After David’s old age his son Solomon succeeds him as king, although not without some more intrigue as his brother Adonijah makes a claim to the throne. Solomon starts well, building the Temple which David apparently had it in his heart to build, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to its final resting place (at least until Indiana Jones got his hands on it), and asking God for wisdom rather than riches, which meant that he got both. But as is so often the case, the seeds of his own destruction were present right from the start. His reign ended in national disaster, and we can, with the wonderful gift of hindsight, see the beginnings of this malaise early in his reign. There is the matter of his many wives and concubines, which of course flies in the face of the Deuteronomist’s concern for purity and separation. And in 5:13 Solomon conscripts labour to get the Temple built; in 9:15 this is described as ‘forced labour’, and in 11:28 Jeroboam is put in charge of this workforce.
Jeroboam later meets a prophet who tells him that he is going to reign over 10 tribes, which does not please Solomon, so he flees into exile in Egypt until after Solomon’s death. Solomon’s son, rather confusingly called Rehoboam, takes over the throne, but pretty soon Jeroboam takes the 10 northern tribes and splits the kingdom. There are two issues: Rehoboam decides to continue his father’s policy of conscripted labour, except that he is going to be a lot more vicious with them than Solomon was. Jeroboam is proclaimed king by the disgruntled northerners, and, in order to make the split complete, and to keep his people from going back to Jerusalem to worship, he sets up two rival sanctuaries, at the extreme north and south of the northern kingdom in Bethel and Dan. As far as the Deuteronomist is concerned this is the ultimate sin, offending so deeply as it does again the law of centralisation of worship which we encountered in the book of Deuteronomy. From now on all the successive monarchs are going to be judged on whether or not they perpetuated worship at these rival shrines. It is significant that not only is the location of these shrines wrong: they are also centred around two golden calves. Sound familiar? So God’s requirements about where he is to be worshipped are broken, as is his prohibition of idolatry.
From now on we have two parallel stories with accounts of the reigns of the kings of Judah, in the south centred around Jerusalem, and of Israel, in the north based in Damascus, a troubled place to this day. But for all its apostasy the northern kingdom was not abandoned by God: his prophets were active, and the stories of Elijah and later Elisha show his desire to stand against evil and to call the people back to himself. There is outright confrontation with the evil king Ahab and his even more evil wife Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal, and again as Ahab tries to confiscate a vineyard belonging to Naboth.
Again the twin themes of the Deuteronomist can be seen as controlling factors in the way this history is written up. We can also see the power of bad seed to grow bad crops and bad fruit, and the tragic story reminds us of the need constantly to purify ourselves and our motives, lest something unhealthy and unholy grows from our well-intentioned but unwise motives. But there is even worse to come – don’t miss next week’s thrilling adventure.