The Hebrews’ request for a king, to replace God’s ad hoc helpers, makes two political statements: one about the earthly authority of God and another about the place of each Israelite among his or her people.
The request shocks Samuel, the last of the judges.
In prayer, he hears the Lord console him, saying that Israel’s wanting a king instead his judgeship is similar to many earlier acts of disloyalty to the Hebrews’ one ruler, God (1 Samuel 8:7-9).
At God's bidding, Samuel explains to the people what a king means in concrete everyday terms (1 Samuel 8:11-18). An Israelite king would spell then end of the implicit equality among kinsmen and accepted members of the nation.
In ancient times, a king was something in between the modern figurehead in Britain, who reigns but does not rule, and the absolute monarch of pre-revolutionary France or Russia, whose whims were law. The king of biblical times was the primary owner of all in a domain, who was owed taxes, produce, livestock and labor in exchange for defense of the realm.
Despite the security of God’s protection and the relative equality among themselves, the people of Israel want to be more like everyone else. They want to be less dependent on God and ruled under a hereditary monarchy. The reader can tell this spells nothing but trouble.
The great biblical kings we all recall—Saul, David and Solomon—are the three who ruled from about 1030 to 931 BCE (remember that years advance backward in BCE times) over the united kingdom roughly covering a territory that today is Israel and Jordan combined.
Saul is known for his various slayings—also for his failure to slay certain other enemies. David is known for his murderous adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba; shame and guilt later led him to the wilderness, to pen the Psalms attributed to him. Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba, is known for his judicial wisdom, for building the first temple of Jerusalem and for his many wives.
That is not the full story of the monarchy of the Hebrews. Solomon's quarrelsome sons split the kingdom into two.
In the south was the territorially small kingdom of Judah, with its capital Jerusalem; this was home to the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, initially under Rehoboam. In the north, Jeroboam I set up the kingdom of Israel, with its capital city Samaria; here were the later “lost” ten tribes of Israel, who refused allegiance to Rehoboam.
The northern kingdom is the eventual home of Samaritans around the time of a certain woodworker from Galilee. Also in the 1st century of our era, the name of the southern kingdom, Judah, had become latinized to Judea, giving rise to the Roman name for its people, Iudeaorum, or Jews.
But I am getting ahead of the story.
Judah had 20 kings: Rehoboam, Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Athaliah, Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah , Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, Manasseh, Amon, Josiah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah.
Israel had another 20 kings: Jeroboam I, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash, Jeroboam II, Zechariah, Shallum, Menahem, Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea.
Jumping Jehoshaphat, that's a lot of strange names!
Their stories are hugely complicated and best read directly in the Bible (from Samuel through the II Chronicles). I only add the usual caution: treat these narratives as epics written to advance rabbinical or theological points about the relationship of the Hebrews with God, rather than as a straightforward newspaper history of two ancient kingdoms of little importance in their own day.
I'll summarize all of them in three paragraphs.
Israel existed as an independent kingdom until about 720 BCE, when it was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire, which itself was absorbed within a century into the Babylonian Empire (located in modern Iraq). This is when the mass deportation of Hebrews, known in retrospect as the Babylonian exile, first took place.
Judah was able to remain independent until 586 BCE, until its alliance with the Babylonians’ enemy, Egypt, prompted the Babylonian invasion and eventual first destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—both are noted in the book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.
In religious terms, Israel abandoned traditional faith with the acceptance of the worship of Baal, an agrarian fertility god. In the broader Semitic mythology of the Mesopotamia, Baal reigned as “master” over other gods, much as Zeus ruled the Greek set of deities. Judah remained steadfast to the God of Abraham, referred to as Elohim, but entered into dubious exchanges of ideas with Egyptians, who also offered the temptation of false gods.