It’s been a while since I’ve really picked apart a text. I have tried to keep this blog centered on Nehemiah’s lessons (already well-picked back at the beginning), but sometimes it is important to zoom out and view a subject from afar. So I would like to explore the rebuilding of Jerusalem as part of a larger narrative.
One of the key points in the overarching biblical narrative is the division of the kingdom of Israel after King Solomon’s death, which ultimately led to both kingdoms being conquered and the collapse (discussed last time) that lasted until Nehemiah led a community-based effort to rebuild.
Solomon is regarded as a wise and good king, and although he certainly had his personal flaws he made the trains run on time and delivered a period of great prosperity. But he also represented the continuation of the concentration of wealth and power that had been corroding Jewish society ever since they did away with judges in favor of kings. When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam replaced him, bringing none of the good and even more bad.
1 Chron 10:13. And the king answered them harshly, and King Rehoboam disregarded the counsel of the elders. 14. And he spoke to them according to the counsel of the youths, saying, “[My father] made your yoke heavy, and I shall add to it; my father flogged you with whips, but I [shall do so] with scorpions.”
Now, look at this story as a parable and you’ll find that the United States is in the middle of something very similar:
Industrial capitalism was a hard master. It caused great disruption to rural communities and traditional ways of life. Many workers lost limbs and lives in the great mines and factories of 19th and 20th centuries. Capitalism built great wealth on the backs of exploited workers, but (to be fair) it did deliver a way of life that was far more affluent and generally comfortable than anything enjoyed (by non-elites) at any previous time in history.
But then things got out of hand. A headstrong new king arrived in the form of a fancypants global financial system that promised even greater affluence for the shrinking middle class. We didn’t have to even do the real work of building and growing things; we just had to engage in physically easy but emotionally and spiritually draining jobs that put us in front of computers all day doing “marketing” and “finance” while people far away had to deal with the grueling and often poisonous work of delivering our computers, food and other goodies.
Under our new financial king, it is no longer possible to support a household on most single incomes, especially not through most work that actually created food or material objects. What’s more, work has become impossible to escape for many, with all sorts of handheld devices taking up ever more of our time and attention.
I believe that the long-run view of Steve Jobs will be rather critical, as one of the people who ultimately did the most damage to our abilities to focus on the people and things around us. And I mention this because it shows the extent to which the system has hoodwinked us by making scorpions cute and cool. We don’t have taskmasters standing over us because we have been trained so well that such explicit power is no longer necessary and we embrace that which enslaves us.
But back to Rehoboam…
15. And the king did not heed the people because it was brought about by God, so that the Lord might establish His word that He spoke by the hand of Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat.
Is this saying that God’s will is for the people to be oppressed? That is certainly the interpretation that has been popular among those who seek to rationalize the unholy partnership between religious elites and an economic system that goes against some of the Bible’s core lessons. However, the prophesy mentioned was that 10 of the 12 tribes would break off and be ruled by Jeroboam (comparable to most of the United States seceding from our power centers of New York City and Washington, D.C.). Essentially God was looking for a way to trigger an uprising against the corrupt powers and saw an opportunity in a young king who didn’t know his limits and sought to further tighten the screws of oppression without providing any discernable benefit.
As is often the case in biblical texts, God was right:
16. And all Israel [saw] that the king had not heeded them, and the people replied to the king, saying, “What share do we have in David? And no heritage in Jesse’s son. Each man, to your homes, O Israel! Now see your house, David!” And all Israel went to their homes. 17. But the Children of Israel who dwelt in the cities of Judah-Rehoboam reigned over them.
The people’s concern about their lack of a “share” is worth dwelling upon. They did not feel that they were invested in the benefit of what was happening, much in the way that most modern people do not own a significant share of their own workplaces and the other businesses on which they depend. Rehoboam’s young advisors now correspond to the “regulators” who come out of the banking system (Hello Tim Geithner!) and are utterly unable to confront its most serious abuses. And the result of it all is banks that were “too big to fail” are now even bigger and we’ve missed a key opportunity to fix the system.
So, like Occupy Wall Street, they tried to withdraw. However the power structure was strong enough to survive passive non-cooperation and it seems that Rehoboam was anxious to back up his fierce words with action.
18. And King Rehoboam sent Hadoram, who was appointed over the tax, and the Children of Israel pelted him with stones and he died, and King Rehoboam exerted himself to get up into his chariot to flee to Jerusalem. 19. And the Israelites rebelled against the house of David until this day.
So it sounds like the king barely escaped from some sort of riot, doesn’t it? After only three kings Israel had gone badly astray. The people’s request that Rehoboam be less cruel seems to mark the last serious attempt at popular guidance of society. The people tried to move back toward the more participatory ways found under the judges, but it was too late. The kingdom was already entrenched so there was nothing to do but fight.
Now, consider the sad state of American politics in this light – captive by big business, dependent on its campaign funding and utterly unable to hold our real king accountable and prevent it from tearing society apart.
It remains to be seen whether we in the United States and western Europe have already passed this point of return, at which – like Libya, Syria and perhaps Egypt – the only way to uproot the thornbush of power is by burning it out. I certainly hope not, but the signs are ominous. The loss of popular control through “technocratic” governments in Italy and Greece as well as state takeovers of cities including Harrisburg and Atlantic City (with Detroit now in the crosshairs) are warning signs of the final collapse of democracy.
So does this mean that revolution is now necessary? I don’t think it is – at least not in the pitchforks and torches sense. However, we need to go beyond calling for reform, beyond even the relatively radical protest embodied in the Occupy movement.
As it happened, the revolt against Rehoboam was not violent beyond the killing of a particularly loathed official who was sent to force everyone back to work. And here’s where it gets really interesting.
After Rehoboam returned to his capital, he mustered the army to crush the uprising. But then something happened that would surprise most moderns but is perfectly consistent with how resistance played out in biblical stories:
2 But this word of the LORD came to Shemaiah the man of God: 3 “Say to Rehoboam son of Solomon king of Judah and to all Israel in Judah and Benjamin,4 ‘This is what the LORD says: Do not go up to fight against your fellow Israelites. Go home, every one of you, for this is my doing.’” So they obeyed the words of the LORD and turned back from marching against Jeroboam.
This shows the immense responsibility of people of faith during times of uprising. Some may claim that God put our leaders in place and we should not confront those leaders. But here we have God clearly taking sides, and in doing so preventing a whole lot of bloodshed.
There’s no way to tell which of us might have the chance to make a difference, and perhaps no individual might have the impact of Shemaiah, whose prophetic voice turned back an army. But you never know what little action will tip the balance, and it’s important to speak out from whatever perspective you have. If that isn’t religious, great. There’s plenty of work to be done in convincing folks that Occupy is part of a great tradition of people’s movements. But if you are of a more faithful persuasion, this would be a good time to study up on what your heart and your holy texts teach about these sorts of moments.