Benjamin in the Divided Monarchy

During the divided monarchy, Benjamin appears to have played a key role as the border tribe between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.[1] The exact nature of that role is the subject of much debate.

Levin observes that the language of the oracles to Solomon and Jeroboam (1 Kgs 11:11-13; 11:29-39) leaves Benjamin’s affiliation ambiguous: ten[2] tribes (vv. 31, 35) are torn from David’s line, and only one is left for David (vv. 13, 32, 36).[3] Levin argues that from the beginning of the period of divided monarchy the land of Benjamin was divided, torn between stronger ties to the north and southern kings attempting to create a buffer for their capitol:

Rehoboam [mustered] all of his influence and power, whether military, economic or political, in order to retain control over the border regions. In the end he was only partially successful. The border was set at Mizpah; towns to the north such as Bethel and Ophrah with their Benjaminite clans remained in Israel.[4]

Over time, southern Benjaminites came to identify themselves as a minority within Judah, while “[retaining] familial ties with their brethren ‘across the border.’”[5] The biblical secession story reflects an exilic or post-exilic stage of Benjaminite affiliation with Judah.

Davies rejects the idea that the North—which included Benjamin—was ever ruled by a Judahite king.[6] Challenging Schunck’s acceptance of the biblical assertion that from the time of Rehoboam onward Benjamin was associated with Judah (1 Kgs 12),[7] Davies argues rather that Benjamin was part of the Northern Kingdom until 722, when the conquering Assyrians “may have decided to grant this territory to their loyal allies”: the kingdom of Judah.[8] After Sennacherib subjugated all Judah but Jerusalem, Josiah may have subsequently reasserted temporary control of Benjaminite territory.[9] After the Babylonian conquest, the tables were somewhat turned: the province of Judah was ruled from a Benjaminite administrative center (Mizpah), and its primary cultic centers appear to have been Benjaminite as well (Mizpah, Bethel, Gibeon).[10]

Na’aman is critical of such attempts by Davies and others to associate Benjamin solely with the Northern Kingdom at from its earliest stages—a tendency which, he suggests, is based on the biblical story of Benjamin and Joseph as sons of Rachel.[11] Na’aman argues that from its earliest history[12] the Benjaminite region was associated with Jerusalem: “The results of the archaeological research strongly suggest that the highland district of Benjamin was an integral part of the kingdom of Judah in the monarchical period, and that its material culture differs from that of the hill country of Ephraim.”[13] Even though portions of the land of Benjamin were part of the Northern Kingdom—notably Bethel[14]—most of Benjamin was part of the kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy.[15]

The scenarios proposed by Levin and Na’aman seem to make better sense of the material evidence, and of Knauf’s and Davies’s own suggestions that the annexation of Bethel was partly the means by which Israelite/Northern traditions (e.g., exodus and judges/saviors traditions) came south to Judah.[16] Na’aman rightly questions why the Assyrians—if they indeed gave the land of Benjamin to Judah after 722 BCE—would have detached Bethel, an important administrative and cultic center of the conquered Samarian kingdom, and given it to Judah.[17] Na’aman prefers to follow Alt’s proposal that “the area of Bethel was annexed to the kingdom of Judah after the Assyrian retreat from Palestine, probably in the 620s BCE.”[18]

Levin argues, contra Davies, that Benjamin’s ambiguous, tense relation to Judah throughout the DtrH is strong evidence of the historicity of at least a core of the biblical portrait of the united monarchy. If Benjamin was only annexed involuntarily to Judah after the fall of the Samarian kingdom, what would be the necessity for such a strong Benjaminite “substratum” in such a Judah-centered history—especially the founding of Israel by a Benjaminite king?[19] “The only possible reason for such a tradition to be included in the History is that it was known to the people of the authors’ own time, forcing them to deal with it.”[20] Rather, Benjamin seems to have been important to Judah from the beginning, since Jerusalemite rulers needed Benjamin’s support as a buffer against the North.

Levin, Davies, Na’aman and Knauf observe intertribal tensions embedded in the biblical texts, which reflect Benjamin’s status as a border tribe—Na’aman sees Benjaminite hostility toward Ephraim,[21] whereas Davies focuses on Benjaminite hostility toward Judah.[22] There is no doubt that both observations are correct, reflecting the “tug-of-war” over Benjamin found both in the narratives of 1-2 Kings and in the history of the ninth and eighth centuries BCE.

Economic activity is dynamic; ethnic and religious identities exhibit fluidity and flexibility. Any reconstruction of the political status of Benjamin during the divided monarchy must take these facts into consideration. Given that the written evidence seems to associate Benjamin with both the North and the South, it is reasonable to suggest that some Benjaminite families, settlements and towns switched their primary allegiances (in one direction or the other) at different times. The ethnic/clan association with Ephraim seems to have been stronger,[23] but the geography of Benjamin made economic, political and military ties with Judah a necessity as well.

