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A History of the Jewish Monarchy

A History of the Jewish Monarchy

The Kings of Israel, Judea and Onward

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© Ahuva Klein
© Ahuva Klein

Originally, the Jewish nation had no kings. At Mount Sinai G‑d told Moses that if the Jews would follow in His ways, they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” If they would serve the one true King, they would have no need for a mortal replacement.

Of course, they needed a leader. But Moses was not a conventional king. He was G‑d’s servant, a humble shepherd rather than a supreme monarch. Moses passed this model of leadership on to his successor Joshua, and he in turn passed it on to his disciples.

Thus for most of its early history, the Nation of Israel was lead by judges and prophets. The prophets relayed the word of G‑d, while the judges counseled the people in times of peace, and lead them to battle in times of war.

The First King

Although the Jews did not require a king in their ideal state, Moses foresaw that the need for one would arise. In the Book of Deuteronomy, he actually commands Israel to appoint a king (at an unspecified time in the future), and lays down the guidelines for a Jewish monarch, limiting his materialistic pursuits and exhorting him to follow G‑d and be humble.

Then, in the year 2881 (880 BCE), after 400 years of being led by prophets and judges, the people approached the Prophet Samuel, clamoring for a king “like all the other nations.”

After consulting with G‑d (who expressed His disappointment in the peoples’ lack of faith), Samuel reluctantly gave in to their pleas, but not without warning them of the pitfalls inherent in having an absolute monarch.1

A short while later, when a young man from the tribe of Benjamin named Saul came to him for help locating his lost donkeys, Samuel anointed him as king over Israel.

After a brilliant start, Saul lost G‑d’s favor when he did not completely follow His command to wipe out all traces of Amalek, the mortal enemy of Israel. Shortly thereafter, G‑d commanded Samuel to anoint a young shepherd named David king of Israel. Even though Saul continued to rule, he was no longer favored by G‑d.

The Eternal Dynasty

Hounded by a jealous Saul and scorned by many, David’s faith in G‑d carried him through tough times and shaped the sensitive soul that authored the Psalms. After building his own royal palace, David yearned to build a splendid home for G‑d in Jerusalem to replace the tent in which the Ark of the covenant was housed at that time. G‑d promised him that while he would not be the one to do so, he would have a son—Solomon—who would build the Temple, and whose progeny would rule Israel forever.

Solomon reigned over Israel’s golden age. He was blessed by G‑d with extraordinary wisdom, and his fame and power reached to the farthest lands. As G‑d had promised his father, Solomon did indeed build a home for G‑d in Jerusalem, the First Holy Temple.

The Split

At the end of his reign, Solomon’s wives introduced idol worship into his home, and G‑d was displeased. G‑d told Solomon that after his death the kingdom would be taken from him, and only a small portion of Israel would be ruled by his progeny. So it was that in 2964 (797 BCE) Solomon died and his son Rehoboam ruled in Jerusalem over the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, while Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim ruled the other 10 tribes.

Jeroboam was seen as an exceptionally wicked person about whom the sages say that he had no portion in the world to come. He forced the people under his rule to participate in idolatrous practices in an effort to sever their connection to G‑d’s Temple in Jerusalem.

For over 200 years, Israel was divided into two parallel monarchies, until the Northern (non-Davidic) kingdom was exiled by a succession of Assyrian kings. With time the exiled Israelites lost touch with their Jewish brethren and have since become known as the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.”

In the year 3327 (434 BCE) the independent kingdom of Judah ended when Nebucadnazzer, king of Babylon, invaded Judea and exiled the king, Jeconiah, and many Judean leaders. Jeconiah was succeeded by Zedekiah, who served as a tributary ruler to Nebucadnazzer. Eleven years later, the Temple in Jerusalem built by Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Jews became a nation in exile.

Second Temple Era and Its Aftermath

In the year 3390 (371 BCE) a group of Jews returned to resettle in Judea. One of their leaders was Zerubabel, a scion of the royal house of David, and construction began on a Second Temple.

But the Second Temple did not match the glory of its predecessor. The Jews at this time were often ruled by foreign kings and their proxies, who were not of Davidic descent.

Of special note is the Hasmonean family, who defeated the Greeks in what became known as the miracle of Chanukah in 3622 (139 BCE). Afterwards, they assumed the throne of Judea, despite their being of Aaronic, priestly stock.

Their rule was cut short in 3725 (36 BCE), when Herod, an Edomite, killed the Hasmonean King Antignus and took the throne for himself. His rule was a bitter one, marked by murder of anyone whom Herod suspected of disloyalty - including a great many Torah sages. In a moment of remorse, Herod enlarged the Temple Mount and renovated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, creating an edifice so magnificent that it was said, “He who has not seen Herod’s temple has never seen a beautiful building in all his days.” (The remaining portion of the wall Herod constructed to support the enlarged mountain still stands and is now known as the Western Wall.

Where were the descendants of David? They were still there. But instead of vying for the throne, where they would be beholden to foreign rulers, many of them became spiritual leaders of their people. Of note were Hillel the Elder, whose school of Torah thought has shaped the face of Judaism, and his descendant, Rabbi Judah the Prince, who lead the Sanhedrin (central high court of Jewish law) and oversaw the compilation of the Mishnah. It was the leadership and vision of these men and the other sages that carried the Jewish nation through the turbulence of the Temple’s last years and the aftermath of its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE.

Babylon and Beyond

Even as the center of Judaism slowly shifted from Israel to Babylon over the course of hundreds of years, the descendants of David in that land continued to lead their people in the capacity of Resh Galuta (exilarch). But that position too came to an end in the 11th century due to Muslim persecution.

Until this very day, there are many Jewish families who can trace their lineage to David and Solomon. It is a cardinal belief that a descendant of David, the Moshiach (messiah), will once again lead us to a restored Jewish kingdom in Israel, rebuild the Holy Temple and usher in an era of world peace and G‑dly awareness. And this time it will last forever.

Footnotes
1.

See the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel to I Samuel 8 for five views of the motives of Israel in their request for a king and why G‑d and Samuel were reticent to grant something that the Torah provided for. See also Are You a Monarchist?

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Anonymous March 27, 2017

We can't discredit written History and credit their dating method. Who decides that? Hmm Reply

Menachem Posner June 5, 2016

Our dating system follows the Torah's chronology, counting from creation of the world. Reply

Anonymous scotland June 1, 2016

where do you get your dates from, you're surely assuming a very young earth, I find this frustrating when factual evidence is in place that life existed millions of years ago. The information you present is very good and easily read but I cannot accept your timings therefore it casts doubt on everything else Reply

Anonymous USA March 27, 2015

Why do us Jews continue to worship at the Western Wall if it was indeed built/created by King Herod who #1) wasn't even Jewish. And #2) who was a horrible & evil human being, who murdered children, his own family members, & rabbis.....?? Reply