Saturday, March 21, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 14

In this chapter, Jeroboam's son dies and both Jeroboam and Rehoboam conclude their reigns.

There are a couple things my readers should understand when reading this chapter.

First, as mentioned in the previous chapter, Jeroboam is deeply alienated from the LORD.  He is offering sacrifices to idols.

Second, an unnamed prophet predicted that Jeroboam's altar would be destroyed by his enemies in the south, the descendants of David.

Third, while Jeroboam may suspect the hostility of this unnamed prophet, he still remembers Ahijah who prophesied that he would receive the kingdom.  Much like Saul turning to Samuel in the time of his distress (1 Samuel 28), Jeroboam turns to Ahijah.  And much like Samuel told Saul that he was heading towards disaster due to his abandoning the LORD, Jeroboam also learns that he is facing imminent disaster.

I think the story of Saul and Samuel is the closest parallel to this one.  While things are going well, Jeroboam is happy enough with his idols, but when things start going wrong, he doesn't turn to God, he turns to the prophet who spoke to him on God's behalf.  Just like when Saul turned to Samuel, the prophet reiterates that God is going to punish Jeroboam, destroy his entire family, and give the kingdom to someone else.  There is no evidence that Jeroboam ever repented, which secured his fate.

With all that as context, we should understand that Jeroboam is certainly concerned about his son and is trying to improve the situation the best way that he knows how, but he is not considering repentance or turning to God, he is turning to the prophet who foretold his rise to power.  Ahijah can do little to help him though, because Ahijah himself is just a servant of a higher power, and Jeroboam's problems are caused by his broken covenant with the LORD.

Now I am going to dig in a bit more into the details of this chapter.

First of all, trying to deceive a prophet will never work.  This is another parallel between the story of Saul and Jeroboam.  In Saul's case, he disguised himself when he visited the witch/medium, but when Samuel appeared, the woman recognized Saul.  In this case, Jeroboam sends his wife in disguise (for whatever reason, he did not want to go himself), and the LORD tells Ahijah who knows that she is Jeroboam's wife before she even arrives.

Secondly, I want to draw a parallel between the dim eyes of Ahijah and the dim eyesight of Eli (1 Samuel 3:2).  In both cases, their eyes were growing weak with time.  Eli's weak eyes were accompanied by gradually relaxing standards of morality, as his sons committed many offenses and the ritual standards of the temple were not upheld.  The decline of his eyesight paralleled the declining discipline of the priesthood itself.  In Ahijah's case, his declining eyesight focused him into an even greater dependence on the LORD, such that the LORD told him when Jeroboam's wife was coming.  Imagine how differently things would have gone for Jacob if his father Isaac heard from the LORD as clearly as Ahijah does, when Jacob tried to deceive his nearly-blind father by pretending to be Esau (Genesis 27).

Third, as a minor note, verse 11 is a very common trope in the OT.  Essentially what it means is that his descendants will die unburied, such that wild animals will eat their corpses.  This is considered a particular disgrace in Israel's culture at this time, especially considering this is a society for whom "honor your mother and your father" is one of their central religious commands.  Dogs are unclean animals and therefore particularly despised.  Being eaten by a dog is therefore considered even worse.

Fourth, I think it is informative that the LORD "found something good in him toward the LORD God of Israel", "him" being Jeroboam's sick son.  Ironically, dying from an illness is considered a mercy because it means that he will be buried with honor.  What I find even more interesting though is that this is one of the few instances we have in the OT of a child being judged for his or her moral character.  For the most part, children are largely attached to the moral worth of their fathers.  That is, a godly father usually has children that are blessed, and even more commonly, ungodly fathers are punished along with their whole families.  There are many instances of this, but the first that comes to mind to me is Korah's rebellion, when it says that Dathan, Abiram and their wives and children are swallowed up by the earth as punishment for their sins (Num 16:27-31).  It always struck me because the wives and children were not directly parties to the sin of Dathan and Abiram, they were killed simply by association.

