THE DESTRUCTION OF THE KINGDOM
Yisrael and Yahudah at variance (931-926)
We begin this chapter with serious apprehensions, with the feeling that we are entering on a very disturbed period. We shall witness, in fact, four centuries of tragedy which conclude with the almost complete destruction of the People of YAHWEH, and the deportation to Babylon of the 'remnant' of Yahudah. But in the very depths of misfortune there is already the promise of the rebirth of Yisrael, of an Yisrael regenerated in the crucible of fearful trials.
In 931 Solomon had just died. This ostentatious king left behind him a disturbing situation: an empty treasury, a country ruined by taxes, religion in a state of decadence, and among the mass of the people a clearly-marked spirit of revolt with some tendency to separatism.
The future was gloomy but not desperate. Rehoboam, Solomon's son and successor, could well have guided the country on a course that would save it from disaster. It remained to be seen if he were capable of performing this providential role.
A critical moment for YAHWEH's Chosen People;
Rehoboam At The Cross Roads
The problem facing Rehoboam was a political one certainly, but still more it was a psychological one. The facts were these.
Ever since they had settled in the land of Canaan (in about 1200 B.C.) and until the accession of David (1010) the Twelve Tribes, traditionally descended from Abraham's grandson, Yacob, were divided into two distinct groups. In the north of Palestine, and spread out, roughly speaking, over the left bank of the Yarden (Jordan), was the first federation traditionally designated by the name of Yisrael. In addition, in the southern zone, was another group, also belonging to the Yahwist belief, which was known as Yahudah; it was made up of the tribe of the same name together with the remains of the tribe of Simeon and various small clans. (See Map on next page)
At this juncture David appeared. He was of the tribe of Yahudah and a statesman of genius; he quickly saw that to ensure the survival of the Twelve Tribes in Canaan, it was urgently important to organize the political and military unification of all the sons of Yacob. The safety of the People of YAHWEH depended on it.
The new leader was well aware, we can be sure, of the antipathy shown on all occasions by Yisrael, the Yahwist group of the north, towards Yahudah, the Yahwist group of the south. When he had finally achieved the union of Yisrael and Yahudah in one kingdom he made every endeavour to rule with the greatest tact and the strictest justice in a situation made delicate by the uncertain temper of the northern tribes.
Logically, David's successors had only to continue this skilful policy and the people would soon forget their old divisions.
Once again YAHWEH's People are in forced labour, but to one of their own this time
Solomon succeeded David in 970. Contrary to expectation, the young king took an opposite course from that of his father. He very soon began a vast building program. To ensure that he had sufficient masons and labourers to work the various sites he decided to enroll the able-bodied men of the kingdom in forced labour gangs, such as had been used for thousands of years in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Thus the majority of the peasants were requisitioned to work, under the overseer's lash and rod, in terrible living conditions on the many buildings projected by Solomon.
We have already seen something of the mentality of these descendants of the nomad shepherds who, scarcely two centuries previously, had been established in the Promised Land. Once they had settled most of them became farmers. But they did not lose the spirit of freedom and independence of their ancestors, the nomads of the plains. Then suddenly they were torn from their families and lands to be interned in labour camps often at a great distance from their homes. They were forced to make bricks, haul enormous tree trunks or place in position great blocks of stone. This form of life, with its very high death-rate, was in all respects like that of a convict settlement. The sons of Yacob had already experienced forced labour in Egypt at the time of Rameses II (1301-1234), who also had a passion for building temples and palaces of colossal size. But now the despot who ruled over the followers of YAHWEH, was, derisively enough, YAHWEH's anointed, a sovereign to whom YAHWEH had entrusted the destiny of HIS beloved people.
It was understandable, therefore, that the labourers from Yahudah should mutter against Solomon, their fellow countryman. Even more easily can we understand the hatred of the Yisraelites from the north condemned to toil under such hardship for the honour of a king from the south. And yet both had to keep silent and continue their toil, for the police service was well organized: any subversive remark was reported and punished.
After Solomon's death Rehoboam, his son, seemed the obvious successor. He was then about forty years old; he had reached maturity. Would he, it was wondered, return to the wise traditions of government of his grandfather David, or would he continue the fateful policy of Solomon?
It was a critical moment for the history of the Chosen People.
Rehoboam Proclaimed King Of Yahudah; Will He Also Be Proclaimed King Of Yisrael? (1 Melechim 12; 2 Divre Hayamim 10)
At Yerusalem Rehoboam was proclaimed king by the assembly of the elders. It was understandable that the southern chieftains should readily accept as sovereign a man of their own tribe.
To the northerners the problem was somewhat different. They were not indeed opposed in principle to giving their allegiance to a king from Yahudah provided that he agreed to abolish forced labour, the source of so much misery and death.
