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!


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