Reviews of

1 & 2 Kings, An Introduction and Study Guide

In 1 & 2 Kings, Ancient Israel, Bloomsbury, HB/OT, Lester L. Grabbe, Mark Glanville, review on December 1, 2017 at 5:41 pm


2017.12.25 | Lester L. Grabbe. 1 & 2 Kings, An Introduction and Study Guide: History and Story in Ancient Israel. London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2017. 

Review by Mark R. Glanville

Lester L. Grabbe has written 1 & 2 Kings, An Introduction and Study Guide: History and Story in Ancient Israel as a part of the T&T Clark series, ‘Study Guides to the Old Testament’. This series aims to introduce students to a particular book within the Hebrew Bible, focusing, in particular, upon recent biblical scholarship.i Grabbe’s study is necessarily brief, and the main text totals 95 pages. Chapters one and two orientate the reader to questions of historiography and sources in order to lay the groundwork for the analysis of the texts to follow in chapters three through five. Grabbe’s goal throughout is to explore the historical reliability of the text.

The opening chapter explores the relationship of the Masoretic text to the Greek text. The Greek text of a smaller portion of 1 and 2 Kings is based upon a text that is similar to the Masoretic text (2 Sam 10 – 1 Kgs 2:11; 1 Kgs 22:1 – 2 Kgs 25:30). The Greek text of the remainder of 1 and 2 Kings is categorised as Antiochian or Lucianic. This text lies behind the Old Latin and Josephus’ use of 1 and 2 Kings. A description of some major commentaries on 1 & 2 Kings completes the chapter.

Chapter two explores the use of a source texts in 1 and 2 Kings. Literary-historical theories concerning the development of the Deuteronomistic history (Josh-2 Kings) are first outlined. The primary literary forms that comprise 1 and 2 Kings are then described. Next, Grabbe postulates that the historical narrative portions of the text may have as their source one unified document, the Chronicle of the Kings of Judah. This southern text, it is argued, chronicles in brief the kings of Judah and also the kings of Israel. Jean-Jacques Glassner’s Chronicle 16, From Nabonassar to Šamaš-Šuma-Ukīnii provides a comparative example of a king list that includes both the domestic royal succession and also the royal succession of a neighbouring kingdom (27).

On the basis of comparison with ANE king lists, Grabbe suggests that the original formula from the Chronicle of the Kings of Judah is: “In the nth year of PN of Israel/Judah, PN son of PN became king,” followed by, “and he reigned n years in Jerusalem/Samaria.” The DH (Deuteronomic historian) inserts after each of these two phrases, in turn, “He was n years old when he became king,” and, “His mother’s name was PN.” The data concerning the mother is confined to the kings of Judah. Whether or not there was original closing formula appears to be uncertain, on the basis of a criterion of redundancy (25-26).

Chapters three through five examine the period of the monarchy in 1 and 2 Kings in order to discern the historicity of the textual narrative. The analysis is based upon the formula for the source text suggested in chapter two, as well as archaeology and intertextual data. Chapter three discusses the period from Solomon until the beginning of Omri’s reign in the order of events as they appear in the HB (Hebrew Bible). While the kingdom was briefly united under David and Solomon, Israel and Judah remained separate kingdoms that were often at war, throughout the monarchy. Grabbe affirms the historical validity of the basic shape of the narrative, likely including Solomon’s building the temple. Nonetheless, 1 Kings inexplicably progresses the united kingdom from existing as a small united kingdom under David to a great empire under Solomon, whereby Solomon seems to have firm control of the entire Eastern Mediterranean—and yet with no Solomonic conquests to speak of. Further, archaeology demonstrates that Jerusalem at the time of Solomon was a town whose population was under 2000 (35). It seems clear, then, that the Solomon narrative is a royal narrative (Königsnovelle), with ‘romantic’ elements that correspond to Near Eastern ‘romances’ or legends, such as the Sesostris story and the Ninus/Semirami legend. The weight of the scholarship holds that only in the later development of the HB does Solomon become the great sage and Oriental Emperor who appears in the opening chapters of 2 Kings.

