Was the Israelite kingdom divided between David and Ish-bosheth, or was it only divided later?

Q.  After Saul dies, the narrative in Samuel-Kings says that “the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah,” but that “Ish-Bosheth son of Saul . . . became king over Israel.”  I always thought that the official ‘division’ of the kingdom happened later, when Rehoboam rejected the elders’ counsel and Jeroboam led the northern tribes in revolt.  Can you reconcile these two accounts for me?

The rivalry between David and Ish-Bosheth was not a division of the ancient Israelite kingdom into two parts, it was a civil war to see which of these men would become king over all twelve tribes.

Samuel-Kings uses its characteristic “regnal notice” to describe how Ish-Bosheth succeeded his father Saul as king: “Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years.”  A similar notice does not appear for David until after the contest is settled and all of Israel accepts him as its king, even though the notice does acknowledge David’s time as king only of Judah: “David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.”  So in effect Ish-bosheth became king after Saul, but David eventually displaced him.

There’s actually a record in the book of Chronicles of the large numbers of warriors–hundreds of thousands–from all the other tribes who “came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said“–in other words, to help him win the war against Ish-bosheth.  Among them are 200 chieftains from Issachar who, we are told, “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.”  This might be said of all these warriors and their leaders from every tribe: They knew that David was God’s choice to succeed Saul and they gave him their allegiance and support even as he was in the process of defeating his rival.

The situation was different between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.  Because of Solomon’s disobedience (worshiping other gods!), the Lord told him that he would lose the kingdom, except that one tribe would be left to his family dynasty for David’s sake.  Solomon’s son Rehoboam adopted foolish, oppressive policies and wouldn’t listen to sound advice, and in response a leader name Jeroboam (one of Solomon’s former high officials) led a revolt that permanently drew the northern ten tribes into a kingdom of their own.  The original kingdom was never reunited and both parts, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, were eventually conquered and exiled by the great empires of the ancient world.

Hope this is helpful!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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