I don't have time to discuss these issues in depth (in particular, the notion of children being punished for the sins of their fathers, which Deuteronomy 24:16 explicitly prohibits), but I want to point out that this chapter is definitely assigning moral value to Jeroboam's son, and the LORD is saying (through Ahijah) that Jeroboam's son has "something good" in him that God wants to show mercy towards, while at the same time punishing Jeroboam himself.  I think the story in this chapter partly resolves the apparent contradiction between God sometimes killing the children of evil men, while also saying that children should not be punished for the sins of their fathers.  There are at least three factors that I can think of.  1) Jeroboam needs to be punished for his sins.  2) As a hereditary king, if Jeroboam's family persists, it is likely that his descendants would remain in power.  Part of God's purpose here is to remove Jeroboam's family from power.  3) Killing Jeroboam's son is not necessarily a punishment for the son himself.  If he is a righteous man, he will dwell with God in heaven and indeed be spared from the sorrow and disgrace that will come upon Jeroboam's family.  But, I recognize that this is a sensitive issue and it's something I need to study in more depth before I have anything definitive to say.  This paragraph is really just my cursory thoughts, and I think a more careful analysis is warranted.  However, that is beyond the scope of my commentary for this chapter.

Fifth, and this is something I want to emphasize, verses 15-16 are predicting that the LORD is going to "uproot" the northern kingdom and "scatter" them in exile beyond the Euphrates.  There have been multiple instances foreshadowing the exile, and this is perhaps the strongest one yet.  Ahijah just says it: Israel, the northern kingdom, is going to be cast out of the promised land because of the sins they committed.

Lastly, another minor note, the "book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel" is another lost book that is referenced in the OT but we do not have any extant copies in modern times.  It was probably a historical account that was intended to complement this religious account of Israel's history.

In the final section of this chapter, we discover that Rehoboam is also a pretty nasty guy, which might explain why he responded so poorly to the people's request in the previous chapter.  He is also specifically mentioned to be the son of an Ammonite, one of the Canaanite nations hostile to Israel, which also possibly explains why his faith in the LORD is so weak, since his mother is unlikely to be a follower of the LORD.

I consider verses 26-27 to be a striking account of Israel's decline.  While in Solomon's time silver was considered of little value, it took only one generation for the golden shields to be replaced with bronze, a cheaper replacement.  This is a visceral image of Israel's "golden age" swiftly becoming a "bronze age".  The glamour of Solomon that so deeply impressed the queen of Sheba is quickly fading.  Things are not quite as grim for Judah (the southern kingdom) as they are for the northern kingdom, but it is certainly taking a turn for the worse.  How long will Judah endure before the LORD turns his wrath upon their idolatries?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 13

In this chapter, a nameless prophet proclaims disaster against Jeroboam, and then meets his own misfortune.

I find this chapter both fascinating and more than a little confusing.  I'll try to explain it the best that I can.

First of all, the clear purpose of this chapter is to rebuke Jeroboam.  As the author made clear in the previous chapter, Jeroboam was sinning in a variety of ways by constructing his own religion, and here we see Jeroboam offering incense to the idol that he had made, and a prophet comes from the LORD to rebuke him for it and promise destruction for the altar and priesthood that he made.  Furthermore, the prophet is declaring that it would be a descendant of David, Jeroboam's rival, that would destroy this altar.  Keep in mind, Jeroboam built it to secure his kingdom against the threat of Rehoboam, David's descendant.

Some notes from Rashi.  Rashi points out that the LORD punished Jeroboam by shriveling his hand when he stretched it out against the prophet, but did not shrivel his hand when Jeroboam stretched it out to offer a sacrifice to an idol.  By this, he avenged the honor of a righteous man more than his own honor.  It's interesting, but I think that feels consistent with what I've seen of the LORD, because I think the LORD is more concerned about protecting and honoring his children than himself.  This is part of his humility.  Rashi also points out that in verse 6, the king says "the LORD your God", so even in the midst of his rebuke, he does not consider the LORD to be his own god.  Jeroboam is not going to repent.

This first part of the story is straightforward.  The prophet came, delivered his message, and was protected from harm by the LORD.  The prophet rebuked Jeroboam with his words, and when Jeroboam attempted to punish him (probably by death), the LORD rebuked Jeroboam by shriveling his hand.  At the end, the prophet is on his way out of the country, with mission accomplished.  The second part of the story is a bit stranger, as the prophet's life comes to an unexpected and unfortunate end.

We learn about a second, old prophet who lived in Bethel.  The first thing we should realize is that this prophet is living in the same town as the false idol, which casts aspersions over his moral character and loyalty to the LORD.  I think the descriptions of the old prophet in this chapter are ambiguous; it doesn't say that the prophet is a false prophet or that he worshiped other gods.  What it says is that he lied.  However, after the true prophet dies, the old prophet mourns over him, which implies godly character.

