Sunday, July 27, 2008

1 Kings 12 - 16: The Kings of Kings

Or, the Problem With Monarchy is the Dynastic Wrangling, Part II

A few weeks ago, I said that a better name for the Book of 1 Kings might be the Book of Solomon. But with Solomon resting in the cold clay as of the end of Chapter 11, I guess I was wrong. Turns out, there's a lot of kings in the book of kings.

Rehoboam Charms the People

On account of Solomon's willingness to tolerate alternative religious practice, remember, God has told him that his dynasty will not endure. Also, something I didn't mention last time -- all of those grand public works projects that Solomon was always working on involved lots of forced labor. The people enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity, yes, but they are also pretty sick and tired of forever being made to schlep construction materials to the latest new ediface.

Into this situation comes Solomon's son and heir Rehoboam, who frankly comes off as a bit of a dope. He consults with the elders and advisors, who advise him that without Dad's charisma, clout, and experience, it might be good to go easy on the people for a while, to win their love and loyalty by showing concern for their well-being. Then, he checks with his frat buddies, or the equivalent, and they are all like, "Dude! You the man! You the KING! Power feels GOOD, doesn't it!"

So, when the people convene to petition Rehoboam for relief from guvment forced labor, he answers with one of my favorite money lines from the Bible (which I will quote from the ringing King James version rather than the more tepid translation here in the NIV): My father, he tells the agrieved Israelites, chastised you with whips. I will chastise you with scorpians! (12: 14) He is truly one bad-ass king.

The Two Kingdoms

However, he is immediately the bad-ass king of a much smaller kingdom. Except for the area immediately around the fort-city of Jerusalem, the Israelites immediately go into revolt: "To your tents, O Israel!" goes up the cry. The people have heard contempt from their new king, and see no reason to offer him the consent of the governed. The chief minister of forced labor goes out to round up a construction crew, and is stoned to death by a mob. Meanwhile Jeroboam, the man who had been prophesized to be the next king of Israel, returns from Egypt, and is promptly offered the throne. He accepts, with Rehoboam clinging to power only to the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, not much more than the capital and its suburbs.

Civil war seems to be in the offing, but a holy man named Shemaiah has a conversation with God in which he is told that this whole situation is God's doing, and God does not want inter-Israelite war. So everyone goes home, and now we have two separate kingdoms:

The Kingdom of Judah: Actually the surviving rump state of Israel, with the capital, the legal heir (to the extent that there are ever legal heirs in the Bible), and most importantly the Temple. Very small in area. Ruled by King Reheboam (the Dumb and Cruel).

The Kingdom of Israel: Most of the Israelite territory, but without the traditional core. A new capital of sorts is set up at Shechem. Fearing that worshiping at the Temple will tempt his citizens back to government by the House of David, King Jeroboam (the Not One to Miss an Opportunity) sets up a couple of golden calves at Bethel and Dan. The calves are supposed to represent God, but are still obviously a no-no, and really the symbolism couldn't have been worse....

A Digression

1 Kings 13 is a long folk tale about a prophet who comes from Judah to tell Jeroboam how unhappy God is about his altars. I'll include the whole text, in case it turns out to be important.
2 He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD : "O altar, altar! This
is what the LORD says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David.
On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offerings
here, and human bones will be burned on you.' " 3 That same day the man of God
gave a sign: "This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split
apart and the ashes on it will be poured out."

After he says this, Jeroboam tries to have the prophet arrested, but God shrivels up his hand until he agrees to be nice to the prophet. Then the prophet, who has been ordered not to eat, drink, or retrace his steps disappears into the sunset. Except, he meets another prophet, who claims to have new, countermanding orders from God and who invites him back to his house for dinner. Prophet #2 is lying, though, and when Prophet #1 heads on his way after dinner, he is killed by a lion. It's an interesting tale. The moral, of course, is that you should always obey God's instructions to the letter. Or perhaps, that you should never trust anyone who says they have instructions from God. Either moral fits the story.

Judah and Israel After Solomon

God is not pleased with either Reheboam or with Jeroboam, both of whom allow the worship of other Gods to take root in their respective kingdoms. Jeroboam ends up with a rather elaborate curse on himself and his whole family, and Reheboam suffers a humiliating sacking and pillaging of Jerusalem by the Egyptians. All that gold stuff in the Temple is replaced with cheap bronze stuff, and even that can only be brought out on special occasions. By the priorities of the time, this is a sure sign that the standard of living is plummeting.

