Friday, February 21, 2014

First Kings: Can’t Pick a Winner

Welcome back to our exploration of the First Book of Kings from the Old Testament of the Bible. When we left off, the kingdom of Israel had split in two: Judah, under the rule of Solomon’s son Rehoboam and Israel under the rule of a former servant of Solomon’s named Jeroboam. The means were all political, but the Bible credits God for it.

The first interesting story to follow that split takes place in Israel under Jeroboam, whom the Bible claims God chose to rule Israel with the understanding that Jeroboam would keep God’s laws. Well, no sooner does Jeroboam take over than he decides “fuck that noise!” Concerned that if the people of Israel keep having to go to the temple in Jerusalem (which is the capital of Judah) to do their sacrifices they’ll start wanting to put the old kingdom back together under the rule of David’s descendants, Jeroboam decides to set up his own religious observances. For this purpose he makes up a pair of golden calves to set up as gods (what the hell was the ancient Israelite fetish for worshipping baby cows made of gold?) and puts them up in their own temples with their own altars.

So one day Jeroboam is making sacrifices on his altar as superstitious barbarians are wont to do, when a fellow described as a “man of God,” comes by to talk to the altar. Because why not?

1 Kings 13:2 And the man cried against the altar by the word of Yahweh and said ‘O altar, altar, thus says Yahweh: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you”’”

This annoyed Jeroboam, who pointed at the man and ordered his guards to arrest him, but instead his hand withered up. And the altar was torn down, which makes one wonder how that prediction that it would be used by Josiah for human sacrifices could take place. Maybe we’ll find out later.

Anyway, Jeroboam is freaked out and asks the guy to beg God for his hand to be restored. Which he does, and it is. Then Jeroboam offers the guy something to eat, at which point our man of God reveals that when Yahweh ordered him to come curse the altar he also ordered him not to eat or drink anything while he was there. Then our little prophet sets out to return home.

Next we are informed that there’s another old prophet dwelling nearby who hears about all of this. And he really wants to meet the guy who cursed the altar. So he sets out to find him on the road, and when he does he invites the traveler back to his house for something to eat and drink. The traveler repeats that God has ordered him not to eat or drink anything. But the old prophet is having none of this refusing-his-hospitality shit.

1 Kings 13:18 And he said to him ‘I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of Yahweh, saying “bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.”’ But he lied to him. 19 So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.”

Of course after he’s eaten and drunk is when God decides to inform the prophet that he didn’t give any such permission to eat and drink with the old guy. So on his way home to Judah, God has a lion kill him and dump his body in the road. To make that clear: God killed one prophet who broke his rules because a different prophet lied to him about what the rules were. The liar, by the way, wasn’t punished at all.

So we learn from this story, what? That there’s no clear way to know what God wants, but he’ll fucking kill you if you get it wrong?

Oh, and by the way, after this supposedly clear and unambiguous (and totally not made up by the authors) personal warning that God disapproved of his religious practices, do you suppose Jeroboam gave up his idolatry? Not a bit of it.

1 Kings 13: 33 After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places.”

Ah well, better luck choosing rulers next time, Yahweh.

Oh, except his luck doesn’t really improve at all. After a charming little story about how God kills one of Jeroboam’s babies and threatens to wipe out all his descendants, we’re treated to brief synopses of several generations of kings in both Israel and Judah. Virtually all of their reigns are described using the phrase “…and [king X] did what was evil in the sight of God…,” even the ones who the Bible claims were specifically given Yahweh’s mandate to usurp the throne in order to make up for the bad behavior of the previous king. God is either deliberately picking shitty kings that he knows are just going to piss him off (which pretty much always results in multiple deaths), or he has worse luck picking winners than your cousin who got his legs broken by a loan shark after losing all his money at the track.

Of course, all the usurpations are presented in the usual way of describing the political reasons and methods used, and then saying “but it’s really because God wanted it.”

Meanwhile, Judah and Israel are pretty much constantly at war with each other and with their neighbors. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes poorly. One of the usurpations in Israel does indeed result in the slaughter of Jeroboam’s descendants (after Jeroboam himself died a peaceful death of old age), just as God supposedly threatened. And generations pass (I’ll skip the details because they’re mostly boring and irrelevant) with each successive king just getting worse and worse until we eventually reach the reign of Ahab in Israel.

And that is where this post will leave off, because the reign of Ahab gets more detail than most of the others, and we get introduced to the stories of Elijah who is one of the more famous prophets. So all that will probably be worthy of starting a whole new post to cover.

So until that one goes up, I hope you remain happy and well!


