Meet the real King David, the one the Bible didn’t want you to know about (2022)

If you’ve never heard of King Jeroboam II, you’re probably not alone. He’s barely mentioned in the Bible despite ruling over a big chunk of the Levant 2,800 years ago, for no less than four decades. But you’ve definitely heard of the great kings Saul, David and Solomon, even though the actual existence of their United Monarchy of Israel and Judah has long been doubted by many scholars.

Now mounting evidence from archaeological digs and biblical scholarship has led to a startling new theory, which conflates the great Hebrew kings of yore with the oft-overlooked Jeroboam II. A great United Monarchy of sorts did exist, the new theory posits. But it formed under none other than the Israelite king Jeroboam II some two centuries after the time of David and Solomon, spreading as far as today’s Syria and Jordan.

In striking contrast to the biblical narrative, it was the kingdom of Israel in the north that controlled Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah in the south.

Jeroboam I praying to the false idols of the golden calves in the temples of Dan and Bethel, Chartres Cathedral, Eure-et-Loir, FranceCredit: Manuel Cohen / AFP

And why would the Bible say otherwise? Because the holy text was first compiled in Jerusalem more than a century after Jeroboam II’s reign, under the Judahite king Josiah, who was seeking justification for some expansionism of his own.

And, it was the real-life reign of Jeroboam II that offered Josiah the inspiration for the biblical story of the magnificent kingdom of David and Solomon, according to the new theory proposed by Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, one of Israel’s top biblical archaeologists.

Finkelstein, 69, has spent much of his career trying to convince his colleagues to stop contorting the interpretation of archaeological finds to fit the biblical narrative. The Bible is not a guidebook, he argues. Archaeologists exploring ruins for the story of the ancient Hebrews should be guided by the data emerging from excavations and advanced scientific techniques.

“King David” with Psalm 86, by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino, 1591-1666).Credit: Wikimedia

As he tells Haaretz in an exclusive interview, Finkelstein indeed thinks there was a historical great kingdom in ancient Israel. But it wasn’t your rabbi’s United Monarchy, ruled by David and Solomon from Jerusalem, with a centralized cult at the Temple. That story was instead based on the sprawling Israelite polity that emerged much later.

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King Josiah invents the United Monarchy

As the Bible tells it, sometime in the 11th or 10th century B.C.E., the twelve Israelite tribes united under strong monarchs: Saul, David and Solomon. But the fourth royal generation, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, was unable to hold the people together. All the tribes except Judah revolted against him, forming their own kingdom of Israel north of Jerusalem, led by a king named Jeroboam (the first of his name – not to be confused with our hero Jeroboam II).

Some archaeologists have long questioned the historicity of this account. Thanks in large part to Finkelstein’s own research, monumental ruins found across modern Israel – from Megiddo to Hazor and Gezer – once hailed as evidence of Solomon’s building prowess, have been re-dated to about a century after the fabled king was supposed to have reigned. These great ruins are now thought to be what remains of that northern kingdom of Israel that the Bible describes as a rascally renegade, but which was in reality a powerful regional force.

Tell Hazor: Monumental building once hailed as evidence of Solomon’s prowess have been re-dated to about a century after the fabled king was supposed to have reigned.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“There is a tension between the biblical description, which makes Judah and Jerusalem the center of the Universe, and archaeology and ancient near eastern texts, which make it very clear that Israel was the big story,” Finkelstein says. “It was more prosperous and more prominent, it had a larger population and competed for hegemony over the entire Levant.”

Archaeologists from opposing camps still fiercely debate the size and power of Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C.E. but so far there is little hard evidence that the founders of the Davidic dynasty ruled over anything larger than a tiny city-state in the Judean highlands.

Finkelstein and other scholars posit that the stories of the United Monarchy originated in the late 7th century B.C.E., under the Judahite king Josiah. But why would Josiah have his scribes aggrandize the “history” of his ancestors?

The United Monarchy: Was it, and when?Credit: Ariel David

When Josiah came to power, the kingdom of Israel had long since been destroyed by the Assyrians, whose empire was in turn collapsing, giving Judah an opportunity to expand into the formerly Israelite lands.

