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We know a people group called Israel was living in Canaan no later than the 13th century BCE. But, how did they grow into a powerful monarchy? The Merneptah Stele inscription, the earliest extra-biblical evidence for Israel, suggests that in 1207 BCE, this people was not yet a State. That dovetails with the portrait in the book of Judges. The biblical narrative portrays judges (i.e. village elders or tribal chieftains) ruling until the Israelites demand a king. A prophet, Samuel, reluctantly honors that wish and anoints Saul. However, Saul falters and David is chosen instead. In the Bible, king David is the exemplary king who unites the twelve tribes of Israel under one monarchy. His name becomes the benchmark for royal expectations. The question is: can archaeology provide further insight into these biblical stories?
From Small Tribal Villages to City States
Despite the Egyptian reference to Israel in the 13th century BCE, no additional mention is available for the next 300 years. During this large gap called Iron Age I (c. 1200-1000 BCE), the Israelite settlements in the highlands were simple. The people lived primarily as pastoralists and horticulturalists, raising goats and sheep and tending fruit trees. However, a small blip on the screen occurs about 200 years after the Merneptah Stele. We encounter the earliest known Hebrew writing (“paleo-Hebrew”). The Zayit Stone, Gezer Calendar, and Qeiyafa Ostracon are dated to circa 10th century BCE, around the same time as the traditional date of the early monarchy (see also the Ophel inscription and Beth-shemesh gameboard inscription). These inscriptions provide minimal information and the lettering is largely indistinguishable from Phoenician, so ambiguity remains. But they suggest signs of literacy among the Israelites, if only for trained scribes. The 10th century marks a turn toward urbanization.
This urbanization developed in two primary regions: the more densely populated northern highlands and the less populated southern highlands. In biblical tradition, the north was home to ten tribes and the south had two tribes (Benjamin and Judah). As a result, the south was called Judah. We commonly refer to “ancient Israel” as one entity, but for much of history, two kingdoms existed, Israel (north) and Judah (south). The biblical authors describe the glory days when the two were united under one monarchy. But, the unity was confined primarily to the time of David and Solomon. In other words, it’s more historically accurate to refer to “Israel and Judah,” and not only “Israel”—an important distinction for interpreting the Bible. The biblical authors often use “Israel” to refer only to the northern kingdom (context determines which meaning is intended; see map).
King David: Earliest Biblical Figure Mentioned in Extra-Biblical Evidence
We have virtually no extra-biblical evidence of Saul (r. 1025-1005 BCE), David (r. 1005-965 BCE), and Solomon (r. 968-928 BCE). Solomon is described as so famous even the Queen of Sheba travels long distances to meet him. Yet we do not find any references to Solomon outside of the Bible, nor to Saul. Only one small inscription acknowledges David. Some scholars believe the lack of reference indicates the monarchy did not take off until the 9th century. Others argue that kings from nearby regions commonly go unmentioned during this time period as well.
The single reference we have of David is a later inscription from the 9th century that reads the “House of David”—a reference not to David himself, but to his dynasty (more than 100 years after David would have died). The inscription was found during a dig at Tel Dan in 1993. Scholars attribute it to Hazael, king of Damascus-Aram (Syria). He brags about killing both “the king of Israel” and “the king of the House of David” (i.e. Judah). The king of Judah at the time was Ahaziah. This reference to the Davidic dynasty provides historical evidence for the existence of king David. His direct descendants still governed in the 9th century.
Were Saul and David Chieftains or Kings?
Aside from the Tel Dan Inscription, we have no extra-biblical sources to shed light on Saul and David. Many scholars would classify the men as chieftains, rather than kings. Prominent building projects expected of a monarchy are lacking. The biblical story suggests Saul was a war chief selected at a time when the Philistines were threatening security. However, Saul’s authority was challenged by David who is depicted as the true savior (e.g. defeater of the infamous Philistine Goliath). Indeed, the Philistines made a dramatic appearance in Canaan around 1177 BCE. They were powerful enough to push out Egypt.
The biblical author goes to great lengths to depict David as the legitimate ruler of both Israel and Judah, portraying his refusal to kill Saul and asserting that Jonathan gladly gave away his birthright (1 Sam 18:12-17, 30-31; 24). But, once Saul and Jonathan are killed by the Philistines (along with two other sons), David attacks Saul’s surviving heir Ishbaal with the goal of bringing down the House of Saul (2 Sam 2:8-3:1). Even into his reign, the accusation lingers that David gained power through a coup (16:5-8), although the biblical author dismisses the charge (19:16-21).
