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.

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