The United Monarchy: Rereading the Bible and the Archaeological Evidence
This lecture was presented at the Center for Jewish History’s event entitled “In the Valley of David and Goliath: Digging Up Evidence on the United Monarchy,” sponsored by Yeshiva University Museum, American Friends of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU.
My task this evening, in light of the momentous discoveries discussed by Prof. Garfinkel and the extremely significant inscription in biblical Hebrew discussed by Professor Holtz, is to try to reevaluate the historical questions surrounding the period of the United Monarchy–the period of Saul, David and Solomon–as this period is presented in the biblical account. Recent years have seen a tremendous amount of controversy about the historicity of the accounts in Samuel and Kings and even a dispute as to whether the period actually existed. In many academic circles, previous to the excavation of Khirbet Qeiyafa and its publication, scholars denied the entire notion of a centralized Jewish polity in the late 11th-early 9th centuries BCE. Khirbet Qeiyafa as well as some of the discoveries in ancient Jerusalem have shown that this view should be rejected. The House of David inscription seems to have convinced many skeptics that Saul, David and Solomon did indeed exist.
The attempt to date archaeological sites and, hence, the history of ancient Israel, to a period some 80-100 years later than the dating that has become traditional among archaeologists and biblical historians has likewise been seriously compromised by the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa. A series of organic samples susceptible to carbon-14 research were gathered at Khirbet Qeiyafa and they show that, without any question, the date of the site proposed by those who excavated it–c. 1020-980 BCE—must be accepted. Other archaeologists have been gathering and dating organic material from throughout the Land of Israel. Their results, taken together with the impossibility of synchronizing the new lower chronology with the history of the surrounding areas, have led some scholars to argue that the minimalist notions calling at the same time for re-dating biblical Israel and yet for denying its narrative are grossly overstated.
The elimination of these more extreme, minimalist views of the period of the United Monarchy does not give us an excuse to adopt a simplistic or fundamentalist reading of the biblical historical accounts and the archaeological evidence. Rather, it calls upon us to ask how, when taken together, the age-old historical traditions of the Jewish people can be melded with archaeological evidence from the Land of Israel and evidence from surrounding cultures in the ancient Near East. Our challenge, therefore, is not to ask whether or not biblical accounts and archaeological evidence are true or not, but rather how, when taken together, the evidence available to us can allow us to reconstruct a sense of what the society was like that produced the biblical traditions that we have received.
The biblical accounts of this period are preserved in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1-11. These accounts were probably brought together in the seventh century BCE. The various annals and narratives are enclosed in an editorial framework inspired by Deuteronomic understandings of history in terms of divine causality, sin and punishment. For our purpose, we can speak of two kinds of information imparted by biblical material. One kind of information describes the history and nature of the society, agriculture, government and religion of the area said to have been ruled over by Saul, David and Solomon. Such information often appears in the background of narratives and allows us to create a realistic picture of the environment that would have been experienced by ancient Israelites during the period of the early kings. A second type of material narrates all kinds of particulars pertaining to the heroic exploits and achievements of the kings, their family affairs, foibles and other such things. Because of the presentation of this material in quasi-mythic terms it cannot be taken literally by historians. Yet properly evaluated it can and should contribute in broad outlines to the construction of a historical picture of our period. We will approach the biblical account of the ancient polity we term the United Monarchy in this way and thus allow the biblical sources, taken together with the archaeological evidence, to help in the reconstruction of a coherent historical picture.
A final introductory remark concerns a mistaken approach to evaluating the transition of ancient Israel from a group of tribal territories headed by chieftains, known in the Bible as “judges,” to a federation of such tribal groups, to a more centrally organized polity and, finally, to what we term the United Monarchy. Much scholarship has been invested in claiming, essentially, that the “monarchy” was certainly not a real monarchy in the time of Saul and that much of the central administration and territorial domination presupposed in the accounts of David and Solomon is greatly exaggerated. What flows from such argumentation is the overdrawn claim that the United Monarchy did not exist, mainly because the terminology that describes it is regarded as exaggerated. While scholars have made extremely good use of models drawn from the field of political science, they have often made the mistake of not realizing that whatever we call this period, it is one of gradual transition from rule by chieftains, to a unifying figure, to a weak almost ad hoc king, to a military conqueror, to a centralizing and empire building ruler and city builder. The period we are discussing here can be seen even by a cursory reading of the Bible and the archaeological evidence to have been one of great transition. The assumption that the period of judges ended abruptly and the period of kings began immediately sets up a false straw man (better: straw king) whose existence then becomes semantically deniable.
