Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bible in a Year: 1 Kings

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks) and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying 1 Kings. The book covers roughly 110 years of history, from the ascendency of Solomon, through the division of the kingdom, to the deaths of King Jehoshaphat of Judah and Ahaziah of Israel.

 Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 3, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), Choon-Leong Seow writes (p. 6), “Arguably the most challenging task for the interpreter of Kings is to make sense of it in one’s own day and age.”  He notes that there are heartwarming stories like Solomon’s wisdom and justice (1 King 3:4-15, 3:16-18), and also the compelling stories of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 18:1-46, 2 Kings 5:1-19). But more difficult to interpret—and make applicable for the present day–are the lists of kings, details about the temple, administrative material, and also very violent material (e.g., 2 Kings 9:1-10:36, strange stories (e.g. Elisha and the axe head: 2 Kings 6:1-7), and ethnically difficult material, like the succession narrative (1 Kings 1:1-2:46).

As the book opens, David was old and in poor health. The family enlisted the young Abishag to keep him warm. Son Adonijah, who after all is the next in line for the throne, prepared to succeed his father, supported by Joab and Abiathar but opposed by Zadoc, Nathan, Shimei, and others. Nathan and Bathsheba intervened in favor of Solomon, whom David chose—-and Solomon is anointed (chapter 1). David charged Solomon to be faithful to the Lord and keep the commandments—-but also Solomon should also deal with Joab because of the bloodguilt of the deaths of Abner and Amasa (2 Samuel 16), and handle other matters. When David died, Solomon had Joab killed, and also Adonijah, who betrayed his own plot to seize the throne via his request to marry Abishag (chapter 2).

Solomon reigned with God-given wisdom, brilliantly settling the matter of the two mothers (chapter 3). He appointed court officials, to the benefit of Israel and Judah and spread the kingdom as far as the Euphrates and down to the border with Egypt (chapter 4) He prepared for the building of the temple, using forced labor from among the people (chapter 5), and when the temple was completed it was a truly magnificent edifice (chapters 6-7). The ark was brought to the temple, and the glory of the Lord filled the place. Solomon offered a prayer before the altar of God and established the worship of God and festivals at the temple (chapter 8). God gave a conditional covenant with Solomon, echoing the Deuteronomistic theology of God’s continued blessings to the people as long as they remained faithful (9:1-9).

Solomon’s fame spread (9:10-28), and his wealth and splendor increased (10:14-29), and he was visited by the famous Queen of Sheba (10:1-13). She has a surprisingly small “walk on” (her story is repeated in 2 Chr. 9:1-12), considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries!

But Solomon took foreign wives and earned God’s disapproval; in response, God promised to divide the kingdom after Solomon had died. God also raised up adversaries against Solomon, who eventually died after forty years on the throne. His son Rehoboam succeeded him (chapter 11), but the new king alienated the northern tribes when their representative Jeroboam unsuccessfully sought relief from Solomon’s heavy taxes. The northern tribes broke from the Davidic dynasty and established their own, northern kingdom (Israel, sometimes called Ephraim in prophetic books), leaving the tribe Judah (in combination with Benjamin) as the remaining tribe that comprised the southern kingdom (Judah) Jeroboam became the new king, and established calf worship at Bethel and Dan (chapter 12).

Spoiler alert: The northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the people were assimilated into Assyrian society, with some of the people eventually becoming the Samaritans. (Samaria is the central region of the land, earlier associated with the tribes Ephraim and Manasseh.) “The ten lost tribes of Israel” is not a biblical phrase but it does come from the Assyrian conquest. The southern kingdom, Judah, lasted until the Babylonians conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE. This history is found in 2 Kings.

The stories of the divided kingdom extend from 1 Kings 12 through 2 Kings 17, while the stories of the southern kingdom continue to the end of 2 Kings. In the north, there were nine dynasties: Jeroboam and Nadab; Baasha and Elah; Zimri;  Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah, and Joram; Jehu, Jehoahaz, Jehoash (Joash), Jeroboam II, and Zachariah; Shallum; Menahem (Gadi) and Pekahiah; Pekah, and Hoshea. Jeroboam set the stage for the history of apostasy and idolatry in the northern kingdom, dooming it across its two-hundred year existence. The southern kingdom did have good, reform-minded kings like Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, and later Hezekiah and Josiah. But as Choon-Leong Seow points out, the sins of King Manasseh (Hezekiah's successor) were so terrible that God's judgment upon Judah became inevitable, too (Choon-Leong Seow, "The First and Second Books of Kings," The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. III (Abingdon Press, 1999), 4-7).

The southern kingdom had only one royal dynasty, that of David and Solomon. Thus, although the monarchy ended with the exile, the hope for a restored Davidic monarchy continued---and became a basis of New Testament theology about Jesus.

