Power. Oppression. Rivalry. These interrelated themes are universal across time.
Pretty much every known culture develops such narratives couched in royal settings. These themes emerge most dramatically during periods of monarchic succession. For ancient Israel, the installation of their fourth king, Rehoboam, was expectedly tortuous matching the inaugurations of Saul, David and Solomon. Jeroboam begins by gathering the people and listening to their sufferings because of the heavy “yoke” placed upon them. This “yoke” originally referred to the heavy work of oxen in the field, though the Bible also uses it to describe imposed labor whether from Egypt (Leviticus 26:13) or Assyria (Isaiah 14:25) or, in this case, Israel under Rehoboam.
Because of the oppressive nature of the forced labor, the people’s request for relief appears reasonable to the older advisors of the king. But instead, Rehoboam listens to the “young men,” and promptly rejects the simple request. At this point, several thematic and linguistic parallels between Rehoboam and the Pharoah in Exodus have already emerged. Verse 2 makes a reference to Egypt. Verse 4 uses key terms from the Exodus narrative such as the double usage of “yoke” (Leviticus 26:13), the term “hard” (Pharoah’s heart was hardened in Exodus 7:3) and the reference to “slavery/service” (Exodus 1:14; 2:23; 5:9; 5:11; 6:6; 6:9).
More than the shared vocabulary, the passage reveals the self-aggrandizing declaration of the young (immature?) advisors and their foolish king. In 1 Kings 12:10, Rehoboam’s coterie suggests that the king show strength by declaring, “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” Although the young men perceive the statement as strong and bold, in actuality, it reveals the king’s pettiness and insecurities, qualities attributable to the Pharaoh of the Exodus.
Although it is not known whether Rehoboam actually quotes the reference to his finger, he does follow the words of the young counsel in declaring, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14). The intent is unmistakable. The monuments of Rehoboam will be greater than the immense royal buildings and trade networks of his father Solomon. Of course, such aspiration would require commensurate amounts of resources from the people.
The people of Israel grieve the oppressive policy of Rehoboam and his refusal to change. The frustration and anger is captured in their question in verse 16: “What share/portion do we have in David?” The call to return to tents again recalls the escape from Egypt, and the decision to live as if wandering in the desert rather than in the settled houses of Judah. The discussion gives way to violence, and by killing the royal taskmaster Adoran, the people reach a point of no return. Rehoboam must flee for his life — an ironic outcome considering the earlier boast of his strength and virility. The people will turn to Jeroboam, who had earlier served as an official to Solomon. Jeroboam takes this opportunity to lead the northern tribes in rebellion completing the division of the United Monarchy under David and Solomon turns into two weaker polities of northern Israel and southern Judah.
1 Kings 12 provides the genesis of this Divided Monarchy. But more than the political history, the passage gives account of two kings in the middle of this divide. Rehoboam is the son of royalty and privilege. He had enormous pressure to continue in the footsteps of his grandfather David and father Solomon. Although his name means “increasing the people” in fact, he did the opposite by reducing his land to only two tribes. Can you see the weakness and insecurity behind his oppressive actions?
Jeroboam was a talented official, reaching important roles as a youth in some of the building projects of Solomon. But he also had his own ambition to the kingship. In order to prevent pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he set false idols in the form of a golden calf at major cities of the North in Dan and Bethel. Do you see fear driving him away from faith?
Two centuries later, the northern kingdom would fall to the Assyrians and dissolve. Judah would hang on until the Babylonian destructions of 586 B.C.
We see the lives of Rehoboam and Jeroboam in retrospect with the advantage of knowing how things turned out in the end. But part of the narrative invites us to the world of their power, oppression, and rivalry. Part of the narrative reveals the humanity behind these two kings. Both kings are men of means and privilege, but in the effort to appear powerful and august, they end up acting very human. The yoke on these two kings was heavy. Regardless of the mistakes of these two kings, the narrative will continue and God will be present in the midst of these two kingdoms marked by power struggles and rivalry. In the next testament, this narrative will find a level of catharsis with the generous offer of Jesus of Nazareth to, “Come to me all who are heavy yoked, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Thankfully, the oppressive yoke of Rehoboam clarifies the humble, gentle, and light yoke of Jesus of Nazareth who offers us lasting relief.
Mighty God, your servant Rehoboam divided your kingdom with his tyranny, yet you remained faithful to both kingdoms, even in the midst of conflict. Show us your presence in conflict, and help us to resolve our differences, uniting this world in your name. Amen.
HYMNS Built on a rock ELW 652 God of tempest, God of whirlwind ELW 400
CHORAL Thy Kingdom Come, O Lord, F. Melius Christiansen