The Complete Book of 1 Kings
The Book of 1 Kings
There's no sorrier figure than the incompetent son of a powerful man. King Rehoboam has inherited none of his father Solomon's gifts. Instead, Rehoboam is an Odai Hussein/Kim Jong-il type of son—megalomaniacal, jealous, incompetent, and surrounded by a posse of moronic yes men. As soon as Rehoboam is crowned, his Israelite subjects petition him to reduce the forced labor Solomon imposed on them. Rehoboam's older advisers urge him to lighten the burden, assuring him that it will guarantee the Israelites' loyalty.
But the king's dumb homeboys—literally, "the young men who had grown up with him"—tell him, in the crudest possible way, he should punish the people instead. They advise him to tell the Israelites: "My little finger is thicker than my father's loins. Now whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions."
Look at that first sentence again. "My little finger is thicker than my father's loins." I think we can assume the word "loins" is not actually the word "loins." You know what I mean? Think of a male body part that is similar in shape to a finger and that an uncouth young man might brag about—it's not "the loins." Translators, am I right? The last sentence is also memorable: "I will discipline you with scorpions." It's a creepy reminder that horror-movie-style sadism has been around as long as there have been young men.
Rehoboam takes the posse's advice and orders the Israelites to work harder (shades of Egypt here). This turns out to be a disastrous public policy. All of the Israelites, except the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, rebel against Rehoboam, stoning to death his minister of forced labor and inciting the Israel versus Judah civil war that would persist for centuries.
After the revolt against Rehoboam, the other 10 tribes pick Jeroboam as their king. He's no prize, either. Jeroboam worries that his Israelites will keep traveling to Rehoboam's Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. These pilgrimages, he fears, will make his Israelites side with the rival king against him. It's a choice between securing his power and worshipping the Lord. Guess which he chooses? Jeroboam casts two golden calf idols and installs them in the new shrines that he erects at Bethel and Dan. More golden calves? These Israelites have learned absolutely nothing!
Yet God doesn't react with the genocidal rage he displayed when Aaron made a calf back at Mt. Sinai. The Lord is oddly quiet—which raises a puzzling question about Him. Back in Genesis and Exodus, God responded as rapidly and ferociously as an assistant principal in a junior-high-school cafeteria. Utter a stray oath—He'd smite you. Light the wrong incense—He'd smite you. Grumble about Moses—He'd afflict you with a dreadful skin disease. He overlooked no misdemeanors; He gave no second chances. But here we have the king of Israel—the divinely anointed ruler of God's own chosen people—rejecting the Lord in favor of metal cows, thus breaking the Bible's most importantlaw, and He doesn't even toss a lightning bolt. Now, either the Lord has taken anger-management classes since Deuteronomy, or something has radically changed in the relationship between God and His people.
I can think of several reasons why the Lord has withdrawn from the action. First, perhaps like all good parents, He has realized it's time to cut the apron strings. When they were in the Wilderness, the Israelites really needed Him, so He was a daily, hectoring presence in their lives. Now they're rich and secure in Israel, and He's giving them space to make their own mistakes.
Second, maybe He's disgusted with them. The Israelites have blown countless chances to obey His laws, and He's sick of dealing with them. Rather than smiting or haranguing them, He has decided enough is enough. He's done with them. They can worship calves, marry idolators, break the Sabbath, whatever—it's not his problem anymore.
Third, a historical theory. The Bible was written down long after the events of Genesis, Exodus, etc. supposedly occurred. As we know from all kinds of religious and mythical traditions, events in the distant past—events passed down only by oral transmission—become exaggerated and aggrandized. It's very easy to attribute ancient dramas to divine intervention. There was an earthquake or a plague? It must have been God's revenge for a rebellion. The Israelites fled Egypt safely by crossing a marsh? Well then, God held back the Red Sea. Time and distance allowed the authors of the Bible to see the hand of the divine everywhere. But as Bible events get closer to the time of writing, there are more obvious human explanations. We ascribe a grandeur and magnificence to the far past: The present, by contrast, feels mundane. That was surely as true for the Bible's authors as it is for us, which may be why they imagined God interfered so much in Israelites' daily lives way back in Exodus, but was only a shadowy presence in their own time.
