The timing of the division between Israel and Judah

  • Question 216, from Mike

    References to Israel and Judah in the Old Testament are made prior to the division into the northern and southern kingdoms after David. When did the distinction first come to be recognised either geographically or as a polity in the history of the Hebrew people? i.e. When did the Jews first started to identify themselves by the two names?

    Generally, in the textual study of the Old Testament, there seem to be recognisable attempts to edit and explain much earlier documents, from certain points of view. The strands are referred to as JEDP, the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly viewpoints.

    The first two refer to the different names used to describe God, namely ‘El’ (or Elohim) and Yahweh (although the J stands for Jehovah, the older transliteration of Yahweh), by the editors. The Deuteronomist viewpoint is most clearly found in Deuteronomy, which seems to be a compilation and re-statement of earlier laws. The theory is that this then influenced the earlier books when they were copied. The Priestly strand is concerned with Temple matters and practical aspects of the religion.

    If this approach to the text is correct, it explains the anachronism of references to Israel and Judah before the historical division of the kingdoms. It is basically because a later editor is making their edits using their knowledge on the contemporary situation. This would be a bit like referring to historical events in, say, Czechoslovakia and explaining whether the location is in a Czech or Slovak town. Or it would be like referring to areas of North America that were outside the United States in the nineteenth century by their modern state name, e.g. Oklahoma.

    There is no way to know for sure when the editors of the Old Testament were active. This means there is no way of knowing when the Southern and Norther Kingdoms split, if they did. We do know the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721BC and according to the Biblical timeline the two Kingdoms existed side by side for about two centuries before that.

    There is some textual evidence, for example from the creation stories in the ‘E’ strand of the Old Testament, of Babylonian influence. This implies some editing and additions of new material after the return of members of the Southern Kingdom from the Exile in Babylon. Therefore the written histories may have been altered at this time.

    There is also a highly revisionist argument that questions the historicity of any of the Old Testament history prior to the two kingdoms and suggests the history of the Exodus, Joshua, Judges and the rule of Saul and David were rewritten to retroactively explain the origins of two very similar tribal entities who shared a similar religion and language. The archaeological evidence for many of the earliest events in the Old Testament history is very patchy. There is barely anything to support the Biblical accounts of the Exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan, for example. Many Christians would reject that, of course, as it would undermine doctrines regarding the truth of the Bible, but it would explain the anachronistic uses of the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Judah’.

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