Understanding the nature of the transitions going on in ancient Israelite society is essential to proper evaluation of the archaeological and textual evidence at hand. While looking at the transition in political leadership one should also compare what happened in this period to the religious leadership of the Israelites. We can speak of the rise of two significant leadership elites, the prophets and the kings. These leaders replaced the inspired judges who served both military and religious roles, sometimes even serving as judicial figures as their title might imply. Essentially, the role of the judges gave way to two separate roles, those of prophet and temporal ruler. But the evolution from figures such as Samuel to the prophets Elijah and Elisha and, after the period of the United Monarchy, Amos, Hosea, then Isaiah and Jeremiah is a complicated evolution that parallels that of the temporal rulers. Prophets developed from bands of seers, to prophetic iconoclasts, to literary prophets who left behind records of prophecies attributed to them. Here again, simplistic definitions can easily lead to denial and minimalism where what is required is a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the development of the culture and civilization of ancient Israel.
The early kings of Israel rose to political power beginning with a limited territorial base later supplemented by military conquest. Saul’s territory was that of the tribe of Benjamin. His son, Ishbaal (this name appears on an inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa), who ruled for a very brief period, had Benjaminite servants (2 Sam. 2:15, 25, 31), but he also claimed to rule over Ephraim, Gilead, the Jezreel, and Asher (2 Sam 2:9). David first ruled in the territory of Judah (2 Sam 5:5). His capital was in Hebron in the Judean Hills for seven years until he moved it to Jerusalem. The Bible attests to his beginning as a chieftain and traces the evolution and machinations that led to his kingship. His expanded kingdom included the territory of Benjamin and Ephraim that Saul had ruled and eventually extended, according to the biblical account, to the Galilee, parts of Transjordan, the northern Negev, the Shephelah, the eastern part of the Judean wilderness, and the southern hill country. As David gained power and expanded from his Judean base, he ruled parts of what would later be considered Israel but never totally was able to unify his territory. Professor Garfinkel has suggested that in the 10th century the United Kingdom was essentially limited to Judah, in actual historical fact. After the death of Solomon, the earlier regional division reinserted itself, paving the way for the division of the never really united monarchy.
Material culture of the Negev at this time is of particular interest. Here there was not enough water to sustain agriculture or animal herds. Yet living quarters and fortresses were found there that display similarities with the architecture of the heartland of Judah and Israel to the north. It is reasonable to assume that these settlements were supported by a central government as defensive outposts. The monarchy was concerned about the threat from Egypt from the south and the ever-present encroachments of the Philistines. In fact, Shoshenq I, the biblical Shishak, the Egyptian king (ruled 943-922 BCE), did attack by a route through the Negev in 925 BCE, soon after the split of the kingdom.
The pottery of Iron IIB (10th century BCE) reflects homogeneous ceramics that are different from those in the earlier period but which apparently extend into the ninth century as well. For this reason, dating of archaeological layers based on the presence of such pottery may be insufficiently precise. This type of pottery, which was popular in the Iron IIA period, can be traced over a particular territorial area that literally extends from Dan to Beer Sheba. Moreover, its boundaries can be outlined by its ubiquity along the Israelite trade routes and its absence beginning at the border of Philistine towns, like Ashdod. The distribution of these ceramics attests to a common material culture that most probably was closely linked to a system of roads that was fostered by a central government and that made possible developing trade.
