Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Kingdom Splits

1 Kings 12-16

After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became the new king, but didn't handle things very well. When the people came to him complaining how hard his father had made them work, he sought advice. The elders who had advised his father said, "lighten up." But his own younger buddies said, "Tell them your little finger is thicker than your father's loins" (seriously! Look it up yourself! 12:10) and encouraged him to be even harder on them: "Tell them that, though your father used whips, you will use scorpions to make them work even harder!" (12:11). (The notes to the version of the Bible I am reading say that "scorpions" might have been an especially horrific kind of whip. Either way, it sounds pretty bad.)

He sided with his buddies.

Revolt ensued, and the kingdom was split. Rehoboam was king over Judah (and maybe the tribe of Benjamin, or part of it), and Jeroboam came back and became king over the other tribes of Israel. They did not do a great job of keeping to the ways of the Lord.

Rehoboam was about to fight to reclaim the other tribes, but was stopped by the Lord: "You shall not go up to fight against your kindred the people of Israel. Let everyone go home, for this thing is from me" (12:24). Nevertheless, Jeroboam was afraid that if his people kept going to the temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifices, they might re-unite with Judah. So he made two calves of gold for people to go to for worship instead (12:28), and did other things that changed the usual religious practices. A man of God came to warn him that these changes were not right and good (chapter 13). (The full story here is very strange. Why did the older prophet trick that man of God?) One of Jeroboam's sons fell ill and died (14:1-18) -- that was another warning that Jeroboam did not heed. He still continued in his problematic ways.

Meanwhile, things were not going much better in Judah, although there, the people in general (rather than Rehoboam himself) are blamed (14:21-24). Even worse, King Shishak of Egypt attacked and took away the treasures of the temple and the king's house (14:25-26). After Rehoboam died, his son Abijam reigned for three years, not doing so well, really (15:1-8). (It seems that war broke out now between Judah and Israel). His son Asa succeeded him.

Asa did better (15:9-24), although wars continued. His son Jehoshaphat succeeded him, but we have not heard his story yet. So, the rulers of Judah so far are all descendants of David.

Things were much more troubled in Israel. While Jeroboam's son Nadab did succeed him (15:25), he only reigned two years before being killed by Baasha, who then became the new king (and killed all the house of Jeroboam). Each later king becomes worse and worse. Israel even divides further, but only for a short period of time (16:21-22).

Many of these kings are mentioned briefly. Apparently, details about them used to exist in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, and the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah, but those books no longer exist.

So we have a history described, trying to make sense of why the kingdom split, and why the treasures of the temple were lost. We see things tending to get worse. We see prophets trying to warn the kings to follow the Lord's ways. We see David's line preserved, but the succession of kings in Israel more troubled. We realize more clearly that the wealth Solomon had built came from forced labor, and so one possible explanation of the cause of the split is that Solomon's son Rehoboam did not listen to wise elders and lighten up, but followed on in this practice even more strictly than his father did -- yet then lost much of the kingdom and much of the treasure.

Yet there is also a theological interpretation: that God somehow wanted the kingdom split. Was Jeroboams's sin actually that he did not accept this? Rehoboam did not himself attack, trying to reunite. Instead, Jeroboam started setting up new religious practices in order to keep his own kingdom separate from Judah. How would things have been different if he himself had accepted that the Lord was really okay with him ruling Israel separately from Rehoboam's ruling of Judah, as long as he had kept to the usual practices and traditions? Would the two have eventually come back together in a peaceable way?

As it was, they eventually did start fighting. And Israel almost fragmented further.

I will be interested to see what happens next.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Solomon's Reign

1 Kings 3-11

Solomon becomes king, and for a while, things are looking good. He marries the Pharaoh's daughter -- interesting that there is now this positive connection with Egypt. He wishes for wisdom, and is granted that wisdom. Israel enters into a time of peace and prosperity, and so Solomon fulfills his father David's dream of building a permanent temple to the Lord. (It is nice that master craftsman Hiram is given a lot of credit for the beautiful work he does on the temple.) This seems to be a real moment of arrival at long last -- the return of the people to their land, finally attaining enough peace and stability to build the temple that at last signifies the fulfillment of the promise. There is even international recognition as the Queen of Sheba comes to visit.

