Esther

Esther

The book of Esther is a microcosm of a common theme in the Old Testament: something evil done by others is instead just when done by the Israelites.

Esther, ironically, is not the main character in Esther. She is an orphan, first described to us as having “a lovely figure” and being “beautiful” (Esther 2:7). Her beauty gets her called to King Xerxes of Persia’s palace, where he had all “beautiful young virgins” in his realm assembled to replace his former queen, Vashti. Vashti refused to enter a room when Xerxes called her and was banished, leading Xerxes to decree that “all the women will respect their husbands, from the least to the greatest” (Esther 1:20). A sentiment the Israelites can rally around, even if spoken by a foreign king.

Esther becomes the new queen, where she enters into an intermediary role between the two real players in this book: Mordecai and Haman. The former is Esther’s cousin, who raised her when her parents died. The latter is a noble in Xerxes court who wants to destroy the Jewish population in Persia.

Haman asks Xerxes to let him set a day on which every Jew will be killed and their goods plundered. Xerxes agrees, the date is set and the word spreads. Mordecai tears his clothes in mourning, covering himself with a sackcloth and ashes. Esther sends a messenger to find out what was troubling Mordecai and why. Mordecai sends a copy of the edict to kill the Jews back to Esther and asks her to help. Haman, meanwhile, begins plotting Mordecai’s murder (Esther 4).

Before moving further, I want to reflect on Esther’s role. Esther, like nearly all women in the Old Testament, is to do as she’s told. She is, for all intents and purposes, Mordecai’s mouthpiece to speak to Xerxes with. Esther hides the fact that she is a Jew from Xerxes “as Mordecai had told her to do” (Esther 2:20). In fairness, Esther provides the link Mordecai needs to get his plan to Xerxes, but she rejects this plan at first, claiming Xerxes will kill her if she approaches him without being summoned. Esther is able to convince Xerxes to reverse his previous order and save the Jews of Persia in the end, but only by relaying Mordecai’s wishes and with Xerxes’ permission. It’s a far cry from Moses saving the Jews with plagues and ultimatums.

Perhaps being a gateway to Xerxes is the role Esther was meant to play, and no more. But even that strikes me as odd. She became queen because of her beauty. Does this imply that God made her beautiful, so that she could become queen? Does God make people ugly? David was lauded as being handsome, as was Solomon, so is beauty synonymous with ruling in the Old Testament? Why then can’t a beautiful woman be a queen who rules on her own? Save for a few female prophets, the ultimate role of a woman is to bear children and, as a bonus, be beautiful.

Now to the crux of the story: Xerxes reversing the order he gave to Haman to kill all Jews on a specific day. When Esther reveals the plot and pleads with Xerxes to intervene, he responds “‘Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?’ Esther said, ‘An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!'” (Esther 7:5-6). Xerxes orders Haman’s execution by impaling. He then signs a new edict that allowed the Jews “to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies” (Esther 7:11).

The first interesting thing regarding Xerxes’ pivot is that Xerxes himself gave Haman permission to purge the Jews. “‘Keep the money,’ the king said to Haman, ‘and do with the people as you please'” (Esther 3:11). The second is that instead of simply canceling the original order, Xerxes reverses it so that the Jews can kill their enemies on the day originally slated for their enemies to kill them. And the Jews do indeed kill their enemies. “The Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them” (Esther 9:5). By sundown, the Jews “killed seventy-five thousand of them but did not lay their hands on the plunder” (Esther 9:16). By the book’s end, the Jews are safe and Mordecai has risen to Xerxes’ second in command.

There’s a certain irony in an “evil plan” designed to bring bloodshed to the Jews in Persia becoming a slaughter of 75,000 non-Jews, later celebrated in Jewish culture as Purim. A Jewish army killing tens of thousands is nothing new in the Old Testament, but this story differs from most previous stories in that there was no opposing army, simply “enemies” who also lived in Persia. And 75,000 killed in a single day is horrific even by Biblical standards.

A kill-or-be-killed mentality permeates all of the Old Testament, and it justifies the Israelites’ destruction of any threat. That mindset, coupled with the idea that God approves of the destruction of any “others” (or even disobedient Jews), is perfectly summarized in Esther. To ordain a day to kill as many Jews as possible is evil, but to use that same day to kill as many of the Jews’ enemies is just.

