Friday, July 20
First Kings 10: The realm of Sheba, or Saba as the place is called in ancient Assyrian documents, was situated at the extreme southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the area now known as Yemen. From those same Assyrian texts, as well as from inscriptions found at Sheba’s capital city, Mâreb, we know a thing or two about the history of the place during the first millennium before Christ.
First, we know that Sheba flourished most of that time as a major mercantile link between the Far East and the southern Mediterranean, and a glance at a map of the area quickly explains why this should be the case. Sitting on both sides of the corner formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Sheba dominated the narrow Straits of Bab el Mandeb by which these two waters are joined. This meant that Sheba could effectively control the traffic coming down from those twin horns formed at the north of the Red Sea by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.
Likewise, through the Gulf of Aden, Sheba was open to shipping on the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and places beyond. Thus, with respect to sea travel Sheba was the tangent point of two great mercantile spheres.
Some of the business, in fact, stood nearby. Immediately to the north of Sheba was Ophir, probably to be identified with Havila, a region celebrated for its gold (e.g., see Genesis 2:11; Job 22:24; 28:16). Over to the west lay Ethiopia, or Cush, a kingdom sufficiently imposing to control Egypt for some periods, and, from the south, there extended the horn of Somalia. As Asia’s vital southern link with Africa, then, Sheba was in a position to gain, hold, and control great wealth.
Second, we also know the names of five of the queens of Sheba. As all of these lived in the eighth and seventh centuries, however, none of them can be identified with that Queen of Sheba who came to visit Solomon in the mid-tenth century before Christ. A pity, in truth, for some of us would dearly like to know the lady’s name.
Doubtless her appearance in Solomon’s court was related to the latter’s recent entrance into the powerful circles of international commerce. Through his extensive dealings with the Phoenicians, whose ships docked in harbors on all three continents bordering the Mediterranean basin, Solomon’s port at Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba became an important link in a new mercantile chain that now stretched from Ceylon in the southeast to Gibraltar in the northwest. The queen’s arrival at his court, then, was clear evidence that Solomon had become a “player” on the big scene.
The event surely signified more, however. After all, Solomon was still far from being the queen’s equal in the world of international commerce. Indeed, his recently gained status in this respect depended entirely on his hegemony over the land of Edom, which contained the port of Elath, for this was Solomon’s sole connection with the Gulf of Aqaba. If royal visitations, therefore, depended on “rank” among the international powers, we would expect Solomon to be visiting the Queen of Sheba rather than vice versa.
Holy Scripture is clear that this was not the case. We are told that the Queen of Sheba, who could have handled her commercial relationship with Solomon through the usual business channels, was prompted solely by a desire to see for herself whether this new king was as wise and discerning as his reputation proclaimed. Nor was the lady disappointed at what she saw: “I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard” (1 Kings 10:7).
In the Gospels of Matthew (12:42) and Luke (11:31) this royal Gentile, “the Queen of the South,” becomes a type of the true seeker and believer. In both places she is contrasted with the Lord’s enemies, the unbelievers who refuse to recognize that “a greater than Solomon is here.” Accordingly, Sheba’s magnificent lady is made a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (10:8–9).
Saturday, July 21
First Kings 11: Up to this point in the narrative, there have been no signs that Solomon was less than a perfect king. Indeed, without the present chapter, nothing prepares the reader for the tragedies that befell the realm after Solomon’s death.
The demise of Solomon is told here in a sensible and comprehensible sequence: the spiritual compromise attendant on Solomon’s choice (and number!) of wives (verses 1-8), the resurgence of regional rivalries in the kingdom (verses 9-13), the rebellion of Hadad the Edomite (verses 14-22), the emergence of trouble in Syria and Hobab (verses 23-25), and the insurrection of Jeroboam the Ephraemite (verses 26-40). The chapter closes with Solomon’s death in 922 (verses 41-43).
