By the beginning of the first millennium BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was largely unified, although still composed of many small tribal groups under separate leaders. These tribes often fought against each other, until the threatening presence on the coastal plain of the Philistines (Palestine is named for them) compelled them to unite against a common enemy. Having accomplished their objective of conquering Canaan and now obliged to hold it against tribal aggressors from outside, the Israelites settled into a period of Kingship during which their original theocracy was often at odds with the evolving military and legal rulers. Incursions by the Philistines with their iron weapons increasingly created the need for a centralized military government to defend the newly conquered country from other would-be conquerors. The first king was Saul (d.c.1005 BCE), who was anointed by the early judge and prophet Samuel after the Jews insisted on having a king (but not before Samuel warned them repeatedly of the dangers of kingship, and laid out its various rights and duties at some length). When Saul failed to follow God’s orders, Samuel denounced him, and after Saul’s death he replaced him with David (d.c.966 BCE).
David’s 40-year reign was the most successful in Jewish history, combining military security with theocratic openness. A poet and musician as well as a great leader, David is remembered for composing a number of the Psalms and slaying the great Philistine “champion,” Goliath, with a stone from a sling. He went on to defeat the Philistines and to conquer the city of Jerusalem, which was then still held by the Jebusites. Solomon (c. 961-925 BCE), a son of David, proved to be a pragmatic and sometimes ruthless king, with several foreign wives, including the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh. He built a famed Temple which contained a completely dark inner sanctum known as the Holy of Holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant resided. Sometime after the death of Solomon, the Israelites, made up of two small kingdoms in the area of Palestine — Israel in the north and Judah in the south — split apart and were destroyed separately by outside forces. The Assyrians invaded the Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, removing the elite and skilled laborers back to Assyria, and resettling the region with their own people, eradicating 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes in the process. The Kingdom of Judah lasted some time longer, but finally fell to the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar, who conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple of Solomon in 587 BC.
Before the destruction of Israel, a series of prophets had arisen in the land, taking the rich and powerful to task and foretelling God’s vengeance if His laws were not followed. Elijah of Tishbi, who denounced the infamous Ahab and Jezebel in the 9th century BCE, was the first prophet to support the individual conscience. The Lord spoke to him in a “still, small voice,” a phrase that has come to define the inner urgings of a spiritual conscience. His preaching that even kings had to answer to inner principles was not popular, and he spent most of his life as a fugitive.
Hosea, a prophet at the time of the breakup of the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites, predicted its downfall, and traced the causes to the moral failings of the chosen people, their violence and political purges, institutionalized priesthood, and backsliding into pagan activities, saying, “They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” Isaiah was a prophet of the 8th century BCE, although the second half of the book attributed to him in the Hebrew Bible was composed a century or two later by an unknown prophet referred to as Deutero-Isaiah. He predicted the coming of a Messiah (Ma-shi-akh), a savior who would lead the people out of darkness, a “Prince of Peace.” These prophesies were later quoted in the Christian New Testament as proof that Christ’s coming had been predicted by the prophets. However, the Jewish Messiah was supposed to gather the Jews to Israel from all over the world and usher in an era of universal peace, events which clearly have not yet happened.vFinally, Jeremiah railed against the impending collapse of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, in fatalistic fashion — a long, virulent tirade that has given us the word “jeremiad.”
Toward the end, the prophets looked on the impending doom as part of God’s will, saying that whatever happens is meant to be and should be accepted, including the destruction of the Israelite kingdom. In 597 BCE, the city of Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar, and the Diaspora, or dispersal of the Israelites, began. By 586 BCE, Jerusalem itself had fallen, and the Temple of Solomon was destroyed. The Temple was rebuilt 70 years later–called the Second Temple–only to be destroyed again, for good, by the Romans in 70 CE.
The later prophets, especially Hosea and Isaiah, not only opposed the institutionalized priestly religion of ritual and sacrifice, but also insisted on the need for social justice. The forcible admonitions of the prophets laid the groundwork for a tradition of social justice and change which is deeply ingrained in Western thought.