Today’s installment in my Bible as mirror series, where I compare biblical characters to the 45th president of the USA, Donald Trump, takes us to the book of 1 Kings. It has to do with a very significant transfer of power nearly 3000 years ago, a transfer that had fatal consequences for the people called Israel.
Though Solomon is traditionally remembered as being a man of exceptional wisdom, I fear when it came to running a country, he was nothing less than a fool. To feed his increasing appetite for grandeur and lavish displays of success, the son of David and Bathsheba increased the tax burden on his people to a level that caused genuine pain and elicited surging anger and frustration, at first muted but soon quite overt. In addition, he forced his citizens to give over several months per year to labor on his huge building projects, the temple, an expanding palace, a standing army, among others. Resentment was building, and at the king’s death, and with the accession of his son, Reheboam, many Israelites were hoping for a lightening of the royal load.
After the public rites that celebrated the long kingship of Solomon, nearly 40 years, had ended, his son, Reheboam, journeyed to Shechem, one of the centers of the northern tribes of Israel, in order to renew his kingship over the whole land, from Dan to Beersheba, as it was traditionally described. Upon his arrival there, no doubt accompanied by a large retinue of retainers, soldiers, and bodyguards, he was met by an unwelcome and familiar man. This was Jereboam, son of Nebat, a northern firebrand who had been a building foreman under Solomon until he was banished to Egypt possibly for fomenting rebellion. At Solomon’s death, Jereboam took it upon himself to return to Israel, and to plead with the new king concerning the nature of his reign.
Jereboam spoke for the tribes of the north, and said, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, my lord, lighten the hard service of your father and the heavy yoke he placed on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). Here was an olive branch extended to the new king by a former antagonist of the previous monarch. Change policies, improve communication between us and you, require less of our money and time, and you can be a king for all of us.
Donald Trump spent most of the presidential campaign dividing peoples into camps, either for or against his bluster and fury against certain groups of people, especially Muslims and undocumented immigrants, particularly Mexicans. Some had hoped that these extreme positions would be modified somewhat once the mantel of power had fallen onto his shoulders. Some hoped that Reheboam would heed the sound advice of Jereboam and would modify the extreme behaviors of his father.
Reheboam asked for three days to consider Jereboam’s counsel. He first turned to his oldest and most experienced advisors, some of whom had known and worked with Solomon. They advised him as follows: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you bring them answer, then they will be your servants forever” (1 Kings 12:7). Perhaps some of these wise men had seen the very negative effects that Solomon’s harsh rule had had on the Israelites and were fearful that a continuation of these policies could be disastrous. Hence, they advised the young king to listen to Jereboam’s words that they found quite sound.
But Reheboam was not so inclined. Instead, he turned to his young courtiers, men who had grown up with him in the royal compound, men used to the ease and luxury that Solomon had provided in his expanding court. When Reheboam asked them if he should lighten the yoke of his father, they snapped out a crude response: “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins,” a nasty attempt at humor that appears to mean something like, “my little finger is infinitely larger than my father’s penis,” implying that I, Reheboam, am greatly more virile and powerful than my father ever was. And because that is true, I say, yes, Solomon laid a heavy yoke on you, all right, but I will now add to that yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, a certain reference to the cruel demands of forced labor, but I for my part will discipline you with scorpions (1 Kings 12:10-11).
Trump has followed a similar course, though it must be said the great majority of his advisors are old and very rich men, used to the lures of power and wealth, and in that way similar to the young advisors of Reheboam. One gets the clear idea that his chief advisor is Steve Bannon, the angry and ideologically inflexible former head of Breitbart News, a purveyor of half-truths and claims of conspiracy theories based on whim and fancy. It appears that Trump is egged on by Bannon, among others, to hew to the campaign tactics of divide and assault, humiliate and shame. Like Reheboam, Trump is unwilling to imagine a different scene where those who disagree with him may have some things worth hearing and might be treated with respect rather than shunned with abuse and scorn. A recent occasion where several prominent news sources—CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, among others—were barred from participation with the presidential spokesperson, Sean Spicer, bodes ill for any opening toward those who have different opinions and ideas about the future of the country.
Surely, the mirror of Reheboam should serve as a dangerous warning to the current presidential team. Refusal to accept even the lightest of criticism and an unwillingness to imagine a different course than the divisive one currently in use, led Reheboam to alienate and drive away a huge part of the Israelite nation, a division that lasted fully two centuries. Might not the recalcitrance and inflexibility displayed by Trump and his minions up to now have a similar result? Divide and conquer might become merely divide with little hope of reunion.
We who are in opposition must now redouble our efforts to provide public alternatives to those currently in power who imagine they can with loud words and a rattling of sabers cow us into a passive acceptance of their way of doing things. We want to work with them as we are able, but we will not be stifled and sidelined by bitterness and cruelty. Instead, we will continue to voice opposition to policies that would divide us as a people rather than bring us together. Reheboam was king a long time ago, but his reign was brief and is now long past. Also, he ruled over a shrinking land and population that for the next 350 years struggled for survival until its near complete demise at the hands of the great empire of Babylon. Like the most painful of kidney stones, Trump too shall pass, but while he has the bully pulpit he must know every day that we will not stomach his abusive tweets nor will we roll over as he leads us to places we do not intend to go. Keep your voice strong and vibrant!
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)