Unfortunately for Rehoboam, he does not get off to a very good start. We were told in the last chapter that this would happen because of Solomon’s polytheism (or perhaps merely his tolerance of his wives’ faiths), but here we see that Rehoboam’s actions might well have led to the fall of the united monarchy without any divine help.

In the beginning of the chapter, Rehoboam heads to Shechem for his coronation. This is a strong indication that the issues that have plagued the monarchy since its very beginning with Saul have never really gone away. After all, Jerusalem is both the religious and political capital of the monarchy, so why wouldn’t Rehoboam be crowned there? Unless he was, and then needed to a separate coronation in the north, showing us that the two regions had been maintaining their separate identities – never a good sign for a nation that wishes to be united.

Looking at the narrative so far, we see that the north originally formed the monarchy under Saul, possibly encompassing only the northern tribes until the south joined up (we see him chosen by lot in 1 Sam. 10:21, and then later elected in 1 Sam. 11:15). It could be that the monarchy was initially a northern alliance, which the south joined up for defense against the Philistines. Later, of course, David ruled only over Judah for seven years (2 Sam. 2:4) before replacing the Benjaminite monarchy in 2 Sam. 5:3. Later, particularly in 2 Sam. 20, we see David struggling to maintain the united monarchy. Things get much worse under Solomon where he appears to be enslaving and over-taxing the northern tribes to support Jerusalem and Judah, making it clear that he saw Judah as the true nation, and the other tribes as subjects states.

But Solomon was an established king, and therefore difficult to challenge. It’s much easier to resist a newbie. So when Rehoboam comes to Shechem to be crowned, Jeroboam comes up out of Egypt to meet him there and, with the backing of “all the assembly of Israel” (1 Kgs 12:3), he presented Rehoboam with an ultimatum: Either ease up from the way Solomon has been treating the northern tribes, or the north will no longer serve the Judahite king.

Despite the claim in 1 Kgs 9:22 that Israelites were not counted among the forced labourers, but were instead given the cushier jobs, it seems here that the situation was quite a bit worse. In fact, even Rehoboam soon admits that Solomon used a whip against the Israelites, which is not something I imagine would be done to overseers so much as by overseers.

It seems notable that the word used for Solomon’s treatment of the Israelites is “yoke,” which, as my New Bible Commentary points out, is “used elsewhere concerning the subjugation of a foreign nation” (p.337).

Rehoboam takes up the shovel

Rehoboam isn’t sure what to do, so he asks for three days to think it over. In a story that sounds like it’s straight out of a Boomer’s “kids these days” article, he first approaches the old men, who tell him to acquiesce now and get to keep his nation. All well and good, but then he goes to the young men who advice him instead to tell the Israelites that “my little finger is thicker than my father’s loins” (1 Kgs 12:10), and that as hard as they found it under Solomon, Rehoboam will only make it harder. Rehoboam, of course, chooses to listen to his buddies.

Rehoboam, wall painting from the Basel Town Hall Council Chamber, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530

Rehoboam, wall painting from the Basel Town Hall Council Chamber, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1530

The story is hilarious and awful, but it also rings extremely true. How often have politicians bought their own propaganda and behaved in such atrocious ways? The story also serves to show us that, even though Rehoboam was doomed to see his nation splinter because of his father’s actions, it’s not like he was an innocent party. He’s certainly not Bathsheba’s first son.

The Israelites, of course, are unimpressed. They ask: “What portion have we in David?” (1 Kgs 12:16), the phrasing nearly identical to that used in the last great division in 2 Sam. 20:1, clearly reinforcing that the united monarchy was the abnormality, not the divided one. So all of Israel abandoned Rehoboam, save for the cities in Judah – though the phrasing seems to be indicating that the individuals who remained loyal to Rehoboam were not all Judahites. It seems that there had some migration outside of traditional tribal boundaries, and that perhaps the people from other tribes who were living in Judahite cities chose to remain there rather than migrate back north. None of this is stated explicitly, though, so I may well be reading too much into the narrative.

Rehoboam, being an overconfident jerkwad, decides to send in Adoram as his mediator. It’s hard to imagine that this was anything other than a deliberate insult from a man who still believed that he was too powerful to be challenged, since Adoram is his overseer of forced labour (likely the same as Adoniram, mentioned in 1 Kgs 4:6 and 1 Kgs 5:14). Predictably, the Israelites see the statement for what it is and react by stoning Adoram to death. Apparently only now realizing, yes, he really is about to lose half his nation and, yes, he is currently on the wrong side of the fledgeling border, Rehoboam flees back to Jerusalem.

The narrator tells us that “Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (1 Kgs 12:19). Yet despite the use of the word “rebellion,” I’m not feeling much resentment toward Israel. Throughout, the narrative seems clear that Jeroboam was acting with God’s approval, and even under God’s guidance. Further, both Solomon and Rehoboam are described as fully deserving the loss of their united nation. So we’re left with a sort of tug-o-war between the theological idea that the nation only fails when it is deserved, and the political resentment against the rebels. It feels like this was definitely propaganda meant for an internal audience.

