in 562 b.c. (2 Kgs 25:2730). Coverage of this four-century period is not even. The narrative treats some decades very extensively (e.g., the forty-year reign of Solomon takes eleven chapters to recount) and other decades very briefly (e.g., the forty-one-year reign of Jeroboam II is summarized in seven verses). The overall arrangement of the books is roughly symmetrical, and follows a concentric pattern that centers on the history of the northern kingdom's Omrid dynasty (see Savran, 148):

  • 1. The Reign of Solomon (1 Kgs 111)
  • 2. Separate establishment of the northern kingdom (1 Kgs 1214:20)
  • 3. Summaries: kings of north and south (1 Kgs 14:2116:20)
  • 4. The Omrid dynasty
  • a. Foundation of the dynasty in violence (1 Kgs 16:2128)
  • b. Omrid kings, especially Ahab, and the prophets, especially Elijah (1 Kgs 16:292 Kgs 1:18)
  • c. Elisha succeeds Elijah as prophet (2 Kgs 2)
  • d. Omrid kings, especially Jehoram (sometimes abbreviated to Joram), and the prophets, especially Elisha (2 Kgs 3:19:13)
  • e. Destruction of the dynasty in violence (2 Kgs 9:1411:20)
  • 5. Summaries: kings of north and south (2 Kgs 11:21 [= Hebrew 12:1]16:20)
  • 6. Destruction of the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17)
  • 7. The southern kingdom to its destruction (2 Kgs 1825)

Within this overall organization, the narrator uses a regular pattern for the recital of the history of the divided kingdoms. He tells the whole story of each king in turn, in order of accession to the throne, irrespective of whether that king ruled over the northern kingdom or the southern. The result is indeed a history of the kings, as the Hebrew text says, and not of the kingdoms, as the LXX would have it. The pattern is not theologically innocent. By it, the narrator reminds us that the division of Israel into two political units was indeed God's will (1 Kgs 11:2939; 12:15), even if its fragmentation into separate religious bodies was due to human sin (1 Kgs 12:2631; 13:3334). The narrator's strategy thus balances the unity of God's people with the duality of the kingdoms God has assigned them to.

From the death of Solomon on (1 Kgs 11:4143), with few exceptions, each king's reign is recounted according to the same pattern. Each regnal account begins with a formulaic introduction that comprises (a) a synchronization of the new king's year of accession with the regnal year in the other kingdom; (b) the king's age at accession (for kings of Judah only); (c) the length of the king's reign and his capital city; (d) the name of the king's mother (for kings of Judah only); and (e) a rather less formulaic theological evaluation of the king. Each regnal account ends with a formulaic conclusion that (a) refers the reader to other sources and (b) notes the death and burial of the king and the name of his successor (some of this information may be left out if it has already been given, for instance, in reporting an assassination). Between the introduction and conclusion, summary accounts usually describe a single noteworthy event of the reign. But even longer treatments, such as the reign of Ahab, begin and end with the formulas (see 1 Kgs 16:2930; 22:3940). The pattern is rarely disrupted, and few passages are situated between regnal accounts (1 Kgs 16:2122; 2 Kings 2; 2 Kgs 13:1425).

History of the Text. Clearly, 12 Kings as we have them today cannot predate the latest event they describe, the release of Jehoiachin from prison in 562 b.c.. However, most scholars believe that the present text is based on one or more earlier editions of the history that derive from the reign of Josiah (about 640609 b.c.) or perhaps even Hezekiah (about 715687 b.c.). Furthermore, the authors of 12 Kings refer their readers to three older sources, unfortunately not extant today ("The Book of the Acts of Solomon," 1 Kgs 11:41; "The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel," 1 Kgs 14:19 and passim ; and "The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah," 1 Kgs 15:23, and passim ). Whether these sources were based on official court records from the two kingdoms, or perhaps even constituted such court records themselves, is a matter of conjecture. Passages like 1 Kgs 4:26, 819 may indicate that the authors had (indirect?) access to archival records, and story cycles like 2 Kgs 2:198:6 may originate in anecdotes passed on in prophetic circles.

Kings as History. Despite the authors' possible use of older records, scholars today hesitate over the value of 12 Kings as reliable history. In general terms, most would agree with the panoramic sweep of the tale: a single kingdom, divided, and eventually conquered by the great Mesopotamian empires of Assyria and Babylon. But the particulars of the account are much less certain. Paucity of external corroboration (such as documentary evidence from other contemporary cultures or archaeological evidence from Israel) makes it difficult to judge the accuracy of the books' historical claims. Careful reading of the text reveals that the authors had no compunction about "adjusting" the historical data for their own purposes. For instance, details in 1 Kgs 4:2223 surely originally described the "provisions" supplied by the Israelites (4:7), not the "tribute" exacted from vassal states (4:21). A second example concerns the invasion of Judah by the Assyrians toward the end of the eighth century (2 Kings 1819). Difficulties reconciling the biblical narrative with Assyrian records suggest that the biblical authors have either conflated two different versions of one invasion or combined independent accounts of two separate incursions. On the level of individuals, the uncertainty is even more cogent. The intransigence of Elijah, the evil of Jezebel, the piety of Hezekiahsurely these owe as much or more to the authors' sense of dramatic portrayal as they do to historically reliable biography.

