Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Kings

First Kings 1-2

These chapters that relate the last days of David and the schemes of Bathsheba to ensure the succession of her son, Solomon (rather than David’s older son, Adonijah), are really the conclusion of a long court history that underlies 2 Samuel 9-20. This rather sordid tale is usually referred to as the “Succession Narrative,” receiving this name from these very chapters. Its theme is boldly stated by Bathsheba: “And so the eyes of all Israel are upon you, O lord king, to tell them who shall succeed [“shall sit,” Hebrew] my lord the king on the throne” (1 Kings 1:20, NJPS).

Babylonian/Assyrian references to Kings

Several references to people or events in the book of Kings appear in Babylonian or Assyrian sources. The most important are:

  • Sennacherib of Assyria describes his siege of Hezekiah’s Jerusalem (701 B.C.E.).
  • Sargon II of Assyria claims in his annals that he conquered Israel and took them into exile (722 B.C.E.) (also recorded in Isaiah 20:1).
  • The battle of Qarqar (853 B.C.E.), to which Ahab of Israel contributed two thousand chariots and ten thousand soldiers.
  • Several kings are mentioned as paying tribute to Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria: Menaham, Pekah, and Hoshea of Israel, and possibly Azariah of Judah.
  • The Moabite Stone (830 B.C.E.) mentions Omri and his son Ahab.
  • The Rimah Stela (796 B.C.E.) states that Jehoash of Samaria brought Adad-nerari III of Assyria tribute.
  • Jehu appears on the Black Obelisk of Kalhu (841 B.C.E.).
  • The Babylonian Chronicle of Shalmaneser V of Assyria records his capture of Samaria.
  • Both Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal of Assyria list Manasseh as one who paid tribute.
  • Several other references to events in the book of Kings appear in the tablets of the Babylonian Chronicle.

The book of Kings as history

Kings looks like history, but as one reads, it becomes obvious that it is a very different kind of history than we are accustomed to reading. Accounts in Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other biblical sources are sometimes presented differently and often flatly contradicted. Omri, known as a powerful ruler in extrabiblical historical sources, receives only eight verses in 1 Kings, all concerned with his apostasy. This difficult question is somewhat eased by the recognition that no biblical book is written with the canons of contemporary ideas of history. Rather than disparage the biblical author’s supposed failure to conform to our ideas of what history should be, we should try to determine the theological motivation in presenting these stories this way.

Canonical setting

The books of Kings occupy somewhat different places in the Hebrew canon and that of modern English Bibles. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Kings are considered part of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). In English Bibles, the books of Kings are considered part of the historical books. Ruth has been placed after Judges and before Samuel because of this historical understanding.

Chronology

The chronology of the books of Kings is a major problem. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the material is internally inconsistent. For example, 1 Kings 16:23 states, “In the thirty-first year of King Asa of Judah, Omri began to reign over Israel; he reigned for twelve years.” But 1 Kings 16:29 says, “In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa of Judah, Ahab son of Omri began to reign over Israel,” so that Omri reigned for seven years, not twelve. Did Ahaziah of Judah come to the throne in the twelfth year of Joram of Israel (2 Kings 8:25) or the eleventh (9:29)? Second, when scholars attempt to work from dates known from extrabiblical sources and corroborated elsewhere, relatively fixed dates for the division of the kingdom (931 B.C.E.), the fall of the North (722/21 B.C.E.) and the fall of Jerusalem (587/86 B.C.E.) can be established. But when the total number of years for the monarchies in Israel and Judah are calculated, that of Israel (241 years) does not fit with the 210 years from 931 to 721, and that of Judah (393 years) does not square with the 346 years of 931 to 587. Several “solutions” have been proposed. Most posit the presence of “co-regencies” where two rulers (sometimes father and son) ruled together so that the overlapping years were counted twice. Though this is undoubtedly the case, since at least two (Omri and Tibni in 1 Kings 16:21; and Jotham and Azariah [Uzziah] in 2 Kings 15:5) and possibly three (Jehoram and Jehoshaphat in 2 Kings 1:17) are mentioned in the text, the problem persists because at least five other co-regencies of varying degrees of probability must be assumed.