So, I have a hard time analyzing the character of the old prophet.  In general, I do not think the old prophet is a particularly godly man.  I think he mourns over the death of the young prophet because of remorse.  He knows that his actions caused the young prophet to die, and he's sorry for it.  But he is not acting like a godly man.  He is living in the midst of idolatry and doesn't challenge it.  In fact, we could imagine if the old prophet were still following the LORD, he would have been the one to bring a message of rebuke to Jeroboam.  Secondly, the old prophet lies to the young prophet and tricks him into breaking the command of the LORD to not eat anything in that country.

And that's another point.  The young prophet was commanded to not eat anything in that country because it was a country in rebellion against the LORD, and in a metaphorical sense he was supposed to treat it as unclean.  The young prophet was supposed to go in and do his job and leave, not to dwell in that place and implicitly legitimize their behavior by fellowshipping with any of the people of that country.  If that is how the young prophet is supposed to behave, then how is it okay that the old prophet would live in Bethel, one of the two centers of idolatry in the northern kingdom?  It is not.

All of these factors indicate that the old prophet is to some extent backslidden.  However, in verse 20 it says the word of the LORD came to the old prophet.  How can a backslidden, lying and possibly idolatrous prophet also prophesy the word of God?  The answer is exactly what it looks like: God is willing to speak through even sinful prophets.  I should remind my readers of Balaam, from Numbers 22-24, who prophesied on behalf of the LORD multiple times and in Num 24:2 even has the "spirit of God come upon him".  This, in spite of the fact that Balaam did not worship the LORD and was almost certainly an idolater.  In general, I believe the LORD is willing to work through people who do not follow him fully or perhaps do not even follow him at all.

There are actually a lot of stories about this sort of thing, and Balaam and the old prophet are just two of them.  The general principle is this: God is willing to work through people with giftings that exceed their character.  There are prophets in the world who can do profound things and even perform miracles, yet have deeply compromised personal character or devotion to the LORD.  This is undoubtedly one of those cases.  Now, one might ask why does God work through sinful people, especially a person like Balaam who was not a follower of the LORD?  I discussed this topic to some extent in 1 Samuel 6 which also contains pagan prophets/diviners somehow discerning the LORD's will.  I won't go into this subject in a whole lot of depth here, but the bible is clear that God can and does speak to non-believers, and furthermore, the LORD uses non-believers to accomplish his purposes in the earth.  While I do believe the old prophet is a follower of the LORD to some extent, simply having the word of the LORD come to him does not validate his lifestyle, personal character or other decisions in this chapter.

In the end, the old prophet mourns over the death of the young prophet and identifies himself with the young prophet by asking that their bones be buried together.  He knows the truth of the young prophet's words, and that his actions resulted in the young prophet dying.  And, I'm not sure what else there is to say about this.  He sinned, he knows it, and it's not clear if he ever left the northern kingdom or did anything to serve the LORD again.  The text does not inform us what happens to the old prophet.

One last minor note is that this chapter contains the first reference to "Samaria".  This is an alternate name for the northern kingdom (which is sometimes called Israel).  It is called Samaria after the capital city of the north, Samaria.  The name of the capital city and the name of the kingdom are sometimes used interchangeably.  So, in case things are not confusing enough, there is another proper name that is going to be thrown around without explanation.  Yay!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 12

In this chapter, the northern tribes rebel against Rehoboam and Jeroboam constructs two idols.

This chapter is essentially the fulfillment of Ahijah's prophecy in the previous chapter.  However, the details of the story are interesting to me.

This chapter begins with a complaint.  The people are going to Rehoboam to complain about the "heavy yoke" of Solomon, which is consistent with a lot of the things we've seen in previous chapters.  All of Solomon's building projects, the many cities and fortifications, the temple and palace; all of these things were a burden on the people.  The people never had the boldness to complain to Solomon himself, but they have an opportunity to complain now because Rehoboam is a new king and he lacks the authority and allegiance that Solomon held.  Every transition of power is a sensitive time, and the people know that they have a chance to improve their circumstances.  Rehoboam also knows this is a pivotal time, and he takes three days to make a decision.

Secondly, this chapter draws a contrast between the elders who served Solomon and the youths who grew up with Rehoboam.  I don't want to infer too much here, but I do think this is intended to show a generational shift.  Namely, the men who served Solomon grew up as children in the kingdom of David, who was a man passionate for God and who fought many wars.  They were adults in the kingdom of Solomon and sat under his wisdom.  The youths who grew up with Rehoboam most likely grew up in tremendous wealth and power that marks Solomon's reign.  Beyond all that, we can reasonably assert that the youths have less wisdom than the elders because they lack the experience that comes with age.

