Sibble Sunday: Shoes and ships and sealing-wax (1 Kings 13–15)

Missed a week or so. Still getting into the swing of the new school year. Also, I have a new kitty, and he likes to sit on my keyboard, so typing at home is one of those things that isn’t happening much right now.

Short snarky summary: A bunch of lesser kings pass through the two kingdoms. They range from unspeakably horrible to merely very bad.

When last we checked out, the kingdom of Israel-Judah had fractured completely, and the new king of Israel, leader of a successful rebellion, set up some golden calves for the Israelites to worship, just to absolutely signal to us that he’s a bad’un. Hereupon we embark on atour of a lot of comparatively obscure kings of both Judah and Israel, with a fairly conspicuous pattern: the kings of Israel are nearly uniformly condemned; the kings of Judah range from praised to not-quite-as-bad-as-Israel. This is all pretty predictable from my previous conjectures about the agendas in play among the Deuteronomists: the anti-monarchists slag all kings, while the Davidic-dynasty supporters like Judah and detest Israel.

Another historical or quasi-historical context worth putting on this story: from pretty much the beginning of my investigation of the Tanakh, I’ve expressed dubiousness about the existence of the mythical unified state prior to the period of the Two Kingdoms. But perhaps I’m looking into a kind of meaningless question, here. Remember, this is a pre-modern period, with highly unreliable and slow long-distance transportation and communication. The city-state was the dominant governmental structure of the day, largely because it was the largest unit that could actually be governed officially, and any nation larger than a city would end up with the regional governors operating at the very least semi-autonomously. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that in any large empire or nation, the area at a significant remove from the capital might well be in a state of perpetual, low-level rebellion. And it seems likely that, even if there was a king in Jerusalem claiming dominion over the entire nation, as a practical matter his authority probably fizzled a bit outside of Benjamin and Judah.

But anyways, now we have two kingdoms, and Jeroboam has been crowned and consecrated his new, idolatrous shrine. In Chapter 13 his coronation is interrupted by a prophet, who predicts that a scion of the line of David named Josia will defeat Jeroboam, killing him and his priests together, and that the altar will be smitten by divine wrath. Unsurprisingly, Jeroboam orders this naysayer arrested, but when he stretches out his hand to point at the prophet, his arm lock in place and the altar breaks (as predicted). Jeroboam then, quite sensibly, begs pardon humbly, and is released.

The rest of the chapter follows the prophet through a rather peculiar adventure. Invited by the king to stay with him and sup, the prophet declines, saying he swore not to eat or drink while in Israel (presumably to send some sort of point about the moral contagion there, or something). But while he’s on his way home, an old Israelite prophet, who heard about the events with the king, chases him down and begs him to stay and take refreshment. To the Judahite’s repetition of his solemn oath, the old prophet says, essentially, “I’m a prophet too! And God said it was alright for you to come and relax with me.” Now, of course, it isn’t, and at dinner the old prophet is moved by God to bitch his Judahite colleague out for forsaking his oath.

The motivations of this old Israelite are completely inscrutable to me. As someone God speaks to and through, he’s clearly supposed to be one of the good guys, and yet he deceives one of the other good guys, serving as some sort of agent provocateur. I don’t really get it at all. I’m particularly perplexed because, when the young prophet is killed on the road by a lion and the old man discovers his corpse, he doesn’t triumph in the downfall of the oathbreaker, but mourns him as kin. It’s all really very strange.

Meanwhile, in Chapter 14, we learn a bit more about how God is making Jeroboam miserable. Not only was his coronation ruined, but his son Abijah falls sick, and Jeroboam, feeling desperate, dispatches his wife in disguise to beg for divine intercession from a prophet of God, Ahijah. We can safely assume, based both on the interaction between Jeroboam and a prophet in the last chapter and God’s long-established attitude towards golden-calf worship, that this prophet is not actually an ally of Jeroboam’s. Even though Ahijah is blind, he instantly recognizes Jeroboam’s wife and her mission, having been briefed by God. This is apparently a prime opportunity for some seriously unpleasant prophecy, and Ahijah jumps on the opportunity, delivering another variant on the usual divine imprecations against the faithless, swearing to punish Jeroboam individually and Israel collectively with rebellion, regicide, defeat, and exile. Oh, and her son is going to die the moment she gets home. That’s all pretty harsh, but it’s no more than Jeroboam should’ve expected really. Anyways, the prophet speaks true, for the moment Jeroboam’s wife gets home, her son Abijah dies, sparing us two characters in the same chapter with oversimilar names.

