Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Sundered Garment: Jeroboam's Tax Revolt

King Solomon is chiefly known for two things:  possessing enormous wealth, possessing deep wisdom, and possessing enough wives to fill a good chunk of a football stadium.  That’s three; but the last is really a subset of the first.  He used his wealth to build the Temple in Jerusalem, an opulent palace, and to impress foreign dignitaries like the Queen of Sheba.

Some of it was wealth his father had saved up for him. The Book of 1 Kings describes his reign as a period of prosperity where people lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree, (1 Kings 4:25) and that prosperity undoubtedly trickled up, as wealth tends to do. Although the Bible doesn’t exactly come out and say it, my guess is that Solomon got his riches in the usual way:  through taxation.

And nobody likes taxes.

During the reign of Solomon’s son, Rheoboam, discontent over taxes blew up into a full-fledged revolt that resulted in five-sixths of the country seceding and forever split the nation in two.

But first let’s talk about Jeroboam.

Jeroboam was an able young man whom Solomon placed in charge of the labor force of the House of Joseph.  In addition to the Temple, Solomon built numerous other public works including completing the walls around the city and building terraces to support the city’s expansion.  The labor force for these projects was conscripted from each of the tribes of Israel.  The House of Joseph refers to the two tribes of Ephraim, (Jeroboam’s tribe), and Manasseh, which descended from the sons of Joseph.

One day when Jeroboam was traveling from Jerusalem, he was met on the road by a prophet named Ahijah, who happened to be wearing a spiffy new cloak.  When the two of them were alone on the road, out in the country, Ahijah removed his outer cloak and tore it into twelve pieces.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the LORD, the God of Israel says:  ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes.  But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe.  (1 Kings 11:31 NIV)

The reason he gives is that Solomon has forsaken the Lord and has been worshipping the gods of the Canaanites:  Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, and Molech, god of the Ammnoites.  I mentioned all of those wives, didn’t I?  well, many of them came from foreign lands, diplomatic marriages to seal treaties with other kings.  He built temples to accommodate his wives, and under their influence, worshiped with them there.

In our day and age, the establishment of places of worship for differing religions is protected by law.  That’s because our Constitution is a Covenant between the People and the Government, not between the People and God. Some people might think it should be, but contrary to their opinions, the Constitution was not received by George Washington on Tablets of Stone. America is not Ancient Israel.

One of the underlying themes of the Law of Moses is, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.”  (Leviticus 26:12)  Repeatedly the Books of Moses repeat the admonition that God is giving the people of Israel their own land with the understanding that they will obey his commandments.  If they stray from this understanding, all bets are off.

And much of the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures can be seen as a recurring cycle of the people turning away from God, and then bad things happen, and when they return to him for help he delivers them.  Ahijah’s prophecy can be seen as one more iteration of this cycle.  Ahijah makes this clear by reiterating the deal:

“However, as for you, I will take you, and you will rule over all that your heart desired; you will be king over Israel.  If you do whatever I command you and walk in  my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statures and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you.  I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you.”  (1 Kings 11:37-38)

What has this to do with taxes?  We’re getting there.

Solomon must have heard about Ahijah’s coat and his prophecy; or maybe he had other reasons to suspect Jeroboam of subversive tendencies.  The text tells us he tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jerry fled to Egypt, where he was protected by Shisak, the King of Egypt.

Shisak is the first Egyptian king mentioned by name in the Old Testament.  Many scholars have identified him with Sheshonk I, founder of the 22th Dynasty, who lived about that period and who waged a campaign in Canaan as Shisak is said to have done.

Eventually, Solomon died, and was buried in the City of David.  His son, Rehoboam, succeeded him as king.  In an interesting aside, the text tells us that Rehoboam went to Shechem to be made king.  Why not in Jerusalem, the capital of his father and his grandfather?  Shechem was an important city in the tribe of Ephraim, Jeroboam’s tribe, in the hill country north of Jerusalem.  One possibility is that the House of David came from the tribe of Judah, but that his kingship over the rest of Israel had to be ratified by the elders of the other tribes as well.  Or perhaps it was just a ceremony and nobody really expected the son of Solomon and the grandson of David to be vetoed.

Jeroboam had heard about Solomon’s death and returned to Israel.  He was asked to lead a delegation  consisting of “the whole assembly of Israel”; (well, probably a bunch of representatives, but nevertheless speaking for a good segment of the population), bringing a petition to the new king:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”  (1 Kings 12:4)

That conscripted labor thing was really unpopular.

