Most of the Old Testament thus far has established what is good in the eyes of God and what is not, and then explores the often disastrous repercussions for disobeying God. We have Abraham, Joseph and Moses who serve as better examples of those who follow the Lord’s rules. They are in the genesis phase, with God promising a mighty nation to Abraham. However, it is a time of oppression, and the nation of Israel can’t become a reality until they escape Egypt.
When Israel enters the promised land, we enter the era of extermination and expansion. We have Joshua, David and, in 1 Kings, Solomon, whose obedience to God we are told exists, without really being shown it exists. Joshua’s incredible violence, Solomon’s love of women who follow other gods, and David’s issues with both, blur the line that marked obedience and disobedience that was set in stone earlier on.
The book of 1 Kings starts close the end of David’s reign. One of his sons, Adonijah, declares himself king before David’s death and without David’s blessing. Because of this, Bathsheba decides to go to David and ask him to declare their son Solomon as the next king.
I need to stop here and point out that Solomon is the baby born after God killed David and Bathsheba’s first child. According to 2 Samuel, that child was killed because David saw Bathsheba, knew she was a married woman, slept with her anyway, got her pregnant and had her husband killed in battle. This caused God himself to say David acted “in utter contempt” of him. The same relationship that birthed a child cursed to die, later birthed the child who would become what the Bible calls the richest and wisest king in Israel. That same king would build the temple that finally housed the Ark. Again, a relationship that held God in contempt eventually led to building God’s temple.
This baffles me. Throughout 1 Kings, David is mentioned as a man who always followed God in every way (except for one brief aside in 1 Kings 15:5 mentioning he did have Bathsheba’s husband killed). This isn’t true. The end of 2 Samuel ends with David holding a census and God becoming furious to the point of sending a plague on Israel for three days, as just one example. But even if it was just that one act, men who did much less than David had their bloodlines punished much more harshly, if not exterminated. Achan, from the book of Joshua, who stole some plunder from Jericho and was stoned to death along with his entire family, comes to mind. David covets another man’s wife and essentially has that man murdered, breaking two of the Lord’s commandments. And while yes, David and Bathsheba’s son is killed, David himself is not upset once the child dies. He sleeps with Bathsheba the same day and conceives Solomon.
David names Solomon king over Israel. The next part plays out a lot like the end of The Godfather. David, on his deathbed, tells Solomon to kill those who were against him. David’s last words are “Bring his grey head down to the grave in blood” (1 Kings 2:9). Solomon kills Adonijah (he asked for David’s attendant as a wife); kills Joab, David’s right-hand man and best general, while he was holding on to God’s altar; and banishes Shimei (he had mocked David when he fled Jerusalem). Solomon later kills Shimei when he returns to Solomon’s territory. “The kingdom was now established in Solomon’s hands” (1 Kings 2:46).
A common theme or reasoning for violence in the Old Testament is that God “delivers the enemy into your hands.” What Solomon does not strike me as deliverance, but more as retribution and a cementing of power. The people of Israel had accepted Adonijah as king before David said otherwise, so killing Adonijah eliminated the biggest legitimate threat. Joab had fought side by side with David, doing David’s dirty work in some cases, and may have wanted power himself. And Shimei? Shimei insulted David, but David swore he would not kill him. Solomon, however, made no such promise.
As king, Solomon is known throughout the world for his wisdom. He expands Israel’s power and wealth to a level never seen before, and builds a temple for the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s success is dependent on one thing: “And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life” (1 Kings 3:14).
Perhaps it is fitting that, just like his father, Solomon’s love of women serves as his downfall. Or, his family’s downfall, as God doesn’t punish Solomon directly. Solomon has 700 wives and 300 concubines, from all different religions, and Solomon adopts their gods. This, predictably, angers God and causes God to wreak havoc on Solomon’s descendants.
Yet even breaking the first commandment, have no other gods before me, doesn’t hold the punishment it once did. Back in Exodus the Israelites worship a golden calf, and God wants to destroy the entire populace. He instead orders Moses to have the Israelites kill each other, “friend and brother,” to atone for their sin. But Solomon gets to live out his life as king, and the atonement falls on his sons.
Most of the middle chapters of 1 Kings goes through the descendants of Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials and king of Israel, and Rehoboam, one of Solomon’s sons and king of the tribe of Judah. Most kings continued “in the ways of their father” and worshiped other gods, so very few of them had long or successful reigns. They do rule, however, and no real calamity falls on them. Certainly none are stoned to death with their families.
Finally we get to Ahab, king of Israel. Ahab worshiped Baal, and enters conflict with Elijah, the last remaining prophet of God. After years of hiding for fear of execution, Elijah confronts Ahab and arranges a test of God against Baal. Elijah sets up two altars for burnt sacrifices. He asks 400 prophets of Baal to call on Baal and light the altar. They dance and pray for hours, but noting happens. Elijah then calls on God to light his altar and it erupts in flames. Elijah then states God is the one true god and executes all 400 prophets (1 Kings 18: 16-45).
With Elijah we return to the more brutal repercussions of disobeying God, in that he slaughters those who don’t believe. But 1 Kings gave me the impression that if God likes you, you can get away with things. If he has not chosen you, you can expect his full wrath. David was not the upright man he often gets portrayed as, and he does not get punished the way many others before him did. Solomon broke the first commandment nearly a thousand times over, yet still lived as a rich king, who was charged with building God’s first permanent home among his people.
The first books of the Bible set a certain standard for what is acceptable to God, and makes very clear the punishments for breaking them. Yet here we are with multiple, blatant examples of not upholding those laws without direct repercussion.
Thank you for reading,