Such a scenario assumes a certain measure of autonomy for “Benjamin” as a tribe/province/polity, and for Benjaminite individuals/families. In Knauf’s and Davies’s proposed scenarios, Benjamin is a passive entity, subjugated in succession by the Samarian government, the conquering Assyrians, the kingdom of Judah, Assyria, and finally Babylon. Yet political boundaries defined by military conquest, treaty, taxation and forced tribute do not always mirror economic, ethnic and religious affiliations. For example, it is perfectly conceivable that individual Benjaminite towns or families paid regular tribute to one larger political entity—and thus would be considered “part” of that entity—while simultaneously identifying ethnically, religiously and economically with another political entity. The material and literary evidence seems to demand nuanced explanations that emphasize complexity and fluidity, rather than proposals that generalize about one kingdom “handing over a region” to another.

[1] Klaus-Dietrich Schunck, Benjamin: Untersuchungen zur Entstehung und Geschichte eines israelitischen Stammes (BZAW 86; Berlin: Alfred Töpelmann, 1963), 171-172.

[2] The association of “ten tribes” is itself a stylization, since Simeon’s region was contained within Judah’s (Josh 19:9), and was apparently later absorbed into Judah: “The pattern of Judahite domination over and even absorption of Simeon is strongly suggested by the Deuteronomistic work” (Gary N. Knoppers, 1 Chronicles 1-9 [Anchor Bible Commentary; New York: Doubleday, 2004], 372). The Northern faction in Rehoboam’s day would only have included nine tribes: Reuben, Gad, Dan, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulun, Issachar, Manasseh, and Ephraim—and possibly Benjamin, which is the very question at hand.

[3] “I would suggest that rather than this being bad addition in an unskillfully told story, it is a purposeful reflection of the unclear status of the twelfth tribe, namely Benjamin, once again in an oracle attributed to a northern prophet” (Yigal Levin, “Joseph, Judah and the ‘Benjamin Conundrum,’” ZAW 116 [2004]: 229n27).

[4] Levin, “Benjamin Conundrum,” 229.

[5] Levin, “Benjamin Conundrum,” 230.

[6] Philip R. Davies, “The Trouble With Benjamin,” in Reflection and Refraction: Studies in Biblical Historiography in Honour of A. Graeme Auld (ed. R. Rezetko et al.; Leiden: Brill, 2007), 102.

[7] Schunck, Benjamin: Untersuchungen, 139-69.

[8] Davies, “The Trouble With Benjamin,” 103-104.

[9] Davies, “The Trouble With Benjamin,” 103. Ernst A. Knauf argues that Benjamin, “the Israelite south,” was annexed to Judah between 630 and 620 BCE: “Bethel: The Israelite Impact on Judean Language and Literature,” in Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (ed. Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 316.

[10] Philip R. Davies, “The Origin of Biblical Israel,” in Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context: A Tribute to Nadav Na’aman (ed. Yairah Amit et al.; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 142-144.

[11] Nadav Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel’ (Parts 1 & 2),” ZAW 121 (2009): 335.

[12] Na’aman argues that even pre-Israelite, Canaanite Jerusalem of the early second millennium included the territory that later became the land Benjamin: “Canaanite Jerusalem and its Central Hill Country Neighbours in the Second Millennium B.C.E.,” UF 24 (1992): 275-291.

[13] Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 217.

[14] Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 338-342.

[15] Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 224.

[16] Knauf, “Bethel,” 291-295; Davies, “The Trouble With Benjamin,” 104-110.

[17] Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 339.

[18] Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 339.

[19] “If, indeed, the whole of the Primary History was first “invented” either during the days of Josiah or in the post-exilic period, based on only a dim recollection of the past at best and perhaps even an intentional attempt to “re-write” history, then why even mention the northern origin of the Benjaminites and their king Saul? If the whole episode of the United Monarchy is no more than a Judean literary invention, why give the “honor” of its foundation to a northerner, whose followers then continued to pester the Messiah David?” (Levin, “Benjamin Conundrum,” 231-232)

[20] Levin, “Benjamin Conundrum,” 232.

[21] “Since the district of Benjamin was a buffer zone between Israel and Judah, and must have suffered in the course of the military clashes between the two kingdoms (as may be inferred from Hos 5:8-9; 9:9; 10:9), it might have grown hostile rather than fraternal in its relations with Ephraim, its northern neighbor” (Na’aman, “Saul, Benjamin and the Emergence of ‘Biblical Israel,’” 224).

[22] Davies, “The Trouble With Benjamin,” 102ff.

[23] Levin, “Benjamin Conundrum,” 224.

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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1 Response to Benjamin in the Divided Monarchy

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