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It is virtually impossible to ascertain the precise number of rulers of nationstates and empires in antiquity whose demise was the result of assassination,

but their numbers were clearly large. Our picture of ancient history in most

cultures is rather sketchy, and the further back we go, the more shrouded it becomes in the mists of time. Lacking clear-cut textual evidence, historians have had to rely on other data sources. For instance, archaeological finds, calligraphic illustrations on the walls of tombs and, more recently, DNA analysis and advanced photographic tomography have been applied to the mummified remains of Egyptian Pharaohs. These advanced techniques assist experts attempting to reveal whether or not these rulers died a natural death and, if not, whether they were murdered or killed in battle. Despite the extremely partial data base, it is clear that many rulers from antiquity down to the present day have indeed been victims of assassination. One modern work on the subject, without claiming to be exhaustive, lists dozens of examples of possible, probable and definite assassinations in ancient Egypt, China, Rome, Byzantium, and other parts of Europe.


Turning to Israel’s history, we note in passing that if other ancient peoples had produced works comparable to the Bible, and if such works had survived the ravages of time, we would be in a better position to compare ancient assassination across cultures. While it was not written to provide a full and objective historical account, the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) does provide a narrative of the most ancient part of the long history of Israel, and certainly a much fuller picture than that available for other ancient cultures. Thus, to determine whether political assassination occurred in ancient Jewish history, the Tanakh is the place to start.

Aiton Birnbaum, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist practicing EMDR, Mediation and Collaborative Divorce in Israel. He was a semi-finalist representing the USA in the 1973 International Bible Contest, and today occasionally leads biblical tours and composes songs based on the Bible.

AITON BIRNBAUM To pursue our inquiry, we shall define political assassination as the murder of elite political figures by an individual or group acting outside governmental roles and without due process of law. This article focuses on internal political assassination of the leaders of Israel by their own subjects.


Does the Bible contain any examples of Jews assassinating their leaders?

One notable case was that of Gedaliah ben Ahikam. After conquering Judea and Jerusalem, destroying the First Temple, and exiling many of the Jews in 586 BCE, the king of Babylon appointed Gedaliah to be governor of Judah.

He was assassinated by a militant leader of royal descent (II Kgs. 25:22-26;

Jer. 41). The annual Fast of Gedaliah, observed one day after the Jewish New Year, commemorates that dismal event. Though appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, Gedaliah was the last head of that era’s last independent Jewish kingdom. Ironically, the considerable attention that Judaism devotes to his tragic murder has apparently hidden many similar grim events from Jewish public awareness.

However, let us begin at the beginning. It seems that no clear-cut political assassinations of Israel’s national leaders are described in the Pentateuch or the Book of Joshua. Such outrages first occur in Judges 9, where Abimelech seizes power by murdering 70 of his half-brothers, the sons of Gideon.


The advent of Israelite kings heralds a quantum leap in political assassination, and the first king leads the way. Saul tries repeatedly to spear David; sends men to drag him from bed for execution; dispatches him on suicide missions; and goes on repeated expeditions to capture him (I Sam.

18:11, 17, 21, 25-27; 19:10-18; 22-24, 26). Later, Saul's heir, Ish-bosheth, is killed in his bed by two of his own officers (II Sam. 4:2, 5-12).


Political assassination escalates after Solomon’s death and the division of the kingdom. In Judah, King Jehoram murders his brothers and some officers (II Chron. 21:4). King Ahaziah and his relatives are slain by Jehu while visiting Jezreel in Israel (II Kgs. 9:27; II Chron. 22:9). Ahaziah’s mother,



Athaliah, then becomes queen and does away with potential claimants to the throne (II Kgs. 11:1; II Chron. 22:10); she is eventually killed by order of Jehoiada the priest, who crowns Prince Jehoash in her stead (II Kgs. 11:4-16;

II Chron. 23:13-15). Later, Jehoash has Jehoiada’s righteous son, Zechariah, stoned to death (II Chron. 24:20-22) and is assassinated by rebels avenging that murder (II Kgs. 12:21-22; II Chron. 24:24-26). His son, King Amaziah executes the killers (II Kgs. 14:5-6; II Chron. 25:3); but he, too, is slain by other conspirators (II Kgs. 14:18-19; II Chron. 25:27). King Amon is later murdered by courtiers whom the people execute (II Kgs. 21:23-24; II Chron.

33:24-25). Finally, Gedaliah the governor is assassinated.

To sum up, five of twenty rulers of Judah (Ahaziah, Athaliah, Jehoash, Amaziah, and Amon), not counting Gedaliah, were assassinated: six in all out of 21 (29%). Seven Judean monarchs are documented murderers, at least five of them having disposed of political opponents. However bad this may sound, the situation in the Northern Kingdom of Israel was even worse.


At the outbreak of Jeroboam’s insurrection, the chief tax official is stoned to death and King Rehoboam barely escapes with his life (I Kgs. 12:18).

King Nadab, son of Jeroboam, is assassinated by Baasha, who wipes out Jeroboam’s entire family (I Kgs. 15:27-29). Baasha’s son, King Elah, is murdered by Zimri, a high-ranking army officer who, facing defeat one week later, burns down the palace over himself (I Kgs. 16:9-18). King Ahab’s Phoenician wife, Jezebel, has many of the Lord’s prophets slaughtered (I Kgs.

18:13; 19:10, 14). Ahab’s son, King Joram, along with Judah’s King Ahaziah, Ahab’s family and widow, Queen Jezebel, as well as the prophets of Baal, are all put to death by Jehu (II Kgs. 9-10). Later, King Zechariah is publicly assassinated by Shallum (II Kgs. 15:10), who is in turn killed by Menahem (II Kgs. 15:14); and Menahem’s son, Pekahiah, is murdered by Pekah (II Kgs. 15:25), who is assassinated by Hoshea (II Kgs. 15:30), during whose reign the Ten Tribes are exiled.