Chapters 15 and 16 go into detail about a long succession of Kings. I will see if I can arrange a timeline of leadership here.

Year 1 -- Solomon dies; Israel splits into Judah and Israel.

Year 18 -- Reheboam dies; Abijah becomes king of Judah. He's not great, but God puts up with him because he's David's great-grandson.

Year 20 -- King Abijah dies, and is succeeded by his son Asa. Asa is very religiously upright, and gets rid of the idols and especially the male temple prostitutes that had started hanging out during Reheboam's reign. He allies with the King of Damascus and goes to war with Israel, conquering quite a bit of territory.

Year 22 -- Nadab succeeds his father Jeroboam as King of Judah.

Year 23 -- A man named Baasha kills Nadab on the road and assumes the throne of Judah. He slaughters everyone vaguely related to Jeroboam, in fulfillment of prophecy and to ensure his own dynastic security. But God doesn't like Baasha any better than he liked Jeroboam, in the end, because a lot of unspecified evil gets done. It is under Baasha that Israel loses territory to King Asa's Judah.

Year 46 -- With Asa still ruling Judah, Elah replaces his father Asa on the throne of Israel. He only lasts a year before....

Year 47 -- Zimri, the Master of Chariots, pulls a coup d'etat in Israel, and does to Baasha's entire family what Baasha had done to Jeroboam's entire family.

Seven Days Later -- However, the military as a whole is not sympathic to Zimri's rise to power. Maybe there's an infantry-calvary split, or something. Whatever the details, a commander named Omri is proclaimed the king and lays siege to the city when Zimri is setting up his administration. Seeing the way things are going, Zimri locks himself in the local palace and sets it on fire. After this, Israel has a civil war between Omri and another guy named Tibni.

Year 51 -- Omri finally prevails over Tibni, and becomes the consensus king of Israel. He expands the territory of the kingdom a bit, but did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him. (16:25)

Year 58 -- With Asa STILL hanging on in Judah -- his father presumably having died young and leaving him the kingdom at a very tender age -- Omri dies and is succeeded by his son Ahab. Ahab! Now, Herman Melville likely knew his Old Testament very well, and probably intended for the name he chose for his mad old sea captain to carry some weight. Is Ahab a good king, or a bad king?
30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him. (16:30-33)
So, he's bad news. But, he rules for 22 years.

For More About the Kings of Judah and Israel....

Phew! That's a lot of kings! If you want to learn more about them, as the text keeps saying, you can read about them elsewhere. As for the other events of Nadab's reign, for instance, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel? (15:31) Maybe they are! Unfortunately for us, the books of the annals of the kings of Israel, and of Judah, have been lost for several millenia. More's the pity.

Next Week: Hey There Elijah!

Friday, July 25, 2008


Michael Reads the Bible is two years old today. "I'm guessing it will take more than a year, all told," I said, and it turns out I was right.

The project has turned out a lot different than I thought it would be. I'm working at a much finer level of detail than I expected, and perhaps not coincidentally getting a lot more out of the process than I expected. Too, I've been surprised by how quiet things have been. When I started the project, I imagined that there would be LOTS of Bible-reading blogs around, and that mine would attract a loud cluster of mostly very negative commenters and detractors. Instead, we've long since settled into an extremely modest and steady nine or ten readers a day, and the few comments have on the whole been very peaceful and respectful.

If a little lonely, though, the process has been continually rewarding. The Bible is, as I say almost every week, full of surprises, and its a rare session when I find in it what I expect. There's a lot of strange logic and a very alien cultural perspective on the world, and yet human behavior is very recognizably on parade, often at its sordid worst. Reading the Bible is like travelling to a faraway country where they think differently, act differently, and have created a different way of living in the world, and yet you recognize your shared humanity through and through.

Current expected completion date: Fall, 2012.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

1 Kings 9 - 11: Solomon's Wisdom in Full Maturity! Wait, What?

The Bible, as I have said so many times over these last few years, is full of surprises. Here we have a Big Famous Biblical Hero, Solomon, who after a possibly shady rise to power has actually put together a strong administration, built the Temple and other major buildings, and may or may not have put through ambitious religious reforms. The man is famous for his wisdom. So, we can reasonably expect to see many great works and progress for the Israelite kingdom as he reaches his prime, right?


As it turns out, no. Solomon turns out to be yet another of our long line of major Biblical characters who have characteristics that don't get talked about in the Big Book of Children's Bible Stories. Since we are generally given a highly sanitized version of these characters, it is constantly surprising to see how often the Bible presents them as, shall we say, refreshingly human. Or, deeply flawed. Take your pick.
Solomon's Downfall

In Solomon's case, it seems that man shares a little problem with his late father. To wit, he's a bit of a horndog:

King Solomon... loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter -- Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.... (11:1) He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.... (11:3)
This record would stand until Wilt Chamberlain's legendary performance in the late 20th Century. Now, the multicultural harem is not a problem in and of itself. (Although it seems like it would be a distraction to the head of state, but never mind that.) The problem is, all of these foreign wives come with their own religious upbringing. Solomon, besotted by infatuation with his various partners, allows his enthusiasm for ecclesiatical architecture to run away with him. He starts building places for the various Mrs. Solomons to worship.
On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the destable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (7-8)
This is, of course, profoundly against the rules. And Solomon -- the wisest guy in town! -- ought to have known better. All of Israelite history since Moses has been a cycle of God punishing the people mightily for worshipping other dieties, and then forgiving them after repentance. The only exceptions in this cycle have been the reigns of King Saul, who stayed true to God but just got some details wrong, and King David, who whatever else one might say about his character was able to toe the line religiously.

The Weakening State

So as you would expect, things begin to go downhill for the administration. God lets Solomon know that he'll be allowed to serve out his term in office as a courtesy to his late father, but that Solomon's son will have the throne taken from him. Rebellions begin to break out, and have to be put down.

A few posts back, I mentioned that there seemed to be some loosening of cohesion between the various Israelite tribes. Solomon appeared to have healed that division, but now the coalition seems to be weakening again. Rebels named Hadad the Edomite and Rezon son of Eliada attract entourages of armed men and harass Solomon's forces. One of Solomon's officials, Jeroboam, gets told by Ahijah the Prophet that God is going to rend the kingdom, and that he can be the man to control 10 tribes' worth. Jeroboam flees to Egypt to start some serious plotting.

Will Solomon Be Up to the Challenge?

With rebellions cropping up in the countryside and the unity of the state eroding, what will Solomon do? One imagines that the second half of 1 Kings will be his redemptive and presumably very wise response to events. So it's a bit of a shocker that he up and dies at the end of Chapter 11. And I have to say, with such a major Biblical figure, I certainly expected a life span of more than 11 chapters. (Although, maybe there's more material about him later on. Song of Solomon sounds like it might have something to do with him.)

Next Week: I don't like the looks of this power vaccuum....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

1 Kings 5 - 8: New Temple! New Doctrine?

There are all sorts of ways in which the Bible's frame of reference is different from our own. One of the most obvious is the range of famous people, places, and things that the reader is expected to already know all about. There is a beautiful example of this at the end of last week’s reading at 1 Kings 4:30-31:

30 Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than any other man, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Calcol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations.

So, that’s how wise Solomon was! Wiser than noted wise guys like Ethan the Ezrahite or Mahol’s sons Heman, Calcol, Darda! Any questions?

The Little Big Temple

Another fairly obvious issue is the matter of scale. Except for the numbers of soldiers in the field, which are always suspiciously impressive, the exact figures for Biblical values, budgets, and volumes are always, predictably, decidedly minor-league by modern standards. Well, it’s not their fault they lived in the Iron Age.

1 Kings 5-8 covers Solomon’s building of a permanent Temple to replace the mobile Tabernacle (built by Moses back in Leviticus) as the seat of the Ark of the Covenant. The Temple was clearly an impressive building, and several pages are devoted to its specs, its d├ęcor and equipment, and to the domestic and international labor agreements necessary to drum up the raw materials. All of this to produce a building of 60 cubits by 20 cubits by 30 cubits – somewhat larger than, but at the same general scale as, humble Castle5000. A building less than one-fifth the size of the Belmont Condos development here in the City of Roses. (Inside joke. Go here, if you’re curious, and read the comments.) It would be a decidedly modest church if built today.

But again, it is configured and appointed in such a way as to make it a very impressive structure, and Solomon puts it at the heart of an expanded palace complex, so doubtless it is a highly impressive monument for the burgeoning Israelite capital. At the celebrations of its completion, after the Ark is brought into its new chamber, services are interrupted when God manifests physically within the Temple in a thick cloud of smoke, forcing the priests out of the building.

Solomon Sneaks in Some New Ideas

At this point, Solomon makes a speech which at first glance seems like a standard prayer of dedication, but which quietly introduces some radically new theological concepts for the first time.

After starting with a recitation of some of the historical background, Solomon says:

Chagall, Prayer of Solomon, 1956.
27 "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.

This is, unless I am mistaken, the first statement in the Bible that definitively rules out the notion of a physically finite God. Through the wanderings of Moses, God often (as he has just done at the Temple dedication ceremony) appeared as a cloud of smoke or a pillar of fire, and nowhere did anyone say anything to indicate that this was strictly a local manifestation of an infinite entity. But here, Solomon makes the idea explicit for the first time.

Then, he says this:
30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
Do you see it? It’s the first non-trivial mention of “heaven” in the Bible! There has still, here on page 253 of my printing, been no indication of an afterlife, but the idea of a separate sphere of reality that is the true domicile of God is a significant piece of news.

Then, there’s this bit:

46 "When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near...”
“No one who does not sin!” This, also, is a new and rather radical idea. God’s reactions to violations of the Law hitherto – in the case of Saul, for instance – have implied a zero-tolerance approach to sin. Absolute adherence to every aspect of the Law was demanded, and thus by implication deemed possible. Solomon’s literally parenthetical remark here thus appears to be a major rethinking of the relationship of humanity to the Law.

The Reaction

So, wow! That’s quite a speech! Interestingly, there’s nothing about the text that acknowledges that we really have a whole new religion, or at least a significantly reconfigured one, once Solomon finishes his talk. Presumably, then, he is expressing ideas that were already thought unremarkably true by his listeners and/or the original readers of the account. It seems likely that it’s just a textual fluke that makes the speech seem like such a barn-burner to someone reading the Bible front to back.

In terms of their reaction, the Israelites mostly just seem happy with their nice new building and the massive parties to celebrate its opening, and pleased to have a king who has, by the time the massive building project is complete, already brought them thirteen years of peace and prosperity.

Next time: More about Solomon, presumably!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

1 Kings 1 – 4: Regime Change Begins at Home

Dali, King Solomon, 1971.

So we’ve wrapped up the Books of Samuel. In retrospect, I must say that they are not well named, as Samuel is a fairly minor character who dies midway through the first of his two epinymous books. It clears thing up for me to think of 1 Samuel as the Book of Saul, and 2 Samuel as the Book of David. And from the early going, it looks like 1 Kings is going to be the Book of Solomon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The Problem With Monarchy is the Dynastic Wrangling

As 1 Kings open, King David is now old and sick, and is unable to keep warm. They searched throughout Israel for a beautiful girl (1:3) – a phrase that seems unkind to the good women of Jerusalem, don’t you think? – and find one, Abishag, who is willing to act as David’s human bed-warmer. But, the king had no intimate relations with her (1:4), which is some kind of first for the high-spirited old monarch. We can reasonably assume he has one foot in the grave.

That’s certainly what everybody in the palace assumes. His eldest surviving son (after Absalom’s one-way trip on the Mule Express), Adonijah, holes up with General Joab, the high priest, and most of his brothers, and makes some ritual sacrifices in preparation for setting up an interim government. Hearing this, David’s wife Bathsheeba – you know, Uriah’s widow – grabs the highest-ranking priest she can find and makes a beeline for the sickbed. “You promised that my son Solomon would be the next king!” she says. “What’s up with Adonijah holding this big powwow?” (I paraphrase.)

David apparently does want Solomon to be his successor (although one notes that there are only a tiny number of people checking in on him and reporting back with his commands at this point) and arranges for his immediate anointment and coronation while Adonijah’s meeting is still going on. Hearing sounds of celebration and excitement, the older son’s supporters figure out what is going on, make some astute political calculations, and suddenly become fervent Solomon supporters. Adonijah sprints to the Tabernacle, and is only coaxed out when Solomon promises he will not come to harm.

King Solomon, mediaeval German StatueDavid dies. On his way out, this troubled, highly ambiguous man redeems himself through a speech to his son Solomon, in which David encourages the boy to violently kill many of the key people who have been his staunchest supporters over the last decades. Wait, did I say “redeems?” Sorry, that’s a typo. It’s just David being David, right to the end.

So, Solomon becomes king. Shortly thereafter, Adonijah asks now-King Solomon if he can marry Abishag. This request seems innocent enough – the man apparently likes a warm bed – but it sets Solomon off, and he has Adonijah executed. He sends the old high priest, who had supported Adonijah, into permanent house arrest, replacing him with his own man. General Joab sees which way the wind is blowing, and seeks sanctuary in the Tabernacle. No dice. Solomon has him cut down right there in the sanctuary, even while he clutches the horns of the altar. Everyone with any possible alternative claim to the throne has been tidily taken care of. Or untidily. (Another minor character is kept under house arrest for three years. When Solomon hears that he broke house arrest to do some business in a neighboring village, he has him killed, too. Out with the old! In with the new!)

Solomon settles in. He marries an Egyptian princess. He stays faithful to his father’s religion, except that he offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places, instead of at the Tabernacle. (3:3) Not a biggie, perhaps, until you recall that having done this very thing on a single occasion was the reason that God abandoned hapless King Saul back in 1 Samuel. Instead of forsaking Solomon, however, God comes to him on one of his sacrificing junkets and offers to grant him a wish. Solomon asks for wisdom, which tickles God, and he is granted not just the wisdom but also wealth, prestige, and long life. On the whole, you'd have to say, he gets a better deal than Saul.

Solomon Splits the Difference
Giorgione, The Judgement of Solomon, 1500.Then comes the famous instance of wisdom. You know the one -- with the two women arguing over which one is the real mother of a little baby? Sure you do.
But, there are several details I did not know in this very familiar story. The women are prostitutes, for one thing, and they live in the same brothel. They both had babies at the same time, but one if the babies died shortly thereafter. Woman #1 says “her son died when she rolled over on him in her sleep, so she stole my baby.” Woman #2 says “she’s crazy; I don’t know what happened to her son, but this one is mine.” None of this is especially important, but it adds some coherence to the usual reading of “so these two women are arguing over a baby.”

Solomon, famously, suggests dividing the baby in half, and this provokes a revealing reaction from the women. It’s kind of like what Hamlet and the play within a play, except with the king provoking the reaction instead of being provoked himself. And everyone is quite impressed with Solomon's cleverness.

Larry Gonick, doubtless drawing on some highly authoritative source, argues in his (absolutely brilliant, absolutely masterful) Cartoon History of the Universe (which, if you have never read it, you have never lived, and you should not do ANYTHING more until you have either purchased it or reserved it at your local library. Go! Now!) that the story of Solomon and the women is actually a political parable, and is meant as Solomon’s decree that Israel will under no circumstances be divided among more than one ruler. (First Book, p. 183) It’s a kind of threat, if you will. Interestingly, as the Books of Samuel went on, we saw Israel being referred to increasingly as “Israel and Judah.” There’s an implied internal split there that Solomon might be trying to forestall, but I didn’t catch where and when that split happened, or what’s driving it.
Solomon Sets Up Shop

1 Kings 4 is one of those “paperwork” chapters that were so common in the Pentateuch but have become much less common since. They provide a roster of Solomon’s staff and regional officials, an overview of the palace budget, and a list of some of the new king’s hobbies (speaking proverbs, songwriting, natural history). This material suggest that Solomon, having established by hook and/or crook that he is the guy in charge, is now taking government seriously. He seems to be setting up a strong central administration backed by a local presence throughout the kingdom, maintaining a sizeable standing army, conducting an active and skillful foreign policy, and overall being everything you want from your iron age king. The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore during his reign, we are told. (4:20) They ate, they drank and they were happy. Sounds good.

Next Week: They don’t call it First Temple Judaism for nothin’....