Here are the kings through the end of 1 Kings. I've read that the chronology of Kings is difficult to untangle, but these approximate dates come from charts in Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (third edition, Prentice Hall, 1975).

Jeroboam of Israel (922-901), 13:1-14:20
Rehoboam of Judah (922-915), 14:21-31
Abijam of Judah (915-913), 15:1-8
Asa of Judah (913-873), 15:9-24
Nadab of Israel (901-900), 15:25-31
Baasha of Israel (900-877), 15:32-16:7
Elah and Zimri of Israel (877-876), 16:8-20
Omri of Israel (876-869), 16:21-27
Ahab of Israel (869-850),16:28-22:40
Jehosphaphat of Judah (873-849), 22:41-50
Ahaziah of Israel (849), 22:51-53

During Ahab’s reign (with his memorably evil wife Jezebel), we have the remarkable career of the prophet Elijah, perhaps the most important prophet of all. He appears on the scene in 17:1 without fanfare or background. We have several incidents in his life, and a few more in 2 Kings.

The drought and Elijah’s miracles, 17:1-18:19
The confrontation with the prophets of Baal, 18:20-40
The miracle of the rain, 18:41-46
Elijah flees to Mount Horeb and hears the “still small voice” of God and is returned to service, 19:1-18
Ahab and the vineyard of Naboth, 21:1-29
Here is a nice summary of Elijah's career:

Some other aspects of these chapters:

* Rabbi Telushkin points out aspects of the “unwisdom” of Solomon: his thousand women, the fact that he—-the builder of God’s Temple—-became a follower of the gods Ashtoreth and Milcom (1 Kings 11:4-5), his forty thousand horses (1 Kings 5:6, compare Deut. 17:16-17), the forced labor he imposed on his subjects, and other aspects: the wisdom that God gave to Solomon in the beginning was lost as Solomon’s reign went on (Biblical Literacy, 248-249). Unfortunately, his son Rehoboam lacked Solomon’s earlier wisdom, or else the division of the kingdoms might not have occurred (p. 253).

* Rabbi Telushkin notes that the temple was apparently 180 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 50 feet high, likely with a massive surrounding area. The most important room was the Holy of Holies that housed the ark and the Ten Commandments tablets, into which only the high priest could enter. David could not build the temple because hew as a man of bloodshed (1 Chronicles 28:3), leaving the work to Solomon, involving over 3000 overseers (1 Kings 5:27-30) but resulting in heavy indebtedness (1 Kings 9:1). “To this day, Orthodox Jews pray three times a day for the Temple’s restoration and the reinstitution of the sacrifices offered there” (p. 251) but not all Jews do, and the fact that the Dome of the Rock is built on the site, a new Temple is very unlikely (ibid., pp. 250-251).

* What is the purpose of the strange, ethically ambiguous story of the two prophets in 1 Kings 13?  The theologian Karl Barth puts the moral implication of the story in the background—the lies of the prophet from Bethel—and focuses upon the objective nature of God’s word, which is true and trustworthy regardless of human behavior (Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 142-143).

* Asa of Judah (15:9-24) is one of the few good kings among these, for he eliminated aspects of foreign worship. Other kings are considered in shorter narratives—except for Ahab, whose evil exploits are “exemplary of the kind of behavior that led finally to the destruction of the Northern Kingdom” (Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 318). Of course, the adventures of Elijah find their context in the prophet’s opposition to the king and queen. 

* Elijah is an angry, confrontational prophet in the scriptures. But in Jewish folk tales, he is kind and lovable; Rabbi Telushkin writes, “Countless generations of Jewish children have waited expectantly at the Passover Seder for him to make a secret appearance to sip wine form the cup (kos Eliyahu) prepared for him. Jewish tradition also teaches that he appears at every circumcision, where a special chair (kissei Eliyahu) is set aside for him… [in] many folk tales… he appears miraculously to save poor Jews and those threatened by antisemites” (Biblical Literacy, p. 254).

* As a result of the evil plot to get rid of Naboth so that the king could have his vineyard, the Lord passes judgment upon the king and queen and their sons. The sentences do come to pass, though not right away. Ahab is killed by a randomly shot arrow (22:29-38), Jezebel dies in the predicted gruesome way (2 Kings 9:30-37), and their sons are all killed (2 Kings 10:1ff). These are examples of the numerous places in the Bible where the reader may connect the dots between God’s word and the result.

* Finally: somewhere in my childhood TV watching, I heard the oath, "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" It sounds like something Yosemite Sam would've said, but I'm not sure. I looked it up, and learned that it's an oath (substituting for "Jesus!") that can be traced to the 1800s:

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