The Rise of Israel, from Joshua to Solomon

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Moses has chosen Joshua to lead Israel across the Jordan to defeat the Canaanites, and also the Amalakites, Amorites, Kenites, Girgashites, Hittites, Perrizites, and Jebusites. Defeat but not eradicate. The natives, subdued more and less, will live among them in perpetuity.

Joshua is a bloody book. Israel shows no mercy. “On that day Joshua took Makkedah, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword. He utterly destroyed them—all the people who were in it. He let none remain.” (Joshua 10:28) From Makkedah to Libnah, Libnah to Lachish, Lachish to Eglon, Eglon to Hebron, Hebron to Debir, and on and on. But, of course, many did remain.

The twelve tribes of Israel gain their allotments in this book, too. Recall that Israel is Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons (by four “wives”: two sisters, two servants). Two sons are allotted land east of the Jordan, but the other ten gain theirs in what is now the nation of Israel.  The Philistines, who occupy the coast that stretches from Gaza through Ashkelon almost to modern Tel Aviv, are not conquered and figure large in the next book.


Judges tells of the earliest days of Israel’s political control over Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, an idea born in historical imagination and, to a substantial degree, a fact of historical reality: from Dan to Beersheba, from Philistia to the Jordan and the Salt Sea. As we saw above, Israel “put the Canaanites under  tribute, but did not completely drive them out.” (Judges 1:28) Nor did they “drive out the Jebusites who inhabited Jerusalem; so the Jebusites dwell with the children of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day.” (Judges 1:21) The land remained “multi-cultural,” we might say, and not at all unified. Sub-polities existed–and would continue to exist through subsequent books–to contend for power.

There is no central power in Israel, no king. There are merely “judges,” plural, though only certain ones warrant mention in the book of the same name. Precedent for “judging” extended as far back as Exodus when Moses sat before the multitudes at the foot of Mount Sinai. (“And so it was, on the next day, that Moses sat to judge the people; and the people stood before Moses from morning until evening.” [Exodus 18:13]) The judge’s power was as much moral as political.

Though the beginning of this book is a data dump, it soon turns to the quality of storytelling that we grew accustomed to in Genesis. Deborah, Samson, and the Levite’s Concubine are among the highpoints.

Deborah, both judge and prophet, saves Israel when it comes under assault by Jabin, King of Canaan and his army, under the command of Sisera. Judges does not account for the rise of this rival power in Canaan, other than to say it was brought on by Israel’s again doing “evil.” (Israel’s rises and falls, its fortunes and trials, are never the result of impersonal historical or natural forces. They result from the individual and collective actions of the people, for good or evil.) Using her powers of prophecy, Deborah informs her commander when and where to attack. “God has delivered Sisera into your hand,” she says (Judges 4:14). As foreseen, the Canaanite army is slaughtered. Sisera escapes but meets his end at the hands of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite. The story emphasizes that strangers of Israel can still be righteous. And brave, too. Jael lures Sisera into her tent and drives a stake through his eye as he sleeps.

Samson is among the most well-known stories in the Bible. He becomes a judge, but it hardly seems a likely outcome as we read of his exploits. His behavior is erratic and not entirely explicable, at least to modern readers. He insists on marrying a Philistine (and later a Philistine harlot, Delilah). He wagers thirty linen garments on the solving of riddles. He gives in to his wife when she nags him for secret information. (And does so again with his second wife.) Samson burns down the Philistines’ grain stores by lighting foxes’ tails and letting them run wild in the standing grain. He kills a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. And yet this man of violence is a man of righteousness. Coming out of nowhere, the final words of the chapter tell us, “And he judged Israel twenty years in the days of the Philistines.” (Judges 15:20)

As with Joseph, the story is at least partly designed to explain how good could come of bad. Samson’s parents cannot understand why he would choose a Timnite to marry when there were plenty of eligible “daughters of your own brethren.” Nor could they fathom that God might be “seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines.” (Judges 14:3-4) Getting Samson in among the Philistines was all part of God’s tortuous plan!

Samson succumbs to Delilah’s nagging, just as he had his Timnite wife’s. When he is captured by the Philistines, the text makes clear God abandoned him at that moment. Yet, perhaps not completely. Samson musters the strength to push over the pillars, collapsing the temple. He dies–his reign as judge ends–but he brings Israel’s enemies down with him. More good coming from bad.