Thank you for reading,

AR

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Nehemiah

Nehemiah

Nehemiah serves as a cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia, and when he learns that Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Neh. 1:3) Nehemiah weeps and prays to God to help him return to Jerusalem and redeem the Israelites. He starts the prayer, “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments” (Neh. 1:5). It struck me anew that the Old Testament God does not give love freely. He loves those only who love him. It is a conditional love, for we have seen God’s anger against those that disobey him. I’m starting to drift toward the conclusion that God, Old Testament God anyway, requires loyalty an obedience over all else. His love for his people is secondary, and conditional on obedience.

Artaxerxes sends Nehemiah to Jerusalem so that he may rebuild it, and Nehemiah does so with the help of the Israelite tribes. The other nations nearby despised this action, however, and saw it as rebellion against their king. They threatened to kill those who were building. This threat again places the Israelites in a weakened position, a dangerous place which only God can deliver them from. Again, I find that the ebb and flow of love and anger coincides with the amount of power the Israelites have. When they are weak they call out to God and God delivers them because they need him, but when they gain strength they turn away and God rejects them. In this instance they are weak, so God will help them. “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work” (Neh. 4:15). God is credited with frustrating the attacks, even though Nehemiah sets up guards and patrols.

Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem’s walls, serves as its governor for 12 years and returns Jews sold into slavery to exiles back to Jerusalem. Because of his leadership and restoration of the Jewish people, enemies believe Nehemiah is “about to become their king and ha[s] even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’” (Neh. 6:6-7). Nehemiah denies that he is a king, and that is true. But I can’t really blame the neighboring groups too much. The Israelites originally came and slaughtered nearly everyone who used to occupy the land around Jerusalem. Their armies terrified the population that they didn’t kill. Plainly, the Israelites were ruthless invaders. To fear them and believe a king had come to retake the land seems reasonable. Nehemiah, again, does not do this. But the fear is justified. 

After Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem, he gathers the people and repopulates the city. They meet in a main square and Ezra reads the Book of Law to them. The people weep. I am reminded again that most of the population could not read, and would listen to their leaders. This reminder helps me understand how a population can seemingly switch entire religions or beliefs so quickly, as they do in Kings for example. If your king says something, and says it’s from God, then you believe it. Leaders then had huge amounts of power over the minds of their followers and citizens. In many ways, if the population doesn’t educate themselves, leaders still do.

After nearly two days of hearing the Book of Law, the people collectively repent their sins and pledge themselves, or perhaps more fittingly re-pledge themselves, to the laws of Moses. “All these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord” (Neh. 10:29).

So we find ourselves back in a familiar place. The Israelites have been delivered from a place of weakness due to a strong leader who credits God over all else. The people have repented from their previous wicked ways. And, this is as consistent as anything else in the Old Testament, anyone who is not from the original tribes will be outcast and despised.

On that day the Book of Moses was read aloud in the hearing of the people and there it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them. (Our God, however, turned the curse into a blessing.) When the people heard this law, they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent. (Neh. 13:1-3)

Us versus them. Separation. Truly, if you are not descended from Abraham, the Old Testament God wants nothing to do with you. In fact, he probably wants to kill you. It flies in the face of so much of New Testament teachings of Jesus that I’m struggling to reconcile them being part of the same religious canon. This rejection of all foreigners is what still makes Ruth my favorite book so far. Ruth shows what I believe is the ideals of God’s love, as opposed to most of the Old Testament describing the grisly realities of it.

Thank you for reading,

AR

 

 

 

Ezra

Ezra

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Solomon’s temple. King Cyrus allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, even giving them the plunder that was originally stolen. Back in Jerusalem, work on the temple begins almost immediately, but former enemies of Israel and Judah work to stop construction.

Eventually, for a time, construction does stop, but begins again in earnest once King Darius decrees “Do not interfere with the work on this temple of God. Let the governor of the Jews and the Jewish elders rebuild this house of God on its site” (Ezra 6:7).

There is not universal joy at the rebuilding, however. The older generation, who had seen the original temple, weep at the site of the new foundation. The younger generation, raised in captivity, cry out for joy. When the new temple is completed the whole population celebrates, but this original sadness harkens back to the message of Chronicles and Kings. The root of yearning for mercy from God after being taken captive, coming from a knowledge of how strong the relationship between God and the Israelites was, most likely caused this weeping at the new temple foundation. A sadness that comes from replacing something divine with something lesser.

