The two scrolls of Kings in my straight-through reading of the Bible turned my understanding of King Solomon 180 degrees. Forget the self-serving propaganda in the text. Counter it with the evidence his clerks insert, perhaps on the sly. Wisest man? The story begins with King David’s greatest error, the coronation of Solomon, who soon executes his own half-brother Adonijah and his first-cousin Joab. (What kind of family loyalty is that?)
That, after David has been forbidden to build the temple because he has blood on his hands. And now we’re to accept that Solomon is allowed to build a court for the Ark because his hands are clean? No, this no longer squares.
Even Solomon’s Jewishness becomes suspect. He has a foreign mother and takes on foreign wives. He worships their gods. The temple extravagance appears to reflect the temptations of worldly rivalry and enhancement of Solomon’s standing at home and abroad more than an acknowledgement of the Unseen Deity of the Covenant.
Is this building for the glory of God? Or of a man sitting at the head of his nation? Or is it essentially Solomon’s royal chapel, after building temples for his wives’ pagan gods?
Revisiting this project, I find a note suggesting that Solomon had miniatures of the temple distributed throughout the land, perhaps to rally support for its construction.
Despite the claims of his toady court scribes (his faithful propagandists), what is typically viewed as the glorious epitome of the descendants of Jacob looks instead more a mirage.
Solomon’s aspirations and excesses imposed heavy tolls on the Israelites. How long could they sustain it?
Not long, as we’ll see.
One lingering question is how much of the codification of the Hebrew scriptures begins to shape up during his reign, with the collecting of written manuscripts, many of them possibly copied and edited by anonymous literate women of the court? His father, King David, instituted the role of court scribes and recorders and instructed his son to do the same.
With Solomon’s death and his son Rehoboam’s arrogance and oppression, the nation collapses into two kingdoms: Judah, retaining Jerusalem, and Israel to the north. This becomes both a political and religious schism, as 1 Kings 12 details.
The ensuing narrative, based on the overlapping reigns of the king one country and then the other and back again, is difficult to follow, even before the boilerplate repetition of their sinful lives plays out. The intent of this parade of mostly evil, often inept, monarchs is tragic. Dramatically, I think it would play better as over-the-top comedy. This is what you get for insisting on a king, you unfaithful idiots.
Structurally, presenting the parallel histories of the two countries would be difficult under the best of circumstances. How would this work orally if Israel were voiced by one performer and Judah by another? On the page, having two distinctively different typefaces to represent each country might be helpful.
Apart from David, the kings who rule the two Hebrew nations turn out to be a string of disasters, many of them offering sons and daughters to the pagan gods as sacrifices either by the sword or burning them alive. How does the Jewish legacy even survive under such political rule? God is opposed, even oppressed!
More telling is the sense of kings in general as being shallow and weak. In addition to those heading Judah and Israel, those in Esther and Judith illustrate this sense.
But as the epitome of weak kings, who could surpass Ahab and his tyrannical wife Jezebel, in the northern kingdom, countered by the prophet Elijah? (Easily overlooked in that conflict is Elijah’s raising of a widow’s son from the dead, 1 Kings 17:17-24.) A rich mixture of warfare, conflict between religions, murderous corrupt politics ensues, “And indeed there never was anyone like Ahab for double dealing and doing what is displeasing to Yahweh, urged on by Jezebel his wife” (1 Kings 21:25). And when he dies, “the dogs licked up the blood, and the prostitutes washed in it” (1 Kings 22:38).
That part of the story continues with far more about Elijah’s successor Elisha, considered the lesser of the two prophets. Among his miracles is a multiplication of loaves (2 Kings 42-44), foreshadowing the two events in the New Testament gospels.
The parallel strings of wicked kings continue until the northern kingdom falls and then a righteous but second-rate Hezekiah is crowned in Judea for a welcome lifetime of peace and security that ends with Isaiah’s warning, “Sons sprung from you, sons fathered by you, will be abducted to be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (2 Kings 20:18). Make a note to consider the crucial role of eunuchs throughout the Hebrew Bible.
In the meantime, one more righteous king, Josiah, takes the throne in Judah. His puritanical religious reforms included exterminating “the spurious priests whom the kings of Judea had appointed,” pulling “down the house of the sacred male prostitutes which was in the Temple of Yahweh and where the women wove veils for Asherah,” and “rendered unsanctified Tophet in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, so that no one could pass his son or daughter through the fire of sacrifice to Molach” (2 King 23). That is, human sacrifice was rampant.
As Herbert Gold writes in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, “The Book of Kings is the moving, dangerous, comic, and bloody chronicle of what happens in history. The tone accepts disaster and stubbornly insists on survival. The lamp of God never quite goes out. … Genius and devotion, when we wait long enough, lead to power. And when power doesn’t lead to corruption, it leads to the failures of mortality, of inexorable time. Kings grow arrogant and old, or feeble and incapable.”
Gold notes, “Justice is a constant ideal in Kings I. Mercy is also an ideal. Neither one is continually achieved. The tribes lived in the real world of harsh gestures and temptations to treachery and connivance.”
Turning to the second half of Kings, Alan Lelchuk admits, “The whole narrative is too choppy, too crammed with lists and legacies of kings — some nineteen in the northern kingdom alone — who reigned over the disunified states of Judah and Israel during the twilight of the Jewish empire. There are too many wars, revolts, assassinations, names, and enmities to keep up with. … And through all the jangling chaos and carnage there is no Solomon … or David … for the reader to keep up with.”
Disunified? I read that as dysfunctional!
As Lelchuk observes, “Kings II portrays a people in power in severe crisis primarily because of their own doing …” And, as he emphasizes, the climax comes in “the destruction of the Temple and the burning of the city of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the Jews to Babylonia, after years of fighting of Jews against Jews.
“The realism here is hard and relentless, the prose style plain and unadorned, and the reader is persuaded, if not assaulted, by the specifics of the tragedy.”