The Levite and his Concubine is among the most controversial stories in the Bible. The first verse reminds us, in case we have forgotten, “There was no king in Israel,” as if to put in proper context the wickedness that will follow (Judges 19:1). A nameless man from Ephraim takes a nameless concubine. She “plays the harlot,” then retreats to her father’s home in Bethlehem in Judah. The man, apparently showing great tolerance, travels to Bethlehem to forgive his concubine and take her back home with him. But not before being properly wined and dined by his “father-in-law,” who strangely keeps insisting that he stay one more night. Three nights this goes on until, on the fourth night, the Levite refuses to be put off any longer. He leaves in haste late in the day and can only reach Gibeah, midway to their destination, before being forced to stop. With no rooms left at the inn, a kindly farmer offers the Ephraimite and his entourage lodging at his house. They are awoken in the night by a rowdy gang of Benjamites demanding that the farmer release the Levite, that they “may know him” in the proverbial Biblical sense (Judges 19:22). The farmer will do no such thing, but he does offer a compromise of sorts. He says, most infamously:

Seeing this man has come into my house, do not commit this outrage. Look, here is my virgin daughter and the man’s concubine; let me bring them out now. Humble them, and do with them as you please; but to this man do not do such a vile thing!” (Judges 19:23-24)

So the Levite–who has traveled so many miles and spent so long being feted by her father–releases his concubine to the Benjamite gang rapists, who “knew her and abused her all night until morning” (Judges 19:25). What kind of exegesis can we possibly wring from such a disturbing text? Especially when the Levite, after returning home with his concubine’s corpse, cuts her up in pieces to send to the twelve tribes of Israel as a sign of their depravity. All of Israel, he seems to say, is complicit. The people have sinned against the loving god who delivered them from Egypt.

The fallout from the event is civil war. Israel calls for the decimation of Benjamin’s eligible men, presumed guilty by association. Benjamin does not offer “a hundred for every thousand” or even “ten for every hundred,” as requested, but rather “gathered together…to go to battle against the children of Israel” (Judges 20:10,14). (Is Benjamin not also a part of Israel?) The story of the Levite’s concubine may exist as a retroactive explanation for this internecine strife. The extended stay in Bethlehem, the carnal knowing, the twelve pieces of flesh may be primarily literary elements that heighten interest.

Benjamin is defeated at the hands of Israel–and of God–but wives are provided for those who survive. And the text tells us again, as the episode closes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). We are to understand that, as yet, Israel is decentralized. She awaits strong leadership able to keep the people on God’s path.


It is satisfying that Ruth, an ordinary woman, has been given her own book. While Deborah is a prophetess and judge; Ruth is a merely a wife and mother. She is not even a child of Israel but a Moabite, brought across the Jordan by her widowed mother-in-law. Ruth, the book, mainly concerns Ruth’s courtship, such as it is, and marriage to Boaz, a relative of Ruth’s father-in-law and “a man of great wealth” (Ruth 2:1) Though Boaz holds the power and seals the deal, it is Ruth who pursues. Ruth achieves a rare blend of boldness and deference in this story.

What does it mean when the text tells us the marriage to Boaz “redeems” Ruth (Ruth, book 4 heading)? Certainly, she marries up in the socio-economic sense, but also in the ethno-religious sense. The immigrant, the outsider, has been assimilated into Israel. This is important, because, as the last line of the book tells us, she will be the great-grandmother of David.


David’s rise from shepherd to king is told in the next book, 1 Samuel, but before that the book relates the ascensions of


Samuel and Saul. Samuel is Israel’s last judge; Saul its first king. It is fascinating to read Samuel describe the historical changes that would occur (were occurring) at the time, the rise of taxation and the accumulation of capital by an absolute ruler as if in a single generation:

And [Samuel] said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen,  … He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. (1 Samuel 8:11-18)

The people discount Samuel’s warnings. They want a king to rule over them “that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19). Samuel’s warning is prospective; the text’s is retrospective. Martial and political success brought growth, which required centralization and the elevation of an earthly power. Why wasn’t God’s enough? Samuel almost taunts the people at the anointing of Saul: “But you have today rejected your God, who Himself saved you from all your adversities and your tribulations; and you have said to Him, ‘No, set a king over us!’” (1 Samuel 10:19)

Saul saves the day against Jabesh Gilead, then flouts God’s commandments by making a burnt offering. (This ritual was reserved for Levites alone.) More transgressions follow, and God “regret(s) that He had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35). He seeks a future successor and finds him in David, Jesse’s son, a shepherd with a talent for the harp. He then conspires (can I say that about God?) to get David taken into Saul’s court as armor bearer.

It’s only a matter of time before David upstages his master. The taking down Goliath of itself does not suffice. Saul is grateful to be rid of the giant. But when ordinary people begin singing of the armor bearer’s glories, his envy is stoked:

Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his ten thousands (1 Samuel 18:7).