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

First Kings: Smells Like Misattribution

Alright, so, Solomon has built the Temple, where the name of Yahweh will dwell on earth. When the construction was done, he had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the temple, where it was placed under the giant carvings of cherubim in the most holy inner chamber. Afterwards, Solomon holds this big dedication ceremony that included interminable speeches and prayers. I mean, it just goes on, and on, and on with the usual requests for blessings, and yammering about how every bad thing that might happen is because of curses for turning away from God, and verbally stroking God’s… ego. The whole thing culminates, we are told, with the sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep in the temple courtyard over the course of a week. I suspect the decimal point got misplaced a little there, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to speculate on how many places.

Immediately after all of this, God appears to Solomon personally (so add Solomon to the people who’ve seen God in person in spite of claims elsewhere in the Bible that nobody ever has) to tell him how pleased he is that Solomon built him a temple. Of course, the encounter is laden with the usual stuff about how as long as Solomon keeps worshiping Yahweh and no other gods, then Israel will prosper and Solomon’s line will rule forever. But if he ever starts worshipping other gods, then God will fuck him up something fierce along with Israel.

It bears repeating: God appeared to Solomon in person and told him that bad shit would happen to him and to Israel if he ever starts chasing after other gods. Got it? Because…

Later in life, that’s exactly what Solomon does. Because of his foreign wives, of course.

Before the Bible gets to that, it spends some time raving about how incredibly wise and rich and famous Solomon was, and how every king in all the world sought him out for his wisdom and sent him lavish gifts. But by the time we get to the last years of his life we find Solomon with 700 wives and 300 concubines, many of whom are from people that Israelites are forbidden to marry. And of course, Solomon starts serving the various gods of his various wives, and having temples built for them.

So just to summarize. The Bible claims that Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived in all of history (which is questionable to begin with just on the basis of having a thousand wives and concubines). Further, that he was given this wisdom for the express purpose of governing Israel properly. It further claims that God visited Solomon and personally warned him not to muck around with foreign gods or it would result in the destruction of his kingdom. So, in theory, Solomon has actual evidence of his god’s existence, explicit instructions from that god about an action that will destroy Israel, and the explicit mental faculties to avoid taking that action. But he does it anyway. That’s not even remotely credible.


All the supernatural aspects here are bullshit, Solomon actually had no reason to believe Yahweh is any more or less real than Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, or Molech (the gods he’s accused of building temples to), and all of it was just added to the story after the fact to explain why the nation fell apart (for purely human political reasons that the Bible describes in detail and then attributes to God anyway) in a way that let the writers reinforce a religious dogma.

But anyway, back to the Bible story. God has an interesting way of enforcing his dictates.

1 Kings 11:9 And Yahweh was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from Yahweh, the god of Israel, who had appeared to him twice 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what Yahweh commanded. 11 Therefore Yahweh said to Solomon, ‘Since you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. 12 Yet for the sake of David your father I will not do it in your days, but I will tear it out of the hand of your son. 13 However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem that I have chosen.’”

There he goes again, punishing the son because he’s pissed at the dad. Yay, justice!

Although to be fair, the son who loses the kingdom is kind of a dick.

The Bible goes on for awhile about the politics of who plots to break up the kingdom and why (which are all initiated by human beings, though sometimes human beings claiming to speak on behalf of God). Interestingly, among these descriptions is not one instance of Solomon attempting to make up to Yahweh and/or get rid of the temples to other gods. Almost as if God’s warning never actually took place, or at least wasn’t regarded seriously. And after a reign of forty years, Solomon eventually dies and leaves the kingdom to his son Rehoboam.

Early in Rehoboam’s reign, some of the elders of Israel (led by a guy named Jeroboam, who’s been hiding out in Egypt ever since a priest named Ahijah had promised him that God would give him most of the tribes of Israel to rule after Solomon’s death) come to complain that Solomon had been too harsh and demanding a ruler, and to ask that Rehoboam take a lighter hand. Rehoboam responded that since he was a bigger man than his father (and depending on how well you trust the internet when it comes to Biblical euphemisms, may have been making a joke about penis sizes when he said it), he would be even more harsh than Solomon had been. And…

1 Kings 12:15 So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by Yahweh that he might fulfill his word, which Yahweh spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.”

Once again implying that God controls people’s actions when he feels like it.

So all the tribes of Israel except Benjamin and Judah rebel against Rehoboam and make Jeroboam their king. Rehoboam wants to make a fight of it (supposedly gathering an army of 180,000 men), but God (speaking through a “man of god” named Shemaiah) forbids the people from fighting and they go home instead.

Ironically Jeroboam, whom God supposedly picked to rule Israel to make up for Solomon’s respect to foreign gods, also can’t seem to follow God’s rules or refrain from putting up idols. Yahweh, it appears, is pretty shite when it comes to picking kings who’ll do his bidding.

Anyhow, I think we’ll call this a stopping point for now. It’s going to take some thought to cull the worthwhile stories from the mind-numbing political meanderings of the next portion of First Kings. So until then, everybody be well!