Bible: The clash of king and covenant

Jan 13, 2020 by

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The eighth chapter of 1 Kings may capture the ­moment in the Old Testament where the two great cov­enants — Davidic and Mosaic — come together with the most harmony. Solomon, David’s successor as Israel’s king, leads the dedication of the new temple meant to provide a central location for Israel’s religious life.

Ted Grimsrud

Grimsrud

We are told of God’s commitment to David’s descendants that they will remain on “the throne of Israel” should they continue to “walk before” God (8:25). Then we read an extensive litany based on the law of Moses, praying for forgiveness and vindication when the people turn to God in repentance and trust.

Kingship and faithfulness to the law seem possible; Solomon expresses a commitment to keep the commandments central to Israel’s common life. The temple will be the heartbeat of this effort to remain faithful in the promised land that the Lord had provided for the people.

If we read 1 Kings 1-11, the story of the establishment and fate of Solomon’s reign as Israel’s king, in light of the statement in Deut. 17:14-20 that outlines God’s expectations of the kings, we see the profound tension of living under both the power of a king and a set of commands that strictly limited the king’s power.

The tension comes sharply to the surface in the career of Solomon, Israel’s third king. We may see it by comparing the tone at the beginning of the story of Solomon in power (we are told of Solomon that “he loved the Lord” [3:3]) with the tone near the end (“King Solomon loved many foreign women” [11:1]).

As it turns out, Solomon also seems to have loved gathering gold and silver (“Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches,” 10:23) and to have loved gathering horses and chariots (10:26).

The story almost systematically describes Solomon violating the commands of Deuteronomy concerning wealth and militarism. At the center of Solo­mon’s violations we may see the command concerning marriage: “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17). In defiance of this command, 1 Kings 11 tells us that Solomon “clung to [his foreign wives] in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned away his heart” (1 Kings 11:3).

Clearly, building the temple as a center for Israel’s religious life did not ensure that Solomon would remain faithful to the ways of Torah. Probably the core point that Deuteronomy 17 made was how central the written Torah was to be for the king.

The message of 1 Kings 8 is that Torah and the temple indeed go together. The covenant of David centered on kingship; the covenant of Moses centered on Torah. Deuteronomy 17 envisions them closely entwined.

In the actual events that follow almost immediately after the dedication of the temple, though, we read of the king living in opposition to Torah. And, of course, negative consequences follow. Solomon and his successor, his son Rehoboam, oppress the people in expanding their wealth and power. The people resist, and before Rehoboam’s reign ended, Israel had split in two (1 Kings 12).

Even Solomon, seen in the biblical tradition as a great king, could not combine exercising power with faithfully following Torah. Before long, prophets arise in both the northern and southern kingdoms calling Israel and Judah back to the ways of Torah. With precious few exceptions, the kings follow Solomon’s example and disregard Torah.

What then do we make of the relationship between the prophetic faith and our central political and religious institutions? What are the best lessons we may take from the story of Solomon, the temple and the dictates of Torah in ancient Israel?

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harris­onburg, Va.


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