A warped version of replacing the divine with pagan ends the book of Ezra. The men of Israel married foreign wives and had children with them, going against the will of God. Because of this, Ezra calls on all men of Israel with a foreign wife to expel them from his home, along with any children they have. They must not anger God. “Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?” (Ezra 9:14).

First, any “detestable practices” had been done by previous generations of Israelites under previous kings. And we’ve seen time and time again some truly horrible things done in the name of God. Second, why expel the families? Why not bring them into the Israelite fold? That has certainly happened before. Why break up more families so soon after returning to a homeland?

Regardless, any mixed families are exiled at the end of the book and the Israelites can presumably continue rebuilding their city, culture and population.

Thank you for reading,

AR

2 Chronicles

2 Chronicles

The book of 2 Chronicles mirrors that of 2 Kings, just as the first respective books did. But because Chronicles was written when the Israelites were in captivity, the following passage stuck out to me far more than it did in 2 Kings.

When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to a land far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captivity and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you. 2 Chronicles 6:36-39

From the perspective of a people who actually are captive in a foreign land, recounting time after time a king disobeyed God and ultimately led to the sacking of Jerusalem, this passage is especially moving. Through all the reigns of kings, both good and bad, the people of Israel always had their land and the promise from God that they would keep it. Now, however, they’ve been taken captive by the Babylonians and this passage struck me as a people pleading for help but knowing they may have used all of God’s forgiveness. In short, they don’t know if they’ll ever return home, and this book tells how they lost their way, almost as a warning.

Throughout 2 Chronicles we learn of kings who either obey God and prosper, or disobey God and suffer tragedies, losses in battle and civil uprisings. Some kings do both. Kings follow Baal and build altars to other gods, bringing God’s wrath upon them, and their rules end in ruin. Their son or successor then destroys the altars and returns to serving God, and they prosper until they die or follow idols again. And the cycle begins anew.

We also see the kingdoms of Judah and Israel battle each other in addition to fighting other bordering nations. These battles follow the same pattern, where a king in Judah is doing God’s work by “humbling” Israel and its arrogant king, or vice versa. These battles seem especially egregious because Judah is one of the 12 tribes of Israel. There are a few instances of commanders breaking sieges or not pursuing routing armies because the “enemy” is their own people.

That’s not to say these kings didn’t do horrible things to their populace. The switch from worshiping other gods to worshiping Jehovah wasn’t always smooth. For example, when King Asa converts “they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul. All who would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, were to be put to death,whether small or great, man or woman” (2 Chron. 15 12-13). From the perspective of a common person, it seems exceedingly harsh to kill all those who don’t convert, though it does fit with the precedent set. But if Baal-worship was the norm, then it switched, and on top of that you knew that the same switch had happened two or three times before in previous generations, what do you do as a common person? There’s the argument that, according to the books of Moses, the people should be taught the earlier books of the Bible and their fate is in their own hands at that point. Yet God usually aided each king gain the throne only to see them turn away from him, and then lead the people to another religion. In short, why kill your own people?

That question stems from the larger question: Why does God keep helping these kings? Many of them follow in the footsteps of Solomon, obeying God, and in some cases having direct contact with a prophet or angel, until their reign is comfortable and then they turn to Baal or an idol. One king asks God for a victory, an angel of God descends and destroys an army with fire in front of the king’s eyes, and he still turns away years later. So what’s the point? The given answer is that God is keeping his promise to David and allowing his descendants to rule. But towards the end, I don’t know if I was more baffled at the kings turning away or God bringing a new king back.

One passage that I found very interesting occurs late in the book. Necho, king of Egypt, marches up near Judah to fight an enemy. King Josiah marches to meet him, though the Egyptians aren’t coming to fight Judah.

But Necho sent messengers to him, saying, “What quarrel is there, king of Judah, between you and me? It is not you I am attacking at this time, but the house with which I am at war. God has told me to hurry; so stop opposing God, who is with me, or he will destroy you.”

This ultimatum is almost a verbatim example of what kings of Judah and Israel would tell their enemies before battle. But in this case, it’s an Egyptian king giving the ultimatum to Josiah. The kicker is that Josiah ignores him, disguises himself, rides into battle and dies. Necho was right, at least by Biblical standards. Necho’s god destroyed Josiah. Or is the God of Israel with Egypt this one time? It’s a strange antithesis to everything else in the Bible so far regarding the Israelite god and battle.

Finally, at the end of 2 Chronicles, the Babylonians attack. Maybe God finally had enough of his chosen people turning away from him and their day or reckoning had come. God “brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar” (2 Chron. 36:17).

