Sibble Sunday: The Great Pretender (1 Kings 1)

OK, so maybe I deserved a week off for finishing Samuel? Nah, I took my week off and then some already. Now we’re into the book of Kings, which tracks the doings of the post-Davidic monarchs of Judah.

Short snarky summary: while David is slowly wasting away, the remainder of his offspring squabble over the throne.


Greg commented with some surprise last week on my assertion that we’re moving into slightly more historical mythology, so let me touch on all that a bit.

Biblical archaeology is one of those deeply contentious things, with the devout often asserting historical justifications where more cautious archaeologists reserve judgment. It’s unmistakable, for instance, that pretty much all of the Bible from Abraham on is set in real places; nobody denies that, but evidence for the people and occurrences of the Bible are pretty sparse, even people and activities which should be quite major, like the kings of large near-East civilizations. Some will split the difference and claim absence of proof isn’t proof of absence, and it’s true that we don’t have contradictory sources for the names even of major figures, but by and large pretty much everything up through 1 Samuel is unsupported and falls into the realm of myth.

From David on things get gradually less sketchy, as both the indigenous relics are more complete and the rival civilizations start having reliable records. Famously, the Tel Dan stele, which is in the right place, in the right language, and possibly dates from the right time (the timing being a bit fuzzy as well) has a definite reference to “ביתדוד”, or “the House of David”, an ally of the King of Israel. Now, the “ally” bit could be explained by, as I have previously suggested, an early division (or never-complete-unification) between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but admittedly we know basically nothing else extra-Biblical about David. But this is the beginning of historical evidence. Much more solid evidence is of more recent discovery: the Ophel inscription, recently discovered, is possibly a Solomonic artifact, and there’s hope of more. Later kings have more surviving inscriptions, and by the time of King Hezekiah (the 13th king of Judah, and the king during major interactions with other civilizations, notably the Assyrians), there’s a lot of extra-Biblical evidence.

SO, Kings is getting us into the realm of things which actually are known to have happened, perhaps misascribed and sensationalized, but fundamentally, at its core, semi-historical.

But we’re not into history yet. The semi-mythical David is still alive, but not for long. At the beginning of Kings we’re told that he’s dying, and that the treatment for his infirmity is, uh, a bit unconventional: warming him up with a beautiful virgin. That’s close to a traditional hypothermia treatment, but it’s mostly weird and unsettling to a modern audience. Meanwhile, his son Adonijah has pretty much completely emulated his late stepbrother Absalom, hiring charioteers and runners and a claque to cheer for his declaration of kingship. Adonijah has some justification for his confidence: he is apparently the oldest surviving son of David and the logical heir. Joab and the priest Abiathar join up with Team Adonijah. Joab kind of makes sense; he’s a bit of a schemer and has always seemed to back thee surest route to secure his own position, but Abiathar has, up until this point, been presented as an unambiguously positive character. The opposition party is made up of the priest Zadok (who previously moved in pretty close concert with Abiathar), the prophet Nathan (seen at some length in Samuel), Benaiah, Shimei, and Rei (none of whom are mentioned previously), and David’s elite guard (whoever they are). Adonijah ceremonially throws his hat into the ring with a big sacrifice, but he doesn’t invite the leaders of the opposition, and he invites all of his brothers except Solomon.

Now, we’ve only seen Solomon mentioned once before. There’s a spurious mention of a completely different prince by that name (or a redaction of the same character from a different text) in a list of David’s sons from early in his reign on 2 Samuel 5. This Solomon is presumably the later son of Bathsheba, born in 2 Samuel 12. We know nothing of him yet except his parentage, which is apparently enough, since Bathsheba is presented as a particularly beloved wife (well-loved enough to commit murder for, anyways). That parentage becomes prominent immediately, when Nathan tells Bathsheba that she needs to curry David’s favor quickly and recall to him a promise (which there’s no textual evidence he actually made) to designate her son as heir.

The dialogue that follows is confusing in the extreme, and would require extensive reorganization if performed as a stageplay: there’s a lot of repetition, and some vagueness about who’s in the room at various times. Bathsheba pleads in pretty much the exact terms Nathan advised, and then Nathan comes in, repeats roughly half of Bathsheba’s dialogue (the bits about Adonijah proclaiming himself king) and says that surely some sort of mistake has been made. David’s response to Nathan’s news is to summon Bathsheba—but wasn’t she already there?—to assure her that Solomon will be king. Then he summons Zadok, Banaiah, and uh, Nathan (who apparently wandered off during when Bathsheba came in for the second time) to order them to explicitly crown Solomon. This is done with much pomp, and the news comes to Adonijah’s camp soon enough, and they all panic at the sign that David himself, and his loyalists, have taken a definite stance. Adonijah’s response to the complete deflation of his rebellion is to immediately assume that his life is forfeit, and take the one action which could help in such cases: explicitly claiming the sanctuary of the Temple. In many traditions (including, evidently, Hebrew, although the specific prohibition is lacking in the Torah), slaughter and violence in the Temple except for the explicit ordained sacrificial purposes is forbidden, so anyone who was willing to not leave the Temple grounds was safe (which is where we derive the secular meaning of the term “sanctuary” as a place of asylum). Solomon shows apparent magnanimity in victory and promises that as Adonijah is worthy, he will not be harmed.

Next time: Solomon harms Adonijah. And Joab. And a handful of other people who weren’t supposed to be harmed.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Sibble Sunday: The Great Pretender (1 Kings 1)

  1. gsanders says:

    Thanks for the history lesson!

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