Lesson #27: The Influence of Wicked and Righteous Leaders #BCCSundaySchool2018

1 Kings 12-14; 2 Chronicles 17

Jerry BoamIn this week’s reading, the Old Testament finally enters the world of history as, for the first time, we read something in the text that we can verify, and precisely date, from an external source. This occurs in 1 Kings 14:25: “And it came to pass in the fifth year of king Rehoboam, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem.” We know that there was a Shishak. We know that he invaded Judah and Israel. And we know that it happened in 926 BCE

This little bit of historical detail is important, as it allows us to date–if not precisely, at least approximately–the time of the United Monarchy and the split between Israel and Judah. All of this happened in the 10th century BCE.

But the text we are reading, The Book of Kings (it was not divided into two books until the Christian Era), did not achieve its final form until the middle of the 6th century. We can get a pretty good sense of when it was written by looking at the last things it describes, which are the rebellion of King Zedekiah against the Babylonian Empire and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. So we know for sure it could not have been written any earlier, though we do not know the extent to which the final author(s) relied on existing records.

The context of the canonical form is important, as it tells us how to read the text. The entire cycle of history from Joshua through 2 Kings was written by Jews during the Babylonian captivity in order to achieve at least three important objectives:

1) to give the captive Jews a sense of a glorious past when they were the ones kicking butt and taking foreskins;

2) to explain their fall as the consequence of idol worship and not as an abandonment by Yahweh; and

3) to incorporate the history of the long-destroyed Kingdom of Israel into their own national history because their prophecies said that the entire original Kingdom would be restored. (Thus leading to 2500 years of speculation about the location of the “Lost Ten Tribes).

For the Jews that are actually putting this story together, the events in 1 Kings 12-14 are ancient (500 years is a long time in a mainly oral culture, or any culture really–how much do you know about what was happening in your home town in 1518?). But they are also unbelievably tragic, as they mark the end of the great United Kingdom of David and Solomon and the beginning of the government-sponsored idol worship that ended up destroying both kingdoms.

And the whole story starts with two bad kings.

The first bad king is Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. When he becomes king, he quite sensibly asks his father’s counselors what he should do. And they, just as sensibly, tell him that he should try to be a good king and serve the people. You know, try not to suck: “If thou wilt be a servant unto this people this day, and wilt serve them, and answer them, and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants for ever“ (1 Kings 12:7).

The old-time political elites are not just trying to be nice They understand very well that the loose tribal confederation known as “The Kingdom of Israel” is a fragile alliance. David became King of Judah when the Tribe of Judah seceded from Saul’s United Kingdom; it took him seven years, and one assassination (2 Samuel 4:1-5), to piece the kingdom back together, and the Northern tribes always felt that their Southern cousins had usurped the throne.

But Rehoboam doesn’t think that maintaining fragile alliances and treating people fairly is the sort of thing that a young king ought to do, so he asks his young friends for their advice instead:

But he forsook the counsel of the old men, which they had given him, and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him:

And he said unto them, What counsel give ye that we may answer this people, who have spoken to me, saying, Make the yoke which thy father did put upon us lighter?

And the young men that were grown up with him spake unto him, saying, Thus shalt thou speak unto this people that spake unto thee, saying, Thy father made our yoke heavy, but make thou it lighter unto us; thus shalt thou say unto them, My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins.

And now whereas my father did lade you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke: my father hath chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions. (1 Kings 12: 8-11)

Not being much into scorpions, the Northern tribes simply withdraw from the confederation and elect Jeroboam–a former bigwig who was in exile in Egypt until Solomon died–to be their king.

Lesson #1: Kings should be the servants of the people. And, failing that, they should at least not tell the people up front that they plan to whip them with poisonous arachnids.

The next bad king is Jeroboam, who becomes the (more or less) elected King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. After the rebellion, Jeroboam controls the largest part of the old kingdom–Israel is twice as large and has four times the population of Judah, and it is much better situated for trade with the rest of the known world. But he’s got a problem: his people worship Yahweh, and the only place they can do so properly is in the temple–which is now controlled by a hostile foreign power. Jeroboam knows that he can’t maintain power if his people’s primarily allegiance is to a foreign power. So, for reasons that are political rather than religious, he establishes idol worship in Israel:

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in mount Ephraim, and dwelt therein; and went out from thence, and built Penuel.

And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now shall the kingdom return to the house of David:

If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah.

Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.

And he set the one in Beth-el, and the other put he in Dan. (1 Kings 12: 25-29)

And this leads us to what I believe to be the much more important, and much more relevant lesson that we learn from this week’s readings.

Lesson #2: Sometimes it is extremely tempting to allow political considerations to cause us to worship the wrong thing. Don’t do that!

This one is still pretty important today. Jeroboam’s basic impulse was politically sound but religiously disastrous. It made sense when viewed through the lens of political reality. No king would want his people to be spiritually connected to another monarch. So he was absolutely right to set up new sites for worship–as long as politics is the lens that we use to evaluate his actions.

But political expediency–or even political necessity–can’t be the lens we use to determine what is ultimately important–what matters most. Political power is a means, and an important one, but it has to be a means to something. When it becomes its own end, then we have already succumbed to the temptation of idolatry, no matter what we end up putting in the high places.

Comments

  1. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Political power is a means, and an important one, but it has to be a means to something. When it becomes its own end, then we have already succumbed to the temptation of idolatry, no matter what we end up putting in the high places.

    [fire emoji]

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    The English translational tradition has swung and whiffed on 1 Kings 12:10: “My little finger shall be thicker than my father’s loins.” I checked this verse in each of the 50 or so modern English translations at the Bible Gateway, and no one has the cojones to render this with its probable intended force. In lieu of loins some render waist, or thighs, or whole body, but that doesn’t give the true sense of what he’s saying. The Hebrew doesn’t actually say “little finger,” but more ambiguously “little one.” And here the “loins” are almost certainly a reference to the seat of sexual faculty as a symbol of strength. What he’s saying is a playground insult: “My [choose your euphemism] is a lot bigger than my dad’s [euphemism]! The disrespect that his young friends show towards his father and encourage in him is quite shocking, and naturally does not lead to a good result for him.

    See for example this discussion: http://ancienthebrewpoetry.typepad.com/ancient_hebrew_poetry/2009/03/translating-assertive-language-in-1-kings-121011-.html

  3. ^ Basically, Rehoboam doesn’t want anyone to make disparaging remarks about the size of his fingers.

  4. We just had this lesson on Sunday. One of the “experienced” people in the class pointed out that young people like Socialism because it’s all about taking from others. And Rehoboam got advice from young people about taking from others, and he was bad. Therefore this lesson is a warning about Socialism, and that young people need to learn important lessons from old conservatives. The comment was so well received that most of the lesson then became about that.