Transitioning into First Kings

Isaak Asknaziy, Vanita vanitatum et omnia vanitas (19th Century)

Like the book of Judges, which is the most recent book I completed my work through, the narrative of First Kings is a part of what scholars call the Deuteronomic History since it views the story of Israel through the perspective of the covenantal vision of the book of Deuteronomy. First and Second Kings were initially a common book, the book of Kings, which was later divided into two books in our current divisions. The book of Kings as a whole narrates the story beginning with the reign of King Solomon, to the division of the kingdom into Judah and Israel, or the northern Kingdom of Israel, and then the recurring pattern of unfaithful rulers, with a few good rulers who attempt to reform the people, which eventually lead to the northern kingdom’s destruction by the Assyrian empire in 721 BCE and the Babylonian empire’s conquering of Judah in roughly 587 BCE. First Kings, which covers roughly half of the original combined book, begins with Solomon, narrates the secession of the northern tribes when Rehoboam fails to listen to the cries of the people and continues through the kings of Judah and Israel until the Omri dynasty in the north and the emergence of the prophet Elijah to challenge the unfaithfulness of King Ahab.

In the Jewish division of the Hebrew Scriptures the Deuteronomic History (Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings) are all grouped with the prophets. They are history viewed through a theological lens and with the intention of looking backwards to understand the situation of the people in exile. There is a tradition of associating these books with Jeremiah, and they do share a common worldview. It is a helpful process of looking backward upon the history of a people critically to attempt to bring meaning to the present crisis.

I do these reflections in a semi-random order and so I have skipped the narratives of Samuel, Saul, and David in first and second Samuel. I may at some point go back and walk through these narratives, but the time period of the kings after Solomon is also a time period I am less familiar with. The perspective of First Kings is somewhat difficult to discern. On the one hand it is a part of a collection of books that specifically deals with the dynasty of kings and understands those kings as an integral part of the story of Israel. The presence of a Davidic king in Judah maintains a symbolically important place throughout the books. At the same time the book includes several critiques of the kings, even kings that would be viewed as successful in many other respects. Solomon begins well, but eventually abandons the wisdom of God for accumulation and adopts the practices of his many wives in worshipping other gods. The assessment of individual kings is often summarized by phrases like, “He committed all the sins that his father did before him; his heart was not true to the LORD his God like the heart of his father David.” (1 Kings 15:3 referring to Abijam, son of Rehoboam, son of Solomon).

I grew up with the stories in First Kings, but I have not ever spent any sustained reflection upon this book. I would assume this is true of most Christian pastors, and more broadly most Christians. I am not sure what this journey will uncover, but I enter it with humility and interest. I do trust that there is wisdom to be found in this reflection upon this time of kings and prophets, of struggle and division, of unfaithful leaders and a God who desires a faithful people.

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