Over the summer, we’ve been following with some interruptions the unfolding saga of ancient Israel’s political transition from devolved tribal confederation to centralized monarchy. This is primarily, a story of the contour and vicissitude of power. It’s a saga to enthrall – from murderous ambition and dynastic power struggle to domestic violence, family dysfunction, pain, and personal tragedy galore.
What interests me about this history, recorded by a group of scribes known as the Deuteronomists is its timeless relevance to the exercise of power and authority in our contemporary age. We still struggle with the push and pull between centralized and devolved government – whether in the tussle between federal and state or as we are seeing increasingly being played out – between state and municipality.
Shakespeares’ immemorial line put into the mouth of Richard IV: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown -certainly is a mantra that must have kept David awake many a night – as with increasing intensity he experienced the unfolding of Nathan’s dire prophecy of a chain of violence that would never leave him, nor his house, in peace. Yet, I’m left wondering however if this sentiment ever crossed Solomon’s mind? Coming full circle Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown is certainly a mantra that Joe Biden is no longer a stranger to. But back to Solomon.
In the second chapter of the first book of the Kings we read that David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David, having reigned an astonishing 40 years – 7 years at Hebron and then after he conquered Jerusalem a further 30.
The weakness in authoritarian regimes lies in the unpredictability of succession. As the once strong leader begins to fail, in the absence of constitutional processes governing the strict line of succession, factionalism thrives. In David’s last years, anxiety increased about who would succeed him as those who had once been the king’s fixers – his right-hand men – vied to influence the succession. The death of Absalom left his brother Adonijah next in the line of succession. But following some pretty murky machinations by Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, David passes his throne to Solomon. Before his death, David advises Solomon on how to clear the field by killing the opposition’s ringleaders. This not only clears his way to the throne, but also settles some of his father’s old scores, -the hand of retribution from beyond the grave – as it were.
Adonijah appears to accept being passed over but then gives Solomon an unexpected excuse to move against him when he manipulates Bathsheba into petitioning Solomon to give him Abishag for his wife. Abishag, you will recall, was the young woman chosen to warm the old king’s feet in his failing years. For Adonijah to claim her seems to indicate a roundabout way of asserting his rights to his father’s inheritance.
Solomon is angered by his mother allowing herself to become Adonijah’s tool to get to him. Gripped by fratricidal rage – Solomon orders Adonijah struck down and killed before moving swiftly against the opposition ringleaders. Joab, once the commander of the army, seeks sanctuary by grasping the horns of the altar.
Solomon nevertheless has Joab struck down in the heart of the Holy of Holies. He then deposes Abiathar as high priest, exiling him to his home village. Zadok, a passionate supporter of Solomon now becomes high priest, and the way is cleared for what happens next.
The Deuteronomic attitude towards Solomon is perplexing. Despite his blood strewn path to the throne, they seem to want to give Solomon a pass. On the one hand he is presented as the embodiment of humility requesting not power and riches before God, but wisdom. God throws in power and riches as part of the package and entrusts Solomon with the task of building a permanent resting place for the Lord in the Jerusalem temple.
Yet this is the same man who had a string of foreign wives, who on ascending to the throne hightails it off to Gibeon where he sacrifices 1000 burnt offering to the pagan gods of the high places. This is the man who adopts foreign ways and worships foreign gods. This is the man who taxed the people into ruin and indentured the male population in the task of temple construction. This is the great and wise king who is promised long life but only lives to 60 – the most explicit sign for the Deuteronomist of God’s ill favor. This is the great king who destroys his father’s legacy – leaving the United Kingdom of David divided into north and south after his death and because of his extravagant misrule.
Like his father before him, Solomon is a complex figure. Yet Solomon seems not to possess any of his father’s love of the Lord and willingness to acknowledge his sin. The final judgment of the Deuteronomists on Solomon is mixed, but his popular image – as the personification of wisdom in subsequent tradition – is on the balance of historical evidence – completely undeserved.
Based on the absence of hard archeological evidence, some historians of the period doubt whether Solomon ever existed. Certainly, much modern opinion is that the great Davidic kingdom as presented by the Deuteronomists was anything but great. Scholars divide over dating the Deuteronomic history – some seeing it as completed in the reign of Josiah mid 5th-century BCE. Others even later as a product of the monumental root and branch editing of the Hebrew Scriptures during the 4th-century Babylonian Exile. Yet, whenever compiled – the Deuteronomic history creates an imagined golden age against which to explain Israel’s subsequent decline and seeming abandonment by the Lord.
The value of the Deuteronomistic history lies not in its historical accuracy or veracity but in its theme of timeless truths. That the nature of power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That human society left to its own devices rests on the principle that power is there to be abused.
The history of the United Kingdom of Israel echoes in the tensions in our own time. Our society is grinding under the weight of increasingly huge disparities of wealth between the 1% and the rest. Under the pressure of unrestrained corporate greed, we turn a blind eye to the compounding of individual and national debt. Western democracies are increasingly retreating in the face of a resurgence of authoritarian-nationalisms that exploit our uncertainty and fear in a time of rapid change.
From Samuel, through David, to Solomon and beyond, we see God’s glory encased in vessels of clay. Solomon is the proverbial everyman; he is you and me. Like him, we too are creatures of our time and shaped by our culture. The continuing church scandals only too painfully reminds us that even our religious institutions – while pointing us to a reality beyond ourselves – are at the same time evidence of the all too corruptible and fallible nature of institutional life.
Like Solomon, we aspire to love God, but mostly we follow our own counsels. We long to give our full allegiance making Christian faith the unifying story around which our lives take shape, yet mostly, we march to the drumbeat of lesser stories that promise us more but deliver less.
The extraordinary thing is how we nevertheless give allegiance again and again to stories that if we did but remember last time spelled disaster. History may not exactly repeat itself but from Saigon to Kabul, South Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq – it certainly has a remarkable rhyming quality.
The legacy of the Deuteronomic History is a reminder that we live in a moral universe in which actions have consequences. Our sense of a moral universe flows out of the covenant YHWH made with Israel and which has now been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This remains the only story with the power to shape our times in the direction we truly long for. Like David and Solomon, we too are the earthen vessels with feet of clay – struggling to reflect the divine vision for creation.
The earth dries and burns. The ice melts and the seas rise. The oceans fill with our waste and rising temperatures fan hurricanes and typhoons of unprecedented scale and frequency. New viruses jump species barriers brutally exposing the fragility and injustice of our societies Our inability to put self-interest aside and collaborate in pursuit of the common good, whether domestically or on the international stage continues to obscure the reality that we are all in this together and no one is protected unless everyone is safe. Living hour by hour, day by day as the dire events of the collapse of Afghanistan unfold before us; as our politicians rush to get down and dirty in the mire of the blame game – can we not hear God calling us to be better than we currently are – and to do better than we previously have done?
Like Solomon and his people we sit on the cusp of divine judgement – for in the moral universe consequences most certainly follow actions.