Israel is humbled and taken captive. Jerusalem is sacked. If Solomon’s rule served as the high point of Israel’s power, this certainly is the low. Israel and its people are once again strangers in a strange land, praying toward the land of their ancestors.

Thank you for reading,

AR

1 Chronicles

1 Chronicles

The book of 1 Chronicles reviews Biblical genealogy going all the way back to Adam, and most of the events of the kings of Israel. So while there wasn’t any new stories exactly, there were some added insights, and also discrepancies, to stories I had read previously.

Something I missed in the first reading of David’s rise to power was presented plainly in 1 Chronicles 15:1 – “After David had constructed buildings for himself in the City of David, he prepared a place for the ark of God and pitched a tent for it.” In my first read I didn’t realize so much time passed between David conquering Jerusalem and preparing a place for God. Building a palace for himself fits with the general idea of David thinking about himself over all others, and David himself realizes when it is done that he lives “in a palace of cedar” while God still lives in a tent. God does tell David he can’t build a temple because of the blood David has spilled, thereby paving the way for Solomon. So the argument could be made that David would establish the kingdom for God’s people, with Solomon building God’s temple. That said, there isn’t a reference of David choosing to build a temple first and God saying no. I did find it ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, could not build a temple because of too much bloodshed. This is the only time bloodshed has been a hindrance.

So, Solomon is charged with building God’s temple. As a promise to David, God says of Solomon, I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever” (1 Chron. 17:13-14). Solomon’s reign, while prosperous, decays because he worships other gods and spirals to the point of Nebuchadnezzar sacking Jerusalem many generations later. I understand the relationship between obedience and prosperity in the Old Testament, but it’s a promise that isn’t kept.

The name “Satan” makes, I believe, its first appearance in 1 Chronicles 21. Satan “rises up” and forces David to order a census (the census that God was angry at and asked David to choose the punishment for in 2 Samuel 24). The “serpent” is referenced in Genesis, but I think this is the first time Satan has been called Satan. Does this have to do with Chronicles being written almost 70 years after Kings? Perhaps. I’m curious what role, if any, Babylonian captivity played in the differences between the two sets of books. I’m also curious if Satan will become more prevalent as I keep reading. Baal, idols and other gods have seemed to be the enemy thus far much more than Satan.

Because 1 Chronicles re-tells stories from previous books, there were a few times I noticed some differences in the account. In 1 Chronicles 28:6, David says God told him Solomon would be the son who reigns after David’s death. If we go back to 2 Kings chapter 1, Nathan the prophet tells Bathsheba to convince David to name Solomon king. Nathan does this after another of David’s sons, Adonijah, declares himself heir to the throne. David then names Solomon king, referencing an oath he made to Bathsheba in front of God to anoint Solomon. A small difference, probably from the books being written by different people at different times, but it made me go back to check.

The second is 1 Chronicles 29:24, regarding Solomon as king, which says “All the officers and warriors, as well as all of King David’s sons, pledged their submission to King Solomon.” Again, this doesn’t match the account given in 1 Kings chapter 2, which details Solomon having both Adonijah and David’s top general, Joab, killed. To say all the officers and David’s sons pledged submission when a son and the best general David had did not, made me pause a second time.

Are these glaring discrepancies? No. Two people, 70 years apart, with Israel on opposite ends of the power spectrum … it makes sense that some things would be different, or forgotten. It isn’t so much a change of story as it is a change in the details of the story. Still, I found myself reading this book carefully, flipping back to check if the events were written about the same way. I’m sure I’ll read 2 Chronicles similarly.

Thank you for reading,

AR

2 Kings

2 Kings

Why does God care so much if people worship him? If God loves his creation, why does he punish some for no reason other than the disbelief of another? If he can forgive a man like David, why does he choose not to forgive others? These three questions sprung up as I read the first chapter of 2 Kings.

A king named Ahaziah injures himself in a fall. He sends messengers to consult prophets of another god to see if he will recover. God then tells his prophet Elijah to stop the messengers and say “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” (2 Kings 1:3-4).

God’s reaction tells me three things. First, he knows what people on earth are doing. Second, he knows why people do what they do. And third, he has no interest in trying to win Ahaziah back, or show mercy. God immediately condemns him to death for chasing after another god. 

