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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Zimri — Briefly, Brightly King: The Strange Story of Israel's Shortest-Reigning King, 1 Kgs 16:8-20

One Kings 16:8-20 tells the story of the mercurial rise and flaming fall of Zimri, Israel's shortest-reigning king. One Kings introduces this anti-hero in relation to the current king of Israel, Elah son of Baasha, who reigned in Tirzah for two years (v. 8). The text gives a significant amount of space — thirteen verses — to Zimri's coup and seven-day reign (ca. 885 B.C.E.),[1] and only eight verses (vv. 21-28) to his successor Omri, a king who gave his name to a dynasty and whose reign lasted twelve years (v. 23) (ca. 885-874).

Why does the narrative treat Zimri as more important than Omri and give such surprising weight to someone who appears as a flash in the pan, so to speak? Perhaps it is because of Zimri's unusual status. The biblical account introduces him as an 'ebed, a Hebrew word meaning "slave/servant" that is most frequently translated "servant." Significantly, the text about Zimri never uses mesharet for him, the term for a free servant who ministers to another (see Josh 1:1)[2]; mesaret is applied to military officials who served David and later Jehoshaphat (1 Chr 27:1; 28:1; 2 Chr 17:19).[3]

The biblical text often presents slaves/servants as anonymous characters, overlooked onlookers on the biblical stage and silent in most scenes.[4] They function as standbys. Sometimes, however, a slave/servant steals center stage. Such is Zimri's case. In his cameo appearance in 1 Kings (his reign remains unrecorded in 2 Chronicles), Zimri briefly shines, howbeit negatively.

The text quickly shows Zimri as a slave/servant of standing, for he commands half of Israel's chariot force (v. 9). Introduced without reference to patrimony, he may well have been a non-Israelite. His uncommon name, perhaps a nickname, may mean "courageous" and "mighty" (from the Arabic damir), or "mountain sheep."[5] Extra-biblical documents mention that a Zimri-Lim became king of Mari on the Euphrates before its fall to Babylon under Hammurapi (1792-1750 B.C.E.).[6] His name's biblical precedent carries a negative connotation. During Israel's wilderness wanderings, a Simeonite named Zimri committed adultery with Cozbi, a Midianite; Phinehas speared them together (Num 25).

As an 'ebed,[7] is Zimri is a slave, servant, or official of Elah, king of Israel (v. 9)? The NIV translates 'ebed as "official." C. Toy and M. Noth see Zimri as an officer of high rank, a high court official.[8] Josephus names him a captain of the army.[9] T. Fretheim calls him a servant who fulfills the prophecy against Baasha (vv. 1-4), and J. Gray sees him as a retainer and member of a class of military specialists, prominent in the Bronze Age, who enjoyed feudal privileges.[10] These varying opinions offer intriguing textual options. Canonical insights from 2 Kings and Proverbs likewise render clues as to Zimri's status and confirm his textual significance.

Archaeology also provides insights on 'ebed. A photo of a seal (the seal has been lost or stolen for about 100 years) shows the profile of a powerful lion. Teeth bared, lips curled, tail flicking, the lion's image comes in between an ancient Hebrew script saying, "(Belonging) to Shema, servant of Jeroboam." Known as the Shema seal, it is thought that this seal belonged not to someone who poured the king's wine, but instead to a high government official who served Jeroboam II.[11] An orange chalcedony late-eighth century seal has been translated "(Belonging) to Abdi servant of Hoshea," and a seventh-century seal says, "Yaazenyahu servant of the king."[12]

However, Gershon Bacon, in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, takes 1 Kgs 16:9 literally and views Zimri as a slave.[13] Bacon notes his name's use more than a generation later by Jezebel (ca. 841 B.C.E.). By then, Zimri's name was a derisive byword and his deeds an ignominious legend in Israel. After Jehu assassinates Joram, the House of Omri's last king, the dowager queen Jezebel mockingly addresses Jehu as "Zimri, slayer of his master" (2 Kgs 9:30-31). She berates him in front of his men; he orders her tossed from a window, where horses trample her and dogs consume her body.

Well, whether slave, servant, or official, Zimri evidently possessed enough brawn, brute force, and technical skill to attain a high military position. His story begins with Elah's and overlaps it. It involves elements of high drama — regicide, coup, multiple murders, counter-coup, and suicide — which the biblical text tersely summarizes as sin (v. 19). Although Elah evidently trusts Zimri with an important role (that of commanding half his chariots), the text indicates this complimentary emotion is unreciprocated. Instead, Zimri plots against Elah (v. 9). As a military commander closely associated with his regent, he knows his king's shortcomings.