A minor textual note: something I didn't know the first time I read this is that a scorpion is basically a more severe whip, with multiple thongs.  The notion of verse 11 is the multiplication of the burdens and severity of punishment that Rehoboam would dish out on the people under him.  He's not saying that he would hit them with literal scorpions.

Verse 16 is a familiar refrain at this point.  In fact, it is nearly a direct repetition of 2 Samuel 20:1, and it happens for similar reasons.  Judah is loyal to Rehoboam because they share tribal affinity, while the other tribes are interested in having "their own man" be king.  That is undoubtedly one of the factors in their selection of Jeroboam, who I should note is an Ephraimite and therefore tribally affiliated with the chief northern tribe of Ephraim.  We can see that one of the chief reasons the people reject Rehoboam is that they do not have any "portion" or "inheritance" in him, which is a poetic way of saying, "he is going to take advantage of his to benefit his own people" by taxing them and directing patronage to the men of Judah.  It's the same attitude that we see when Saul asked the men of Benjamin "Will the son of Jesse give all of you fields and vineyards? Will he make all of you commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds?" (1 Samuel 22:7)  Saul had financially rewarded his supporters, men from his own tribe, to administrate his kingdom and build loyalty.  If Solomon didn't do the same thing, then certainly the men of the northern tribe suspect that Rehoboam will do so, placing them under a heavy yoke and building up Judah.

Moses did so much work to try to bring the twelve tribes together.  The friction between the tribes shows up in many places, beginning with the twelve sons of Jacob, continuing into the Judges period and later the split between Saul and David, and now the friction has re-emerged as yet another civil war in Israel.  This time, however, the tribes will not be reconciled.  For the rest of their history, there will be two parallel dynastic kingdoms, the northern kingdom (confusingly referred to as "Israel", sometimes also called Ephraim after the foremost tribe of the north) and the southern kingdom (usually called "Judah").

David himself had to fight against the northern tribes on more than one occasion, but with God's favor he was able to unite the nation under his rule.  In this case, we are told in v. 15 as well as v. 22-24 that this division comes from the LORD.  The circumstances are similar, the motivations driving the parties apart are similar, and even the proclamation that the people "have no inheritance in the son of Jesse" is similar.  But while last time the LORD supported David and helped him bring the kingdom together, this time it is the will of God driving the kingdom apart, and no human agency will be able to bring together what God has rent asunder.

Verse 18 shows both Rehoboam's attempts to assert control by sending Adoram to the north.  I see this as Rehoboam attempting to control the people by exploiting patterns of dominance.  That is, Adoram was a servant of Solomon who was administrator of the forced labor and a symbol of Solomon's oppression over the people.  The people would have obeyed Adoram for decades during Solomon's building projects, and Rehoboam is possibly thinking that by sending Adoram, the people would obey him out of habit (and perhaps fear).  However, the people refuse to be controlled and kill Adoram.

Next, verse 21 tells us that Benjamin rallied together with Judah to fight against the north.  In the previous chapter Ahijah implied that two tribes would remain with the house of David, but without stating identity of the second tribe (besides Judah).  It's possible that Benjamin, then, is that second tribe, and that's probably what the author has in mind.  Everything I said in the last chapter is still true, that Simeon gradually merges into Judah over the years and that most of the Levites also migrate to the area around Jerusalem because of their historic association with the ministry of the tabernacle.  So, it's not clear to me exactly why the author thinks 10 tribes will go north and 2 go south.  It is probably poetic, because in practice, it is going to be closer to 4 tribes south and 8 tribes north.  However, Judah will always be the most dominant and important tribe in the south, which is why Ahijah (and many other people) will only talk about a single tribe remaining loyal to Rehoboam (for instance, verse 20 says that "none but the tribe of Judah followed the house of David").

The final part of the chapter sets the tone for how the kings of the northern kingdom will behave.  In essence, Jeroboam leads the kingdom straight into idolatry, in order to set up centers of religious power in the north and to further cement the separation between the northern tribes and the southern tribes.  Even though the LORD made Jeroboam king, he tries to secure his power through manipulation and immediately forsakes the LORD, which will ultimately lead to his downfall.  My readers should perceive the author's disgust at Jeroboam's behavior when he uses phrases like "which he had made" (v. 32), the calves he had made, the high places he had made, the feast that he instituted on a day of his own choosing, selecting priests in his own judgment even when they were not Levites.  In all of these things, Jeroboam is building his own religion with no regard for the statutes and laws from the Pentateuch, which had commanded the Israelites who would be priests, that they should not make idols or high places, that tells them the days when they should celebrate feasts.  This is like a contest of wills, with Jeroboam choosing to do things his own way, rather than do things the way the LORD commanded.

