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Royal Succession by Julye Bidmead

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, "Royal Succession", n.p. [cited 18 May 2022]. Online:


Julye Bidmead

Julye Bidmead
Associate Professor, Chapman University

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

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

1Sam 9:1-10:16

Saul Chosen to Be King
1There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. ... View more

1Sam 10:20-24

20Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot.21He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its families, and the ... View more

1Sam 11:1-15

Saul Defeats the Ammonites
1About a month later, Nahash the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh-gilead; and all the men of Jabesh said to Nahash, “Make a treat ... View more

1Sam 13:7-14

7Some Hebrews crossed the Jordan to the land of Gad and Gilead. Saul was still at Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.8He waited seven days, the t ... View more

1Sam 15:10-29

Saul Rejected as King
10The word of the Lord came to Samuel:11“I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out ... View more

2Sam 7

God's Covenant with David
1Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him,2the king said to the pro ... View more

Deut 21:15-17

The Right of the Firstborn
15If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the f ... View more

Gen 21

The Birth of Isaac
1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old a ... View more

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