Kings as Theology. The key to the Books of Kings is to understand them as a theological interpretation of history. The presenting issue of 12 Kings is to explain the dismal failure of the monarchic experiment in Israel. The presenting issue of the entire Deuteronomistic History, of which 12 Kings is the last major section, is to explain the dismal failure of Israel's experience in the Promised Land, from their arrival under the leadership of Joshua to their departure by Assyrian and Babylonian dispersion. And the explanations are thoroughly theological: violation of the covenantal obligations toward God resulted in imposition of punishments foreseen in the covenant itself (see Dt 2728, especially 28:36, 64).

Each king receives a theological evaluation at the end of the formulaic introduction to his reign. Northern kings are condemned without exception, usually for following "the sin of Jeroboam"that is, worship of the golden calves the first northern king set up at sanctuaries in Dan and Bethel. The authors deem this idolatry, although historically Jeroboam's shrines were almost certainly dedicated to the true God of Israel, who was understood to be enthroned invisibly on the golden calves (just as he was enthroned invisibly on the cherubim winged lions?in the Temple at Jerusalem). The condemnations of northern kings become progressively more severe, reaching their nadir with Ahab (1 Kgs 16:3033). After the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 b.c., the authors interrupt the historical recital to reflect on the cause of Israel's destruction, their abandonment of Yahweh (2 Kgs 17:623).

Some of the southern kings, too, are condemned, though many receive qualified praise. Praise is given for fidelity to God; praise is qualified for "failing to remove the high places"that is, sanctuaries that were presumably dedicated to Yahweh but that the authors of Kings considered heterodox, because, in their view, the Temple in Jerusalem was the sole legitimate place to offer sacrifice to Yahweh. Only two southern kings receive unqualified praise, Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18:34) and Josiah (2 Kgs 22:2), both for their fidelity to Yahweh following the model of King David. The purely theological basis of the authors' evaluations is clear when one considers their treatment of Manasseh, whose reign was the longest of any king of either kingdom. His policies seem to have preserved peace in the land throughout his long reign (though at the expense of vassalage to Assyria); but the authors of Kings dismiss him in less than a chapter, and deem his idolatry so evil that not even the pieties of Josiah could atone for it (2 Kgs 24:3).

A further indication of the theological spirit of Kings is the important and pervasive presence of prophets and prophetic material. The concentric structure of 12 Kings (see above) centers on a moment of prophetic succession, as if the whole history of Israel pivots on the bearers of God's word, rather than on the deeds of mere kings. History is driven by that Word. It is spoken in prophecy and realized in fulfillment events (see, among more than forty examples, 1 Kgs 11:3139 and 12:15; 1 Kgs 13:2 and 2 Kgs 23:1516; 1 Kgs 21:19 and 22:38; 1 Kgs 19:1516 and 2 Kings 8:715; 9:113). Even the behavior of Yahweh himself reflects the importance of prophets: he speaks several times (twice in dreams) to King Solomon, but with one exception God never speaks directly to anyone but prophets after that.

Reading Kings Today. The enduring message of 12 Kings is its claim that the Word of God is the driving force of human history. There is no perfect, inevitably right form of human government; even those human institutions established by divine dispensation are vulnerable to the weaknesses and sins of the human beings who embody them in our world. But beneath the vacillations of men and women, behind the vagaries of kings and nations, around and above the vicissitudes of human history, the Word of God is at work and will ultimately prevail.

Bibliography: j. a. montgomery, The Books of Kings, International Critical Commentary, ed. s. r. driver et al. (Edinburgh 1951). j. gray, I & II Kings (Philadelphia 1970). r. d. nelson, The Double Redaction of the Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield 1981). c. conroy, 12 Samuel, 12 Kings (OTM; Wilmington 1983). g.h. jones, 1 and 2 Kings (NCBC; Grand Rapids 1984). b. o. long, 1 Kings (FOTL; Grand Rapids 1984). s. j. devries, 1 Kings (WBC; Waco 1985). t. r. hobbs, 2 Kings (WBC; Waco 1985). r. nelson, First and Second Kings (Atlanta 1987). g. savran, "1 and 2 Kings," in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. r. alter and f. kermode (Cambridge, Mass. 1987); 14664. m. cogan and h. tadmor, II Kings (New York 1988). i. w. provan, Hezekiah and the Books of Kings (BZAW; Berlin 1988). j. t. walsh and c. r. begg, "12 Kings," in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1990), §10. b. o. long, 2 Kings (FOTL; Grand Rapids 1991). s. l. mckenzie, The Trouble with Kings (SVT; Leiden 1991). s. w. holloway, "Kings, Book of 12," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York 1992); 4:6983. g. n. knoppers, Two Nations under God (Atlanta 1993). a. brenner, A Feminist Companion to Samuel and Kings (Sheffield 1994). i. w. provan, First and Second Kings (NIBCOT; Peabody, Mass. 1995). j. t. walsh, 1 Kings (Berit Olam; Collegeville 1996). t. fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville 1999). r. l. cohn, 2 Kings (Collegeville 1999).

[j. t. walsh]

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Kings, Book(s) of

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