In the monarchic period a uniformity of architectural forms throughout Judah/Israel has been discovered. One prime example is the four-room house. In Iron Age IIA, in the time of Solomon, public buildings, fortifications, and larger scale urban development all testify to the fact that there was a centralized royal administration. The Bible records that Solomon amassed a very large labor force to build the Jerusalem Temple, the walls of Jerusalem, Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor, as well as storehouses and stables in various locations (1 Kings 9:15-20).
Architecturally the public city gates of Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor are strikingly similar: the walls are very thick and feature casemates where people lived or that were used for storage. The city gates consisted of two or three chambers on either side of the gate with projecting towers. The measurements of the gates of these three cities were exactly the same. The ashlar stone blocks were of high quality and featured pillars topped by proto-Ionic capitals. The uniformity of the features of the great public buildings in these cities suggests a royal administration. However, archaeologists debate whether all of these gates should be ascribed to the Solomonic period. While the issues are too complex for discussion here, the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations argue strongly for the early dating of these gates.
All in all, the Iron Age IIA cities were smaller and more compact than the Bronze Age cities. This difference can be accounted for by the existence of a centralized administration that took over many of the functions that were once housed in one place in the Bronze Age “city-states”—palace, army headquarters, economic and religious center. These elements seem to be represented at Khirbet Qeiyafa that served in David’s time as an administrative and military position defending the boundary facing Philistia. Iron Age IIA cities instead were mostly residential, for the governmental activities took place in the capital city or in regional centers.
The three cities of 1 Kings 9, Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor, were also strategically located to guard the coastal trade routes, “the Way of the Sea,” and the east-west highway that led to Damascus. Equipped with large buildings that could serve for storage of goods, the cities were in a perfect position to take advantage of the peaceful time during Solomon’s reign to develop extensive trade. There was an increase in international trade as evidenced by the importation of ceramics called Cypro-Phoenician ware, luxury items, iron artifacts, weapons and agricultural tools, and the establishment of harbors along the Mediterranean coast allowing trade to develop with Phoenicia and Cyprus. According to 1 Kings 9:26; 10:11-13, Solomon had a fleet of ships that plied the Red Sea to obtain spices, rare wood, incense, and gems from South Arabia and East Africa (Somalia). None of this would have been possible without the developing centralized government.
Questions have been raised about the small number of remains identified in Jerusalem from the period of the United Monarchy. We need to scale down our expectations of what kind of buildings would have been necessary to manage what was essentially a fledgling monarchy loosely controlling its territory. While it is well-known that David moved his capital to Jerusalem, palatial buildings or monumental remains from his time period have been very hard to identify. For thousands of years Jerusalem was conquered and reconquered, and the process of rebuilding has obliterated much of what must have been the earlier buildings. Large areas simply cannot be excavated as they are sacred religious sites. Nonetheless, a large building complex from the time of David has been discovered and excavated. This structure was atop a hill supported in part by an extensive stone structure. While there has been controversy about the dating of these remains, we take the side again of those dating them primarily to the 10th century BCE, the period of the United Monarchy. Some have argued that the stepped stone structure should be dated to the late Bronze Age, that is, before the United Monarchy. If so, it was reused in the 10th century as a foundation for another building most probably associated with the administration. While the large building excavated by Eilat Mazar could easily have been an administrative building, we cannot accept her assumption that it was indeed the palace of David.
With the expansion of the centralized government and its royal center in Jerusalem, the previous sociopolitical patterns must have been disturbed. Local villages, headed by tribal leaders, were displaced by a centralized government that was able to move goods, amass armies and equip them, and build large public edifices. The peripheral settlements of the Judean Hills during this time show an increase in population density. Thus, the settlement patterns around Jerusalem attest to Jerusalem’s emergence as an urban center dominating a substantial hinterland.
The Bible relates the military exploits of Saul who created a standing army and employed a small group of state officials to manage his kingdom. Saul’s military campaigns stemmed in part from the need to defend his incipient kingdom against the Philistines, indeed the likely stimulus for establishing a central government. Victories in war necessitated the division of spoils and tribute. The inflow of spoils to the royal treasuries in turn stimulated the economy and led to an expansion of commercial, religious, and diplomatic activity along with the physical expansion of the royal administration. Evidence from the Bible points to a great expansion of the bureaucracy under David and Solomon, including military commanders, a commander of the labor forces some of whom were foreign captives, the existence of mercenaries controlled by the king, as well as a standing army. Priestly administrators were also stationed at various shrines around the country, and they were intimately connected with the royal government.
