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The Kings of the Jews

By Norman Gelb

More than 50 men and women sat on the throne of the Jews in ancient times, over a period spanning more than 1,000 years from around the year 1000 BCE. Of them, only the memory of a few has passed into the popular imagination.

Among those few are King David, the harp strumming warrior who first molded the Jewish tribes into a nation, and King Solomon, who was said to have conjured up marvels of wisdom and dispensed wonders of justice while administering an empire. In the 30 centuries that have passed since their time, tales of their accomplishments have been richly embroidered by legend and embellishment.

    King David and King Solomon led merry, merry lives,

    With many many lady friends, and many many wives.

    But when old age crept over them, with many many qualms,

    King Solomon wrote the proverbs and King David wrote the psalms.

Despite the puffed up yarns, David and Solomon were men of historic achievement. Though some of their royal successors were of little substance, and would have been forgotten if they had not been mentioned in passing in the Bible, others who wore the crown of the Jews in ancient times were, like David and Solomon, figures of considerable significance in the evolution of the Jewish nation.

Kings feature prominently in the histories of most nations. Major historical events are commonly portrayed as achieved or perpetrated by them or in their names: the wars they fought, the projects they undertook, the riches they accumulated, the reverses they sustained, how their people fared under them. That was as true for the Jews as for, say, the English or the Chinese. The Jewish nation, forerunner of the modern state of Israel, was forged into existence while Jews were ruled by monarchs of their own in a Middle East even more turbulent than it is today. And some of its largely forgotten rulers played important roles in that process. Kings Rehoboam and Jeroboam, for example, established the two separate and often rival Jewish kingdoms — Israel and Judah. Under King Omri, the northern kingdom of Israel became a force to be reckoned with in the region and was known to its neighbors as "The House of Omri". At a time when paganism had made potentially devastating inroads in Jewish worship and national identity, a campaign by Judah's King Josiah made his subjects aware of their rich national-religious heritage dating back to the Exodus, and renewed their lapsed covenant with God.

A gap of 400 years divided the two periods when the Jews were ruled by their own kings. That interval began with their expulsion from their kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians, one of the devouring regional superpowers that succeeded each other in dominance in ancient times — Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greek-Syria, Parthia, Rome. The survival of the Jewish nation depended on precarious interaction with all of them. In that forced exile in Babylon — the first Diaspora — Judaism took on a markedly different character, surviving a crucial test in which the Jewish nation could have been blotted out forever, the fate of other small lands in the region.

After the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, and the subsequent Maccabee uprising against Syria, warrior High Priest John Hyrcanus reestablished the independence and power of what had become the Syrian province of Judaea and set the stage for the rebirth of the Jewish monarchy.

Among the extensive religious reforms of Queen Alexandra Salome, one of the rulers of the Hassmonean dynasty, provision was made for the first time to shield divorced or widowed women from impoverishment, the precedent for modern day alimony and spousal support.

Later, Herod the Great, an Arab-Jew, teetered on the brink of homicidal lunacy, but he was also a builder-modernizer of cities, a benefactor to the people of the spreading Diaspora, and an international philanthropist who rescued the ancient Olympic games from oblivion.

These and other rulers played crucial roles in the evolution of the Jewish nation, forerunner of the modern state of Israel.


Norman Gelb is the author of several books, the latest of which is KINGS OF THE JEWS: Exploring the Origins of the Jewish Nation. You may visit his website at www.kingsofthejews.com

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from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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