An examination of Shishak’s invasion of Israel (1 Kings 14:25-28 locates this at the time of Rehoboam) is put into conversation with Shosheqs’ inscription that records his invasion of Palestine. Kevin Wilson’s examination of the Shosheq inscription, among other Egyptian triumphal inscriptions, finds that such inscriptions are crafted to glorify the Pharaoh rather than to provide historical data.iii In Egyptian triumphal inscriptions, topographical details are reordered and even friendly cities may even be included in invasion records. Wilson’s finding calls into question traditional Old Testament studies that seek, with difficulty, to reconcile the biblical data with the inscription (37-38).

Chapter four explores, in canonical order, the reigns of the kings of Judah and Israel from Omri until the fall of Samaria. For this period, there are many correspondences between the extra biblical sources and 1 and 2 Kings. To be sure, the text is dominated by royal and prophetic narratives that must go well beyond an original king list. The Elijah-Elisha cycle, for example, and the extensive Ahab narratives probably refer, in part, to historical events and figures, and yet, not being a part of the original king-list, they are likely later developments that reflect the interests of the DH. Hayim Tadmor’s ‘Summary Inscription 4’ tells how Tiglath-pileser removed Pekah and replaced him with Hoshea.iv The idea of Tiglath-pileser removing Pekah is quite compatible with Hoshea himself usurping the throne, as the latter could not have taken place without Assyrian approval. Grabbe concludes the chapter, “Thus, the narrative in the books of Kings has useful data for reconstructing the history of Israel and Judah, if it is used carefully and critically.” (65)

A movement within Grabbe’s analysis is discerning the contrast between the religious practices of the time of the narrative and the religious norms of the DH. For example, regarding Azariah’s failure to remove the high places, Grabbe observes: “he followed the normal religious expectations of his own time rather than the later judgement of the Deuteronomists.” (61)

Chapter five concerns Judah after the fall of Samaria. It first explores the complex textual data surrounding Hezekiah’s reign. Grabbe concludes, with the weight of scholarship, that 2 Kings 18:13-16 is a reliable record and that the remainder of 2 Kings 18-20 is less reliable. The two-invasion theory during Hezekiah’s reign is no longer tenable, given that it is not supported by the inscriptional evidence. Generally speaking, while the later narrative of 2 Kings reflects and attests to historical realities, the theological aims of the DH also obscure these realities. For example, Josiah’s reign and reform dominates the biblical record, and yet no extra-biblical texts attest to him. In contrast, Jehoiachin is described only briefly, and yet he appears in the Babylonian Chronicles, among other texts. Nonetheless, the lack of reference to Josiah is understandable, given the withdrawal of Assyria; some kind of limited reform under Josiah is likely.

Summing up chapters three through five, Grabbe suggests that the quality of historical data in the biblical record improves as the account progresses. So, there is little reliable historical data in Joshua-Judges. More data, but still limited, can be found in 1 and 2 Samuel. Still more historical data may be found in relation to the reigns of David and Solomon, though there is also clear evidence of authorial imagination and legend stories. This trend continues through 1 and 2 Kings, and at the end of the narrative, a good deal of historical data is preserved. Nonetheless, Grabbe asserts that each individual narrative needs to be assessed on its own merits (81).