The rest of Jeroboam’s tale is told by omission. Specifically, just as for the rest of Solomon’s reign we were referred to a lost text called “The Annals of Solomon, here we’re referred to an equally unknown text called “The Annals of the Kings of Israel” to get details on Jeroboam’s reign. Jeroboam is then succeeded by a son, Nadab.

Meanwhile, over in Judah, we don’t get too many details or what Rehoboam’s up to. Like Jeroboam, his exploits are apparently in an auxiliary text, this time “The Annals of the Kings of Judah”. The only detail we get in this chapter is that apparently God is very disappointed in Rehoboam, aparently because he didn’t do much to combat the encroaching moral decay of idolworship and male prostitution (no, really, apparently those are the two big problems in Judah). We’re told enough to get a decent flavor of post-Solomonic Judah: there’s constant strife with Israel and a decline from the glory days of the Kingdom, reaching a nadir when the king of Egypt attacks and loots Solomon’s splendid palace, forcing Rehoboam to downgrade from the stolen gold furnishings to bronze. Incidentally, we actually have independent confirmation of this narrative: there’s an apparently contemporary hieroglyphic account in Karnak of the sacking of Judah, which has been pretty definitively dated to about 900 BCE, so if nothing else we nail this story down in time. Anyways, finally Rehoboam dies, and his son Abijam (not to be confused with the Abijah or Ahijah from earlier in this chapter) succeeds him.

Chapter 15 continues to list goings-on in Judah. King Abijam is apparently quite a second-stringer, with a reign of only three years, and no more of God’s favor than his father had. Apparently what few decent things happened during Abijam’s reign were done by God in continued appreciation of David, who the text takes great pains at this point to indicate served God in everything he did, except for that nasty business with Uriah. It’s nice to see the text acknowledge that the whole incident with Uriah was fucked up, but it’s a bit out of place here. Anyways, Abijam is succeeded by his son, Asa.

For a change of pace, Asa is actually (in the eyes of the authors of the text) a good king, one who does what God wants kings to do. In this particular case, that would be forbidding male prostitution, re-establishing the Temple rites, and firmly disconnecting the government and the monarchy from idolworship, to the extent of deposing his idolworshipping mother and sacking her shrine (although, in what the authors clearly regard as a failing, he doesn’t interfere with the right of private individuals to worship the idols of their choice).

Apparently good kings really piss off the corrupted line of Israel, though, because while Asa’s ancestors got boilerplate about enmity with the kings of Israel, Asa himself gets a full-on war with king Baasha. Now, due to the asynchronous retelling of events in Judah and Israel, we haven’t actually met Baasha yet, but he carves out a nice bit of Benjaminite land and fortifies it. To get Baasha’s army out of Judah, Asa resorts to a ruse, sending a modest tribute of gold to ben-Haddad, the king of Aram, citing a treaty between their fathers, and asking him to please attack Israel. Ben-Haddad concurs with the plan, possibly seeing a chance to seize some Israelite land while their forces are committed elsewhere, and strikes at Israel, forcing Baasha to withdraw. Meanwhile, Asa moves in, removes his fortifications, and reallocates them to other cities. And that’s about all e learn about Asa’s reign. Once again we’re referred to the lost “Annals of the Kings of Judah” for more details, but we are also told, hilariously irrelevantly, that Asa had a diseased foot in his old age.

Anyways, before we move on to Asa’s son Jehoshophat, we need to catch up on the Israelites. The text tries to follow both kingly lines simultaneously, but since Jeroboam’s reign lasted from Rehoboam’s through the beginning of Asa’s, we only now go back to the Israelite line. Jeroboam’s son Nadab is (surprise!) offensive to God, and after a mere two years of rule is assassinated by an Issacharite named Baasha while out laying siege to the Philistines. Then Baasha usurps the throne, murdering all of Jeroboam’s heirs. Of course, Baasha’s not actually any better than Nadab, and God doesn’t much care for him either.

In the next installment: chaos continues, with a cavalcade of kings you’ve never heard of and then, at long last, a few familiar-sounding names.


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

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