Jewish Kings: Heroes and Losers
Roger, Robin, Moment
Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation
By Norman Gelb
Jewish Publication Society of America
2010, $22.00, pp. 190
One strand in the intricately woven tapestry of Jewish history that seems little mentioned today is the thread that runs through the centuries during which Jews had their own monarch. Yet if such a tapestry were to be woven according to the duration of historical periods, the monarchical thread would be among the most visible, lasting as it did for approximately a thousand years. The upheavals and catastrophes of subsequent Jewish history have obscured our view of this era, which is brought into focus in Kings of the Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Nation, by Norman Gelb.
According to Gelb, a journalist-turned-historian, the Jews anointed their first king in the year 1020 BCE because they "succumbed to a craving" for a king.
"We must have a king over us that we may be like all other nations," is his citation, from I Samuel 8:19, which suggests that the craving was not only to be ruled, but to have what the other nations have--possibly a mixture of rivalry, envy and even conformity. Whatever the cause, the initial results of yielding to the craving are still commemorated in Judaism today, in the way such revered texts as the Psalms are attributed to David and the Song of Songs is attributed to Solomon; in our liturgical posture as subjects of the King of the Universe; and in the crowns and lions of Judah ornamenting our ritual objects.
Gelb aims to redirect attention from the symbolic resonance of kingship to the historical record of Jewish monarchy in Kings of the Jews. Our lack of attention to die 52 rulers of the Jews has resulted in a significant gap, he argues, a point that is proved with a quick glance at the list of the mostly obscure names in the table of contents.
It is crucial to note that after the death of King Solomon in 931 BC, the disgruntled tribes of Judah and Benjamin split off from die rest of Israel and established die nation of Judah. As a result, there were two Jewish kings ruling two Jewish nations that sometimes wasted their resources warring against each other when they also had to contend with other aggressive and powerful states such as Egypt and Assyria.
Still, Judah and Israel each boasted a number of monarchs of considerable stature. Jeshoshaphat (871-848 BCE), for example, established a decentralized justice system, including the equivalent of a court of appeals. …