Torn in Two
By Alex Israel
Maggid Books, 2014, 350 pages
Too few people read the early historical books of the Hebrew Bible – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings – and those who do fail to get as much out of the books as they can. Alex Israel’s new book focuses on the first half of the book Kings, called I Kings because the Greek translation of the book divided the book in two, a convention that was accepted by Jews in 1517. I Kings is comprised of twenty-two chapters and covers the history of ancient Judah and Israel from the coronation of King Solomon in 967 BCE through the reign of King Jehoshaphat who died in 846 BCE. The book of Kings as a whole deals with “the four hundred years of history from Solomon to the exile, from the advent of the Temple to its destruction” in 586 BCE. It describes the kings of the two nations, Judah and Israel, the politics, wars, and a significant problem of the era, idolatry.
Alex Israel’s book is subtitled “Torn in Two” because after Solomon’s death in 928 BCE, his son Rehoboam refused to accept the demands of the ten northern tribes to reduce taxation. When he rebuffed them, they withdrew from the nation of Judah and formed their own country, which they called Israel. In the final chapter of I kings, King Ahab of Israel formed a short-lived alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah, but a prophet criticized the alliance. Israel lasted for about 200 years until it was conquered by Assyria. The ten tribes were driven into exile, and became known in history as “the ten lost tribes,” although some of the inhabitants escaped south to Judah; so all the tribes continued to exist, although only Levites and the family of Aaron, the priests, know their lineage today.
This book describes the reign of thirteen kings, five from Judah and eight from Israel. Three of the thirteen stand out; one from Judah, Solomon, and two from Israel, Jeroboam, who organized the split from Judah, and Ahab, the husband of Jezebel who repeatedly repented his wrongs and then, perhaps provoked by Jezebel, reverted to the performance of improper acts. Solomon attempted to strengthen the unity of Israel, but his son destroyed his goal. Solomon began his reign as a man devoted to God, he built Israel’s first temple, but he ended his life seduced by his foreign wives to worship idols. “Each of these kings suffered from divided loyalties, finding religious orientation at variance with his national agenda…making singular adherence to God’s law impossible.” Additionally, quite a few chapters in I Kings as well as II Kings deal with the famed prophet Elijah, the only prophet who resigned his prophetic position, an overly-zealous man, who begged God to kill him, who is described with great insight by Alex Israel. The biblical Elijah is radically different than the Elijah known through post-biblical legends.
Alex Israel offers readers an explanation of each of the twenty-two chapters, discussing each in turn, in an easy to read, comprehensive, and insightful manner. For example, among much else, in explaining chapter 1, Israel answers why it was necessary to seek a virgin from “the entire country” to lay in King David’s bed to warm him; couldn’t “a suitable candidate have been found in a more limited local – the province of Judah, for instance?” Israel explains that this was part of the plot of one of David’s sons who wanted to succeed him; he was publicizing David’s infirmity.
In his explanation of chapter 2, again among much else, Israel explains why this son of David felt he could escape Solomon’s attempt to kill him by seeking asylum by leaning on the altar. The Torah states that the altar is not an asylum for a murderer. He also explains why Solomon felt he had to kill his brother.
In his discussions of chapters 9 and 10, which describe the wealth and opulence of Solomon’s reign, Israel warns readers that the Solomon chapters “bear a double reading.” In an initial reading, readers are “impressed and overwhelmed by the power and accomplishments of this king…. But as one revisits these chapters a second time, especially with the awareness of Solomon’s failures at the end of his reign, one appreciates that he did not fail overnight; darker strands are revealed, indicating the deep flaws that threatened the impressive national enterprise.” For example, in the twenty-fourth year of his reign, the country that had been so rich was now suffering a deficit and Solomon had to buy food from the kingdom of Tyre and had to pay for it by giving the Tyre king twenty cities.
In chapter 11, Israel gives readers an insightful even-handed picture of Jeroboam who rebelled against Solomon’s son and established a new kingdom for ten of the twelve tribes. In chapter 12, he shows that the rivalry between Judah and Joseph – Jeroboam was from Joseph – goes back unabated to the time of Jacob’s sons. “The fiercest manifestation of their feud is the terrible sale of Joseph to Egypt, instigated by Judah.” In 12, he also discusses whether the two temples that Jeroboam established in Dan and Beth El, placing calves at the entrances to the temples, changing the date of Sukkot, and allowing the general public to function as priests was idolatry.
While all the kings of Judah were descendants of David, the kings of the northern kingdom came from various tribes and repeatedly suffered untimely ends through bloody assassinations. Jeroboam’s son succeeded him but was assassinated by Baasha after ruling only two years. Baasha’s son followed him as king but was also assassinated by Zimri after two years, and Zimri lasted only seven days. The history of these kings of Israel as well as the kings of Judah is a fascinating tale, especially with Alex Israel’s explanations of the events. Readers will enjoy this book and look forward to its sequel.