By the time we get to 1 Kings, many of us are lost in the storyline of the Hebrew Bible. It has been an intense soap opera for quite a while, and the intricacies are often convoluted and subtle. This leaves me with the task of setting the stage for the story we just read, a task I’m not entirely sure I’m up to. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a try 😉
You remember the story of Moses, right? Well Moses led the people the the border of the Promised Land before he died. Then Joshua led the people into the land. What followed was about 350 years of various leaders emerging as needed, which was when the tribes were under threat. That 350 year period is described in the book of Judges, and archaeologists tell us that is the period when the people occupying ancient Israel were most consistently living out the rules of the Torah. All the homes seem to be about the same size, meaning that wealth was neither being accumulated nor lost. That’s a significant part of the goal of the laws of the Torah.
Then, there came King Saul. The Bible says that the people wanted a King, but God didn’t want the people to have a King. The prophets kept telling the people that God is their Ruler, but the people wanted a human one anyway. You may be shocked, but I don’t quite believe that one. I think it is much more likely that Saul wanted to be King, and once he was King he made sure that the story being told was that he was King because everyone wanted him to be. I do, however, believe that the prophets thought this was a terrible plan!
Then, somehow, David becomes King. I say “somehow” because the Bible tells several versions of this and they don’t make much sense individually or together. Basically, David led a coup against Saul with military leadership from Judea supported by external mercenaries soldiers. The Bible claims Saul was crazy. It is very difficult to tell if that is propaganda from David. (Then again, historians aren’t sure either of them ever existed, which could potentially resolve this issue for us. However, we’re going with the story as its told, even with ALL of its complications.)
OK. So David is King, which happens to mean he has a whole bunch of wives. Some of the wives predate his kingship. Many of his wives he “inherited” from Saul with the kingship. #sentencesIwishIdidnthavetosay Once David is serving as King in Jerusalem, he acquires more wives. The most famous story of his acquiring a wife is the story of David and Bathsheba. David’s palace was now larger and higher than the homes around his, and thus when Bathsheba was bathing herself on her roof top one day, David saw her and lusted after her. He had her brought to him, raped her, impregnated her, tried to cover for it, and then and had her husband killed on the front lines when the cover didn’t work.
In response, the prophet Nathan brought accusations against him. David turns to God in repentant prayer. David and Bathsheba’s infant son dies, which the Bible tells as if it is God’s punishment (you can tell from my phrasing I don’t believe that either). Bathsheba stays in the palace as David’s wife. She appears to remain his favorite wife according to the stories. Also, she ends up giving birth to 4 more sons, the youngest of which is Solomon. Please note we don’t know if she had daughters because they’re generally not worth talking about as far as the Bible sees it.
There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? We are caught up to the start of 1 Kings. Oh shoot! We aren’t. I need to remind you of another messy bit of this story, in order to make sense of this one. King David’s oldest sons were born to his earliest wives, before he was King. The oldest was Amnon. He was the one who raped his half-sister Tamar, who was a full-sister to the third son, Absalom. Absalom killed Amnon in revenge, years later. Absalom then attempted to claim the kingship of Israel in a coup and was killed by one of David’s generals. The 2nd son is assumed to have died in infancy. The 4th son was Adonijah, who was thus the oldest surviving son as of this point in the story. The Bible says there were about 20 sons, Solomon wasn’t one of the oldest 10.
According to normal inheritance laws, Adonijah had a far stronger claim to the throne than Solomon did. The Bible often tells stories that ignore normal inheritance laws. According to the beginning of 1 Kings, the parts we skipped, David was very old and impotent. A new young, beautiful wife, was brought to “warm his bed” but that didn’t work. Her name was Abishag. With awareness of David’s condition, Adonijah holds a coup and claims the kingship. He raises support from his father’s old guard, the part of David’s leadership that was Judea-centric and NOT representative of the whole kingdom of Israel. He excludes ONLY his brother Solomon, which I think would imply that he saw only his brother Solomon as a threat to his claim. David’s newer advisors refuse to attend, and seem to decide to thrown in their lots with Solomon.
The story says that Nathan approaches Bathsheba with a plan. Bathsheba accepts it and goes to King David’s bedroom to make her plea. There may be a new, young, wife in town but Bathsheba still has the privilege of entering David’s bedroom at will and being greeted with an offer to give her whatever she wants.