First, the description of Solomon’s huge harem is of a piece with the other signs of his prosperity, which was the subject of the previous chapter. The problem with these pagan wives, according to the author of Kings, was Solomon’s disposition to give way to their religious preference; when these ladies moved to Jerusalem, they brought their own pagan “chaplains” with them, and pagan shrines made their appearance in the capital. That is to say, Solomon’s indulgence of his wives led him into idolatry.
We find a different concern in Sirach (47:21) and Josephus (Antiquities 8.7.5), who ascribe Solomon’s weakness for women to his physical lust as an expression of his spiritual arrogance.
Second, the Lord rejects Solomon, in much the same terms as He used in the rejection of Saul. Faithful to the covenant with David, the Lord qualifies this rejection in two ways: The kingdom will not be split until after Solomon’s death, and a remnant of two tribes will be left to the sons of David.
Third, Hadad of Edom, rather like a terrorist raised in a refugee camp, chafes to return from exile in Egypt in order to free the Edomites from the political dominance. Like Solomon himself, he is married into the Egyptian royal family. After the death of Solomon, the Edomites will seize their independence from the Kingdom of Judah.
Fourth, a new ruler arises in Syria, named Rezon. During Solomon’s time he is hardly more than local marauder, but his dynasty will, in due course, become a serious political problem for the Chosen People.
Fifth, toward the end of Solomon’s reign, Shishak the founder of the twenty-second dynasty in Egypt, provides sanctuary for an Ephraemite rebel named Jeroboam. He will return to Israel, after Solomon’s death, to seize the rule over Israel’s northern tribes.
Fifth, Solomon’s death is a good occasion for reflecting on the “mixed bag” that was his life and reign. To many Israelites at the time—especially in the north—he must have seemed like another pharaoh, of the sort Moses had to deal with. There is no doubt—in the minds of the biblical authors—that Solomon was to blame for the political and social upheavals that followed his passing.
Sunday, July 22
First Kings 12: Rehoboam was almost the perfect example of what the Bible means by the word “fool.” Because he was the son of Solomon, Israel’s wisest king, furthermore, this foolishness was a matter of irony as well as tragedy.
After Solomon’s death in 922, this heir to Israel’s throne traveled to Schechem, to receive the nation’s endorsement as its new ruler. The move was especially necessary with respect to Israel’s northern tribes, a people touchy about their traditional rights and needing to be handled gently. Even David, we recall, had to be made king twice, first over Judah about the year 1000 (2 Samuel 2:4,10) and then over the north some years later (5:4-5).
Those northern tribes, for their part, seemed willing to be ruled by Rehoboam, but they craved assurance that the new king would respect their ancient traditions and customs. Truth be told, they had not been entirely happy with Rehoboam’s father, Solomon, and they sought from his son a simple pledge that their grievances would be taken seriously in the future (1 Kings 12:1-4). A great deal depended on Rehoboam’s answer.
The new king apparently took the matter seriously, because he sought counsel on what to say. He began by consulting the seniors of the royal court, the very men who had for forty years provided guidance for his father. These were the elder statesmen of the realm, those qualified to give the most prudent political counsel.
Significantly, these older men urged Rehoboam in the direction of caution and moderation with respect to the northern tribes: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever” (12:7).
Rehoboam, nonetheless, eschewing the instruction of his elders, followed the impulses of his younger companions, who encouraged him to stand tough and not let himself be pushed around. Indeed, they urged Rehoboam to be insulting and provocative to the petitioners (12:8-11). Pursuing this foolish counsel, then, he immediately lost the larger part of his kingdom (12:12-16).
As I suggested above, there is great irony here, for it may be said that one of the major practical purposes of the Book of Proverbs, traditionally ascribed to Solomon, was to prevent and preclude exactly the mistake made by Solomon’s son. According to Proverbs, the fool is the man who ignores the counsel of the old and follows the impulses of untried youth.
Many a life has been ruined—and in this case a kingdom lost—because someone preferred the pooled stupidity of his contemporaries to the accumulated wisdom of his elders. Those whose counsel Rehoboam spurned, after all, were not just any old men. They were the very ancients who had provided guidance to Israel’s most sagacious monarch.
