Monday, June 23, 2008

Solomon the Usurper: 1 Kings 1

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

In contrast to the praise that 2 Samuel heaps upon the idea of a Godly monarchy, 1 Kings starts out with some pointed criticism of the Israelite state. It's a little early to tell, but I have to suspect we're moving towards a rather different view of the usefulness and morality of the monarchical state.

The first story is a deliberate emasculation of King David, who was strong and virile in 2 Samuel (sometimes a little too virile for his own good), but is now old and weak. He has a permanent chill and has taken to laying under thick blankets. His sympathetic servants therefore go out and find him an exceptionally pretty young virgin named Abishag, and put her into bed with the king. Presumably they except David to shag Abishag, and in his younger days I have to suspect he wouldn't have passed up the chance. Now, however, "the king had no intimate relations with her."

With David on his deathbed, David's son Adonijah puts himself forward as a potential future king. (The Bible actually takes time out to specify that David hadn't disciplined Adonijah as a child.) Adonijah gains the support of the military (via General Joab) and the priesthood (via Abiathar the priest), which, despite being thoroughly marginalized by the new institution of the state, can still exercise political influence in such uncertain circumstances. Tellingly, David's closest friends don't support Adonijah.

It's not entirely clear what Adonijah did to make himself an enemy, but he is certainly prophet Nathan's enemy. Nathan is one of David's good friends; he's the one who condemned the affair with Bathsheba. Now, however, Nathan is deadset against Adonijah becoming king. He watches with alarm as Adonijah holds a massive animal sacrifice to gather popular support for his cause, and then approaches Bathsheba. The two work out a way to manipulate David into choosing Solomon as successor: Bathsheba will go into David's chambers and "remind" David that when he was younger he promised to make Solomon the future king, and then Nathan will rush in while they converse and tell David that Adonijah is holding sacrifices and claiming to be king. The scheme has the desired effect: an angered David calls in his loyal officers and orders a counter-demonstration at which Solomon will be proclaimed king.

Adonijah, fearing for his life as his supporters flock to Solomon, races to the temple and grabs the horns of the sacred altar. He can't be killed in such a position, because since he's technically on the altar, to kill him would be a human sacrifice which would profane the temple of the Lord. Solomon and Adonijah negotiate a compromise under which Solomon will let Adonijah live in peace provided he behaves honourably and does no evil.

All of this is a very nice story with a couple of key flaws: Adonijah is Solomon's elder and the rightful heir, and there's no record of this mysterious promise made to Bathsheba. They're playing a trick on old David, whose memory fails him. It's a retelling of the Esau-Jacob story, in which Jacob swindles their father into getting Esau's inheritance in similar deathbed contiditions.

Consequently, by the very hereditary terms by which the future kings of Israel claim legitimacy as rulers, 1 Kings 1 argues that Solomon (and therefore every ruler which follows him) is actually an illegitimate king who steals the throne from its rightful heir.