Search the Site


Royal Succession

How was kingship determined in the Hebrew Bible?

Royal Succession

Q. What is known about the succession rules in Israelite kingship and the surrounding area? Was it a simple agnatic primogeniture, or was it more complicated than that? Also, how did the status of the mother affect succession?

A. Kingship/Succession

The succession rules of kingship varied throughout the ancient Near East.  Normally kingship was dynastic and hereditary in principle, though not necessarily through simple agnatic primogeniture—passing from the king to a son (preferably the first-born) or other male relative.

Kingship in ancient Israel was not originally hereditary. The Hebrew Bible records three varied accounts of how Saul was appointed as the first king of Israel. In 1Sam 9:1-10:16 Saul was anointed privately by the prophet and ruler Samuel. In 1Sam 10:20-24, he was selected by lots in a public gathering and lastly in 1Sam 11:1-15, his victory over the Ammonites gained him popular appeal.

God eventually rejects Saul’s kingship (1Sam 13:7-14, 1Sam 15:10-29). With Saul’s decline, Samuel anoints David, the youngest son of Jesse, as king. Later, the people anointed David as king of Judah.

Hereditary kingship began after David’s death. His son, Solomon, though not his first-born son, succeeded David on the throne.  After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split into two: Israel, or the northern kingdom and Judah, the southern kingdom.  Each kingdom, with its own monarch, followed different means of succession.  In Judah, God promised King David that his “house” or lineage would rule the United Monarchy forever (2Sam 7). The Davidic dynasty prevailed in Judah, beginning with Solomon’s son, Rehoboam until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Dynastic succession was never fully established in the north due to rebellion, warfare, and coups; Israel was ruled by an alternating series of ruling families and independent kings until its destruction in 722 BCE.  Jeroboam, who was an administrator in Solomon’s court and not a relative, was installed as first king of the northern kingdom of Israel.


In ancient Israel, the firstborn son held legal and social privileges and duties, such as inheritance property rights, paternal blessing, and responsibility of the household. Deut 21:15-17 required the father to acknowledge his first-born son as his heir and provide him his birthright, a double share of his property.

A concubine is a secondary wife who, while enjoying the same rights as a legitimate wife, did not have the legal standing of a first wife.  Each male child of the same father had equal rights regardless of his mother’s status, so if he was the first-born son (of a concubine) he should be the heir. However, agnatic primogeniture was often not enforced, as the biblical narrative attests.  For example, in Gen 21, Isaac, the second born son was preferred over Ishmael, the first-born.

  • Julye Bidmead

    Julye Bidmead is associate professor of religious studies at Chapman University.