The messengers relay Elijah’s message, and Ahaziah sends a company of 51 men to ask Elijah to come back with them to speak with Ahaziah personally.

Elijah answered the captain, “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then fire fell from heaven and consumed the captain and his men.

At this the king sent to Elijah another captain with his fifty men. The captain said to him, “Man of God, this is what the king says, ‘Come down at once!’”

“If I am a man of God,” Elijah replied, “may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” Then the fire of God fell from heaven and consumed him and his fifty men. (2 Kings 1:10-12)

A man of God proves he speaks for an all-knowing and loving god by burning 102 people? What point is God trying to make here? I can understand punishing a man for his own sins. But when that punishment gets passed to a man’s family, or others that just work for him, I don’t understand the purpose.

Finally, after a third company comes to Elijah and begs for mercy, Elijah meets Ahaziah. He told the king, ‘This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this, you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’ So he died, according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken” (2 Kings 1:16-17). 

Frankly, I don’t understand this reaction by God to this slight against him. Why take time to condemn Ahaziah when Solomon built temple after temple to other gods? Why burn two envoys that asked Elijah to return to the king at all? Because they didn’t beg for mercy? Was Ahaziah being too arrogant by not believing the first messengers and asking to see Elijah himself? It doesn’t make sense.

Later on, Elijah gives way to Elisha, who continues in Elijah’s footsteps as the vessel through whom God speaks. The message continues to be mixed. For example, in 2 Kings chapter 2, Elisha calls on God to purify a contaminated stream so that the villagers who drink from it won’t get sick. In the very next story, Elisha summons two bears to maul 42 young boys because the boys called him names. It’s a strange swing, but seems consistent with the general temperament of God: help can be given to those who ask, but retribution will be swift and brutal for those who defy.

The book goes on to chronicle miracles performed by Elisha that mirror those done by Jesus. Elisha raises people from the dead, heals leprosy, and feeds hundreds of people with very little food. These parallels strengthen the idea that the Old Testament serves in part as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ arrival. Jesus fulfilled many prophecies from the Old Testament, so this seems to be the beginning of those similarities.

Most of the rest of 2 Kings follows a pattern of a king failing to follow god by acting “in the ways of his father.” Generally those actions included serving other gods and building temples to them. There are a few exceptions to this pattern, but I want to focus on one: Jehu.

Jehu is a king who completely destroys those who worship Baal by hosting a fake sacrifice and inviting all followers of Baal in Israel, then sending soldiers in to kill the worshipers. The plan is as ruthless as it is effective and Baal-worship stops during Jehu’s reign. Ironically, however, Jehu worships both God and golden calves, as opposed to God and Baal. Regardless, God is happy to see the Baal-worshipers gone.

The Lord said to Jehu, ‘Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation'” (2 Kings 10:30). According to this passage the massacre of hundreds of people is right in the eyes of God, so long as those killed do not worship him. Each passing book reinforces the idea that God is vengeful and has little mercy for those who do not obey him. Note that Jehu’s family will be allowed to reign for only four generations. This is because of the aforementioned worship of calves. It’s a strange trade, in that clearly God holds a hard-line view of those who do not worship him. Again, he deems it right to massacre all those who worship Baal. Yet God tolerates the worship of golden idols because of Jehu’s actions against the Baal-worshipers.

One last passage that stuck out to me is 2 Kings 14:6 –

Yet he did not put the children of the assassins to death, in accordance with what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses where the Lord commanded: “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

The reference to the Law of Moses is Deuteronomy 24:16, but we’ve seen God himself break that law many times over. In the beginning of 2 Kings we see 102 men burned alive for the sin of their king. Returning again to David and Bathsheba, the baby son was killed for David’s sin. Many families have been struck down by God for the sins of one person, and many more have been slaughtered by those obeying God’s commands as Israel expanded. In fact, rewarding future generations for obedience, and likewise punishing future generations for sin, serves as a running them throughout most of the Old Testament. The argument could be made that the laws do not apply to God, and I have no real counter to that argument, but that passage stuck out to me in the midst of a book devoted in large part to fathers sealing the fate of their sons with their own actions.

The book ends with Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar invading Israel and sacking Jerusalem. He ransacks the treasury, destroys the Temple and enslaves some of the populace. The combination of 1 Kings and 2 Kings essentially shows the rise and fall of Israel as an empire. A nation that thrived or failed, seemingly, on God’s whim.

Thank you for reading,

AR

1 Kings

1 Kings

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,

AR