Rehoboam’s reign of seventeen years knew its ups and downs—the downs dominant. Five years after the story narrated above, Pharaoh Shishak, founder of Egypt’s twenty-second dynasty, invaded the Holy Land and took pretty much whatever attracted his eye: “In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. He took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house. He took away everything. He also took away all the shields of gold that Solomon had made” (14:26).
The Sacred Text goes on to remark, “King Rehoboam made in their place shields of bronze” (14:27). By setting bronze shields in the Temple to replace the golden shields of Solomon, Rehoboam enacted a truly wretched symbolism. Some of the ancients (Daniel, Hesiod, Ovid) spoke of an historical decline from a golden age to a silver age, and thence to a bronze age. No one disputes, of course, that Solomon’s was a golden age (10:14-29). However, the reign of Rehoboam, his heir, was not just a declension to silver, but all the way to bronze. The plunge, when it came, came at once, in a single generation.
Rehoboam remained, Josephus tells us, “a proud and foolish man” (Antiquities 8.10.4). He never recovered from the singular folly of his first political decision. After Shishak’s invasion, this thin, pathetic shadow of his father and grandfather reigned under a humiliating Egyptian suzerainty for a dozen more years. Like every fool, he had a heart problem. The final word about Rehoboam asserts, “he did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chronicles 12:14).
Monday, July 23
First Kings 13: The appearance of this unnamed prophet and the subsequent testing of his message introduce the expanded ministry of the prophets during the period of the kings. We think of this period as that of the kings, whereas it is just as valid to think of it as a period of enhanced prophecy. In the cases of Elijah and Elisha, at least, the prophets easily outshine the kings. This comment points to a curious problem of biblical historiography: how to divide it into distinct periods.
A common way of dividing Old Testament history is to enter it around the era of the monarchy. For example, Matthew traced the genealogy of Jesus according to three distinct periods: pre-monarchical (1:2–6), monarchical (1:7–11), and post-monarchical (1:12–16). Thus, wrote Matthew, there were “all the generations from Abraham to David . . . from David to the captivity in Babylon . . . and from the captivity in Babylon to the Christ” (1:17).
Needless to say, the division of history by recourse to political periods is a common pattern of historiography. Historians of Rome, for instance, have always parceled the material by reference to the Republic and the Empire, and the emperors themselves serve as signposts to identify the various periods of the Empire.
When we come to biblical history, nonetheless, this kind of division presents a methodological difficulty, for the simple reason that Israel’s political history is less significant than other theological concerns. The
Bible is more about God’s activity than man’s.
This narrative difficulty was perceived already in the second century before Christ, I believe, for we detect it in Sirach’s survey of Israel’s “famous men.” When he came to the transition from the age of the judges to the monarchy, Sirach was faced with a bit of a problem: How to get from Samuel to David without having to deal with Saul? He certainly could not include Saul among his “famous men”!
Sirach got around this problem by resorting to a curious maneuver: Instead of tracing the continuous history from the judges to the monarchy, he tracked it through the prophetic ministry: He angled over from Samuel to the Bible’s next prophet—Nathan.
That step from Samuel to Nathan was perfectly consistent and provided a seamless robe of narrative in which Sirach could tie together two periods of Israel’s political history—the judges and the monarchy—without the category of politics. Moving from Samuel to Nathan (47:1) permitted Sirach to sidestep deftly from the judges to Israel’s second king: David. Having omitted Saul altogether, he then proceeded to consign most of the other kings (Solomon excepted, of whom, I mentioned, he was critical) to the realm of silence.
Thus, Sirach concentrated on the prophets, not the kings, during the period of the monarchy. The two kings he felt obliged to include—Hezekiah and Josiah—were combined with two prophets with whom they were contemporary, Isaiah (48:17–25) and Jeremiah (49:1–7) respectively.
