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.

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