Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rehoboam and the End of the Unified Kingdom: 1 Kings 11:14 - 12:24

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

God doesn't play around when it comes to clashing with kings. The Israelite empire has been struggling for years with local resistance movements in Aram and Edom, where they conducted genocidal campaigns under David and Joab. In Solomon's later years, however, God raises up an enemy from within the Israelite ranks to rankle Solomon: Jereboam of Nebat, an Ephraimite in charge of the slave labour forces. Jeroboam has a seemingly chance meeting with a prophet just outside Jerusalem - a real prophet, not the "find my lost keys" kind of prophet that Saul was familiar with - who says Jeroboam will be made king of ten of the tribes of Israel. Solomon tries to kill Jeroboam but the latter escapes into exile in Egypt, which is rapidly becoming a haven for anti-imperial dissidents, sort of an ancient Middle Eastern version of Cuba or Venezuela. Then Solomon dies and leaves his eldest son Rehoboam to fight the gathering storm.

Rehoboam chooses the city of Shechem for his coronation, which is a bit of a strange choice - not a lot of good things happen in Shechem. Jeroboam returns and leads what basically amounts to a labour protest movement, calling on the king to "lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put upon" the forced labor contingents. Given the social structure of Solomon's empire, this comes perilously close to a slavery abolition movement.

Rehoboam's senior advisors are actually in favour of this move, noting that it would make Rehoboam very popular politically. Rehoboam's childhood friends, however, aren't convinced, and illogically claim that instead Rehoboam should instead be even crueller in his repression of the slaves. They also suggest he deliver some public speeches suggesting that Solomon had a small penis (the NIV helpfully euphemizes this to say that Solomon had a small "waist." Come on, now.) The king follows their advice, except for the bit about penises.

Maybe it's the lack of penis jokes that did him in, but in any event, the Israelites are unsurprisingly not impressed by their new king. All of the tribes except for Judah declare that they have no "share" in King David, and certainly have no share in King David's grandson Rehoboam, and therefore they have no intention of serving him as subjects. Rehoboam sends out his slave boss, presumably with some armed men, to try and lay down the law, but the Israelites rise up and stone them to death. 1 Kings implies that "Israel" is "in rebellion against the house of David," which I suppose is true, although in this case it seems like a perfectly legitimate cause for resistance.

When the police fail, the state usually turns to the army - and that's precisely what Rehoboam does. He mobilizes 180 000 troops from the Judeans and the Benjamites, a small tribe which apparently remains loyal to him despite everything that has happened and prepares to force everyone back to work (essentially this is the first back to work legislation, which the governments of Ontario and British Columbia will doubtless find inspiring in their relentless efforts to annihilate their citizens' civil rights). At this point, however, God intervenes on behalf of the oppressed workers, sending a prophet named Shemaiah to Rehoboam to warn him that God doesn't want any fighting to take place. Rehoboam's army obeys the word of God and dissolves.

This is a fascinating moment. The kingdom of Israel is broken - actually, both the monarchy and the state in general have been preserved as valuable institutions, but they're no longer presiding over a unified nation of Israel in the name of God. Just as God said he would do, he's split Judah from the rest of Israel and left the son of Solomon with a single tribe to rule.

Perhaps most insterestingly, though, this is a mostly bloodless coup. God's direct intervention in the story is extremely limited - indeed, the most direct action he takes is actually the moment where he intervenes to tell the army to stand down, which they do in good faith. It seems the God of the Book of Kings is no longer interested in the sort of militaristic relations that characterized the books of Samuel and Joshua and (in a sarcastic form) even Judges. This God actually seems more interested in nonviolence, at least for the time being. It's refreshing.