In addition, verse 28 should recall to us what Aaron said in Exodus 32:4, when he says "these are your gods, oh Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt."  As with the golden calf in Exodus, the golden calves made by Jeroboam are meant to replace the saving power of the LORD and to take his honor.  In essence, Jeroboam is attempting to transfer Israel's relationship from God to the idols so that Israel would worship the idols, serve them and trust in them for salvation.  Unfortunately, unlike Exodus 32, this time there is no Moses to come down and rebuke the people, or pray for their forgiveness.  Jeroboam will lead the people into sin, and nobody is here to lead them out.  This should be deeply concerning to us, because the LORD promised he would punish Israel if they departed from his covenant, which they are now doing in a big way.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 11

In this chapter, Solomon drifts into idolatry and in response the LORD raises up enemies to fight him.

This chapter is the culmination of some of the warning signs we had seen in earlier descriptions of Solomon's rule.  Solomon is a pragmatic and sometimes harsh ruler, who holds considerable power over Israel and their neighbors, and he successfully forged an alliance with Egypt.  While he invests considerably in the temple, his devotion the LORD is incomplete, and this proves to be the undoing of the unified Israelite kingdom.

To begin, I want my readers to notice the association between this chapter and the overall themes of the Hebrew Bible which I have been highlighting to date.  My readers should note that while verse 2 is not a direct quote from the Pentateuch, it certainly captures the spirit of the Pentateuch such as Deuteronomy 20:16-18 (the command to destroy all the nations that inhabit the promised land).  Discussing the downfall of Solomon is, in that sense, like discussing the moral philosophy of the Old Testament as a whole.  That philosophy is, in a word, bad company corrupts good character.  That is what the author is trying to express here.  By bonding himself emotionally (in love) with women who were in turn worshipers of other gods, Solomon himself was "turned away" after other gods and he "went after" them.

As a general principle, I think this applies today as well.  We are influenced in many ways by our friends, both consciously and subconsciously, and are influenced even more strongly by our spouse (or spouses, in Solomon's case).  The principles of the OT, then, are to isolate Israel's society as much as possible from the idolatrous societies around them.  Perhaps we can regard Israel's many failings as an example of how hard it is for social creatures such as ourselves to do that.  Even in the past few chapters, we saw that Solomon built most of his wealth from Arabian traders and driving commerce from Egypt to the countries north of him.  His political power is built on his marriage to Pharaoh's daughter, which is itself a violation of the same principle of separation that is observed in the OT.

And now, as the saying goes, the chickens have come home to roost.  All of Solomon's engagement with Egypt and other nations building political and trade alliances results in him developing an attraction towards foreign women.  Though many of these were certainly political marriages that might not have influenced Solomon as strongly, this chapter makes it clear that Solomon "loved" his wives and "held fast to them", which opens the door for him to begin following other gods, contrary to the law.  What starts as a violation of some of the outer principles of the law (segregating themselves from other nations) ends as a violation of the most central tenet of the Law and covenant as a whole, that they should have no other gods besides the LORD, and should make no idols.

There are more contemplative questions that can be raised around this.  To what extent do these "fences" protect our relationship with God, instead of becoming a sort of ritualistic structure that replaces our relationship with God?  By "fences", what I am referring to is biblical principles (such as the command to remain separate from the other nations of the promised land) that are intended to hold Israel close to God.  Another example is the tefillin that Jews wear to hold pieces of scripture on their body, as a physical reminder to keep the law close to their hearts.  Another example is to keep the Passover every year as a reminder of what God has done for Israel.

The reason I ask is because, if these fences are meant to protect us from idolatry or drifting away from God, then why did they not protect Solomon?  This is a question that can be generalized to our lives today.  Instead of Solomon, I can ask about myself.  Instead of "avoiding foreign women", I can ask about the many different kinds of sin that permeate this world and that God has called me to be separate from, whether it is sexual sin or the love of money or hating other people.  Instead of idolatry.... well, actually, we can still talk about idolatry; it's not stone statues, but anything that we put in the place of God in our lives is an idol of some kind.