Under Solomon, the building of new royal structures was a symbol of the wealth and power that had been amassed by the monarchy through conquest. At the same time, a more elaborate bureaucratic administration was being set up with an elite governing class. Solomon had twelve officials “who provided food for the king and his household” according to 1 Kings 4:7-19, 27-28. This contribution was a form of tax collection. In addition, David had conquered territory that now had to be administered by royal officials. The administrative coterie of King Solomon differed from that of his father’s reign in that there was less emphasis on the military and more on diplomacy. Although Solomon was criticized by the Deuteronomistic editor of Kings for maintaining numerous wives, this pattern may well have been a function of diplomatic alliances. In time of peace, Solomon was more well-known for his wisdom, wealth, international alliances (for example, with the Queen of Sheba), and honor rather than his military prowess.
The description of the Temple in Solomon’s day is found in 1 Kings 5-7. The entrance was flanked by Yakhin and Boaz, two 33-foot high pillars. The interior was largely empty and much smaller than the palace complex that had to house many functionaries. A large courtyard served to accommodate the worshipers and provided a place for them to gather to offer sacrifices. Three stories on either side served as the national treasury for offerings and tribute. A grand procession with much religious symbolism was held to bring the ark into the Temple for the first time. Two model shrines were found at Qiryat Qeiyafa, one of which shares architectural elements with the biblical description of Solomon’s Temple.
With all the grandeur of the central Temple and its sacrificial woship, promulgated most strongly by the Bible, archaeological evidence bears out the existence of local shrines and regional priestly centers that the leadership circles behind the Bible tried to root out. Ritual objects and altars have been found, for example, at Megiddo and Taanach.
Tribal units based on kinship still functioned within the state system, often as the primary locus of loyalty to the collective Israel. Despite the trend toward centralized rule, judicial functions remained in the hands of local tribal leaders who dispensed justice without resort to the central government. The king then became the court of last resort, a court of appeals.
Of course, the Bible also has its reservations about the establishment of a kingdom, expressed most saliently by Samuel (1 Sam 8:4-24 and 10:17-19) who warns of the abuses of the system. The dynastic establishment was fraught with jealousies and factions over the privileges of the king and his courtiers. The Bible records the struggles of usurpers, David being the first, and subsequently the competition over the throne that started even as David was on his deathbed. While the lifestyle of the urban elite in Jerusalem was lavish, those who ran the state apparatus and the royal house were numerically few, and the rural areas were hardly affected by them. The farmers were not overly taxed nor conscripted for labor since the recent conquests of David had provided labor from among the captives and wealth from booty. Solomon raised funds by giving twenty cities in the Galilee to King Hiram of Tyre in return for wood and gold to build the Temple (I Kings 9:11-14; 5:11) rather than extracting it from his own rural citizenry.
While some land was conquered from the Philistines in the 10th century, and regional centers and trade routes were developed, the agricultural villages had an economy based on family units living in the typical Israelite four-room houses. Nevertheless, the rural population did benefit from the nation-state and royal dynasty. The early monarchy brought social, economic, and political stability.
What we have presented here is a sample of what can be recovered from the study of the biblical accounts of the period of the United Monarchy in light of archaeological evidence. The excavations of Khirbet Qeiyafa have greatly stimulated a trend back to accepting the generally followed chronology that places the United Monarchy in the late 11th through early 9th BCE and affirms the existence of its kings. Clearly, we must peel back the layers of later accounts to extract a sense of the gradual and complex development from the rule of chieftains to that of kings. Building a historical picture using all the available evidence remains an unfinished task. While we so often speak about minimalists and maximilists, our true task as scholars is to follow the well-known advice of Maimonides: of two paths, always take the middle (Deut 1:4).