A while back I noticed a curious phrase in the Book of Kings. I remember it saying something to the effect of accusing the king of ‘causing Israel to sin’. Such a phrase feels pivotal at this point in our political/historical moment. We are increasingly comfortable naming things like ‘structural violence’ but still tend to collapse into very individualistic based responses. More and more attempts are being made highlight how these appeals to individual actions actually fall well within how the powers of our age organize and communicate. Such a system of placing the burden on the individual offloads any guilt or charge of responsibility from those places and people where power is concentrated. One of the places endorsing the responsibility of individual is the church. The church, broadly understood, heralds the virtue of the individual. This emphasis cuts across liberal/conservative divides as both look to the individual whether for personal, spiritual salvation or in discipleship responding to social injustices. [See Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World for how the church’s theological traditions have informed our current understanding of the individual].
Looking back on this phrase naming the king as the one causing Israel to sin I found a clear and distinct pattern (the phrase repeats some 18 times). After King Solomon we enter the divided kingdoms of the north (Israel) and the south (Judah). The kingdom of the north emerges as Jeroboam organizes the people to demand more lenient labour laws. Solomon’s son Rehoboam rejects this appeal and claims that he will impose even harsher labour laws. God blesses Jeroboam’s leadership and gives him power over 10 tribes in the north. God keeps God’s promise to David by preserving the throne in Jerusalem (south). God also promises Jeroboam that if he is faithful God will bless him.
However, after the 10 tribes secede Jeroboam becomes anxious because Jerusalem is still the ‘religious’ centre for the 10 tribes. So Jeroboam did not create a new centre but set up two alters (each with a golden calf) on the periphery in north (Dan) and in the south (Bethel) so that no one would need to travel beyond the borders. Jeroboam tells the people (like Aaron in the wilderness) that these are the gods who delivered them from Egypt. In this way Jeroboam caused the people to sin. Jeroboam created a structured in which the people turned their attention and gave devotion to a material object as the source of their wellbeing and deliverance. Jeroboam set up an idol and offered a structure of ideology to maintain his power. Such a system causes people to sin. The people were not expected to simply up and leave for the south. They were not expected to alter their prayer or form of sacrifice to be more ‘acceptable’. They existed in a particular place and were understood to have only limited responsibility in their daily lives. The biblical record demonstrates clearly that the king is responsible for this situation; as can be seen from my hilarious take on the Book of Kings.
Press Release: King Jeroboam offers new choices for access to Baal now available in Dan (north) *and* Bethel (south). No need to travel to godless Jerusalem of Judah! We all remember how it could have been under Rehoboam!
Prophet Ahijah: King Jeroboam you have cause Israel to sin.
Press Release: King Baasha son of Ahijah son of Jeroboam claims to make Israel great again!
Jehu: King Baasha you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Brutal civil war between Omri and Tibni. Omri prevails and celebrates with buying the hill of Samaria and founds Samaria.
Nameless political pundit: King Omri you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Terror plot thwarted as charges of treason are brought against Naboth the Jezreelite. In other news King Ahab acquires new vineyard of convicted terrorist.
Elijah: King Ahab you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: The king of Moab has broken allegiance with Israel. King Jehoram creates allegiance with Judah to attack Moab.
Nameless political pundit: King Jehoram you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: During a massive religious gathering a fire broke out in the temple of Baal destroying the temple and killing all those inside.
Nameless political pundit: King Jehu you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: In a Hail Mary effort with depleted troops King Jehoahaz pulls off upset victory against King of Aram.
Nameless political pundit: King Jehoahaz you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: King Jeroboam II expands boarders of Israel to the south. He is making Israel great again!!
Nameless political pundit: King Jeroboam II you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Fourth generation king, King Zechariah assassinated!! Shallum seizes throne!
Nameless political pundit: King Zachariah you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Only one month into reign King Shallum also assassinated!! Menaham initiates wave of terror across Tiphsah and Tirzah.
Nameless political pundit: King Shallum you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: King Menaham negotiates peace with Assyria. In other news large sums of money now missing from national treasury.
Nameless political pundit: King Menaham you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Pekahiah son of King Menaham assumes throne. Military coup ends in army captain, Pekah, taking power.
Nameless political pundit: King Pekahiah you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: Assyria advancing. King Pekah viewed as unable to hold power, cannot even advance on former ally Judah. Hoshea son of Elah takes power.
Nameless political pundit: King Pekah you have caused Israel to sin.
Press Release: King Hoshea attempts to make peace with Assyria but goes missing. Rumours are that the king of Assyria has captured him.