Friday, November 28, 2014

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings Introduction

I'm really excited about getting into the book of Kings.

In many ways, Kings is similar to Samuel.  Just like Samuel, it was originally written as a single book and later broken into two halves.  In fact, the transition between 1st and 2nd Kings is even more contrived than the transition between 1st and 2nd Samuel.

Another similarity is that Kings is replete with stories.  Just like Samuel, Kings is a book about the successive lives of Israel's rulers.

The book of Samuel focused primarily on 2-3 actors, mainly Samuel himself, Saul and David.  The book of Kings is somewhat more diverse, because it is a book about the progression of kings that ruled over Israel for many generations.

Samuel and Kings are also written about the same era in Israel's historical progression.  If Samuel was the book that described Israel's emergence as a kingdom and regional power, Kings is the book that describes the bulk of Israel's history as a kingdom and regional power.  The book ends when Jerusalem is destroyed and Israel driven into exile and disgrace.

In this way, Kings also fits into the broader historical narrative, which can only be described as Israel's long-running sinfulness and rebellion against God.  Their rebellion against God started in earnest after the exile, when an entire generation was consigned to die in the wilderness.  During the Judges period, "every man did what was right in his own eyes", living with total disregard for God's laws and morality.  In the book of Samuel, Israel sinned in asking for a king and were punished by being given the flawed Saul as an answer to their flawed prayer.  The book of Kings continues this pattern as Israel drifts in and out of idolatry, ultimately precipitating their destruction at the hands of foreign powers.

In the book of Judges I described something I call "the Judges cycle", which was the cycle of pride, judgment, repentence and redemption that filled that book.  Kings has a somewhat similar pattern, but rather than an inevitable downfall into sin, what we see in this book is that the spiritual life of the king dictated the spiritual condition of the nation.  There are times in the book of Kings when a righteous king reigns (like David), and in those times the nation follows the LORD.  At other times, a sinful king (like Saul) reigns, and in those times the nation follows their king into idolatry.  In all cases, the nation seems to do no better or worse than the king ruling over it.

The history in this book, just like the society it was written about, is entirely patriarchal.  The king really sets the tone for acceptable behavior, so in that sense writing mostly about the king is actually quite appropriate.

However, this book isn't entirely about the kings.  Another sequence of major figures in this book is the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha (whom we will soon meet).  Like Samuel the prophet, the prophets in the book of Kings are typically a moderating influence, trying to encourage devotion to the LORD and sharing the word of the LORD.  Most commonly, this is in the form of declaring judgments and punishment against the metastasizing idolatry spreading through their society.

This book, then, contains roughly two parallel narratives.  One of these narratives is the rise and fall of Israel's regional influence and prosperity in the context of their ongoing conflict against nearly all of the surrounding powers.  Contrary to the moral simplicity that we see in Deut 20 (which encouraged the destruction of the Canaanite nations without exception), in Kings we see Israel engaging in a complex of political alliances, sometimes lording over minor powers and sometimes serving greater powers.

The second narrative is the progression of Israel's spirituality, which I think can only be characterized as a long, slow progressive decline, only broken by a handful of brief but stunning revivals (at the hands of a righteous king).  Unfortunately, and much to my frustration when I first read these stories, the revivals never last beyond a single generation.

Lastly, the book of Kings will contain several of the most significant historical events in the Old Testament, which I will mention briefly now, and in more depth later.

The first is the partition of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom.  As strange as it may sound, the unified kingdom under Saul and later David is actually an anomaly compared to what happens in most of Israel's later history.  In short, we have already seen several political splits across the north-south axis in the book of Samuel.  Judah supported David when he was fighting against Ish-Bosheth for control of the nation, and Judah supported David when he was returning across the Jordan after defeating Absalom's rebellion.

The northern kingdom is called "Israel" and the southern kingdom is called "Judah".  However, sometimes the OT uses the word "Israel" to refer to the unified kingdom.  Some of this language is possibly injected into Samuel, such as 1 Samuel 18:16, 2 Samuel 2:9-10, 2 Samuel 3:10, 2 Samuel 5:5 and elsewhere.

It's also possible that Judah was listed separately because it was by far the largest tribe at this point, and one of the most powerful.  It's not my point to say whether or not the references to "Judah" in Samuel are anachronistic (i.e. demonstrating that Samuel must have been written after the kingdom was split), but rather to show that the split between Israel and Judah has historical roots going back to at least the early kingdom period.  But even more important than that, I want my readers to automatically translate in their minds "Judah" to "the southern kingdom centered at Jerusalem" and "Israel" to "the northern kingdom centered at Samaria".

The second major historical event is the exile to Babylon, which concludes the book of 2 Kings.  This event is important for a bunch of social, cultural, religious and historical reasons, so I'm not going to really dive into it now.  It is intended as the logical conclusion of Israel's sin, the final divine rejection and punishment for their continuous sin and rejection of the LORD.  Having rejected him, the nation is in turn rejected by him.

In conclusion, this is a very eventful, dense book that has lots of fodder for interesting discussions.  There are a few drier parts where the book contains a much more bland recitation of names, like an extended genealogy, and it's during these times that my readers should remember Israel's pursuit of continuity.  The purpose of this book as a whole is to remind Israel where they came from and who they are.  The list of kings, much like a genealogy, is meant to give the ancient people of Israel who wrote and read this book an understanding of how they fit in, how they connect to the ancient stories about David and Moses that we have already passed through.  We can read these stories with a similar mentality.  Even if we are not born into the family of the Jews, if we claim the name of Jesus then we are inheritors of their promises, of their punishment, of their glory, of their rebellions and of their ultimate redemption at the hands of God.

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