I'm not asking because I want to live in sin; I think pursuing sin (the same way that Solomon pursued foreign wives) can genuinely impair one's relationship with God.  What I am wondering is if these fences are really capable of protecting us from our own free agency.  That is, if a person sets his or her heart on seeking God, then that person will seek God regardless of the circumstances.  If a person sets his or her heart on idols, then that person will eventually find the idols that he or she wants.  We can set up fences to protect things that we value, and if we value our relationship with the LORD we can protect it as such.  But Israel (as a nation) is commanded over and over in so many ways to set up these reminders and memorials and commanded to avoid idolatry in so many different ways, but because they did not value the LORD, the fences meant nothing and they were torn down (metaphorically).

What I am wondering is, to what extent can all of the memorials and annual festivals imbue Israel with a greater devotion to the LORD, rather than serve as an expression for what devotion to the LORD they already possess.  I wonder about this in my own life also.  When I go to church, does that increase my desire for God, or is that because I already have an increased desire for God, which expresses itself through church?  Is there anything I can do to protect my relationship with God, or is my relationship with God already protected because I want it to be?  I wonder about this because I've heard so many stories about people drifting away from the faith (and a substantial number of these stories are presented in the bible itself), and I want to know what I can do to avoid becoming one of those stories.  Perhaps even asking that question is enough to keep oneself safe?  Or perhaps there are no guarantees in life, perhaps there is no way to be "safe" in our relationship with God?  Perhaps it is something that must be pursued every day, every mistake atoned for, every desire turned upwards to heaven?

The reason why I called this a contemplative question is because I don't really have the answers.  But I think the questions are important because the bible (especially the OT) is simply filled with these kinds of rituals, which means that the LORD sees some kind of purpose in them, but with the extent of idolatry that seeps into Israelite society, I'm left wondering what that purpose might be.  I think there are a lot of possible answers, but I think it's worth taking the time to think about this and not settle for simple answers: look for the depth.  What is it that LORD wants to accomplish with the structures that he builds around his presence?  What is it that he is trying to encourage, to form and shape in us?  It's not enough to simply obey the things that he says; we must seek to understand his ways, in order to attain a deeper unity with his desires for our lives.

After Solomon slips into idolatry, the LORD raises up three enemies for him.  Once again, the simplest question is an important question: why would the LORD raise up enemies in response to idolatry?  The simple answer is that this to punish Solomon.  I think that is superficially true (God promised to punish Israel if they ever pursued idols), but I don't think it really captures God's intent, which is to use these situations to bring about repentance and redeem Israel from their spiritual poverty.  I could offer a longer analysis on how God uses opposition to resist pride, but I think this chapter's commentary has enough contemplation already.

I think it's interesting to note how Egypt is hedging their bets against Israel.  While Pharaoh builds a political alliance with Solomon through marriage, he is also offering asylum for two of Solomon's enemies, Hadad and Jeroboam.  Verse 22 shows how Pharaoh is trying to control Hadad in order to protect Solomon, but we can be assured that if there was ever a falling out between Pharaoh and Solomon, Pharaoh would have immediately sent out all of these adversaries to harass Israel.

The final part of this chapter is pretty significant.  Ahijah prophesies to Jeroboam that the kingdom of Israel is going to be fractured in two, and it is going to remain this way for the rest of its independent existence.  The language around this prophecy is a little weird because Ahijah says that Solomon will only have one tribe, while Jeroboam only gets ten, so what happens to the twelfth tribe?  It's a little hard to be sure, but that is either referring to Simeon or Levi.  Simeon was given a tribal inheritance in the midst of Judah and Simeon was progressively absorbed into Judah such that it has few (if any) references in the rest of the OT.  Levi, on the other hand, is a tribe that is dedicated to serving the LORD so for the most part, they congregate around Jerusalem and the temple, especially after the kingdom splits, and Levi was never given a tribal inheritance.  Ahijah probably has one or both of these tribes in mind when he says that Jeroboam only gets ten tribes.

Ahijah offers to Jeroboam a promise very similar to what was given to David and Solomon: if he devoutly serves the LORD and obeys the covenant, then he will have a permanent dynasty reigning on the throne of the soon-to-be northern kingdom.  We don't have nearly as much of a backstory for Jeroboam as we did for Saul or David, but the fundamental premise is the same.  The LORD chose Jeroboam, and if Jeroboam chooses him back, then his kingdom and posterity will be assured.  We will have to wait for the next chapter or two to find out whether Jeroboam accepts.

