Solomon Teaching Rehoboam, Master of Jean de Mandeville (French illuminator c. 1360-1370), from frontispiece of Historical Bible, accompanying the Book of Proverbs (traditionally ascribed to Solomon).

Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeded him as king. After the legendary achievements of David and Solomon in establishing a kingdom which put Israel on the world map, Rehoboam is best known as the king who lost the greater part of the kingdom he had inherited. The book of Chronicles puts the blame on “certain worthless scoundrels” who took advantage of his youth and inexperience (2 Chron. 13:7) but there is also considerable irony in the fact that of all the sons of the “wisest man on earth” the one chosen to succeed him quickly developed a reputation as a fool. As the apocryphal book known as The Wisdom of Ben Sira puts it:

“Solomon rested with his ancestors, and left behind him one of his sons, broad in folly and lacking in sense, Rehoboam, whose policy drove the people to revolt” (Sirach 47:23). However, we can’t blame Rehoboam alone for the civil war which divided the nation into two kingdoms: Israel in the north, and Judah in the south. In an earlier post I wrote about how, according to the book of Kings, during Solomon’s lifetime, God had already chosen Jeroboam as the next king over ten tribes (the northern kingdom) while Solomon’s heir would be left with only one tribe (Judah). While Chronicles blames Jeroboam for the division of the kingdom, and for leading Israel to sin, Kings makes it clear that the seeds of revolt were sown earlier during Solomon’s reign. It was not simply that God was displeased with Solomon’s idolatry, there are several indications in Kings that the people were also dissatisfied with his performance as king. Here are the main reasons (which are nicely outlined in Brindle, Wayne. “Causes of the Division of Israel’s Kingdom.” Bibliotheca Sacra 141, no. 563 Jl-S (1984): 223-233):

  1. During Solomon’s reign there were several massive building projects, including the Temple in Jerusalem (7 years in building), Solomon’s own palace (13 years to build), extensions to the wall of Jerusalem, a project in Jerusalem known as the “Millo” (although there is little consensus between archaeologists and historians as to what it was), and Etzion-geber – a port on the Red Sea for a fleet of trading ships. Archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of Solomon’s copper mines. All of these major projects were in the south, in the territory of Judah, the tribe which would have been the main beneficiary of this huge spending.
  2. To carry out this work Solomon taxed the people heavily. However, when we read through the list in 1 Kings 4 of the twelve officials Solomon appointed over all Israel to provide supplies for the king and his household (remembering that this included 1,000 wives and concubines and probably a large number of children, officials and servants), we might note that Judah was not included; they had a tax-free status. (Many of these officials were related to Solomon, or were close supporters, so the people collecting the taxes were also directly benefitting from them.) While the Judahites were the main beneficiaries of his building projects, they did not pay for any of them.
  3. Similarly, in addition to taxes, the tribes had to supply forced-labourers for these projects. In fact, when Jeroboam was promoted it was to a position “over all the forced labour of the house of Joseph” (1 Kings 11:28). By “Joseph” the writer means the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. While the northern tribes paid taxes to support the building projects and the royal household in the south, they also had to provide forced labour which would have been another cause for resentment.
  4. We also get the impression that Solomon paid attention to the military defences of the kingdom in the south, especially growing threats from Egypt and Edom (backed by Egypt). At the same time, Solomon gave Hiram king of Tyre 20 towns in northern Galilee in return for his help with his building projects in Jerusalem ( 1 Kings 9:10-13) and lost other territory in the north to the Arameans, “taxing the north to defend the south, while leaving the north relatively defenseless.” [1]
  5. Putting this together, there is considerable evidence of tribal jealousy and resentment that the main beneficiaries of Solomon’s reign were exempt from taxes and forced labour. These were probably major factors in the revolt against the southern-based Solomonic monarchy. We get a strong sense of this in the final words of the elders of Israel as they walked away from their negotiations with Rehoboam: “When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king, ‘What share do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David’.’ (1 Kings 12:16). Interestingly, we find almost identical words in an earlier revolt against David: “We have no portion in David, no share in the son of Jesse! Everyone to your tents, O Israel!” (2 Samuel 20:1). There is evidence here of transgenerational oppression of the northern tribes by the family of David, and continuing resentment that David and Solomon were self-serving with few benefits for their people in the north.

There is little wonder then that there was considerable support for Jeroboam’s revolt against Rehoboam’s plan to further increase taxes: “My father imposed heavy burdens on you; I will make them even heavier. My father punished you with whips; I will punish you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:1-14). This exchange not only reveals poor leadership on Rehoboam’s part, but also the underlying resentment that was already there against Solomon. Solomon may have been “wise” but he had poor leadership skills and had to force loyalty. Of course, we hear nothing about this in Chronicles, which characteristically portrays the family of David in glowing terms. Kings, on the other hand, has a mixture of good and bad elements in its presentation of the Davidic kings. While overwhelmingly characterising the northern kings as bad in their final assessments of their lives, enough elements of the earlier records from the “Annals” have been preserved to let us know that the northern kings actually achieved a great deal to benefit the people. Despite this, the ‘last word’ about each of the northern kings is possibly hardly surprising considering that the final form of the book was written or edited by scribes from Judah who had vested interests in promoting a southern perspective of the nation’s history.

To be continued …

[1] Brindle, “Causes of the Division of Israel’s Kingdom” 227.