Sunday, August 3, 2014

1 Kings: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, and then summarize it in my own words.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

When King David was old and frail, he had trouble keeping warm, so his servants brought him a virgin named Abishag to nurse him and keep him warm.  Apparently, none of his several wives was up to the task.

With David nearing death, his son Adonijah conspired to seize control of the kingdom, but David heard of this plot, and had his son Solomon anointed king instead.  David told Solomon to follow God’s laws, and things would go well.  David certainly knew the price of transgression.  Ironically, out of David’s greatest sin (the Bashsheba affair) came Solomon, the next chosen king.

Then King David died.

Solomon’s first act as king was a “purge” of his (and his father’s) political enemies.  He sent his assassin Behaiah to kill Adonijah, Joab, and Shimei—all “traitors.”  In this way, Solomon was like Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin, who was also fond of executing his political enemies.

Solomon then consolidated his power by entering into a political marriage with the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Thus, Solomon’s rule was firmly established.

One night, in a dream, God appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask what you wish, and I will give it to you.”  In this way, God was like the fabled Genie of Aladdin.  Solomon asked for “an understanding heart to judge Thy people to discern between good and evil.”  Basically, he asked for wisdom.  God was so pleased that Solomon didn’t ask for the usual things (wealth and power) that He gave Solomon all three—wisdom, wealth, and power.  Indeed, Solomon’s rule would represent the high-point of Israel’s monarchy.

Shortly after this, Solomon demonstrated his wisdom by resolving a dispute between two prostitutes over a baby.  Solomon’s solution was to order the baby cut in half, and give each half to each prostitute.  The real mother protested, saying, “Give the baby to the other one, only spare his life.”  Then Solomon knew who the real mother was, and gave her the baby.  On the surface, this seems like a bizarre display of royal wisdom, but I think the whole episode is an elaborate metaphor about the danger of dividing the Kingdom of Israel (an event which would happen after Solomon’s death, and eventually lead to the collapse of the nation of Israel).

"The Judgment of Solomon" by Raphael (1519)

Solomon appointed 12 deputies to serve as administrators over the 12 tribes.  Then, he decided to undertake some massive building projects.  He conscripted tens of thousands of laborers and artisans to build the fist ever Temple in Jerusalem, which was very ornate and beautiful.  Then Solomon spent 13 years building his own massive palace.  Notice that Solomon spent almost twice as long on his own house than on the house of the Lord.  Just sayin’.

Solomon used forced immigrant labor for many of his building projects.  In this way, Solomon behaved exactly as the Pharaoh of Egypt in the days of the Exodus, who had made the Israelites forced laborers.  Ironic.

Then the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Temple, which would (hopefully) be its permanent home.  There was a massive dedication ceremony in which 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep were sacrificed. It was industrial-scale sacrifice.  God renewed his covenant with Solomon, saying that if Israel followed God’s laws, they would prosper.  But if they disobeyed, the Temple wold become “a heap of ruins.”  (Foreshadowing alert: the Temple will eventually be destroyed).

Solomom amassed more and more wealth, and gained an international reputation as a very wise, powerful, and wealthy king.  People came from far and wide to hear his wisdom, like the Queen of Sheba. But it was not to last.  Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines, some of whom were from foreign nations and, naturally, worshipped other gods, like Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech.  Solomon tolerated the worship of these other gods, and this made God angry and jealous, and probably kind of sad.

"The Idolatry of Solomon" by Franz Francken II (1622)

So God told Solomon, “I will surely tear the Kingdom from you and give it to your servant…I will tear it out of the hand of your son.”  Indeed, the Kingdom would be split during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  Even before Solomon died, a rebellion was beginning, led by the son of one of Solomon’s servants, a man named Jeroboam.

After the death of Solomon, his son Rehoboam became king.  But Rehoboam acted too harshly toward his subjects, and the ten tribes of the north made Jeroboam their king, leaving Rehoboam king over the southern kingdom of Judah only.  Thus, the nation of Israel was split in two, not to be reunited for centuries.  This was the beginning of the slow decline of the kingdom which God had promised to Solomon.  Jeroboam, though powerful, worshipped other gods, and God punished him.  Rehoboam was no better, and he suffered defeat against Egypt.

When Jeroboam died, his son Abijam took control of the northern kingdom, and he was no better than his father.  The main sin of both the northern kingdom (called Israel) and the southern kingdom (called Judah) was idolatry.  With very few exceptions, the kings and their subjects worshipped other gods, and provoked God’s anger.  There was also intermittent civil war between Israel and Judah.

Once, there was an evil (i.e. idolatrous) king in Israel named Ahab.  Because of Ahab’s sins, God inflicted the land with drought and famine.  There was also, in those days, a prophet named Elijah.  The role of the prophets, thoughout Israel’s history, was to call out the sins of the kings and their subjects, and to try to lead the people back to God.  

During the drought, God provided Elijah with food and water from unexpected sources (birds, a kindly widow, a small brook).  Early in his career, Elijah raised a dead boy back to life, introducing the theme of resurrection/redemption that he would (with God’s help) try to bring about in the troubled nation of Israel.

"Elijah in the Wilderness" by Washington Allston (1818)

Elijah went to speak to king Ahab, and Ahab greeted him by saying, “Is this you, you troubler of Israel?”  Indeed, the prophets were often seen as troublemakers by those in power.  Elijah said that Ahab was the real troublemaker because of all his idolatry.  Elijah planned a great stand-off on Mount Carmel between the prophets of Baal and Elijah the prophet of God.  An altar was built, and Elijah basically said, “Whichever God consumes the sacrifice with fire, that is the REAL God.”  The prophets of Baal went first, dancing and performing ritual sacrifices, but there was no fire.  Then Elijah, the lone prophet prayed to God, and the whole altar was consumed with fire from heaven!  God had spoken!  The people were, temporarily, turned back to their God.  Elijah killed the 450 prophets of Baal.

But Ahab’s wife Jezebel called for Elijah’s life, so he fled to Mt. Horeb, which was where Moses received the ten commandments all those years ago.  Elijah began to feel very alone, a common condition for prophets, who are often the bearers of harsh news.  God decided to give Elijah a sign, to show him he was not alone.  And here, I think, is one of the more beautiful scenes in the whole Bible:

God told Elijah to stand on the mountain.  First, there was a great and mighty wind, but God was not in the wind.  Then, there was a great earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake.  Then, there was a great fire, but God was not in the fire.  Finally, there was a gentle wind, and God was in the gentle wind.

"Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb" by Daniele da Volterra (1550)

Then God told Elijah that indeed he was not alone.  In fact, there were 7,000 people in Israel who still worshipped God.  Also, shortly after this, Elijah got an apprentice named Elisha.

Meanwhile, Ahab was fighting wars with the neighboring kingdom of Aram.  Also, there was an incident in which Ahab stole the vineyard of his neighbor (it was Jezebel’s idea).  So God, through Elijah, told Ahab that both he and Jezebel would die, and that dogs would lick up their blood.  Indeed, this is exactly what happened during the next military campaign against Aram.  

1 Kings ends with the deaths of Ahab (King of the northern Kingdom of Israel), and Jehosaphat (King of the Southern Kingdom of Judah).  Both their sons inherited their fathers’ thrones, and they both continued the practice of idolatry, which will not bode well for them in 2 Kings…

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