It is not difficult to see why Sirach approached the matter this way. Most of the biblical kings hardly merited inclusion among his “famous men,” whereas the biblical prophets most certainly did. He was not writing a history of Israel but a sequential account of Israel’s “famous men.”
Without referring to Sirach on the point, Saint Augustine also believed Israel’s monarchical period was really more about the prophets than the kings. That whole era (hoc itaque tempus), he wrote, from Samuel down through the Babylonian Captivity, is “the age of the prophets”—totum tempus est prophetarum. Other men, to be sure, “both before and after” that period, are called prophets, but the years between
Samuel and the Babylonian Captivity “are especially and chiefly called the days of the prophets”—dies prophetarum praecipue maximeque hi dicti sunt (The City of God 17.1).
In our translated Bibles, we tend still to divide the material by way of reference to Israel’s political systems: We move from the era of the judges to the establishment of the monarchy in Samuel, and then to the history of the monarchy. In the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, all the books from Joshua through Malachi—covering nearly a thousand years—are under one category: “The Prophets,” or Nevi’im.
We detect that earlier perspective also in passing references within the New Testament. Thus, the Epistle to the Hebrews mentioned “Samuel and the prophets” to designate the biblical history after David (11:32). St. Peter, too, spoke of “all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow” (Acts 3:24).
In the chapters that follow the present one, we will find a greater interest in certain prophetic ministries than in the generally lackluster men who sat on the thrones of the two kingdoms.
Tuesday, July 24
First Kings 14: The similarities between Samuel and Ahijah are truly striking. Both of them prophets from Shiloh, both were likewise appointed to designate new kings for Israel: Saul in the case of Samuel, Jeroboam in the case of Ahijah. Both of those kings, each of whom reigned roughly twenty years, proved to be failures. Finally, toward the end of their reigns, the same two prophets, both of them now quite old, were once again commissioned to announce the downfalls of the aforesaid kings and the impending changes of dynasty. Thus, Samuel prophesied the rise of David (1 Samuel 13:14), and Ahijah foretold the coming of Baasha (1 Kings 14:14).
Although the story of Samuel, because of its greater length and the richer detail in its telling, is doubtless the better known of the two, the account of Ahijah is no less dramatic and every bit as memorable.
Ahijah first appears on the biblical scene late in the reign of Solomon. By way of preparing for his appearance, Holy Scripture tells of the evils attendant on Solomon’s rule (11:1–9) and the external political enemies who rise to challenge his kingdom (11:14–25). It is at this point that the Bible introduces young Jeroboam, whom Solomon has appointed as overseer for the northern tribes. As Jeroboam leaves Jerusalem to undertake his new responsibilities, he is met by the Prophet Ahijah, who abruptly proceeds to tear his clothing into twelve parts. Having thereby gained his total attention, Ahijah explains to the young man that these twelve torn fragments represent Israel’s twelve tribes, and he goes on to prophesy that Jeroboam will govern ten of those tribes, leaving only two tribes for the dynasty of David (11:26–39). All of this prophecy is fulfilled in the events that immediately follow the death of Solomon (11:30—12:16).
We do not again hear of Ahijah for a long time, nor does the Bible give us reason to suppose that Jeroboam further consulted the prophet for advice in the governance of the realm. Unlike David, whose reign benefited from the prophetic counsel of Nathan, Jeroboam puts all thought of God behind him (14:9). On one occasion when he is accosted by an anonymous prophet from Judah, Jeroboam asks for the man’s prayers but pays no heed to his prophetic warning (13:1–9). Furthermore, if Jeroboam had conferred with the Prophet Ahijah, whom God sent to him in the first place, he likely would not have erected those two golden calves at Bethel and Dan, thereby doubling the ancient infidelity of Aaron. (Compare 12:28 with Exodus 32:4, 8).
No, Jeroboam does not place himself under the judgment and discipline of the prophetic word. He is one of those men who want God on their side, without taking care to be on God’s side. Craving the divine aid without the divine ordinance, Jeroboam will not consult Ahijah again for many years.