In order to establish the basis of an agreement and to discuss questions of government the men of Yisrael invited Rehoboam to go to Shechem, a city of the tribe of Ephraim, and one of the most celebrated spiritual cities of the north, to discuss the questions of government. There, unexpectedly, Rehoboam found himself face to face with Jeroboam, who has previously appeared very briefly in the story of Solomon.
Jeroboam was a man of Yisrael, from the tribe of Ephraim. Of humble origins, he had been sent to Yerusalem to take charge of a group of his fellow countrymen who were building the great rampart of the Tabernacle promenade. On this occasion Solomon was able to notice the intelligence and energy of this young man, and shortly afterwards put him in charge of the labourers of the house of Yoseph (the popular name of the federation of Yisrael).
In the ordinary course of events it looked as if Jeroboam would be quickly promoted to a high post in the organization of the royal building projects. But on the advice of the prophet Ahijah (an Ephraimite again) Jeroboam suddenly changed sides; he soon took the part of his fellow countrymen of Yisrael, who were being treated so harshly by Solomon. He placed himself at the head of a movement of rebellion. Solomon's police were soon on the scent of the nascent plot. To save his head Jeroboam took to flight and found refuge in Egypt at the court of the pharaoh Sheshonk, the head of a new dynasty which made no secret of its feelings of hostility for the king of Yerusalem.
On the news of Solomon's death Jeroboam hastened to leave his place of exile to return to his home in Ephraim where his fellow-countrymen welcomed him with enthusiasm. It was not long before he was entrusted with a delicate mission; he was required to defend the interests of Yisrael during the official interview that had been requested of Rehoboam.
Rehoboam's Foolish Answer; overbearing, blundering and
(1 Melechim 12; 2 Divre Hayamim 10)
Negotiations began on a conciliatory tone; the demands made by Yisrael were by no means excessive: 'Your father gave us a heavy burden to bear; lighten your father's harsh tyranny now, and the weight of the burden he laid on us, and we will serve you' This was a reference to the heavy taxes and to the forced labour, whose abolition was demanded by the men of Yisrael. Rehoboam asked for a delay of three days for reflection before giving an answer.
Consulted by their king the elders of Yahudah made no secret of the fact that the time had come for concessions. This was very wise. But Rehoboam's immediate entourage, composed of his young companions, were impatient to enjoy the pleasures of absolute power. They urged him to reject with scorn any discussion with his subjects. According to the traditions of the east, they must toil in order to ensure a pleasant life for their rulers. At the end of the three-day period Rehoboam was in a position to give his answers to the elders of Yisrael. 'My father made you bear a heavy burden,' he said, 'but I will make it heavier still. My father beat you with whips; I am going to beat you with loaded scourges.'
He could hardly have been more overbearing or blundering. His ill-considered remarks showed clearly that he intended to continue his father's harsh policy.
Yisrael Refuses To Accept The King Of Yahudah's Absolutism
(1 Melechim 12:16)
At Rehoboam's declaration the representatives of Yisrael at once uttered a war cry. Repeating an old refrain of the separatist party, which had secretly remained in existence in Ephraim, these men of the north began to sing the song of rebellion:
'What share have we in David?
We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, Yisrael.'1
And Yisrael, the biblical account continues, went off to their tents. The incident is reported briefly. In point of fact it was a real revolution which broke out at the building sites in the south where several groups from Yisrael were working; workers left the buildings in course of construction all over the territory; they returned in groups to their native land.
Rehoboam, always presumptious, imagined that he could put down the rebellion at once. To recall the rebels to their duty he sent his superintendent of labour, Adoram. The Yisraelites at once stoned him to death; he was cordially hated by the labourers, for he had always treated them with terrible harshness. When Rehoboam himself arrived he was badly received, and to avoid being put to death himself he was obliged to mount his chariot and flee back to Yerusalem And Yisrael has been separated from the House of David until the present day, David's great work of unification had not even lasted a century.
The tragedy was twofold: it was a political separation and a spiritual schism, both of which had incalculable consequences.
PALESTINE AT THE TIME OF THE SCHISM (931 B.C.)
This is the kingdom established by David with care and diplomacy (in about the year 1000) which was now cut in two. Rehoboam, Solomon's son and heir, had clumsily offended the northern group of Yisrael, which then decided to return to independence. Henceforward there were two States: in the north, the kingdom of Yisrael (ten tribes) with its capital finally at Samaria; in the south, the kingdom of Yahudah (two tribes only) with its capital Yerusalem. All the misfortunes we shall see befalling the People of YAHWEH had their political origin in this deplorable schism.
1 David that is, the government of Yisrael was to remain independent of the government of Yahudah whose founder was David. Jesse this was David's father, a farmer in the neighbourhood of Bethlehem To your tents: this means that negotiations were over and that all should return home Note the archaic character of the phrase: at this period Yacob's descendants no longer lived in tents, they had settled on the land and now lived in houses. All the same, in everyday language they retained expressions going back to the far-off days when the Hebrew shepherds wandered on the plains, following their sheep.