Aftermath

When Rehoboam reaches Jerusalem, he raises an army of 180,000 men (an obvious exaggeration) from both Judah and Benjamin – though it seems that the inclusion here of Benjamin is thought to have been an editorial insert to bring the total number of tribes up to twelve. Though in contradiction to 1 Kgs 12:20, my study Bible suggests that perhaps the tribe of Benjamin was “split in the division,” allowing Rehoboam to both remain king only over Judah (as a complete tribe) and for him to be able to raise soldiers from Benjamin, though I can’t imagine those soldiers’ feelings would have been uncomplicated.

Either way, this suppression never seems to go anywhere as Rehoboam is called back by a prophecy, delivered through Shemaiah, instructing him not to bother. Rehoboam packs it in and sends everyone home.

Back in Israel, Jeroboam quickly realizes that he won’t remain king for long if Jerusalem is still the centre of Hebrew worship. Not only is there the influence factor, where his people will be going into Jerusalem and there be exposed to anti-Jeroboam propaganda, there’s also the strong possibility that his peoples’ faith will be held hostage by Rehoboam and the priests loyal to him.

To eliminate this vulnerability, Jeroboam makes two golden calves, one in Bethel and one in Dan. He also makes temples in several high places, and appoints priests of his own – who are explicitly not Levites, as though this were a bad thing and as though we hadn’t seen the Judahites appointing non-Levite priests as well.

The golden calves are obviously important. It’s possible that the golden calf story in Exodus 32:4 was meant as an indictment of Jeroboam’s shrines. However, it’s also possible that the calves were part of a pre-existing exodus/YHWH tradition that Jeroboam was appealing to, and which later authors disparaged in Exodus 32, once that aspect of the cult had fallen out of favour. After all, the bull was also used by the Baal cult.

It may also be important to note that Jeroboam’s words here, “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kgs 12:28), are very similar to Aaron’s words, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4). The use in both of the plural “gods,” which sort of makes sense here given the two calves but is absolutely out of place in Exodus 32, suggests that the two passages are connected.

As Collins explains, “Jeroboam may have drawn a parallel with an older tradition about the exodus to led legitimacy to his revolt, but it is also possible that the celebration of the exodus became central to the cult of YHWH only at this time” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.137).

The choice of Bethel as a site is an obvious one given its cultic significance (mentioned in Genesis 28 and Genesis 35). Dan also seems to have had some religious significance, a hint of which can be found in Judges 18:29-31.

We’re told that Jeroboam initiated a special festival, likely the new year, on the 15th day of the eighth month. According to Victor Matthews, it could be that Jeroboam was “reverting to an old agrarian calendar that was followed in the north before David and Solomon centralized Israel’s worship in Jerusalem. Such a calendar would reflect the difference harvest seasons in the Levant, which varied according to the temperature ranges of specific regions” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.90).

Between this, the calves, the non-Levite priests, and the multiple shrines, it looks an awful lot like Jeroboam was reinstating the legitimacy of the folk religion – likely still practised by most of his subjects – that Solomon had attempted to turn into a politically-controlled state cult. While the only grievance specifically mentioned in this chapter is of Solomon’s use of forced labour from Israel, it may well be that the Israelites were not happy about the changes he had been making to their faith, either.

Finally, we’re told that Jeroboam build (or, rather, rebuilt, or perhaps expanded) Shechem and Penuel. Building up Shechem makes sense, as a capitol would require better defences and more infrastructure than a regular city. His reasons for construction in Penuel aren’t explained, however its location in the Transjordan offers up a few possibilities. Given its strategic location, it may have been “an attempt to keep the Transjordan areas from Rehoboam.” The New Bible Commentary also suggests that “it may have been connected with the invasion of Sheshonq (Shishak) who mentions Penuel on the inscription telling of his campaign, but there is no OT record of this” (p.337).

This last bit is an intriguing line of thought. So far, Sheshonq has been the only named Pharaoh of Egypt (1 Kgs 11:40). Combined with the connection between Jeroboam and the exodus narrative (as exemplified by the mention of the golden calves above), it could be that the memory of an exodus, or perhaps of an exodus specifically from Egypt, could have begun as a story of refugees fleeing from Sheshonq’s invasion. It seems quite plausible that this became a seminal event in the cultic worship of Israel, or that the details of fleeing from Egypt were simply grafted onto an existing migration narrative. If anyone knows a bit more about the context and how plausible this interpretation might be, I’d love some additional information!

This chapter also gives us a good hint as to why David has been so idealized in recent chapters, despite the far more complicated view of him in 2 Samuel. As Victor Matthews explains:  “Despite his attempts to consolidate power through political and religious reforms, Jeroboam still lacked one thing that his rival Rehoboam possessed. This was the sense of legitimacy that comes from multigenerational dynastic rule. Rehoboam had made mistakes, but loyalty to the Davidic line kept him in power, at least in Judah, and protected his descendants on the throne for the next three centuries. The tradition of an “everlasting covenant” with David’s house (2 Sam 7:18-29; 1 Kgs 11:34-39) grew in importance and influence over the years” (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.92).