The Book of Kings
Rav Alex Israel
– Three Sources, Three Perspectives
we read the compact account of Rechavam's reign in Sefer Melakhim, we can
discern three main topics:
The idolatry of Yehudah
The invasion by Shishak, king of Egypt, in Rechavam's 5th
The copper shields
account of Rechavam's reign begins with a disturbing depiction of widespread
idolatrous practices in the kingdom of Yehuda:
did evil in the sight of God and angered Him more than their fathers had done by
the sins that they committed. They too
built bamot, pillars and asherim on every high hill and under
every leafy tree; there were also sacred prostitution (kadesh) in the
land. Yehuda imitated all the abhorrent practices of the nations that God had
dispossessed before the Israelites. (14:22-24)
is wide-ranging list of problematic practices which bear a strong connection to
pagan and idolatrous rituals:
of these elements are mentioned together in the Torah. The pillars and
asherim are associated with a ritual altar in Parashat
not plant an ashera, any tree, next to the altar of the Lord your God
that you make, and do not erect a pillar, for such the Lord your God detests.
are two options in evaluating these practices. The first approach perceives them
in a neutral light, as religious media widespread in the ancient world, but not
as an intrinsically evil.
The context in Devarim indicates that the ashera – the religious
tree - would be planted adjacent to the "altar of the Lord your God." In other
words, it is found in the environment of appropriate God worship.
tree that is planted at the entrance to a house of worship is given the
appellation of an "ashera," possibly because it acts as a marker for that
site. (Ramban, Devarim 16:21)
Rashi reminds us that the avot built matzevot to God.
Rashi's comment in Devarim informs us of the vicissitudes of the practice
of the matzeva:
such the Lord your God detests: a stone pillar upon which to sacrifice, even to
Heaven … God detests it, for it has become a practice of the Canaanites, and
even though it was beloved to God in the era of the patriarchs, now God
hates it due to the fact that [the Canaanites] have turned it into an idolatrous
practice. (Rashi, Devarim 16:22)
the other hand, one can view these practices as unmitigated idolatry. After all,
the upshot of Rashi is that in the landscape of Canaan, the practices of
building matzevot had become thoroughly idolatrous. Indeed, the Ashera is
frequently associated with the pagan deity Ba’al.
Whereas the Ba’al constituted the male aspect of the rain god, the Ashera tree
functioned as its female counterpart. The rain (Ba’al) fertilizes the earth and
gives fruit to the tree (Ashera); this fertility rite was enacted in the pagan
temples in the form of the kadesh and kedesha,
a ritual sexual act that was supposed to enact the union of the gods.
According to this second perspective, the
composite image of altars, ashera, pillars, and kadesh amounts to
a terrible descent into idolatrous norms. The depiction of these idolatrous
artifacts "on every high hill and under every leafy tree" raises a direct
connection to the categorical instruction of Devarim 12:2-3 to destroy
and eradicate sites of avoda zara worship in the land. In that chapter, the choice of a single
site for the Temple is contrasted with the heinous impropriety of Canaan's pagan
culture and its multiplicity of sacred sites. The recurrence of this phrase here
in Melakhim underscores the severity of the abrogation and its antithesis
to the Mikdash.
this context, we should reread the introductory line that articulates the
spiritual designation of Jerusalem: "Rechavam was 41 years old when he became
king and he reigned 17 years in Jerusalem, the city the Lord had chosen out
of all the tribes of Israel to establish His name there" (14:21). This verse
takes on a fresh meaning
as it reminds us that Yerushalayim is "the place that God has chosen" in which
to establish His name. On the backdrop of all this idolatry, this passuk
makes a statement about the extreme shortfall that lies between the current
state and Jerusalem's prescribed destiny.
this backdrop, we read of Shishak's attack on Jerusalem and his plunder of the
royal buildings and the Temple treasury. We would not be remiss in drawing a
connection between the idolatry of Yehuda and the invasion. Although this
connection is never explicitly established by Sefer Melakhim, the context
certainly implies the linkage. We will discuss this further in our comparison
to Divrei Ha-Yamim.
