Review of 1 Kings: Torn in Two by Alex Israel

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1 Kings: Torn in Two, by Alex Israel. Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013. Pp 350. $29.95 (Hardcover)

1 Kings is the second volume in the Maggid Studies in Tanakh series, and both works have proven to be clear written and insightful approaches to the portions of the Hebrew Scriptures that they address. Rabbi Alex Israel’s skillful opening of the book of 1 Kings provides the reader multiple frames to view the characters, events and historical context of this narrative which moves from the end of the reign of King David through the splitting of the nation of Israel in two and to the end of 1 Kings at the reigns of Jehoshaphat in Judah and Ahaziah in Israel. In a very easy to read style, Rabbi Israel narrates the struggle between kings and prophets, the uneasy relationship between the tribe of Judah and the tribes of Joseph, and with a sympathetic eye paints each of the kings and prophets as people caught within conflicting allegiances. 1 Kings: Torn in Two takes the theological narrative of the history of Israel in 1 Kings and tells it as a compelling story full of struggles and questions and invites the reader into a deeper engagement of the complicated story of the people of God.

1 Kings is roughly half of the original book of Kings, which we now have divided into both 1 and 2 Kings. The book of Kings looks back on the period of the First Temple and attempts to answer the question of what went wrong during this period that eventually led to the destruction of the temple and the people of both the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah being conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians respectively. It is a spiritual evaluation of the era rather than a history book and it evaluates each ruler on how they either accelerated the nation of Israel’s path to destruction or reversed the tide by returning to God. The core problem that underlies the evaluation of the leaders in the Book of Kings is the spiritual issue of idolatry. (2)

1 Kings begin with the political intrigue caused by the approaching death of King David and the struggle for power between two of his sons, Adonijah and Solomon. Rabbi Israel skillfully narrates both a political and theological reading of this story of political intrigue. Through his close reading of the movements and alliances of each son of King David we see how both attempt to grasp for power at the end of David’s reign. In a time of uncertainty both groups attempt to consolidate their grasp on their reign through various methods, and ultimately when Solomon emerges the anointed king and consolidates his power it begins a new period of the time of Israel. A time of peace and prosperity begins the age of the first temple.

King Solomon’s reign will demonstrate a pattern of competing allegiances that will continue with all the kings that will follow him. Solomon’s reign and projects will demonstrate an openness to the world beyond the borders of the nation of Israel, even the construction of the temple is designed to spread the name of God beyond the Jewish people. (86) Yet, with this outward looking policy are sown the seeds of future conflicts. From Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, as well as his other wives and concubines, to a policy of taxation to fund the building of the temple and many other houses which are all done in a time of peace and agricultural prosperity. It is a time of tension, as Rabbi Israel states it, “a tale of Solomon’s two conflicting loves—that of the Temple and that of Pharaoh’s daughter” It is an era that begins with the hope and promise of Solomon asking for wisdom to judge the people that transitions to that same wisdom being turned to become a source of revenue. The affluence of Solomon’s reign also begins to point to a spiritual decline as the accumulation of spices, wealth and building materials become more central to the narrative than the king’s ability to bring justice to the nation. Solomon’s reign of peace ends with his policies of taxation placing a huge internal strain on the already fragile bond between the tribes of Judah and the tribes of the rest of the nation and Solomon establishing a pattern of divided loyalties between the God of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem and the his building worship sites for his foreign wives and his devotion to them. The end of Solomon’s reign sets the stage for a nation torn in two in his son’s reign.

When Rehoboam ascends to the throne the seam between Judah and the other tribes unravels. By the end of Solomon’s reign the resistance to the taxation policies of the king are already beginning to meet resistance and Jeroboam emerges as one of the challengers of Solomon and later to his heir Rehoboam. Rabbi Israel paints a nuanced portrait of both Jeroboam and Rehoboam where they are both faithful and unfaithful. Jeroboam’s revolt is portrayed as an anti-elitist, people-based movement where priestly service in the two new worship sites (Dan and Bethel) is opened up to all the people. While Jeroboam’s revolt receives divine sanction his institution of new worship sites and the use of images to mediate the people’s worship comes under condemnation of the book of Kings. In Judah, Rehoboam is willing to listen to the prophets that tell him not to go to war with the rest of Israel, however he too continues in the sin of idolatry of his father Solomon. The sin of idolatry is the one defining action that drives the evaluation of each king’s reign according to the book of Kings.

The time after the kingdom unravels is a time of numerous conflicts between Judah and Israel as well as turbulence as leadership as one dynasty is replaced by another. 1 Kings: Torn in Two narrates this complex time of interlocking reigns and conflict from both a northern and southern perspective and is able to highlight both the perspective of the author of 1 Kings on this time period but also brings in a historical and inter textual perspective, utilizing in particular the book of Chronicles to provide an additional voice on this time. Particularly in the North it is a time where different royal dynasties reign for a couple generations only to be replace by another dynasty when they are overthrown.

1 Kings conclude in the time of the Omri dynasty, Kings Omri and Ahab in the north. The reign of Kings Omri and Ahab in the north is one of economic prosperity but spiritual decline. King Omri and later his son Ahab base their foreign policy on an alliance with Phoenicia. This economic and political alliance with Phoenicia also bring Ball worship deep into the life of the Northern Kingdom. Particularly when King Ahab is married to Jezebel who become an ardent missionary of the religion of Phoenicia. (221) In a time where Ahab abandons God and his kingdom flourishes there seems to be no contradiction between his personal and national fortune and his religious orientation.

It is into this time of King Ahab and Jezebel and the continued influence of the religion and policies of Phoenicia that the prophet Elijah enters the story and the conflict begins for the spiritual identity of the Northern Kingdom. Rabbi Israel highlights several important readings of this story and how it reflects on both Elijah and God. In a more traditional reading Elijah is acting as God’s agent and God seems indifferent to the epidemic and famine caused by the three years of drought, but he also lifts up the position of Rabbi Samet in which God attempts to dislodge Elijah from his refusal to end the drought, and so finally in chapter 18 God orders Elijah to explicitly end the famine. (237) Ahab is also presented in a compassionate way as drawn between competing allegiances: after the events on Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal and Ahab appears to return, briefly, to trusting the God of Israel, yet Jezebel continues to hold a strong sway over his policies and is able to threaten Elijah’s life immediately afterwards. The conflict between Elijah and Jezebel also demonstrates a conflict between two value systems: the democratic land culture of Torah and ancient Israel (where land remains in a family) and the monarchical Phoenician system where the king has the ability to take whatever the king wants. Yet even King Ahab, who has done more evil than any of the kings before him according to 1 Kings makes a sudden repentance at the end of the story and God enthusiastically accepts his repentance delaying any condemnation during his lifetime.

Rabbi Israel’s reading of the narrative of 1 Kings highlights the continuing pattern of competing allegiances that the leaders and people of Israel and Judah struggled with. His ability to tell the story in a compelling way allows the tensions of the time and the personalities of the leaders to come forward. The story points to the struggle that people live out our society between competing allegiances based on economic, political, relational and religious authorities. This is an illuminating journey into the time of the kings of Israel and Judah and resonates with themes and struggles found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and in the relationship between God and God’s people.

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