The idea that there once had been a large pan-Israelite kingdom – ruled from Jerusalem – would have worked nicely as a justification for Josiah’s expansionism and as a rallying cry to unite the people. But where did Josiah take the idea of a united monarchy from? Finkelstein asks, and answers: Possibly, he was inspired by Jeroboam II, who actually did reign over a great kingdom, as ruler of Israel from around 788 to 747 B.C.E.

When Samaria ruled Jerusalem

The first clues are in the Bible itself. Written from a pro-Judahite prospective, the Bible gives Jeroboam II the same treatment it reserves to all other Israelite kings, describing them as sinful polytheists who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 14:24).

The so-called Solomon's Gate at HazorCredit: Gil Eliahu

Regarding Jeroboam II, the text however grudgingly acknowledges his major conquests, ranging from the area of the Dead Sea to Damascus, and describes him as a savior of Israel. Jeroboam II’s success despite his apparent wickedness is explained thusly: “For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter; and whether bond or free, there was no helper for Israel. And the Lord did not say that He would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven; but He saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” (2 Kings 14: 26-27)

“The composer of the text needs to say the usual bad things about the kings of Israel, but he knows that it’s not so simple, because there is a memory that [Jeroboam II] was a great king who ruled for a long time over vast territories,” Finkelstein notes. “So he solves it by saying that it was the God of Israel who gave him this prosperity and this territorial expansion.”

Iron Age ruins in Jerusalem, possibly King David's palace: Who provoked David, God or Satan?Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

While the idea that Jeroboam II conquered Damascus is likely an exaggeration, the archaeological evidence for Israelite expansion at that time shows his kingdom extended beyond Dan in northern Israel, possibly to Daraa in southern Syria and Irbid in northern Jordan.

Conversely, even though places like Dan are described by the Bible as being part of the United Monarchy, Hebrew inscriptions from this site show the Israelite presence there dates only to the 8th century B.C.E. So these northern areas could not have been part of David and Solomon’s supposed empire some two centuries earlier, Finkelstein says.

Tell MegiddoCredit: Moshe Gilad

Jeroboam II’s kingdom also stretched far into the southern Levant. Hebrew inscriptions found at Kuntillet Ajrud, in the Sinai Desert, date to the first half of the 8th century B.C.E., confirming an Israelite presence there. Also, the invocations contained in the texts to “YHWH of Teman and his Asherah” and “YHWH of Samaria and his Asherah” show that the cult of YHWH was not centralized in Jerusalem but took place in multiple locations, including Jeroboam’s capital of Samaria. The reference to Asherah may also show that at that time the God of Israel was not a solitary deity, but was believed to have a divine wife.

Further to the south, near the Red Sea port of Eilat, there are remains of an ancient fortress that may also be dated to the 8th century B.C.E., suggesting that the biblical Etzion Gaber was not Solomon’s naval base (per 1 Kings 9:26) but a much later stronghold of Jeroboam II, Finkelstein says.

Finally, there is strong evidence that in Jeroboam II’s time, Israel directly or indirectly controlled Judah and Jerusalem itself.

Recent excavations co-headed by Finkelstein at Kiryat Ye’arim, an ancient settlement just 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, have revealed the presence of an Israelite town there dating to – you guessed it – the first half of the 8th century B.C.E. The town, so close to the Judahite capital, may have functioned as an administrative center to control Jerusalem and help keep the two states united – under Samaria’s rule.

Even the Bible indicates that, at the time, Judah was little more than a vassal to Israel, as it relates how Jeroboam II’s father, Joash, defeated the Judahite king Amaziah in a battle at Beth Shemesh and proceeded to sack Jerusalem and tear down its walls (2 Kings 14: 11-14).

The map of Jeroboam II’s vast territories, from Dan (or north of that) to Eilat, is starting to look suspiciously like that of the United Monarchy, as found, for example, in the list of Solomon’s governors for the various provinces of his kingdom (1 Kings 4).

“Solomon never ruled over these territories, and many of us agree that this is actually a description of the kingdom of Jeroboam II in the 8th century B.C.E.,” Finkelstein says. “So this pan-Israelite ideology began as a reality on the ground, but then the Judahites inherited it and used it for their own ideological purposes once Israel was no more.”