When he does so, it is because his son is sick, and he sends his wife to the prophet in hopes of obtaining a favorable word. Jeroboam sends her, moreover, in disguise, evidently too embarrassed to let Ahijah know who it is that seeks that word. The prophet himself, by this time, has grown very old, and his sight is failing.
Foolish Jeroboam, thinking to deceive the prophetic vision! Ahijah had been able to read the signs of the times during the reign of Solomon, but Jeroboam now fancies he can deceive the old seer with such a clumsy ruse. Inwardly guided by the Almighty, Ahijah reads the situation perfectly, and the Lord himself dictates “thus and thus” what he is to say.
The awful asperity of Ahijah’s word to Jeroboam is enhanced by the ironies of the scene. At the doorway, deeply anxious for her sick child, arrives this woman clothed in a hopeless disguise. At her footfall, before one syllable escapes her lips, she is already detected by an old blind man, greeting her with a harshness hardly surpassed on any page of Holy Scripture (14:6–16), informing her, not only that the child will die, but that he will be the last in the family even to find his way to a grave. All the others will be devoured by dogs and birds. Mercy now is found no more, nor tenderness, but terrifying, unspeakable finality. God’s last word to Jeroboam, the man who “made Israel to sin,” is a kind of paradigm of damnation itself: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire.” Ahijah speaks for the God who reads hearts and is not mocked.
Wednesday, July 25
First Kings 15: Asa (913–873 BC) was Judah’s initial “reform” king, in this respect a forerunner to Hezekiah and Josiah. He was the first of those very few kings of whom it was said that he “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did his father David” (1 Kings 15:11).
When Asa came to the throne as David’s fourth successor, the realm was not doing very well. During the reign of Asa’s grandfather, Rehoboam, Judah’s financial state had been greatly weakened by incessant war with the Northern Kingdom (15:6) and by an invasion from Egypt (14:25–26). Hardly better was the nation’s spiritual state, for idolatry and gross immorality were rife (14:22–23). Rehoboam was followed on the throne by Asa’s father, Abijah, but the latter, too, “walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him” (15:3).
These problems seem not to have daunted the young Asa, who cleaned up Judah’s idolatry and immorality with such dispatch and efficiency that 1 Kings can account for the work in a single verse (15:12).
Although the longer description of Asa’s reign in 1 Chronicles 14—16 describes in greater detail some of the more serious problems he encountered, there is reason to believe that Asa’s greatest single headache came from his . . . grandmother!
Had Asa’s accession to the throne followed traditional policy on the point, this grandmother, known to history as Maachah the Younger, would have retired to spend her remaining days rocking and knitting in some quiet corner of the palace, occasionally stopping to dandle a grandchild or take some cookies from the oven. Her role as queen mother, or gebirah, would have been assumed by Asa’s own mother.
As it happened, however, the old lady did not step down, and evidently, on the day that Asa took the throne, no one in the realm was sufficiently powerful to make her step down, not even the new king.
Maachah doubtless enjoyed occupying what was a very powerful position in ancient courts. Since royal sons were hardly disposed to decline reasonable requests from their mothers (cf. 1 Kings 2:17), it was no small advantage for other members of the court to cultivate the favor of the gebirah. Her special place in the realm is further indicated by the fact that the Books of Kings normally list the names of the mothers of the kings of Judah.
The case of Maachah demonstrates that an especially shrewd gebirah, were she also unscrupulous, might manage to maintain her position at court even after the death of her son. A woman so powerful, after all, was able to put quite a number of people in her debt over the years, influential and well-placed individuals on whom she might rely later on to keep her in power. The Bible’s truly singular example of this was Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, who actually usurped the realm itself during the years 842–837 BC (2 Kings 11).