She takes Nathans suggestions and runs with them. She tells David that he promised her Solomon could be king after him (Nathan said she should SUGGEST it in a question), she tells him Adonijah has claimed the kingship and makes sure it sounds particularly insulting to David himself, she tells him who among his servants have supported his son’s coup, she implies that the whole nation of Israel needs his leadership and that Adonijah will only care about the southern part of Judah, and she names for him the threat to her life and Solomon’s if David lets the coup stand.
There is just one little issue with what she says: there is no reason to believe that David had promised the kingship to Solomon. It is never previously mentioned. The possibility of Solomon as a contender only emerges when Adonijah doesn’t invite him to his coup. Most likely, it wasn’t true. David is likely experiencing memory loss by this point, and Bathsheba manipulates him into doing what she wants. She plays the role of king-maker, and she makes sure it is HER kid who on the throne. Her role has changed a bit since she was first introduced.
Then Nathan backs her up, sort of. He at least backs up the fact that Adonijah has held a coup. He lets her stand on her own in terms of the claim that Solomon would be king. Based on their words, Solomon is named and anointed King.
Then Solomon promises his brother Adonijah that he can live as long as he keeps supporting Solomon’s kingship. David dies, and then comes the next bit of our story. Now, if this part of the Bible is historical, and if all these characters existed, and if things more or less went down the way this story says they went down, I STILL don’t believe this part. Under those circumstances, I think that either Solomon or Bathsheba make it up.
The story SAYS that Adonijah, the eldest living son of David, comes to King Solomon’s mother and asks her to ask her son King Solomon if he can have his father’s youngest wife as his own. Since the King’s harem is seen as part of the King’s rightful possession, getting to marry one of David’s wives would have strengthened Adonijah’s claim to the throne. I don’t quite believe he would have been stupid enough to ask for that, especially when his continued life was already tenuous. However, the story says he asked, and says that Bathsheba goes right to the throne room. Her son bows to her has a THRONE brought out to her, indicative of his affection for his mother (or perhaps of her power in his kingship), and she publicly tells him about this request. In response, Solomon orders the death of Adonijah. It seems a bit too easy, especially in the first days after David dies, and if the story stands as written, I only wonder if Solomon was in on Bathsheba’s plan or not.
All in all, this leaves us with a whole bunch of questions. The most difficult question is one that was posed in Bible Study: is Bathsheba a subversive woman? In terms of saying, “Yes! Of course she is!” we have the following evidence: she made a king, she eliminated his rivals, and she got what she wanted out of the leadership of the country. On the other side, the side that says, “Nope, not a subversive women” we have the following arguments: manipulating people for power and influence is one of the most normal of all human activities, and even more normal when it comes to royal lineage. That argument says that no matter how you worked it, doing the work to get your son on the throne is playing with power, not subverting it.
For me, both of those perspectives hold a lot of water. I kept her story in this sermon series because I love that she has such a complicated life story and significant character development, particularly from being a passive object of lust into being the most powerful agent of her own life and one of the most powerful agents in the country. However, she still mostly exists within those terrible constraints of oppressive power. She just moves from being oppressed to being the oppressor, she doesn’t change the way the game itself is played.
The other big question is: how can the kingship be such a complete and utter mess????? This is the time of history that the rest of the Bible looked to as the golden age. There are only three kings of the United Kingdom (of Israel and Judea) and they are: Saul, David, and Solomon. And all three, and their families, are total messes. They make modern soap operas look boring. They make truly broken modern families look picture perfect. If that was the golden age, heaven help the rest of the ages!
Actually, while the drama factor is higher in the Jerusalem palace, all of the characters of the Hebrew Bible are ridiculous messes. Some are richer than others, some are smarter than others, but they’re all messes. They don’t even look impressive as compared to average humans. (And I think most humans are struggling rather mightily.) And yet, the Bible contends, God CHOOSES to work with and through those messy people. God doesn’t just give up on them because they are terrible parents, or greedy rulers, or manipulative queens, nor manipulated kings. God doesn’t even give up on the ones who are murders (David and Moses). Yeah, think about that for a bit. And who are the most famous murders in the Hebrew Bible? David and Moses. Who are the most celebrated leaders of the Hebrew Bible? David. And. Moses.
God doesn’t give up on us. Ever.
And the Hebrew Bible makes it plain to see that we can’t be so messy that God ever will give up on us. Even better, God keeps working with us to take our messes and make them into something beautiful. Solomon was known for his wisdom. David was known for his Psalms of Praise. Bathsheba found a way to be an agent of her own life (and help a very wise man take the throne). God isn’t scared off by messes, God can work with whatever we are, and bring wonder and beauty out of it all. Thanks be to God for that. Amen
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
August 6, 2017