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?

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