The Israelite Monarchy (c. 1020–930 b.c.e.)
The first king, Saul, bridged the period between loose tribal organization and the establishment of a monarchy under his successor, David. David, the son of Jesse, was a shepherd who became a warrior and a successful unifier of the disparate tribes. He is perhaps best known for the biblical story in which he killed the giant Goliath, a champion of the Philistine army. Initially David took control of the area of Judah in the southern portion of the kingdom and eventually united the north and the south under his rule. His reign as king of all of Israel was momentous.
King David (c. 1004–965 b.c.e.) established Israel as a major power in the region through successful military expeditions—including the final defeat of the Philistines, the conquering of the mountainous central areas, and of the neighboring states—as well as through the construction of a network of alliances with nearby kingdoms. The whole of the land west of the Jordan River was now under his control and rule.
He conquered the city of Jerusalem, a city that controlled the main north-south route in the interior of his kingdom, from the Jebusites. Consequently, his authority was recognized from the borders of Egypt and the Red Sea to the banks of the Euphrates River. He created a powerful and professional army that ended tribal unrest and provided a strong foundation for his rule. At home, he set up a new administration, made Jerusalem his capital, united the 12 tribes of Israel into one kingdom, and placed Jerusalem and the monarchy at the center of the country’s national life.
He established control over the regional trade routes and economic contacts with the Phoenician cities along the Mediterranean coast. According to the Bible, David brought the Ark of the Covenant, a wooden chest containing the tablets of the covenant and a symbol of Jewish faith and unity, to Jerusalem, helping to establish that city as the center of his united kingdom. Jerusalem became the religious and political heart of Israel. David’s impressive kingdom was passed on to his son and successor, Solomon.
King Solomon (c. 965–930 b.c.e.), directed most of his activities toward strengthening the kingdom. Treaties with neighboring kings, reinforced by politically motivated marriages, helped to ensure tranquillity within Israel and made it equal among the great powers of the period. Solomon expanded foreign trade and promoted economic progress by developing major enterprises such as copper mining and metal smelting.
He fortified towns of strategic and economic importance and established new ones. Crowning Solomon’s construction activities were the royal palace and the Temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem developed as the center of the people’s national and religious life, and the Temple’s priests became the central religious authority.
Divided Monarchy (930–586 b.c.e.)
Solomon’s rule was marred toward the end by discontent on the part of the populace. With Solomon’s death, the northerners refused to recognize his son and successor, Rehoboam. Open insurrection led to the breaking away of the northern tribes and the division of the country into a northern kingdom, Israel, and a southern kingdom, Judah.
The Kingdom of Israel, encompassing the territory of 10 of the Israelite tribes, with its capital in Samaria, lasted more than 200 years under 19 kings, while the Kingdom of Judah, made up of the territory of the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and part of Benjamin in the south, was ruled from Jerusalem for 400 years by kings of the lineage of David.
The northern kingdom flourished and prospered more than its southern neighbor because it was more populous, had more fertile land, and was closer to the trading centers. The expansion of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires brought first Israel and later Judah under their control. The Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians between 740 and 722, and its people (who came to be known as the 10 lost tribes) were carried off into permanent exile and oblivion.
With the end of the northern kingdom, perpetuation of Jewish history and tradition depended on the southern kingdom and its component tribes; in fact, the term Jew derives from the Hebrew word Yehudi, meaning “a man of Judah.” But at the end of the sixth century b.c.e., the Assyrian Empire collapsed. The Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, captured the king, and ended the Kingdom of Judah. Babylonia razed the Temple in 586 and exiled most of Judah’s inhabitants. From that point to the present day, most Jews have lived outside the Holy Land, in the Diaspora.