Saul becomes an unsympathetic character from this point on. A Biblical Wile E. Coyote, Saul continually plots against an otherwise harmless adversary and ends up getting the worst of the exchange. He sics the Philistines on David, but the David eludes them. He hunts the upstart himself and kills dozens of priests in a fit of pique, “because their hand also is with David” (1 Samuel 22:17).

By luck and God’s grace, David and his supporters stay out of Saul’s reach. Then, in a fluke, David gets his a chance to turn the tables. Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, the very cave in which David is hiding with his men. But, instead of cutting out Saul’s heart, David cuts a corner off his robe. Even so, David feels guilty: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the Lord” (1 Samuel 24:6). Come again? Hasn’t the vindictive king abdicated his anointed status? For this reader, David’s inhuman magnanimity is repellent. It is offensive:

Look, this day your eyes have seen that the Lord delivered you today into my hand in the cave, and someone urged me to kill you. But my eye spared you, and I said, “I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed.”(1 Samuel 24:10)

Saul appears to repent, as would seem only fitting, morally and literarily: “You are more righteous than I; for you have rewarded me with good, whereas I have rewarded you with evil” (1 Samuel 24:17). These are the words we have been waiting to hear. Two chapters later, David spares Saul a second time, and Saul, for the second time, repents. The repetition (here and elsewhere in the Bible) must have been included for emphasis. It is also likely product of editorship by committee. Would a professional editor allow chapter 26 to end with David and Saul parting in peace and chapter 27 to begin with David predicting Saul’s perfidy?

The plot may be clunky, but it serves to account for David’s subsequent escape to Philistia. It places him, as history did, with the Philistines, Israel’s arch-enemy, against the still-unredeemed Saul. Abandoned by God, Israel’s first king dies in battle, nobly, by falling on his sword. Yet, the next chapter (the first of 2 Samuel) gives a very different account. The Amalekite messenger reports that the wounded king asked to be put out of his misery and that he, the Amalekite, obliged. In response, David trots out the old “Lord’s anointed” trope, then executes the Amalekite on the spot (2 Samuel 1:14-16). This is the sinister side of David’s righteousness.

But at least he is righteous. The narrative uses David’s fealty to Saul, who is so patently unworthy of it, as Exhibit A for that righteousness. Besides, David is favored by God. The new book, 2 Samuel, begins with the reign of a new king over Israel, the first king worthy of the title: David.


David’s reign is told in 2 Samuel, as is his evolution from selfless paragon to fully human character. Shades of Saul tarnish the halo that glittered atop the David of 1 Samuel.

But first, David must put down resistance from the remnants of the house of Saul. David plans to negotiate with Abner, but his own commander, Joaz, murders the Saulish monarch. David defends himself, implausibly, professing “My kingdom and I are guiltless before the Lord” (2 Samuel 3:28). (Methinks he protests too much.) With courage, skill, and God’s support, David succeeds in unifying the kingdom, more or less, centralizing control, and defeating the  Philistines, to boot. (Later, the Moabites, Ammonites, Amalekite, and Syrians fall before his sword.)

Following the victory and the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, David celebrates in style and perhaps with too much abandon. He is denounced for shamelessly “uncovering” himself on the dancefloor before the innocent eyes of maidservants. David is unabashed. To his accuser, he taunts,

It was before the Lord, who chose me instead of your father and all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel. Therefore I will play music before the Lord. And I will be even more undignified than this, and will be humble in my own sight. But as for the maidservants of whom you have spoken, by them I will be held in honor. (2 Samuel 6:21-22)

The scene is premonition, for David’s sex drive becomes central by the middle of this book. By then, David has taken many concubines (2 Samuel 5:13), but when, from his rooftop, he spies Bathsheba bathing, he becomes helplessly smitten for the first time. As Saul once conspired to get David killed by the Philistines, David now conspires to get Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle. He succeeds, and many loyal soldiers are collateral damage in the rash attack. David justifies the deaths, Saul-like, with uncharacteristic callousness: “Do not let this thing displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another.” (2 Samuel 11:25)

The much-lesss-than-righteousness doesn’t end there.

When his son Absalom rebels, wreaking havoc on the land, David shows himself as partial as any parent and distinctly lacking in good judgment: “O my son Absalom—my son, my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). Joab, his commander, will have none of it:

“Today you have disgraced all your servants who today have saved your life, the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives and the lives of your concubines…. For today I perceive that if Absalom had lived and all of us had died today, then it would have pleased you well.” (2 Samuel 19:5-6)

The sheen is wearing off David’s halo as he reaches the end of his reign at the end of 2 Samuel.