Although it lasted for a much shorter time than the Kingdom of Judah, Israel offers more instances of regicide. Four of five consecutive monarchs are assassinated within a mere 15 years (II Kgs. 15:10-30) as the Kingdom of Israel heads for destruction. In short, no less than eight of 19 kings are Vol. 43, No. 3, 2015 AITON BIRNBAUM assassinated (42%): Nadab, Elah, Zimri, Joram, Zechariah, Shallum, Pekahiah, Pekah, each murdered by his successor; while 13 (fully 68%) either assassinate others, are themselves assassinated, or both.


The number of biblically documented assassinations of the rulers of Israel and Judah totals 14 out of 39 (36%). During the 342-year span of the Kingdom of Judah (928-586 BCE), the six murders (including Gedaliah’s) come to an average of one assassination every 57 years. During the 204 years of the Kingdom of Israel (928-724 BCE), the eight murders represent an average of one royal assassination every 26 years. Thus, persons living 50-60 years in either kingdom during their parallel existence would, on average, have experienced no less than three royal assassinations in their lifetime.

Including the period of the united monarchy (Saul through Solomon, c. 1020BCE) and the assassination of Ish-Bosheth leads to a total of 15 murdered monarchs out of 44 (34%).

A closer analysis of the time line of royal assassinations shows that their distribution is far from regular. In Judah, no monarch is assassinated from the beginning of Rehoboam's reign (928 BCE) until Ahaziah (842 BCE) – a span of 86 years. By contrast, the next 73 years see the murder of four rulers.

This is followed by a break of 129 years until Amon (640 BCE), and of another 65 years until the assassination of Gedaliah. A similarly irregular but this time bi-modal distribution emerges for Israel: three rulers are murdered near the birth of the kingdom within a span of 24 years, one more 40 years later followed by a respite of 94 years, and then four assassinations within 15 years. A high degree of variability can thus be seen in the frequency of this occurrence, and a clear tendency for assassination to occur in spurts.

One explanation for this variability may be the social and political instability characterizing transitional periods before kingdoms are wellestablished and as they near demise, when internal stress and external threats destabilize traditional power structures. Another explanation is blood feud, with one assassination leading to another. In Judah, Athaliah, Jehoash, and Amon fell victim to this kind of vendetta; and in Israel, Zimri and Shallum were quickly disposed of after assassinating their king. Additionally, a modeling effect may have operated and, perhaps, social acceptance or



acquiescence in the phenomenon, since the breaking of a taboo increases the probability of recurrence.

The importance of taboo may help to explain the different rates of assassination between Judah and Israel. The stability of the Davidic line and an awareness among the people that its descendants were the rightful, divinely ordained heirs to the throne may have afforded some defense against potential conspiracies, leastways from outside the family (although this was a factor in the assassination of Gedaliah). It is worth noting that in other cultures, where the ruler was not only held to be divinely anointed but to actually be a god (e.g., in Egypt and Rome), this did not prevent assassins from committing “deicide.” It would seem that loyalty to the royal (Davidic) line and belief in divine involvement in national leadership may have been significantly stronger in Judah than in and outside Israel. The difference in this regard between Judah and Israel is particularly striking when viewed from the angle of succession: none of the killers of the six Judean leaders replaced their victims on the throne, whereas all the assassins of the kings of Israel did in fact rule in their place. In Judah, apparently, the people would not suffer an assassin to rule, and all the more so if the assassin had no claim to Davidic lineage.

The fact that in antiquity kings ruled until their death in a system of hereditary monarchy indicates that political assassination could be viewed as the only possible method of governmental change, implemented by the people or by political contenders according to the circumstances. While its legitimacy may be debated, the lack of an alternative may help to explain its frequent cross-cultural occurrence.


Most of the assassinations surveyed above are reported in the Bible without either positive or negative comment. The major exceptions are those which inflict the foretold punishment of the victims for their sins (or the sins of their house). Yet clear and multiple messages negating political assassination appear to be sent by King David in the Books of Samuel. These messages are present in a variety of situations.

We have David’s reaction to the Amalekite who claims to have killed Saul at Mount Gilboa and who may be embellishing the story for his own Vol. 43, No. 3, 2015 AITON BIRNBAUM supposed benefit. Even if the event he describes is true, it occurred in the heat of battle and at Saul’s express request, so that Israel’s king would not be captured alive by the Philistines, thus sparing him torture and humiliation.

Nevertheless, David’s reaction is swift and fatal. ′How did you dare,′’ David said to him, ‘to lift your hand and kill the Lord’s anointed?... Your blood be on your own head! Your own mouth testified against you when you said ‘I put the Lord’s anointed to death’ (II Sam. 1:14-16).

The message is clear, but apparently does not register with the men of IshBosheth, son of King Saul. He is murdered while asleep by two of his officers, who bring his head to David, evidently expecting a reward.

However, David condemns these wicked men [who] killed a blameless man.

Their recompense is immediate execution, with the unusual distinction of having their mutilated bodies hung up for all to see (II Sam. 4:9-12). David thus repudiates their betrayal, negating political assassination. Between the death of Saul and the assassination of Ish-Bosheth, Joab avenges his brother’s murder by killing Abner. Although this act may have been a political necessity, David’s reaction falls in line with his other statements. He curses the perpetrators (II Sam. 3:29), calls them treacherous men (3:34), and concludes: May the Lord requite the wicked for their wickedness! (3:39).

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