Maachah herself never went so far, but she did manage to hold on to her privileged position at court after the accession of Asa (1 Kings 15:10). She had been around for quite a while and was well acquainted with the ways of power. Named for her grandmother, Maacah the Elder, a Geshurite princess married to David (2 Samuel 3:3), this younger Maachah was a daughter of Absalom. She was still a child during the three years that she spent with her father in his exile in Geshur (2 Samuel 13:38). Doubtless it was there that she first learned the ways of idolatry.
For Maachah was most certainly an idolatress. Raised in the easygoing atmosphere of her Uncle Solomon’s court after the death of her own father, she further learned the lessons of idolatry along with the habits of political power. Given in marriage to her cousin Rehoboam, who would eventually succeed Solomon on the throne, Maachah knew that someday, when her son Abijah became king, she would become the gebirah. She longed for the day.
That day, when it came, did not last very long, for Abijah reigned only three years. No matter, for the determined Maachah somehow found the means to stay in power for a while longer. Except for her idolatry, Asa might have left her in place for good. But the king, as his position grew stronger, was in a reforming mood, and Maachah stood in the way of his reforms. “You know, Granny,” he finally said to her one day, “it’s about time for you to take up knitting” (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Chronicles 15:16).
Thursday, July 26
First Kings 16: The Northern Kingdom, protected by no divine covenant, quickly becomes the possession of whoever gains sufficient political advantage. In this chapter we are introduced to several northern kings, including Elah (886-885), Zimri (one week in 885), and Omri (885-874, with a co-regency with Ahab from 881). The entire period of these kings is contemporary with the reign of just one king in the south, Asa (911-870, with co-regency with Jehoshaphat from 873).
Also introduced is King Ahab, about whom we will learn a good deal in the next few chapters. His reign in the north (874-853) is roughly contemporary with that of King Jehoshaphat in the south (873 to 848, with co-regency with Jehoram from 853). A study of the reign of Jehoshaphat provides useful insight into the wider political, social, and religious developments of this period.
Although the Prophet Eliezer leveled a half-verse of criticism against Jehoshaphat near the end of the king’s life (2 Chronicles 20:37), the Bible is, on the whole, rather positive in its assessment of that king of Judah. An earlier historian of the period summed it up: “And [Jehoshaphat] walked in all the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (1 Kings 22:43).
Still, it is instructive to examine some unforeseen results of certain practical choices made by Jehoshaphat during the course of his admittedly virtuous life, because those unintended consequences bear witness to the human condition of sinful helplessness, our native inability to accomplish the good we will (cf. Romans 7:15–19). However pure his intentions, it is a fact that some terrible things came to pass by reason of Jehoshaphat’s political decisions. Indeed, they nearly led to the downfall of the house of David.
When he took his place on the throne of Judah in 873, Jehoshaphat resolved that there would be no more fighting with the kingdom of Israel. As much as anyone, he was sick of the strife that had ravaged the Promised Land for half a century, ever since the division of the region into two kingdoms at the death of Solomon in 922. The reign of Jehoshaphat’s own father, Asa, had been particularly bellicose. “Now there was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel all their days,” wrote that same historian of the period (1 Kings 15:16, 32).
Naturally, so much warfare exacted a heavy toll from Judah, in loss of life, disruption of families, devastated crops, impaired commerce, and swollen taxation, leading to a general weakening of the economy and the social order. None of this fighting, furthermore, had accomplished much. Since the only sane reason for a nation to wage a war is to decide something, hardly any national experience is so disheartening as an indecisive war, and Judah, by this time, was very disheartened.
The ensuing damage to the social edifice was even more severe in the kingdom of Israel, or at least we may infer so from its greater political disquiet. Israel, in addition to fighting with Judah, had been afflicted with civil unrest and dynastic strife. Whereas Jehoshaphat was Judah’s fourth king after Solomon, Israel had had as many dynasties during that same period (15:25—16:23)! Surely Israel, too, might appreciate some relief from conflict.
