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!


Nichim said...

Learning more about the namesakes of oversized champagne bottles is an unexpected perk of this project!

gl. said...

"I will chastise you with scorpions!"

You like to walk around saying that a lot, don't you? ;)

"Or perhaps, that you should never trust anyone who says they have instructions from God."