In the end, Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over, but while Solomon played such a big role in ushering in Israel's golden age, he plays just as much a role ensuring its downfall.  The political alliances that brought in power and wealth also brought in foreign gods, and the LORD's wrath is the only sure consequence of that.  Although Israel will not be destitute or oppressed overnight, and will have several brief resurgences, they will never again approach the glory of Solomon's reign.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 10

In this chapter, the queen of Sheba visits Solomon to see all of his glory.

This is another one of the more famous stories from Solomon’s life, but taken objectively, I don't believe it is a substantive event. In this episode, the queen of Sheba hears about Solomon and travels to Jerusalem to see for herself. She brings a large caravan of jewelry and spices, and gives those to Solomon in exchange for “all she desired and asked for… out of his royal bounty.” The phrasing is ambiguous, but I think it’s likely that Solomon gave her gifts in return.

I tried to figure out where Sheba is located and got several answers.  Wikipedia asserts that Sheba is located in the south of modern-day Saudi Arabia, while traditionally she is thought to be a ruler of some kingdom in Egypt or Ethiopia.  Regardless of the real answer, I think it is pretty clear that Sheba must have been a relatively minor kingdom because it did not leave much of an archaeological remnant.

Now, on the face of things this story is relatively straightforward; the queen comes and asks Solomon many “hard questions” about life, the universe and everything, and Solomon astounds her with profound answers, as well as the wealth and splendor that he had accumulated. She gives him several tons of gold, gems and spices, and then departs. I think the story is famous not because of what is in the text, but because of what is not: it is widely speculated that what the queen of Sheba “desired and asked for” was to bear Solomon a son.  Obviously the poets elaborate considerably, but the basic notion is that the queen of Sheba was pregnant when she departed back to her homeland.

Indeed, in the previous century there was a large Ethiopian Jewish community (called Beta Israel) that claimed their ancestry through the queen of Sheba and king Solomon. While this origin is impossible to verify, they were granted legal Jewish status in Israel which meant that they had the right of “aliyah”, permission to return to Israel.

The story itself of how they actually got to Israel is messy and the journey was perilous; even after arriving safely, black Jews in Israel claim that they are discriminated against by their fellow white Jews. But somehow, and some way, not only did a large black Jewish community arise, but it also returned to Israel. They claim their origin in the queen of Sheba, which is perhaps more of a poetic statement than a reality.  But true or false, this small story played a surprisingly large role in shaping the identity of the Beta Israel community.

Besides that particular controversy, I don’t think there’s really much else to say about their encounter.  It's famous, but not a lot happens.

The rest of this chapter is similar to the previous chapter; it contains many details about the finances and administration of Solomon’s rule.  He earned 666 talents of gold each year, which is a fabulous amount of money.

Apparently Solomon is earning revenue from “Arabian kings” for some reason? My guess is that this refers to trade moving through Israelite territory as it traverses between the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and Asia Minor. Israel is situated strategically at the crossroads of several major powers (the Egyptians to the southwest, the Assyrians, Phoenicians and Greeks to the north, and Arabians to the east).  Verse 29 gives us a brief picture of this when it talks about Solomon importing horses and chariots from Egypt and then exporting them to the Hittites and Arameans.  As long as Israel can maintain its independence, it can levy taxes on traffic through the region. Israel's strategic positioning leaves them at risk of foreign aggression, however.  They have already been oppressed by their neighbors on many occasions, but in the future we are going to see them fight against stronger, emerging international powers such as the Egyptians and Hittites, the same nations they are trading with at the present moment.

As with the previous chapter, Solomon has horses and chariots located in "chariot cities" as well as "with the king in Jerusalem".  This emphasizes the use of chariots for messengers, probably part of Solomon's administrative network.

This chapter also mentions that Solomon is importing apes and peacocks along with gold, silver and ivory (v. 22).  I find this a little interesting because it shows that Solomon was interested in exotic animals

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 9

In this chapter, the LORD speaks to Solomon a second time.

The first time the LORD spoke to Solomon, it was through a dream, towards the beginning of his reign (certainly before he built the temple or his royal palace), and it was after Solomon offered many sacrifices in Gibeon (one of the high places). Now the LORD is speaking to him again after he established the temple.

