Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jeroboam Offering Sacrifice for the Idol, 1752, Beaux-Arts de Paris, in the public domain

I remember when I was about ten years old my grandmother gave me a book called “Heroes of the Bible” which told the stories of the men my grandmother wanted me to imitate in my life: men like Noah, Moses, Samuel, and David. When I studied the lives of these men later in life I learned that they were all deeply flawed: drunks, adulterers, murderers, and despots. In Sunday School and at church I was also told about the villains in the Bible and how these men (and occasionally women) demonstrated negative traits which I should learn to avoid or manage. Again, as I studied the Bible in more detail, I learned that many of these ‘villains’ were dedicated to their families and nation. Some of them were leaders who brought peace and prosperity to their people. Despite misdemeanours which seemed to be less serious, in my opinion, than the massive failings of some of the ‘heroes,’ these men and women have been labelled throughout history as villains. However, the closer I looked at the lives of the ‘heroes’ and and the ‘villains’ it became increasingly difficult to tell the real difference between them, or what made one person a hero and another a villain.

Take the two kings Solomon and Jeroboam I for example. Jeroboam makes his first appearance during the reign of Solomon. According to 1 Kings 11:28-39 Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s servants and he was promoted as a young man because he was talented and industrious. Around the same time the prophet Ahijah met Jeroboam and told him that God was displeased with Solomon because he worshipped foreign gods and did not keep God’s laws. Ahijah conveyed the message to Jeroboam that God would take the kingdom from Solomon’s son and successor and give it to Jeroboam instead. However, “for the sake of my chosen servant David who kept my commandments and rules” God said he would allow Solomon’s son to retain kingship over one tribe while Jeroboam would be given ten tribes to rule. The prophecy by Ahijah ends with the promise by God that “I will be with you and establish for you a lasting dynasty, as I did for David; I will give you Israel. I will humiliate David’s descendants because of this, but not forever.” A postscript to the story says that Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam but he escaped to Egypt where he stayed until Solomon died. We aren’t actually told why Solomon tried to kill him, but there are two possibilities hinted at in the story. One possibility is that word of Ahijah’s prediction got back to Solomon, and he then tried to subvert the word of God and prevent the prophecy from being fulfilled. The other possibility is mentioned at the beginning of the story: at one stage Jeroboam led a revolt against Solomon (verses 26-27), although we don’t get many details about it and it seems to have come before Ahijah’s prediction. In fact, the story is somewhat disjointed. First we read about this revolt, secondly we learn about Jeroboam’s talents and his promotion, thirdly we read about Ahijah’s prediction of Solomon’s fall and Jeroboam’s rise, and finally we are told about the plot to kill Jeroboam. These events seem to be out of order, as it would be unlikely that Solomon would promote Jeroboam after he had led a revolt. If the revolt happened after Ahijah’s prediction then we would have an internal contradiction in the story, as Jeroboam fled to Egypt until Solomon’s death. It could suggest one of two things: either that God may have chosen Jeroboam as the next king precisely because he approved of his rebellion against Solomon (which still doesn’t explain why Solomon promoted him); or, what we have in our Bible are two stories which were merged into one at some point, although somewhat awkwardly.

In my next post I want to come back to this: how these stories in Kings became ‘merged’ and what was going on in the editing or redaction process so that we end up with a disjointed or contradictory narrative. But before that, we need to realise that the Bible is not only a religious text. It is also a political document, sometimes written by people with competing interests. This makes perfect sense when we realise that the people who wrote the official documents in the ancient world – perhaps the only people who had the skills and materials to write – were the court scribes, engaged by the kings to keep official records. But these scribes were often also priests, so official documents such as laws, ownership records, and histories were also religious texts. As happened so often throughout history, politics and religion were intertwined and inseperable. Not only did these scribes bring a religious flavour to official documents, they also saturated religious texts with political ideas. I will explore later how both religious as well as political ideas and aspirations influenced the final form of the book of Kings.

But back to our story of Jeroboam and Solomon. One of the most troubling aspects of these stories, from a religious perspective, is that they portray God as unable to choose good kings to rule Israel. He first chose Saul, and called Samuel to anoint him as king; he then told Samuel he was taking the kingdom from Saul and would give it to David, and Samuel was sent to anoint him as the next king. Then, in this story, we discover that God is displeased with David’s son Solomon and was taking the kingdom from him and giving it to Jeroboam. But just three chapters later God directs Ahijah to tell Jeroboam that he will destroy Jeroboam’s dynasty because he has failed to live up to the expected standards. On the one hand I suppose these stories tell us that all human rulers are deeply flawed. But on the other hand, reading through these stories of the early kings it seems that God cannot make up his mind, or he is incapable of picking good kings. This is disturbing because either way, the stories here reflect as poorly on God as they do on the kings. If God is all-knowing and can see the future, why does he continually choose bad kings? Or why would the scribes who kept these records portray God this way?

To be continued …