Then Solomon blows it.

You think he would know better, especially after his father's advice to him, repeated to him by the Lord Himself.

But, among his wives, he takes on women "from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, 'You shall not inter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods'" (11:2). Apparently, Solomon in fact had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (11:3). He supported their worshiping their different gods.

The Lord warned Solomon, but Solomon did not change his ways. So then the Lord warned him further that the kingdom would be fractured after his death, and He raised adversaries against Solomon. Solomon's son would be able to continue to rule Judah, but the other tribes would be given to Jeroboam. Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt and remained there until Solomon died.

Is this a story of the corrupting power of privilege? At first, the peace and prosperity are used well: used for the building of a beautiful temple. But then Solomon claims more and more for himself: an extravagant house, hundreds of wives and concubines. If this is a story of power corrupting, it is distressing, especially since Solomon did not originally ask for wealth and power, but wisdom. One would hope that true wisdom would protect against corruption.

Taking a closer look at the story, I find myself asking why it was bad that Solomon reached out to other nations and religions in a positive way, with love and interest rather than through war and conquest? Perhaps it is that he did so in a way that diluted his faithfulness to his own people, history, and traditions. Thus, friction and strife began to build again. The time of peace ended. Are such cycles inevitable?

What is the right balance between, on the one hand, faithfulness to your people and your heritage, and preservation of your own culture, and, on the other hand, positive interest in and openness towards other people and other cultures?

Of course, another way to read this story is to consider what the difference is between "true religion" and "false religion." What does it really mean to worship "false gods"? At the time that this part of the Bible was written, the line was drawn between one's own religious heritage and others. I think now we see that even within every religious tradition, there are ways of worshiping true to the best spirit of that tradition, and false ways of worshiping. The false forms of worship are when one keeps up the appearances of adhering to the tenets of a given faith, but yet one does not really keep to the proper spirit. It is not really God that one is worshiping, but something lesser that one may still call "God" but has fashioned into one's own image. So, what one worships instead is really not God, but something else: an image of success, wealth, power, happiness, etc.

What is the aim of all of your strivings? Who or what is it, above all else, that you serve?

Even if you answer, "God," is that really God? How do you know?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Solomon Becomes King

1 Kings 1-2

At the beginning of 1 Kings, David is old and not doing so well. He has trouble staying warm, and so his servants find for him a young virgin to attend to him and sleep with him. Her name is Abishag. She is very beautiful, but the king does not "know her sexually" (1:4). The next sentence states that the next son, Adonijah, now declares that he will be king (1:5).

Taken as they are written, these are just statements of a sequence of events, not necessarily linked. But in the notes to the edition of the Bible I am reading (see sidebar for complete reference), the commentators say that this indicates that the king is impotent "and therefore no longer fit to be king. The knowledge of David's impotence spurs Adonijah to declare himself king" (OT 415).

I find that an interesting interpretation. Was that really the primary reason? Or was it just that David was getting old and was no longer in good health?

At any rate, Adonijah is the next son. One listing of David's first sons appears at 2 Samuel 3:2-5. The listing include Amnon, Chileab, Absalom, and Adonijah first. We heard what happened to Amnon and Absalom. Chileab is not mentioned further: the commentators suggest that he may have died young. But after Adonijah there are other sons too: Shephatiah and Ithream. Then later offspring (both sons and daughters) are mentioned at 2 Samuel 5:13-16. These include Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, and others.

I mention this because what happens next in 1 Kings is that it turns out that Solomon becomes king. No mention is made of the other brothers between him and Adonijah. And recall that Solomon is Bathsheba's son, and the union between David and Bathsheba began as adultery.

But, back to the story: While Adonijah makes preparations to succeed his father as king, the prophet Nathan (not the same Nathan as David's son, I don't think), goes to Bathsheba to warn her and encourage her to talk to David about this. Adonijah seems to be worried that his father favors Solomon, because he did not invite him (or Nathan) to his big party. So Bathsheba and Nathan tell David about all of this to encourage David to quickly appoint his own desired successor before Adonijah declares himself king.