The two Jeroboams

The biblical description of Solomon’s kingdom as vastly prosperous and at the center of a lucrative trade network stretching from Arabia to the northern Levant also fits better with the realities of Jeroboam II’s reign, Finkelstein notes. Archaeological finds show that in his time, Israel was prosperous enough to sustain trade with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt as well as its soon-to-be-conqueror, the Assyrian empire, the archaeologist says. No sign of such great prosperity has been found in Jerusalem or Judah in the 10th century B.C.E.

In other words, it seems quite possible that the Judahite scribes who compiled the Bible used the borders and the prosperity of Jeroboam II’s Israel as a template for an ancient, mythical United Monarchy.

“It is certainly true that Jeroboam II is a much more important person than is presented in the Bible,” concurs Thomas Romer, an expert in the Hebrew Bible and professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne.

Romer, who has excavated the site of Kiryat Ye’arim with Finkelstein, says it is impossible to know whether Jeroboam II himself consciously promoted the idea of a United Monarchy, perhaps to justify his own dominance over Judah. But it is quite clear that the later editors of the Bible liberally used elements from Jeroboam II’s story and projected them backwards into other narratives, Romer says.

Palace in biblical GezerCredit: Sam Wolff

This may be true not only for David and Solomon, but also for figures like Jeroboam I, the leader of Israel’s rebellion against Rehoboam and the first king of the north.

The Bible tells us that his major sin was to set two golden calves in Bethel and Dan to draw the Israelites away from worshipping in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:25-33). But if archaeologists are correct in saying that Dan only became part of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E., this is more likely to be a memory from Jeroboam II’s reign, which was then “retro-projected” into the story of the dastardly founder of Judah’s rival, Romer says.

The ‘northern Bible’

One key question that all this raises is how did the biblical compilers in 7th century B.C.E Jerusalem know so much about the reign of an Israelite king who had lived more than a century earlier.

This is part of a larger mystery: it is unclear how the Bible manages to be so precise when chronicling the names and dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, even going back to the 9th century B.C.E., to the point that this information can be successfully cross-referenced with Assyrian texts, which mention some Israelite rulers.

The likely solution is that the chronicles of Jeroboam II and other northern kings reached Jerusalem in written form, possibly together with refugees who fled to Judah when the Assyrians conquered Israel around 720 B.C.E., Finkelstein says.

Before that destruction, the kingdom of Israel definitely had the ability and resources to produce poetic and religious texts, as evidenced by the Ajrud invocations and other finds, such as the Balaam inscription, a prophecy by the Moabite prophet Balaam, which also dates to the 8th century B.C.E. Judah reached this level of literacy only much later.

Already in 2012, Jonathan Robker, a biblical scholar from the University of Muenster in Germany, identified an older layer of text within the Book of Kings that represents a possible chronicle of the kings of Israel in the north, from Jeroboam I to Jeroboam II, which became incorporated into the Bible.

This would not be the only case of a northern text or tradition being included in the Bible.

Scholars have long recognized that the Old Testament is a compilation of different – and often contradictory – sources. Some of these can be positively identified as narratives that originated in Israel, either because they take place in the north or have northern protagonists. These include key biblical chapters such as the story of the patriarch Jacob (who, unlike Abraham and Isaac, roams the regions to the north of Jerusalem), most of the tales of the Judges, and parts of King Saul’s story, Finkelstein says.

The biblical scribes of Judah had multiple reasons to incorporate these traditions into their own rather than forget about the entire lot, Finkelstein says. In addition to justifying their own territorial ambitions, preserving northern stories would have helped unify the Judahites and the Israelite refugees into one people.

Theologically, the appropriately edited texts would also have served to explain the fall of Israel as the result of the evil-doing of its kings, while also establishing Jerusalem as the only legitimate center of cult and the capital of a more pious kingdom.

It was likely for these reasons that, to this day, Jeroboam II is mostly remembered not as the greatest ruler in ancient Hebrew history – but as just another wicked king in the north who “did evil in the sight of the Lord.”

Monumental construction and giant jars, containing scorched wheat, found at HazorCredit: Gil Eliahu

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