While no extra-biblical references mention Solomon, certain structures fit for a king have been attributed to him. These include palaces, horse stables, and 6-chambered city gates. The biblical authors indicate Solomon built at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer (1 Kings 9:15), the three locations where similar city gates were found. Traditionally, these have been dated to the 10th century BCE. However, Israel Finkelstein objects to the chronology and proposes the structures are from the 9th century BCE. This debate is captured in The Quest for the Historical Israel wherein Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar offer differing conclusions. Part of the challenge is finding a solid anchor for dating archaeological finds. We can determine “relative chronology”—that is, which layers are older or younger—but without an external anchor to date at least one of those layers, we cannot pin it down. Seeds found alongside pottery are one possible anchor. Using radiocarbon technology, the seeds can be dated, and therefore, the pottery in the layer they were found. However, this has not conclusively ended the debate because radiocarbon dating has a plus/minus margin of 30 years. If a 9th century date is chosen, then Solomon’s kingdom was not grand at all. Instead, the glory belongs to the Israelite Omride dynasty. However, in favor of the traditional 10th century dating, Sheshonq I’s invasion of northern Israelite cities (c. 925 BCE) suggests a pre-existing power structure worthy of such an attack.
Why the Davidic Monarchy?
Whether one should date the start of the monarchy to the time of Saul and David, Solomon, or later, the question remains how the monarchy developed. Was there ever a united monarchy when the north and south came together under one authority? Did two separate monarchies develop simultaneously or at different times? Complicating the idea that a monarchy first blossomed with kings David or Solomon is the status of Judah. The south was a smaller, less powerful, less populated entity. Archaeological evidence suggests the northern kingdom developed first. How would Judah gain the upper hand over a more powerful region? The biblical narrative suggests people were swayed by David’s show of security in turbulent times. But even the biblical authors indicate northerners were not fully settled with David’s or Solomon’s leadership. David is forced to go to war to win northern territory (2 Sam 2:8-3:1). Northerners challenge his authority during his reign (20:1-2). And Solomon’s leadership became oppressive, setting in motion permanent northern rejection of Davidic governance (1 Kgs 5:13-14; 11:26-40; 12:1-24).
United monarchy or not, the biblical authors don’t have the same regard for Israel as they do for Judah. The Davidic dynasty is favored over and against Israelite kings. In fact, a northern perspective is almost absent in the biblical record. Significantly, the final editors of the texts that form the Old Testament were Judahites. Israel fell to the Assyrians over a hundred years before Judah fell to the Babylonians, leaving the shaping of history to the survivors. These editors had reasons for glorifying the Davidic dynasty. When northern refugees flooded into Judah to flee Assyria, the Judahites had new challenges for maintaining State unity. Similarly, when Jews returned to Judea to rebuild after the Babylonian exile, the question of leadership was a natural one. Possibly, descendants of northern refugees were viewed as potential challengers. If so, the biblical authors counter these by championing the Davidic dynasty as the only legitimate one. Thus, in many ways the idealized united monarchy is a post-exilic hope.
Want to Learn More?
Nova has a decent documentary that reflects on archaeological issues raised in this essay, as well as Israel’s and Judah’s history more broadly. Part II begins with the discussion of David and Solomon. See also Part I.
Sources for this essay:
Bill T. Arnold and Richard S. Hess, ed., Ancient Israel’s History: An Introduction to Issues and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: WB Eerdmans, 2001).
Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007).
Victor H. Matthews, A Brief History of Ancient Israel (Louisville: WJK Press, 2002).
 An older jar handle (12th century BCE) has “Ahilu[d]” written in proto-Canaanite script, a name that shows up in the Old Testament (albeit for a later time period; 2 Sam 8:16 and 20:24). See also the ‘Izbet Sartah Inscription.
 There are contradictions and difficulties in the way the biblical authors present the chronology of the kings. Several scholars have tried to solve the puzzle. The dates used in this essay are drawn from Mordechai Cogan, “Chronology” in Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. D.N. Freedman, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1002-11.
 Theories concerning the United Monarchy range from “conventional” (historically accurate), “modified” (historical kernel with literary reconstruction), “subject lost” (complete literary invention), “southern” (Judah is substantiated), and “northern” (Israel, the northern kingdom, is substantiated). See Filip Čapek, “United Monarchy as Theological Construct in Light of Contemporary Archaeological Research on Iron Age IIA” in A King Like All the Nations? Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in Bible and History, ed. Manfred Oeming and Petr Sláma, BVB 28 (Zürich: LIT Verlag Münster, 2015), 9-20.