focus on the taking of the golden shields and their copper replacements needs
some explanation. Why is so much attention devoted to this seemingly minor
shields are described as "all the golden shields which Shlomo made" (14:26),
making specific reference to Shlomo Ha-Melekh. We have read about them in
chapter 10 (vv. 16-17) in the account of the hefty influx of gold-tax that would
flow into the royal treasury annually. This income is spent on a selection of
indulgences, namely an elaborate throne, drinking cups of gold, and these
decorative shields. Interestingly, Chazal read the phrase, "He took it
ALL" (14:26) as denoting Shlomo’s elaborate throne. In other words, these
shields represent the splendor and wealth of the Solomonic era. Shishak is
depicted as absolutely stripping the kingdom of the accumulated grandeur of
contradistinction between these two sections could not be more pronounced. The
strident confidence and the indulgence and opulence of Shlomo's majestic period
finds itself shattered a mere five years after his death, with all of Shlomo's
signature fanciful works carted off to Egypt! One even senses a mockery of sorts
as we read how there are not enough shields to go around. They are taken out for
parades, but then quickly hung on the walls of the guardhouse. Whether this was
done as an act of protection or as a means to display the shields,
the contrast with the magnificent golden shields confidently adorning Shlomo's
grand "House of the Lebanon Forest" is surely deliberate, intending to
underscore the disparity between the luxury of Shlomo and the pathetic imitation
attempted by Rechavam.
account of Rechavam in Sefer Melakhim is relatively straightforward. The
narrative in Divrei Ha-Yamim (II ch.11-12), however, is filled with new
details and provides a dramatically different impression. Let us attempt to
summarize the structure of the account of Rechavam as it appears in Divrei
– Fortification projects on the southern and eastern borders of
– Rechavam's first three years – following God. The Kohanim and Levi'im abandon
the Northern kingdom and move to the kingdom of Yehuda.
– Rechavam's extensive marriages
- Rechavam abandons God
- Shishak's invasion
- Rebuke of the prophet, Rechavam's remorse, and the
- Shishak's plunder – the shields of Shlomo
- Rechavam's summary
disparities between the accounts are significant:
The building projects of Rechavam that are recorded in Divrei Ha-Yamim
are absent from Sefer Melakhim.
The extensive description of 18 wives, 60 concubines, and expansive food stores
are not mentioned in Melakhim.
The entire drama of Rechavam's "strength" and "abandonment of Torah," as well as
the reproach of the navi and Rechavam’s resultant submission, are
featured ONLY in Divrei Ha-Yamim.
In Melakhim, the invasion of Shishak and the episode of the "shields" is
perceived as a calamity. In Divrei Ha-Yamim, it is depicted as a reprieve
(see Divrei Ha-Yamim II 12:12)
Divrei Ha-Yamim suggests an explicit linkage between Rechavam's
abandonment of Torat Hashem (12:1) and the advance of Shishak
The interaction with the navi Shema'aya is absent from Sefer
might we resolve the discrepancies between the two accounts? One method would be
to see the two texts as absolutely complementary, each filling in the lacunae of
the other. Indeed, that may be true. Yet, there is certainly a very different
texture to each account, and we wish to probe the moral of the story, the
essence or central lesson, in each book. Maybe we can explain the differences in
the following manner:
sin that occupies Sefer Melakhim
is idolatry. There, we read a detailing of the bamot,
ashera and kadesh. The resultant damage or punishment effects ONLY
Jerusalem and is directed to the Mikdash and the royal treasury.
the sin is dramatically different. There, the sin is one of excessive
pride, over-confidence or self-reliance, as Rechavam becomes accustomed to
the monarchy (after year 3.) The extensive building of Rechavam testifies to a
monarch who has extensive resources at his disposal. Moreover, the 18 wives and
60 concubines are reminiscent of Rechavam's father Shlomo. Rechavam is depicted
in Divrei Ha-Yamim as a second Shlomo, who is filled with
"strength," or more accurately, arrogant pride. It would appear that his defense
fortifications are part of a mindset that is absolutely self-reliant rather than
allowing for reliance upon the Divine. To that end, Rechavam is cautioned by the
navi. In the end, Rechavam demonstrates humility by exhibiting submission
before God, thus avoiding the absolute destruction of Jerusalem. But his
fortifications prove helpless against Shishak's extensive
we understand why Divrei Ha-Yamim explains the size and composition of
Shishak's forces and why the fortified cities of Divrei Ha-Yamim are less
relevant to the idolatry of Yehuda.
scope of the account in Sefer Melakhim is limited solely to the city of
Jerusalem, "the city the Lord had chosen out of all the tribes of Israel to
establish His name there." It is regarding the violation of the single site of
worship that Melakhim describes the sin, and it is upon the Temple and
royal treasury that the punishment is delivered.
topic becomes even more complicated when we introduce a third source. On the
southern wall of the impressive temple of Amon in Karnak, Egypt is an
inscription about the military conquests of King Shishak, a Pharaoh of Libyan
origin who married into the 21st dynasty of Egypt. He ruled between
935-914 BCE. The inscription describes a heavy military blow to tens of cities
both in the Southern and Northern kingdoms of Israel.
does Shishak attack Israel? Internal evidence in Sefer Melakhim leads us
to presume that Shishak has had his eye on Yehuda and Jerusalem for some time.