Deuteronomistic History

The theological understanding of history found in the book of Deuteronomy has greatly influenced other biblical books. In its simplest form Deuteronomy insists that obedience–usually in terms of worship in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 12) and faithfulness to the Lord (5:6-7; 6:4-6)–brings military victory and economic success, while disobedience brings national disaster. During the exile, Israel used this understanding of history to explain its rise and eventual fall. The success Israel enjoyed during the united monarchy was attributed to David’s faithfulness, while the destruction of Samaria by Sargon V in 722 B.C.E., the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E., and the Babylonian exile were seen as the result of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings present the history of Israel’s rise and fall as seen through the theological lens of Deuteronomy and thus are called the Deuteronomistic (“Deuteronomy-like”) History.

Northern traditions

Long stretches of the book of Kings consist of stories emanating from northern traditions. These seem to cohere in the center of the literary shaping of the book of Kings around the prophets Elijah and Elisha and the northern ruler Ahab and his wife, Jezebel. Though disputed, a plausible allocation of these possibly related stories would be:

  • Elijah Traditions: 1 Kings 17-19; 1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 1:1-18; 2 Kings 2:1-25; 2 Kings 9:1–10:31
  • Elisha Traditions: 2 Kings 2:1-25; 4:1-7, 8-37, 38-41, 42-44; 5:1-27; 6:1-7; 8:1-6, 7-15; 13:14-21
  • Ahab/Jezebel Traditions: 1 Kings 20:1-43; 22:1-38; 2 Kings 3:4-27; 6:24–7:20; 8:16-29

Their northern roots are best seen in a number of discrepancies from their Deuteronomistic surroundings:

  • The northern provenance of the sites and places mentioned throughout these traditions.
  • Beer-sheba and Beth-shemesh are said to belong to Judah (1 Kings 19:3; 2 Kings 14:11).
  • Elijah is said to have “repaired [“healed” in Hebrew] the altar of the LORD” on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:30). Sacrifice at places other than Jerusalem is strictly forbidden. In fact, there is a lack of any condemnation of calf worship or sacrifice at the high places in these traditions.
  • First Kings 20 and 21 display hostility to Syria (Aram), not to Ahab.

Regnal formulas

The reign of every king begins and ends with stereotyped regnal formulas. The typical introduction includes a synchronism of Israel and Judah (until Hoshea of Israel); the king’s age at beginning of reign (for kings of Judah); the length of reign; the location of the royal capital (for Israel, “Tirzah” before Omri, then “Samaria”); the queen mother (in Judah) and/or the king’s father (in Judah); and an evaluation of the reign. The concluding formula includes a citation of the source; a death notice (Israel and Judah) and place of burial (for Judah); and a succession notice. The formulas often appear with variations or additional material.

Sources used in Kings

A number of sources are mentioned in the books of Kings:

  • The Book of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41)
  • The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19; 15:31; 16:5, 14, 20; 22:39; and 11 times in 2 Kings)
  • The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29; 15:7, 23; 22:45; and 11 times in 2 Kings)
  • Other, unnamed sources that appear to underlie major segments of the narrative, including court archives, especially regarding the succession of Solomon (1 Kings 1-2) and the history of the temple (1 Kings 6-7; 2 Kings 23)
  • A relationship between 2 Kings 19:20–20:11 and Isaiah 36:1–39:8 and 2 Kings 25:27-30 and Jeremiah 52:31-34, though priority is difficult to determine
  • Narrative prophetic material in the form of cycles of stories concerning Ahijah (1 Kings 11:29–14:18), Elijah (1 Kings 17–2 Kings 2:18), Micaiah (1 Kings 22), and Elisha (2 Kings 2-13)

Synchronism

Throughout 1 Kings 12–2 Kings 25, the reader is confronted with a complicated formula at the beginning of each king’s reign such as: “In the year of the reign of name of Israel, name became king of Judah and he reigned Y years.” The formula, called a synchronism, correlates the beginning of the reign of a Judean king with a specific year in the reign of an Israelite king, as in the example above. Correlations of Israelite kings to Judean kings also appear. The primary purpose is to provide a means of presenting two histories at the same time. Theologically speaking, however, this rhetorical device stresses the interrelatedness of these two kingdoms despite the schism following Solomon’s death.