Chapter six explores hermeneutical and theological questions. First, Grabbe summarises his findings regarding history and story. 1 and 2 Kings contains some reliable historical data, and it also contains material that may be characterised as prophetic legends and theological expansions. While the DH seems to use a source text for reliable historical information, a royal chronicle or the like (as well as other sources of prophetic legends, etc.), 1 and 2 Kings is not critical historical writing that tests for bias, evaluates sources, etc. Rather, 1 and 2 Kings is an exercise in theological interpretation. Second, what is the nature of the ‘history’ told in 1 and 2 Kings? The Biblical Theology Movement spoke of ‘divine acts in history’. This did not mean factual history, as an historian might understand it, but a ‘history of salvation’. James Barr, in response, suggested that 1 and 2 Kings is not ‘history’ but ‘history-like’. These narratives are best described as ‘story’.v Third, regarding theology Grabbe traces the development of monotheistic Yahwism from a polytheistic context where Yahweh was one among many gods, a ‘son’ of El, to the monotheistic religion of the DH. Fourth, Grabbe discusses contemporary interpretation of 1 and 2 Kings. Grabbe holds that a reader response approach, which permits the reader to respond to the text in light of their own experience and context, has, in fact, been the modus operandi for reading 1 and 2 Kings for centuries. For, the text has been used in a great diversity of ways in reception history, according to the interests and needs of a particular time. “In many cases, explicit theological statements or interpretations accompany the story but, . . . we are not obligated to interpret the story as the original editors did.” (91) Indeed, “From a hermeneutical point of view, the purpose of the text is not to indoctrinate us or tell us what to believe but to make us think.” (91) Finally, Grabbe gives examples of some recent and fruitful approaches to the stories in 1 and 2 Kings, including from feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism, and analysis of reception history.

As we would expect from such an author, Grabbe has masterfully succeeded in accomplishing his stated task of discerning around the coexistence of history and story in 1 and 2 Kings, in light of archaeology and modern scholarship on the text. His approach to the historical reliability of the text is neither sceptical nor optimistic beyond the evidence. Readers from any tradition will benefit from Grabb’s balanced approach. To be sure, Grabbe’s book is fairly narrow in its focus for a student-level introductory book, and other approaches to the text that may interest and inspire the beginning student are entirely missing in his analysis, such as literary, theological, or feminist criticism (though these methodologies are noted in the final chapter). Nonetheless, Grabbe’s decision to focus his study has its benefits; indeed, to encapsulate this historical analysis within less than one hundred pages is a remarkable achievement.

Grabbe’s discussion of theology in chapter six is limited to tracing the development of monotheistic Yahwism during the period of the monarchy. Grabbe draws from various texts from beyond 1 and 2 Kings, inscriptions, divine names, and personal names. Grabbe has argued throughout the book that the monotheistic religion of the DH who compiled 1 and 2 Kings is vastly different from the polytheism of his literary subjects. While the importance of this scholarship cannot be doubted, is seems remiss to this reviewer that an introductory book on 1 and 2 Kings should have no discussion of the theology of the book itself. Such an approach to theology would surely render the same result for any and every book from the period of the monarchy within the Hebrew Bible, where the voice of a later editor is evident.

Finally, Grabbe’s focus in the final chapter on reception history and reader-response is a helpful lens for looking into the diversity of interpretations of the text, both historical and modern, and also the power and versatility of the stories within 1 and 2 Kings to address contemporary issues. Notwithstanding the value of these approaches, this reviewer wonders whether the kerygma of the text may be so thoroughly relativised that its regulatory potential is exhausted by the phrase “to make us think.” For, while the reasons why Grabbe has written his book and the reasons why Grabbe’s audience might pick up his book are obscure to us, a part of these reasons must be that 1 and 2 Kings are within the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, it is only in their canonical form that we have these books. Does not the canon of the HB exert some narrative and theological force upon the text, as difficult and ambivalent as this may be to discern?

In sum, Grabbe has produced a learned, brief, and very readable introduction to the historical issues surrounding 1 and 2 Kings.

Mark R. Glanville
markrglanville [at]


i “T&T Clark’s Study Guides to the Old Testament,”

ii Mesopotamian Chronicles, Writings from the Ancient World 19 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature) 2004), 193-203.

iii The Campaign of Pharaoh Shoshenq I into Palestine, FAT 2/9 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005).

iv The Inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser III King of Assyria: Critical Edition, with Introductions, Translations and Commentary (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities), 1994.

v James Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible (London: SCM, 1980), 5.


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