David does spring into action, ordering a procession and ceremony anointing Solomon as king (1:28-40). Adonijah and his guests at his party hear the trumpets, inquire, and learn that Solomon has just been made king. The guests all depart uneasily, and Adonijah goes to the altar and grasps the horns, seeking sanctuary (1:50). Solomon summons him and lets him go.

David does die soon thereafter, but first gives Solomon advice: keep the ways of the Lord, and get rid of a few people... (2:1-9). He then dies (2:10). Now Adonijah asks Bathsheba to ask Solomon if he can have Abishag (the beautiful virgin whom David never knew sexually) for his wife (2:13-18). According to the commentators, this is really a power move. Elsewhere too, sleeping with a king's wives and concubines is a symbolic way to try to grasp the king's power. So, Solomon has Adonijah killed (2:25).

The rest of chapter 2 has Solomon banishing or putting to death others who threaten his power (because they had sided with Adonijah), including Joab, even though Joab asked for sanctuary. In fact, this was one of the people David advised Solomon to put to death, because of the killings Joab had intiated on his own (not commanded by David), especially of Abner and Amasa (2:5-6). The commentators seem doubtful that David had really suggested this, because those killings had happened so long ago. They think that this was merely a rationalization for killing Joab, but that the real reason was that Solomon felt threatened by him since he sided with Adonijah. But I think it is plausible that David may have advised Solomon to do this, since David and Joab did seem to have an uneasy relationship. I think David found Joab dangerous but valuable, and may well have held a lasting grudge towards him for those two deaths. And David may also have felt that while he could handle Joab, Solomon might have difficulty. It certainly was not a good sign that Joab sided with Adonijah. That did not bode well for his future relationship with Solomon.

Anyway, now that all of the enemies are cleared away, Solomon is ready to rule. Yes, I am appalled at this grisly side of power in those days (the killing off of one's enemies), but, well, this is not the first time I have seen such things in the Bible.

What's interesting from here is that there now seems to follow a substantial period of peace, for a change! We'll see that in what follows.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

2 Samuel Draws to a Close

2 Samuel 21-24

2 Samuel 21:1-14 tells the back story behind why all of Saul's heirs were killed except for Mephibosheth. Apparently, it is a more complicated story than the brief version we earlier saw, involving three years of famine, and the realization that it was due to a past fault of Saul (his trying to wipe out the Gibeonites). Wanting now to make amends to the Gibeonites, David asked them what he should do, and they responded that he should round up seven sons of Saul and have them executed. So he did, but he did also honor their bones, along with those of Saul and Jonathan. And the famine lifted.

2 Samuel 21:15-22 tells of a battle with the Philistines in which David was finally showing his age and was almost killed, so his men told him he had better not go out and fight himself any more. In this and mention of other battles, giants (or descendents of giants) appear again, one with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.

2 Samuel 22 is a poetic passage, a song. It is portrayed as David thanking the Lord for helping him and protecting him. The image is of a person regarding himself as righteous in the midst of lots of drama and violence, grateful for the Lord's strength in carrying him through, helping him to conquer his own enemies, and delivering him from violence.

Clearly, David himself was quite violent, having no qualms about killing those he felt he should kill. We know enough about his life story to realize that he wasn't as perfectly righteous as this passage makes him out to be (see 22:21-25). And so I find myself reading this as the inner view of a person who tries to be righteous (even if not always succeeding) and tries to be a good ruler, honoring God as he rules, and accounting for his success by giving credit to God.

2 Samuel 23:1-7 gives the last words of David: more words of thanks to the Lord.

Then 2 Samuel 23:8-39 honors the best of the brave soldiers who fought for David. The numbers do not add up correctly, if you count the actual names. And Joab is not listed among them, even though he is mentioned back at the end of chapter 20 as being in command of the whole army of Israel. It makes me wonder whether chapters 21-23 up to this point were added in later, breaking up this discussion of Important People in King David's Administration. I'll have a closer look to see whether that makes the numbers add up any better.

Finally, 2 Samuel 24 tells a story of a census, at first portrayed as commanded by the Lord (though Joab is doubtful that this could be so) and then becomes the cause of the Lord's anger. It is mysterious why this would be a problem. The building of an altar saves the day.

So, the end of 2 Samuel has these bits and pieces collected together, signalling that we are getting close to the end of David's reign. It will be interesting to see what happens next.