History and Sources
Were Jews ever ruled by a monarchy?
The thorny issue of monarchy arose during the later years of the Judges (c. 1200-1000 B.C.E.), who ruled Israel after Joshua had led the establishment of the people in the newly reached Promised Land of Canaan. Some argued that Israel should be like all the surrounding lands, each ruled by its own king. They saw no other solution to the lawlessness they believed had overcome their land. Others held on to the conviction that embracing the institution of monarchy would amount to a betrayal of God’s sovereignty.
Saul was the first king (r. 1020-1000 B.C.E.). From his capital at Gilgal he succeeded in uniting the tribes against the common enemy, the Philistines. David (r. 1000-961 B.C.E.) established himself first at Hebron, but after taking Jerusalem from the Jebusites declared that city his capital. He sought to unify Jewish religious life and instituted the office of court prophet. David’s son Solomon (r. 961-922 B.C.E.) further centralized Jewish ritual in his newly built Jerusalem Temple. But when Solomon died his sons divided the realm into the northern Kingdom of Israel (922-721 B.C.E.) and the southern Kingdom of Judah (922-586 B.C.E.). Two hundred years later the northern capital of Samaria fell to the Assyrians, never to be recovered. The southern kingdom carried on for over a century, with moments of greatness, and even major religious reform in the late seventh century B.C.E. Many of Israel’s principal prophets lived and worked under the Kingdom of Judah. But Babylon was putting the squeeze on the small kingdom, and in 586 B.C.E. Jerusalem and its Temple fell to invading forces. Over a thousand years later, Jews founded the Khazar kingdom in the Caucasus, a small-scale experiment in monarchy that survived from about 700 to 1000 C.E.