The bible and kings

I can remember the Sunday School stories we heard about Solomon. He was king over Israel after David and in our stories he was reported to be a very wise man. He solved a dispute between two mothers over a child. When both mothers claimed that the child was theirs, he threatened to cut the child in half. The mother of the child relented in honor of the thought revealing the other woman to not be the true mother. I never questioned the story, wondering what kind of terrible person would agree to cutting a child in half. The “false” mother in the story must have been strange indeed.

What they didn’t teach in my Sunday School classes was the brutal nature of Solomon’s consolidation of hie reign. Solomon becomes the successor to David in no small part through the manipulations and conniving of his mother Bathsheba. And once he becomes king, he rules with an iron fist. 1 Kings 2 reports that he arranges to have his brother Adonijah put to death to remove him as a threat to his authority. He also informed the priest Abiathar that he deserved to die, but instead of killing him, Solomon banishes the priest to Anathoth.

To really understand the dynamics of kingship in Israel, it is a good idea to go back to the beginnings of monarchy in that nation. When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. But his sons did not rule fairly. Then the elders of Israel came to Samuel and asked him to appoint a king for them. Samuel prayed to God and God said, “Don’t worry, the people aren’t rejecting you, they’re rejecting me. Rejecting God is never a good idea. It is idolatry pure and simple. So God instructs Samuel to warn the people of the dangers of having a king. Samuel tells the people:

“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

The people don’t listen, God relents, and they get the monarchy. (1 Samuel 8) It is not a pretty picture and the story is presented in the historical books of the bible as a cautionary tale of the dangers of monarchy and the problems of people who celebrate human leaders instead of turning their attention to God.

Back to Solomon and that banished priest. The priest does go to Anathoth and we don’t hear from him or from Anathoth for more than three centuries. We begin to read the story of the prophet Jeremiah. His book begins, “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. Hmm . . . Anathoth, Anathoth, where have I heard that name before? Ah yes! The prophet Jeremiah is a descendent of the very priest banned by Solomon. And if you read the book of Jeremiah, you will discover that the very presence of the monarchy in Israel is named as the reason for its fall. Israel loses its wealth, its might and its position among the nations because of immoral behavior, corrupt kings and people who forgot that God, not human rulers, is in charge of the world. Jeremiah is the Bible’s leading critic of the rule of Solomon.

The problem is that many people, like my Sunday School curriculum writers, read only some of the verses of the bible. Presenting stories of Solomon out of context can lead to a completely opposite understanding of the role of the kings in Biblical literature. Kings, even those anointed by the servants and priests of God, are the expressions of Israel’s lack of faith in God, not Israel’s faithfulness. Solomon, even though he was wise and rich and powerful, led the people astray from the mercy, justice and love to which they had been called by God. The eventual result was defeat and exile. The central story of Hebrew Biblical history is not the rise of the kings, but the exile of the people. If you don’t read the whole story, you can’t get the whole picture.

Unfortunately our time is marked by many preachers who seem to be hung up on their select few verses and who never get around to telling the big picture story. This is due, in no small part, to Christian religious traditions that do not insist on educated clergy. Appointing teachers of the bible who themselves have not engaged in serious disciplined study of the texts is a dangerous proposition. If you mistake what someone says the bible means for what it really means, you can get a false picture. Just because someone is quoting the bible to you does not mean that he or she is being faithful to biblical teachings.

One of the reasons that the Bible is so critical to our people is that it teaches lessons that we seem to need to learn over and over and over again.

My advice to Sunday School teachers and all who seek to know the truth is to reject the notion of just telling a few stores. If you want to teach about Solomon, read all of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings before you begin your lesson plan.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!