And Elah, son of Baasha and member of the house of Issachar (1 Kings 15:27), has several major flaws. Evidently Elah likes to party. Furthermore, he likes to party in another's home, this time the quarters of Arza, the man in charge of the palace (v. 9). He drinks on Arza's tab. Wisdom literature frowns on imbibing, especially a king's imbibing (Prov 23:29-35; 31:4-5). Deuteronomy 17:14-20 gives the qualifications for Israel's king, and Elah fails them; the text gives no indication he pursues a careful, consistent lifelong obedience to the divine law.[14]

Significantly, while his army fights the Philistines at Gibbethon (v. 15), Elah stays ensconced in his Tirzah palace (v. 9)! While Elah carouses, his men position themselves in harm's way!

The scene is set for sin and a singular downfall. Actually, the scene is reminiscent of David's decision to stay in Jerusalem while his army, led by Joab, ventures forth to fight the Ammonites (2 Sam 11:1). David's decision not to go to war led to his decision to summon Bathsheba and subsequently to commit adultery with her and to arrange for the murder of her husband. Similarly, Elah's decision not to join Omri at Gibbethon leads to his assassination by Zimri.

Background information also informs. The times are tumultuous: ongoing war with the Philistines prevails (1 Kgs 15:27); the encampment at Gibbethon evidently continues the efforts of Nadab son of Jeroboam in trying to ensure the security of the kingdom's southwestern border.[15] Of the two states in the divided kingdom, Israel and Judah, Judah has been the more stable. During the reign of Asa of Judah (c. 911-870 B.C.E.), Israel runs through seven kings: Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri, and Ahab (ca. 910-853 B.C.E.).

One Kings 16:8-20, the pericope about Zimri, offers numerous details. It provides a multitude of proper names — Zimri, Elah, Arza, Asa, Jehu, Baasha, Jeroboam, and Omri. It lists places — the home of Arza, the man in charge of the palace in Tirzah; and Gibbethon, a Philistine town where Omri is stationed. It describes palace security by mentioning a specific section, the citadel (v. 18).

Although the narrative evaluates Zimri's reign negatively (v. 19), it provides the same kingship formula given throughout 1 and 2 Kings.[16] Seemingly disregarding his reign's brevity, it accords Zimri full status as Israel's fifth king. The narrative about him ends with the standard closing formula by directing interested readers to consult the book of the annals of the kings of Israel (v. 20).

Well, Zimri packs a lot of living into one week! He kills his king; kills off his king's family and friends; repels a siege from Omri; loses the siege and Tirzah; and then ultimately goes into the palace's citadel, sets fire to it, and dies. Suicides like his occur rarely in Israel; as I read canonically, Saul, Ahitophel, and Judas Iscariot are three other examples (1 Sam 31:4; 2 Sam 17:23; Matt 27:5)

The narrative's speed indicates the swift unfolding of the week's events. Significantly, the narrative of Zimri's coup omits any details about its planning.[17] Their absence probably indicates Zimri operated single-handedly on the spur of the moment.

The narrator points out one thing Zimri does well: he kills. The Hebrew verbs indicate decisiveness: Zimri comes in, strikes down Elah, and kills him (v. 10). As a proficient killer, he next slays Baasha's family (v. 11). The narrator's contempt for the family of Baasha and Elah comes across strongly in v. 11, which describes each dead male relative as "one who urinates against a wall."[18]

Expressing no regret at their deaths, the narrator seemingly offers a "Good riddance!" assessment of both Baasha and Elah's reigns. Why? Because they committed sins, caused Israel to sin, and provoked the Lord to anger because of their worthless idols (vv. 7, 14). Chapter 16 highlights the sins of the kings and the people (vv. 2, 13, & 19).[19]

Note the silences. This text, which has named characters and specific places in multiples, refrains from mentioning any lieutenants supporting Zimri. Instead, it indicates speed. Like a Fourth of July fireworks display, Zimri's meteoric rise quickly fizzles. When others in the Israelite army laying siege to the Philistine town of Gibbethon hear of their comrade's deeds, they react negatively. They align themselves instead under their commander. Stressing the action's immediacy, the text says the army proclaimed Omri king "that very day in the camp" (v. 16).

