The Old Testament books of Kings are filled with wars between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and make a strong object lesson of the futility, mutual recrimination, and other spiritual harms caused by schism, as both kingdoms turned away from God, whether to the worship of other gods in the north, or to a mere pretense of worshiping the true God among other gods in the south. This makes sense. What makes less sense to me is that the political divide was not an act originating from human pride and rebellious spirit, but in fact commanded by God. With certain things, I am tempted to ask God what he was thinking.
The origins of the division of the Israelites into northerners and southerners is recounted in 1 Kings 11, late in the reign of Solomon, the son of David. Solomon’s many foreign wives had induced him to worship their gods as well as his own, leading to royal syncretism in the house of David. In response, the Lord decided to split the kingdom, taking most of it away from Solomon’s son:
The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (1 Kings 11:9-13)
The narrative subsequently relates the origin of two foreign threats to Solomon’s hegemony in the region, in the person of Prince Hadad of Edom and the bandit king of Aram, Rezon the son of Eliada (1 Kings 11:14-25). In addition to these external threats, the prophet Ahijah of Shiloh promised to one of Solomon’s officials, Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he would rule most of Israel, and that his posterity would be like the promises to the house of David if he followed the Lord fully and avoided idolatry:
About that time Jeroboam was going out of Jerusalem, and Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh met him on the way, wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone out in the country, and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten pieces for yourself, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘See, I am going to tear the kingdom out of Solomon’s hand and give you ten tribes. But for the sake of my servant David and the city of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, he will have one tribe. I will do this because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Molek the god of the Ammonites, and have not walked in obedience to me, nor done what is right in my eyes, nor kept my decrees and laws as David, Solomon’s father, did.
“‘But I will not take the whole kingdom out of Solomon’s hand; I have made him ruler all the days of his life for the sake of David my servant, whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees. I will take the kingdom from his son’s hands and give you ten tribes. I will give one tribe to his son so that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I chose to put my Name. However, as for you, I will take you, and you will rule over all that your heart desires; you will be king over Israel. If you do whatever I command you and walk in obedience to me and do what is right in my eyes by obeying my decrees and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. I will build you a dynasty as enduring as the one I built for David and will give Israel to you. I will humble David’s descendants because of this, but not forever.’” (1 Kings 11:29-39)
As it turned out, of course, Solomon caught wind of this and tried to kill Jeroboam, who fled to Egypt and took refuge there until Solomon’s own death (1 Kings 11:40). When Solomon’s son Rehoboam was to be anointed the new king, Jeroboam turned up to the ceremony, and when the prince responded to some legitimate grievances of the people with some ill advised threats (incidentally disproving Machiavelli’s much later dictum that it is easier to rule by fear than by love), most of the people rejected the government of the Davidic line and instead acclaimed Jeroboam king (1 Kings 12:1-20). Ahijah’s prophecy was fulfilled, but Jeroboam soon became spiritually more toxic than Solomon (1 Kings 14:9). He was a keen observer, and he grew fearful that the frequent pilgrimages of his subjects to Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, Rehoboam’s capital city, would turn their loyalty away from him to the Davidic line once more, spelling his doom as a rebel and traitor. So he devised a scheme to cut off the pilgrimages by making two golden calves closer to home, to which the people would sacrifice instead of to the Lord (1 Kings 12:26-33). And thus the political division instituted by God to punish Solomon became a spiritual scourge which separated most of the Israelites from their Lord.
What was God thinking? Well, I take seriously that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). His abhorrence of idolatry leads me to suspect that the creation of a couple golden bovines was not his goal, even if it would not have taken him by surprise. Jeroboam is certainly held responsible for leading the Israelites away from God. But if we can move back to the situation of Ahijah’s prophecy and avoid reading 1 Kings 11 in light of 1 Kings 12, perhaps we can see the urgency and the opportunity which the Lord had in mind, which might clarify what happened. What follows is somewhat speculative, and is offered only tentatively as a possibility, rather than the definitive word. Critiques are welcome.
Solomon had started well as a king, but toward the end of his reign he had grown increasingly oppressive and idolatrous. The oppression is what the people would complain about to Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:4), and Solomon’s advisers tacitly acknowledged the truth of the complaint (12:7). Nevertheless, Rehoboam and his own generation had been raised in the lap of luxury, in which this oppression was normal, and their response suggests that they saw the oppressive status quo as good, for benefiting them (12:10-15). The Lord had complained of Solomon’s idolatry (11:9,33), and these are not independent: worshiping multiple gods may seem more opulent to the ignorant, and may require more coerced labor of the workforce. Without a stern rebuke from the Lord, we may presume that Rehoboam and his councilors would simply have continued in the path of Solomon’s faults.
What if Jeroboam had placed his faith in God and obeyed God’s promise? The Lord had promised through Ahijah that Jeroboam’s dynasty would endure (11:38), suggesting that Jeroboam had no need to fear. Indeed, Rehoboam seems to have been a stinker of a king, giving Jeroboam the opportunity to claim the moral high ground by more faithful obedience to God. Such a move might have provoked Rehoboam’s posterity to pursue righteousness in order to preserve political legitimacy, and two kings competing in righteousness would have benefited the people of Israel more than one king’s oppression, as each sought to be more truly David’s spiritual heir according to his love for God and for his people. This may have been the opportunity the Lord presented to Jeroboam in promising to make him king over ten tribes of Israel.
Of course, Jeroboam did not trust God’s promise, but was spooked by his sociological analysis of the relationship between political loyalty and pilgrimage patterns. Instead of turning to God for help maintaining his rule, he concocted a golden strategy to separate the people from God’s temple. This hardly surprised God, who even in the prophecy of Ahijah had warned that he would humble David’s dynasty, “but not forever” (11:39). But in leading Israel into idolatry, Jeroboam did little more than what Solomon was already doing, and which Rehoboam would also do (14:22-24). The Lord also sent a prophet to warn Jeroboam and the people against this bovine ploy (13:1-3), and Jeroboam’s revolt may have encouraged future kings of Judah to rely on the distinctive claims of the Jerusalem temple (2 Chron. 13:10-14; 14:3-5).
While it is hard to be definite about “what might have been,” perhaps the Lord’s instruction to Jeroboam through Ahijah to divide the kingdom offered the potential for an “arms race” of good rule, and even as it went awry through Jeroboam’s idolatry, it may not have been as bad as a single government only practicing oppression and idolatry. This answer remains speculative, but it may also provide an analogy to ecclesiastical schism, in that we Christians find ourselves today in a massively divided church. Our leaders, the leaders of all denominations, face the choice whether to follow Jeroboam into a cagey and cynical analysis regarding how to defend their turf through worldly if not outright diabolical means, or whether to follow Christ, striving to outdo one another in love and godliness, for their own benefit and the benefit of all Christians. May the Lord lead our leaders to trust him and rely on his promises, eschewing the sins of Jeroboam.