So, what's your explanation? Why is God so much less involved in the life of the Israelites than He used to be?
A holy man interrupts one of Jeroboam's spurious golden-calf ceremonies to denounce his idolatry and pass on the Lord's demand that the altar be immediately destroyed. When Jeroboam tries to arrest the holy man, his arm becomes withered and paralyzed. The altar is torn down—it doesn't say by whom—and Jeroboam begs the holy man for God's forgiveness. The holy man tells him to buzz off.
So Jeroboam doesn't escape scot-free for his pair of golden bovines, but it's a pretty mild punishment. He gets the Bob Dole arm, which hardly compares to the mass slaughter that followed Golden Calf No. 1.
This is an extremely disturbing chapter, because of what subsequently happens to the holy man. God has ordered him not to eat and drink in Jeroboam's kingdom. An old prophet in Bethel hears about the showdown at the altar and invites the holy man to his house, presumably to thank him for his good deed. The prophet offers the holy man dinner, but the holy man refuses, citing God's commandment. The prophet then insists that an angel himself told him that he should feed this holy man. Convinced that it's God's will, the holy man dines with the prophet.
This is a bad move. While they're sitting at dinner, the host—the very prophet who persuaded the holy man to eat—announces that the holy man has broken God's commandment and will be punished by not being buried in his ancestral tomb. And, as if this isn't bad enough, the holy man is killed by a lion as soon as he leaves the prophet's house. The prophet, feeling pretty darn guilty, retrieves the body and buries it in his own graveyard.
Considered in isolation, I suppose, the holy man's disobedience is a powerful argument that you must follow the letter of God's law. But read next to the Jeroboam story, the holy man's death is horrifying and senseless. God allows idolatrous Jeroboam to break every law on the tablet and get away with it, yet murders and curses a holy man for inadvertently breaking a rule about snacking? This is a capricious God, not a consistent one.
Jeroboam isn't done sinning. Anyone who wants to be a priest in his Temple gets the job, no questions asked. (His Temple is like one of those banks where everyone is a vice president or those online universities that grants a Ph.D. as soon as your check clears.)
Jeroboam's son falls sick, so he dispatches his wife, in disguise, to beg help from the prophet Ahijah. The prophet easily identifies her. He warns that her son will die and that Jeroboam's whole line will be disgraced and their corpses eaten by dogs. The son dies. Jeroboam dies, too.
At Jeroboam's death, the book says: "The rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, are written in the Book of the Annals of the King of Israel." A similar message follows the death of every king in the Book of Kings. I'm confused: What is "the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel"? Despite the similarity in name, it's clearly not the Book of Kings, since the Book of Kings is referring us to it. Did this other book survive?
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, bad King Rehoboam is also flouting the Lord, chiefly by hiring "male temple prostitutes" who commit all kinds of abominations. Who are these prostitutes, and what do they do? Is this a Midnight Cowboy kind of situation? Is the problem their maleness or their prostitution? (On the upside, at least there's finally a prostitute in the Bible who's not a woman!)
Feckless Rehoboam loses a war to the Egyptians, who seize all the treasures from the Temple and palace—those golden ornaments so lovingly collected by Solomon. Rehoboam replaces what he can—but with bronze. Gold to bronze—that tells us everything we need to know about the difference between Solomon and his son.
Chapter 15 and Chapter 16
1 Kings has degraded into a complicated, tedious, flip-flop between the rival kingdoms of Israel and Judah, both of which are ruled by incompetents. Good King Asa briefly restores Judah to God's good graces by expelling the temple prostitutes, toppling idols, and even ousting his own abomination-worshipping mother.
Meanwhile, Jeroboam's family, as prophesied, loses the kingship of Israel. Baasha leads a coup against Jeroboam's son and slaughters the whole clan. There was "not one that breathed," as the book vividly puts it. King Baasha turns out to be just as evil and unfaithful as Jeroboam. So, Zimri kills Baasha. Seven days later, Omri overthrows Zimri. Omri's a dreadful king, too. Pretty soon he dies, and his son Ahab succeeds him. Ahab's the worst of the lot. He erects an altar to Baal and marries Jezebel. (It's always a bad move to marry a woman named Jezebel.) Ahab "did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." When you consider the louts who preceded him, that's an impressively large amount of evil!
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.