Now, Israel cannot have two kings. The succession narrative, outlined in the books of Samuel and early chapters of I Kings, proves this. Consider these textual precedents. When Saul was king and David anointed as king, Saul fell in battle with the Philistines as a suicide (1 Sam 31). When Ishbosheth was king and David anointed king, two of Saul's men murdered Ishbosheth (2 Sam 4). When David reigned as king and his son Absalom sought his overthrow, Absalom perished in battle (2 Sam 18). When Solomon reigned as king and his half-brother Adonijah made what Solomon interpreted as a bid for the throne, Solomon ordered Adonijah's death (1 Kgs 2). These stories undoubtedly were well known throughout Judah and Israel.

When news of Zimri's coup reaches Gibbethon, a counter-coup occurs. Omri and the majority of Israel's army immediately turn and lay siege to Tirzah. They take it. Zimri goes into what must be the palace's most secure part, the citadel, and sets it afire. A suicide, he dies in the flames. The narrator evaluates his reign negatively as doing evil in the eyes of the Lord and walking in the ways of Jeroboam (v. 19).

A canonical reading of 1 Kings 16 in connection with verses in Proverbs (19:10; 30:21-22) and Jezebel's scornful assessment of Jehu, her assassin (2 Kgs 9:31), indicates that Zimri may have been a slave and not an official. R. Whybray links Prov 19:10 — "It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury — how much worse for a slave to rule over princes!" — to Zimri's story.[20] Whybray, however, qualifies the Proverbs/Zimri connection by saying this proverb probably does not refer to a specific, historic event like Zimri's coup and reign.[21] If it did, it would be out of character for Proverbs and therefore unique within it. Wisdom literature, however, consistently maintains that a slave should not rule over princes because a slave lacks wisdom.

Other Proverbs verses also broadly apply to Zimri's 'ebed status, questionable character, and short rule. Proverbs 30:21-22 says, "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes king, a fool who is full of food, an unloved woman who is married, and a maidservant who displaces her mistress." The world trembles at the slave/servant who gains authority over others and has neither the training nor the disposition to rule well.[22] Zimri's overthrow by Omri may be seen in this light.

Both Proverbs texts mention 'ebed, a slave/servant. They portray someone unworthy to exert influence, someone who makes poor choices. In Prov 30:21-22, the words "slave" and "fool" run in parallel, a construction mode equating them. Whybray makes the important observation, however, that the changes mentioned — a slave/servant who becomes king, a fool who eats well, a spinster who marries, and a maidservant who takes the place of her mistress in her master's affections — are not in and of themselves condemned.[23] Indeed, an event like a slave's becoming a king happens all the time in the history of the ancient Near East.[24] Instead, the text condemns the change in behavior and attitude after the promotion. The slave who now lords it over those who used to lord it over him, the fool who now lives in luxury and boasts that his sudden change in status is his doing, and the servant girl who supplants her mistress in the affections of her master and now gives herself airs are alike condemned for their pride and haughtiness. These four types of persons who come to sudden power become "excessively pretentious, arrogant, and disagreeable."[25] Perhaps Zimri exhibited disagreeable attitudes like arrogance and pretension.

The story of Zimri — be he slave, servant, or official — advances the plot in 1 Kings by providing an additional legal record of an unrighteous king. His and other unrighteous kingships led to the fall of Israel/Samaria in 722 B.C.E. to the Assyrians. Zimri, like others before and after him, failed to observe the "job description" for a king of Israel listed in Deut 17:14-20. Zimri and other kings of Israel adopted a syncretistic attitude toward Israel's covenant faith.[26] Israel's kings theoretically combined divine designation and popular consent. Zimri apparently enjoyed neither prophetic anointing nor popular backing.[27] Leaders the biblical text endorses know they owe their positions to God, for it is God who exalts them and places them in history. Leaders who fail to honor God fail.

Zimri dominates a week in Israel's history and the text in which he figures. His actions reveal him as an impetuous, hot-headed man bereft of supporters. His actions point to a moral purpose the narrator condemns as inconsistent with the covenant and the revealed biblical witness.[28] Zimri wanted the throne and seated himself on it (v. 11). His covetousness propelled him to the status of a significant character in 1 Kings.

Zimri's reign presents additional evidence of social upheaval, political instability, and apostasy in Israel. Truly, this charioteer contributes to the biblical text, howbeit in a negatively assessed way. The text never treats Zimri as insignificant; instead it accords him a villain's applause by retaining his story and bestowing on him momentary limelight and stardom — but all the while condemning his decision to walk in the evil ways of Jeroboam.

Zimri emerges with a discernible personality. He leaves a dominant impression and is a believable character.[29] Zimri, by force of his actions and personality, controls the textual space in which he appears. He emerges as a leader without followers, a usurper lacking administrative ability, and a slave/servant/official whose foolish actions lead to his own death. The text muzzles Zimri — probably because he's long on brawn and short on brain! It appears he murdered Elah on the spur of the moment within the context of a drinking bout gone sour. While the text mentions Zimri plotted against Elah, it reveals no details about a plan. Consequently, the text shows Zimri lacks the quality of administration so necessary for an ongoing, successful kingship. Furthermore, his fellow Israelite soldiers refuse to acknowledge him, indicating that they recognize he lacks the qualities necessary to lead them in battle. Therefore, their refusal to follow him, the omission of any tribal affiliation associated with him, the silence regarding his patrimony, the rarity of suicide as a means of death in the biblical text, Jezebel's mocking slur on his name that equates her assassin to him, and his designation as an 'ebed and not a mesharet — all these make me believe that Zimri lived and died a slave.[30]

Robin Gallaher Branch, Crichton College

[1] J. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 31.

[2] C. Wolf, "Servant," The Interpreter's Dictionary: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 4: R-Z (G. A. Buttrick, ed.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 291.

[3] T. Fretheim, "srt," New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 4 (W. A. VanGemeren, gen. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 256.

[4] See Robin Gallaher Branch, "'Your humble servant.' Well, maybe. Overlooked onlookers in Deuteronomistic History," Old Testament Essays 17/2 (2004): 169, 176.

[5] J. Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), 361.

[6] Bill T Arnold & Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 345.

[7] The word comes from the verb 'bd meaning to work, perform, serve, or worship; in the hiphil it means to enslave, make work, or make serve; as a noun it means slave, servant, or subordinate. See E. Carpenter, "'bd," New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, Vol. 3 (W. A. VanGemeren, gen. ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 304.

[8] C. Toy, Proverbs (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1948), 532; M. Noth, The History of Israel (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1958), 228.

[9] Josephus Flavius, The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus (W. Whiston, trans.; Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1957), 265.

[10] T. Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 91. Gray, I & II Kings, 361.

[11] H. Shanks, "Have you seen this seal? Probably not," Biblical Archaeology Review 26/1 (2000):4.

[12] A. Lemaire, "Royal Signature — Name of Israel's Last King Surfaces in a Private Collection," Biblical Archaeology Review 21/6 (1995): 49-50.

[13] G. Bacon, "Zimri," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 16 (Keter: Jerusalem, 1971), 1027-28.

[14] For a study of the qualifications of Israelite kingship, see Robin Gallaher Branch, "The Messianic Dimensions of Kingship," Verbun et Ecclesia 25/2 (2004): 381-84. [15] H. Reviv, "Elah," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 6 (Jerusalem: Keter, 1971), 560.

[16] "In the twenty-sixth year of Asa, king of Judah, Elah son of Baasha became king of Israel, and he reigned in Tirzah two years" (1 Kgs 16:8). "In the twenty-seventh year of Asa king of Judah, Zimri reigned in Tirzah seven days" (1 Kgs 16:15).

[17] Compare the strategies of Zimri and Jehoiada, the priest who planned a successful counter-coup against Athaliah (2 Kgs 11). Jehoiada organized branches of the military in a united front to make young Joash king.

[18] J. Walsh, 1 Kings (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996), 215.

[19] R. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Atlanta: John Knox, 1987), 101.

[20] R. N. Whybray, Proverbs (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 278.

[21] Whybray, Proverbs, 278.

[22] D. A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1993), 242.

[23] Whybray, Proverbs, 416-17.

[24] For example, the Mamluk (slave) dynasty of Egypt (Toy, Proverbs, 532).

[25] Toy, Proverbs, 532.

[26] P. House, 1, 2 Kings (Nashville: Broadman, 1995), 208.

[27] Walsh, 1 Kings, 215; J. Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 219.

[28] See W. Ginsberg, The Cast of Characters: The Representation of Personality in Ancient and Medieval Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), 3.

[29] S. Sorenson, How to Write Short Stories (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 1, 13.

[30] A much longer version of this article is undergoing peer review by the Journal for Semitics.

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Citation: Robin Gallaher Branch, " Zimri — Briefly, Brightly King: The Strange Story of Israel's Shortest-Reigning King, 1 Kgs 16:8-20," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2007]. Online:


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