n Journal for Semitics - Zimri : slave or official? The strange story of Israel's week-long, suicide king (1 Kings 16:8-20)

Volume 16 Number 2
  • ISSN : 1013-8471


This article explores the incredible story of Zimri, Israel's shortest reigning king (1 Kings 16:8-20). Like a modern suicide bomber intent on a mission, he explodes into Israel's history as a murderer and an insurrectionist. He ascends the throne via regicide. Yet although the leader of half of Israel's chariot forces, he fails to attract the additional military support needed to sustain his rule. He dies in flames, a suicide. His mercurial reign, however, leaves a lasting imprint on Israel, and his name becomes a contemptuous byword a generation later. The text gives a significant amount of space - 13 verses - to Zimri's coup and seven-day reign (c. 885 BCE) and only 8 verses (vv. 21-28) to his successor Omri, a king who gave his name to a dynasty and whose reign lasted 12 years. Why does the text give such surprising weight to someone who appears only fleetingly and brightly 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 ', a Hebrew word meaning slave, but a word that is most frequently rendered servant in English translations. Is Zimri a slave, servant, or official of Elah, king of Israel (v. 9)? Varying opinions offer intriguing textual options. Canonical insights from 2 Kings and Proverbs likewise render clues on his status and all the while confirm his textual significance.

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