Monday, June 30, 2008

Jeroboam, Pagan King of Israel: 1 Kings 12:25 - 14:20

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Rehoboam's rule has collapsed and he's left with Judah to preside over. The rest of Israel, exercising dubious judgement, immediately votes to let Jeroboam become their new king. He takes over the city of Shechem and proclaims his land the kingdom of Israel. Unlike Rehoboam, Jeroboam is somewhat politically savvy, reasoning that his rule will never be secure so long as people owe their ultimate fealty to God, and therefore are continually going back and forth to Judean territory in order to worship at the Temple.

The solution, obviously, is to create a new religion which won't require trips to Judah. (I'm sensing a return to the elitist view of commoners-as-dumb-sheep here.) He creates two golden calves, which I guess is twice as good as the one golden calf that Aaron made back in Exodus, and starts spreading around a story that these gods have been with the Israelites ever since they left Egypt, but have been in hiding for the last four centuries. He sets up the calves in Bethel and Dan and the people obediently start worshipping the new gods. (I was right about the sheep thing, then.)

Thoughtfully, Jeroboam also democratizes the priesthood, letting anyone - even non-Levites become priests at his new "high places" and shrines. He creates new festivals and sacrifices at the altar in Bethel.

It's at this point that God appears in the narrative again, predictably choosing sides against the king. He sends an unnamed "man of God" to stand at the altar and proclaim the new paganism evil. Jeroboam personally rides to Bethel and reaches out to strike the prophet, but at that moment, God simultaneously paralyzes and "shrivels" the king's right arm. He also strikes the altar with his other mighty godly hand, splitting it apart and sending ashes spraying in all directions. Jeroboam tries to bribe the "man of God" with food and drink and an unspecified "gift," as though this will somehow assuage God's anger. The "man of God" says he won't keep company with such despicable sinners, turns his back on the king, and walks out of Bethel.

Rather cruelly, God decides to kill the "man of God" shortly afterwards, for a considerably lesser transgression than pagan idol worship. The man of God is traveling from Bethel and meets a fellow prophet, who invites him in for dinner. The man of God says he can't, because God doesn't want him to eat any food while he's in this degraded land of Israel. The prophet says this doesn't count, because an angel told him it would be all right. But it isn't all right! The man of God sits down to eat, and the prophet immediately stands up from the table and announces that the man of God has broken God's commands and is going to die for it. The next day, sure enough, he sets out to return to his home in Judah, but while travelling, he's mauled and eaten by a lion. This is rather cruel - either the second prophet is cruelly deceptive, or God, even more questionably, has deliberately used one of his prophets in order to trap another. The second choice is particularly disturbing, theologically.

Even the second prophet seems to realize that this sorry event was most unfair. He goes out and buries the body in his own tomb, then tells his sons that when his own time comes, he wishes to be buried alongside the Judean man of God. It's a sad and troubling story.

Sad and troubling for the prophet, but not for Jeroboam, who continues undeterred. One of his sons, Abijah, falls ill, so Jeroboam decides to send his wife in a disguise to find a man of God and arrange for a magic healing to take place. (We're returning to the idea of prophet as magician, though in this case healer rather than donkey-finder.) Jeroboam's unnamed wife finds the prophet Ahijah in Shiloh, but even though he's blind, he knows exactly who she is, because God has filled him in. Because of Jeroboam's sin, Ahijah proclaims, the house of Jeroboam is also going to lose its kingship. One day God's going to get so upset, he adds, that he's going to break Israel like an uprooted plant and scatter the people from Jerusalem to the Euphrates and beyond.

God's really got it in for this monarchy idea. He fires Saul, inexplicably likes David (for the most part, anyways), grows to hate Solomon, punishes Rehoboam for the sins of Solomon, and he passionately hates Jeroboam, if the lengthy speech from this Shiloh prophet is any indication. So much for the promise of having a national state.