Textual matters

The Masoretic Hebrew Text (approximately 1008 C.E.) of Kings is generally quite good. Kings is only infrequently represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. While there are significant differences between the Greek versions and the Masoretic Text (for example, the reversal of chapters 20 and 21 in 1 Kings), there is no agreement as to the relationship between them. Many consider the Greek versions, other than the generally approved Lucianic Recension, to be paraphrastic or midrashic in character, prone to expansion and revision especially as regards chronology, and thus inferior to the Hebrew.

“To this day” 

Kings does not record the end of the Babylonian Captivity that occurred in 538 B.C.E. This has led most interpreters to set 538 as the latest possible date for the final form of Kings. Others, however, have challenged this opinion by pointing to the relatively frequent appearance of the phrase “to this day” (1 Kings 8:8; 9:13, 21; 10:12; 12:19; 2 Kings 2:22; 8:22; 10:27; 14:7; 16:6; 17:34, 41; 21:15), which might allow for a later date. This is possible, but it is better to understand these references as inherent in the source itself rather than as additions made by the compilers.

Use of traditional material

There is some agreement in recent interpretation that–unlike the Chronicler who freely rearranged, omitted, and occasionally rewrote his sources (of which 1-2 Kings is a prime example)–the compilers of Kings employed their sources to bolster their particular presentation of the monarchy. As such, the compilers of Kings did not misappropriate the data found in their sources. It must be said, however, that they were very selective in their use of traditional material. Readers need to be aware that only those parts of the record that served their purpose, whether theological or didactic, were utilized, leaving a large amount of material behind.

What kind of book is Kings? 

Recent interpretation rejects the designation “history” for Kings, at least in its modern connotation of that which is produced by a critical historian as a factual description of events in the past. Designations such as “historical story” or “theological interpretation of history” are much more common. Clearly there is a telling, or retelling, of the story in a chronological sequence, whether accurate or imposed. The authors/compilers freely rewrote, edited, and fashioned materials and traditions of varying types into a coherent presentation of the monarchy designed to make a theological point.

Why are there two books of Kings? 

Originally the books of Kings were a single work. The modern division into two books obscures the presentation of the reign of Ahaziah, which begins in 1 Kings 22:51 but concludes in 2 Kings 1:18. Kings was divided into two books when it was translated into Greek. The Greek translation actually includes the books of Samuel as well, as indicated by their entitling Samuel through Kings as 1-4 Basileiai (1-4 Kingdoms/Reigns). This larger context is crucial and must be kept in mind at all times.

Women in the book of Kings

Women are often found at crucial junctures in the narrative of 1 Kings. Sometimes they are important but unnamed:

  • Three unnamed women are instrumental in the depiction of Solomon’s wisdom: the two prostitutes (1 Kings 3:16-28) and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-10).
  • Solomon’s wives lead Solomon into apostasy (1 Kings 11:1-8).
  • Jeroboam’s unnamed wife carries the narrative in 1 Kings 14:1-18.
  • The unnamed widow who comes to believe in Elijah’s prophetic power models that response for the reader (1 Kings 17:8-24).

Named female characters are always given leading roles in the narratives, though usually villainous:

  • Bathsheba works with the prophet Nathan to secure Solomon’s place upon the throne (1 Kings 1).
  • Jezebel is much stronger–politically, religiously, and as a character–than her husband, Ahab (1 Kings 18-19).
Enter the bible BW logo

Sign Up or Login

More resources for a deeply formed faith from Luther Seminary: