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’....

1 comment:

gl. said...

not joab! man, he deserved better. you think he went to heaven? ;)