Two other recent political changes likewise hinted that the time for peacemaking had arrived. First, barely four years before Jehoshaphat became king of Judah, Israel had crowned a new king whose name was Ahab. This new man, Jehoshaphat could see, was chiefly interested in making money by commercial ties with Phoenicia. Indeed, Ahab had married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel and had served as a mercantile partner of his father-in-law, Ethbaal of Sidon. Ahab would have no interest in continuing the old fight with Judah.
Second, a much larger menace now loomed darkly in the east, where the shadowy Assyrian began to feel the movement of his might. Before long the warring Shalmaneser III (859–824 BC) would start his march to the Great Sea, and if the little nations lying along the path of that trampling march, like Israel and Judah, were to meet his threat, they had better resolve their smaller problems.
Sizing up the entire geopolitical situation, therefore, “Jehoshaphat made peace with the king of Israel” (22:44). In fact, Jehoshaphat went a very significant step further to seal that peace by arranging the marriage of his own son Jehoram, the crown prince, to Princess Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. The two crown houses thus became, as it were, a single family, so that Jehoshaphat could say to Ahab, some years later, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses” (22:4).
Hardly could Jehoshaphat have known to what bad consequences his best intentions would lead. Within three years both his son and his son’s son would be dead, and Athaliah, now queen in her own right, would nearly destroy the house of David (2 Kings 11:1). In fact, until the fall of Jerusalem nearly three centuries later, Judah never saw a darker hour. And all this from one good man’s untimely decisions! Such is the power of evil in man’s fallen history.
Friday, July 27
First Kings 17: Although the “institution” of the northern throne, unlike the Davidic throne, is blessed by no covenant, God does not forsake His people in the north. As we see throughout these chapters, He continues to bless them through the non-institutional ministry of the prophets, several of whom are anonymously mentioned in the story of the Northern Kingdom. Of those who are named, special attention is given to Elijah, Micaiah, and Elisha. In First Kings, the dominant prophetic person is Elijah the Tishbite, who is introduced in the present chapter.
These next three chapters are united around the theme of the drought that took place during the reign of Ahab. It was invoked by the Prophet Elijah as a divine punishment against the infidelity of the Northern Kingdom, chiefly through its compromising alliance with the Phoenicians and their god, Baal.
We observe that Elijah, rather like John the Baptist in the Gospel accounts, receives no adequate introduction in the narrative. We find him shouting as soon as he appears. Elijah appreciates the irony of this punitive drought; the people have forsaken the Lord and given themselves over to this Phoenician-Canaanite divinity, Baal, who is a rain god. Now, as a result of this new adherence, the rain suddenly stops for three and a half years. And Baal is powerless to do anything about it! The ensuing famine also hits Phoenicia (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 8.13.2).
When the crisis of the drought is resolved, at last, it will be resolved in a very dramatic way. It will not simply start raining again. It will start raining only after Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a sensational “rain match” in chapter 18. When Elijah is on he scene, there is never a boring moment.
Meanwhile, for the next forty-two months, everybody suffers the drought, including Elijah himself, who finds a bit of water in small Wadi Cherith and is fed daily by two ravens that bring him meat and bread. We have here a clear parallel with the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert during the time of Moses. Elijah is certainly aware of this parallel. His mental association with Moses is so sharply a feature of his identity that we will find him, in just a few chapters, standing before the Lord on the very mountain where Moses received the Torah.
When the wadi dries up, Elijah must seek other arrangements. As he travels in search of sustenance, he comes to the village of Zarephath, on the Phoenician coast, south of Sidon. Here he meets a widow—clearly a pagan —with a son, whose resources have been reduced to their meal. Elijah requests the gift of that meal, and the compassionate widow gives it to him. From that instant on, the woman and her son are miraculously provided with food until the end of the drought. Here there is a parallel with the earlier experience of Elijah himself, who was daily fed by the ravens.
When the widow’s son dies, Elijah’s prayer brings about his resuscitation. Jesus, in his first sermon in Luke’s Gospel, refers to this woman (cf. Luke 4:25-26). There is also a parallel with the widow who gave her last bit of resources to the Lord in the Gospel story (cf. Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).