Rehoboam asks the delegation to give him a few days to think things over, and then he consults some of his father’s old advisers.  They recommend that he comply with the people’s request.  “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.” (1 Kings 12:7)

There’s a venerable tradition in politics that when your advisers tell you something you don’t want to hear, you find a new set of advisers.  This is precisely what Rehoboam did.  He went to some of the younger men of the court, guys he’d grown up with and who were probably drinking buddies, and asked them the same question.

“Hell, no!”  You can’t let the peons push you around.  If you want respect, you gotta put them in their place.

The young men who had grown up with him replied, “Tell these people who have said to you, ‘Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter’ – tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist.  My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”  (1 Kings 12:10-11)

The scorpions were probably whips with nasty metal bits attached to the ends, but you know, using real scorpions would be pretty hard-core too.  Rehoboam gladly embraced the advice of his buddies and gave that response to the men of Israel.  And he probably ordered someone to set about trying to tie live scorpions to whips.  Rehoboam does not seem to have inherited his father’s wisdom.

If Rehoboam thought the men of Israel would meekly submit to his show of machismo, he was badly mistaken. They began to wonder why they really needed a king from a different tribe:

When all Israel saw that the king refused to listen to them, they answered the king: “What share do we have in David,  What part in Jesse’s son?To your tents, O Israel!  Look after your own house, O David!”(1 Kings 12:16)

When Rehoboam sent out, Adoniram, his official in charge of forced labor, the men of Israel took hold of the guy and stoned him.  This was when it finally dawned on the king that he was not going to be as popular as his dad; and that he was right in the middle of a bunch of people who hated his guts.  Rehoboam hopped into his chariot and high-tailed it out of Shechem and back to Jerusalem.

The leaders of the tribe of Ephraim and the other northern tribes who had gathered at Shechem, elected Jeroboam to be their new king.  He was one of them; he understood their issues, and he had lobbied on their behalf.  Now he was their king.  The torn pieces of Ahijah’s cloak had become a kingdom.

Two of the tribes remained loyal to the House of David:  Judah, the tribe from which David came, and Simeon, which lay south of Judah and was cut off from the northern tribes.  The tribe of Benjamin, on the northern border of Judah’s territory was for a time under Rehoboam’s control also, and the king mustered the armies of Benjamin along with those of Judah to reclaim the rebel northern tribes.  The war never came about, though, because another prophet named Shemaiah intervened and warned Judah and Benjamin not to fight against their brothers. (1 Kings 12:22-24)

Although a full-scale civil war had been averted, the situation between the North and the South remained tense, and minor battles and skirmishes between the two sides occurred frequently over the next few decades.

Even Jeroboam’s old benefactor, King  Shisak of Egypt got into the act, raiding Judah all the way to Jerusalem.  He carried off the treasures of the royal palace, including all the gold shields that Solomon had made.  (1 Kings 14:25-28) The text does not specify whether his armies actually looted the city or if the treasure was given to them as danegeld.  Since the text doesn’t say anything about Shisak carting off stuff from the Temple, (as the Babylonians did later), I’m inclined to think that Rehoboam just paid him off.

But whose side was God on in all this?  It’s tempting to sympathize with Jeroboam and his revolt against tyranny; I’m sure modern-day Tea Partyists would.  After all, nobody likes a tyrant, and Rehoboam was a real jerk.  And Ahijah’s prophecy would seem to put God’s blessing on the whole secession thing.

But the author of Kings dances around this issue.  Although the Books of Kings deal with the histories of both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms, they are definitely written from the Judean point of view, and have little or nothing good to say about the rulers of the North.  Rehoboam might have been a jerk, but as far as the text is concerned, he was the heir to David’s line and therefore the Rightful Ruler.  Ahijah’s prophecy was a prediction, but not necessarily an endorsement.  And the prediction came with some important caveats:  that because of God’s covenant with David, the Line of David would retain Jerusalem and a portion of the Twelve Tribes, and that David’s descendents would not remain humbled forever.

And the form of the prophecy carried some heavy symbolism too.  Ahijah could have broken a jar and given Jeroboam ten pieces; he could have torn up a piece of paper and done the same.  Instead, he rent his garment. The rending of one’s garment was a traditional expression of grief, as when Jacob heard about the supposed death of his son, Joseph in Genesis 37:29, or when King Hezekiah was surrounded by the besieging army of Sennacherib in 2 Kings 18:37.  I think the prophet’s use of this particular imagery, the torn garment, is meant to underscore that this sundering of the kingdom is a tragedy and would bring grief to come..