From what I can tell, most of what the LORD says is reaffirming previous promises. The LORD is saying that, as with David, if Solomon follows the covenant and the LORD’s commands, then God will bless him and pass down all of David’s promises to him, much like how Jacob and Isaac inherited the promises of Abraham.

The LORD’s speech also vaguely resembles Deuteronomy, in which the LORD promises blessings for obedience (v. 4-5) but also curses and destruction for disobedience (v. 6-9).

When I first read this chapter (and actually, many of the earlier passages about David and Solomon) I had a hard time reconciling what appeared to be the unconditional promise in v. 3 and the conditional promises in v. 4-5. I had a hard time reconciling what appeared to be the unconditional promises to Abraham and David (amongst others) with the eventual destruction of Israel. A proper treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of my commentary here (though interested readers could easily search online for discussions of God’s unconditional promises in light of Israel’s many tribulations).

But I should say something, because I don't want to leave my readers as confused as I was.  I think in the long run, God does intend to bless Israel and be in relationship with them as their God.  I think he does intend for David to forever have a descendant on his throne.  But that doesn't mean they will avoid hardship.  Over and over, in Deuteronomy, here, and many other places, God says that if Israel rejects him, he will reject them.  But I don't believe that the rejection is permanent, as Israel is just as often promised that God would restore them if they repent.  It's the Judges cycle all over again, with prosperity leading to sin leading to punishment leading to repentance leading to restoration.

I think passages like v. 3-5 are trying to express God's dual intentions towards Israel: that he wishes to bless them and will establish them, but also that he will punish sin and will correct them when they do wrong.  He will reject them, but not permanently or without reconciliation.

With that out of the way, the rest of this chapter is fairly mundane, giving us various details from Solomon’s reign. We discover that Solomon gives 20 crappy towns to Hiram for over 4 tons of pure gold (a pretty good deal for Solomon, I think). We learn that Pharaoh murdered a bunch of Canaanites, burned their town to the ground and gave that burned patch of ground to Solomon as a dowry. It’s just what Solomon always wanted for his wedding, a scarred landscape of burnt buildings and rotting corpses. This kinda reminds me of David’s dowry for Michal, 200 Philistine foreskins, which must have been equally romantic (and smelly).

More seriously, this is a reminder to us that the Egyptians and Canaanites, who were both enemies of Israel at various times, are just as often enemies of each other.  Most of the OT is paying attention to warfare between Israel and other nations, but just like the 5 kings at war with the 4 kings in Genesis 14, Israel exists in the midst of an almost continuous swirl of violence, and the destruction of Gezer is one small part of that.  Lots of that violence does not concern Israel directly, which is why it is rarely mentioned in the bible.

Interestingly, it says that Solomon built whatever he wanted in “Jerusalem, in Lebanon and throughout all the territory he ruled”. I think this shows that between Solomon and Hiram, Solomon is clearly the more dominant figure, because Lebanon (the territory of Hiram) is lumped together with the “territory [Solomon] ruled”. We also see that Solomon gave a bunch of mediocre towns to Hiram in exchange for gold, and Hiram can only complain about it. Yet later in v. 26, Hiram’s sailors are going with the Israelites on an expedition south through the Red Sea. 

My readers should note that Hiram (and Tyre and Sidon as a whole) are ethnically Phoenician. Amongst other things, the Phoenicians are famously talented sailors who dominated trade across the Mediterranean for a long time. Solomon is building the ships and providing some of the men, but undoubtedly Hiram had more talented and experienced sailors than Solomon, and that is in evidence in this verse. I’m not sure where is Ophir.  I looked it up and apparently nobody really knows where Ophir is located.  

It says that Solomon built cities for his horsemen and chariots, which probably indicates that he had the horses and chariots spread across the country.  More likely than not, these would be used as part of Solomon's administrative network, allowing messengers to ride from town to town and swapping horses at each junction.  Like refilling a tank of gas, you can go further in a day by changing horses after an appropriate distance.

We also discover that all of Solomon’s forced laborers were the survivors from the various inhabitants that used to populate Canaan. This is consistent with earlier passages like in Joshua 9 when the Gibeonites deceive Israel, and are pressed into perpetual forced labor as a result (Joshua 9:27). They get to live, but as slaves. the book of Judges also tells us that many other tribes had survivors in the promised land (Judges 1:27-36), and these are likely the peoples who are now building Solomon’s temple, palace and other various facilities.

Otherwise, things in this chapter are all pretty good. Solomon maintains his alliance with Hiram, and the golden age of Israel continues unabated.