A similar trajectory is recounted for Solomon in 1 Kings: inspiring rise followed by all-too human fall. Samuel was the prophet, the apotheosis of the judges. But Israel wanted a king, so Samuel anointed Saul. Saul provided strong leadership, he kept the Philistines at bay (with David’s help), but he fell prey to envy and resentment. David brought moral and military leadership but fell short in uniting the entire kingdom. He left room for his successor to build on his accomplishments. Build Solomon most certainly did.

We have all heard of the Wisdom of Solomon. The wisest thing Solomon did was choose wisdom when God offered him a gift.

Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked long life for yourself, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice, behold, I have done according to your words; see, I have given you a wise and understanding heart… (1 Kings 3:11-12).

Thus armed, Solomon could famously pronounce from the bench, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other,” provoking the real mother to give up her half and thus resolve the dispute (1 Kings 3:25).

Because Solomon has not been greedy by asking for wealth or fame, God will give him…wealth and fame. In the second version of the tale in 2 Chronicles, God says, “I will grant you riches and wealth and honor, such as none of the kings have had who were before you, nor shall any after you have the like” (2 Chronicles 1:11-12). Is it true that one can have it all? Discernment and glory, justice and gold?

It seems so, at least for a while, not just for Solomon but for all of Israel, South and North. “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea in multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing” (1 Kings 4:20). “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan as far as Beersheba, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:25).

Extended peace allows Solomon to finally build God a temple in Jerusalem. Recounting the preparations, specifications, and actually construction takes two chapters, replete with descriptions of the opulence. Employing a labor force of 30,000 men, Solomon has cedar logs imported from Lebanon and giant stones quarried for the foundation. He has his workers overlay the frame of the sanctuary, the altar, and the entire temple with gold. It takes seven years to complete.

The building spree continues with a Hall of Pillars, Hall of Judgment, large sea (basin), ten carts, and ten lavers (more basins), plus furnishings. Solomon does not neglect to build a grand mansion for himself. Nor does he fail to implement urban renewal projects in selected cities: Gezer, Lower Beth Horon, Baalath, Tadmor, and more. Solomon even has a fleet of ships built. Israel’s first navy, or, at least, merchant marine. All this capital investment brings to mind the construction of the tabernacle and ark in Moses’ time, only on a much grander scale. Here is capital formation to the highest degree.

1 Chronicles takes a different slant on the same events. In the later book, Solomon’s Temple might as well be David’s. Father tells the son that “it was in my mind” to build God’s house, but God would not have it. “You have shed much blood and have made great wars,” He had told David. “You shall not build a house in My name, because you have shed much blood on earth in My sight… ” (1 Chronicles 22:7-8). It feels a lot like the Moses story all over again.

The question of where all the wealth came from is only partially answered. It had a lot to do with exploitation: “All the people who were left of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, who were not of the children of Israel…from these Solomon raised forced labor, as it is to this day” (1 Kings 9:20-21). The people whose God freed them from the Pharaoh’s whip in Moses’ time, have become the subjugators. What goes around, comes around. There is something a little sinister in that last clause, “as it is to this day;” also in the next when it says, “of the children of Israel Solomon made no forced laborers, because they were men of war and his servants: his officers, his captains, commanders of his chariots, and his cavalry” (1 Kings 9:22). A class structure by “race” has been established.

More building. More extravagance. Even the Queen of Sheba is impressed. “King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. …[He] made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and he made cedar trees as abundant as the sycamores which are in the lowland.” (1 Kings 10:23, 27)

The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Solomon was set for a hard fall. His tragic flaw is–what else?–his sex drive. He “loved many foreign women.” (1 Kings 11:1) The Bible tell us exactly how many: seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Worse, “his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God.” (1 Kings 11:4) He sounds no better than the fickle Israelites of Numbers. I mean, how wise could he have been, really?

The halcyon days of Israel under Solomon come to a more or less abrupt end. God sees to that. But, as usual, He pulls his punches. God says he will “afflict” the descendants of David because of Solomon’s transgressions…”but not forever” (1 Kings 11:39). How’s that for splitting the baby down the middle?


Like the Wheel of Fortune of medieval times, Israel’s fate rises and falls throughout the books of the Bible. In Solomon’s time, it’s fortune reaches its highest peak: the land is united, peace reigns, wealth accumulates, the temple is built. But it does not last. With the death of Solomon, half way through 1 Kings and a quarter of the way through 2 Chronicles, the Biblical reader senses Israel’s best days are behind it. The Wheel will rotate at a lower amplitude. Struggle will follow. (New King James Version)

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