After all, Shishak harbored the renegade Yerovam (11:40). We may draw upon the
parallel experiences of David, who was hosted by the Philistine king, Achish
when he fled from Shaul. Achish’s hospitality towards the outlaw David was
merely one piece of a more comprehensive strategy to weaken Shaul's kingdom.
Far from seeing Achish as a benevolent host to David, we should realize that
when the right moment arrived, Achish attacked Israel, killing Shaul. Shishak's hospitality works in a similar
manner. Yerovam's extended stay in Egypt gives us a window into Shishak's true
intentions of attacking Yehuda as soon as Shlomo has left the
a sense, this should reframe the close ties between Shlomo and Pharaoh, that
were emphasized so heavily throughout the chapters of Shlomo. Did the
relationship sour, or was the closeness between Egypt and Israel in Shlomo's
time merely a ploy by Pharaoh to retain some manner of control, be it in the
form of an alliance? Whatever the case, with the breakup of the kingdom into two
sections, Shishak seizes the opportunity and rampages through the Southern and
the Northern kingdoms.
have been puzzled as to why Shishak would attack his friend Yerovam! If Shishak
sheltered Yerovam during his years of exile, why did he attack the cities of the
Northern Israelite kingdom? Professor Yehuda Elitzur
has an interesting theory in this context. He suggests that Shishak actually
anticipated that Yerovam would ally with him in his attack of Yehuda! The plan
was orchestrated as a joint military campaign. However, Rechavam (on prophetic
advice) resisted avenging Yerovam's rebellion, and acquiesced to the split of
his kingdom (see 12:22-24). After Rachavam's lack of hostility, Yerovam could
hardly muster popular support for an attack on Yehuda! He had no reason or
motive to attack; he was ironically beholden to Rechavam for his kingdom. And
hence, Prof Elitzur suggests that Yerovam let Shishak down, abandoning their
collective plan to decimate Yehuda. Yerovam refused to go to war against Yehuda.
As a response, Shishak unleashed his fury against Yehuda, but failed to strike a
knockout blow to the Southern kingdom. He harmed them but did not destroy them.
His real fury was channeled against Yerovam's kingdom who betrayed him
backtracking on previous plans.
this explains some of the politics. But it leaves us with further problems. Why
doesn’t this widespread attack feature in either account? We only hear of
Shishak attacking Jerusalem? Why does the Tanakh not even mention the attack to
depiction in Sefer Melakhim is a-historical, as if it deliberately omits
the great military events and puts the entire emphasis upon the Beit
Ha-Mikdash. The most reasonable explanation to solve this problem is that
the purpose of the transmission of the story is not to report historical events,
however important they may be, but to teach religious lessons. (Prof. Avraham
would appear that the Tanakh understands historical events within the
context of its conception of reward and punishment. Shishak's attack on
Yerushalayim is described because it punishes the nation for its idolatry and
has a distinct prophetic history. Shishak's attack on Israel is not mentioned.
Why? Yerovam also experienced a prophecy of destruction, that "God
smite Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water"
(14:15), but that time is not now. Yerovam's royal house will be brought down at
a later point in history by the hands of King Baasha, and the Ten Tribes will be
exiled many years hence. Shishak's trail of destruction is ignored because it
fails to fulfill any explicit prophecy.
omission underscores the role of Sefer Melakhim as a book of prophecy with its
own distinct agenda. It is not a history book, but a book with a focused
educational and prophetic message.
SPLIT OF THE KINGDOM
being said, there is no doubt that politically and strategically, the split of
the kingdom critically weakened the nation. The split kingdom failed to deter or
defend itself against Shishak. As we will read in chapters 15-16, the Northern
Kingdom never succeeds in gaining momentum. Both North and South are plagued by
idolatry. As we read in 14:30, the infighting within the nation is a feature of
this era, and neither North nor South make much progress until that tension is
resolved. We can say quite assuredly that the split of the kingdom was a huge
blow for both sides. We will never know whether Yerovam and Rechavam could have
cooperated or allied themselves under different conditions, yet this difficult
historical period represents a significant low point.