Often when we think of the “Kingdom of Israel” we connect that title with King David who ruled the “12 tribes of Israel” (named after the 12 sons of Jacob – also called Israel) from the throne set in Jerusalem. The kingdom was comprised of an area that presently approximates modern Israel and the other Levantine territories including much of western Jordan, and western Syria. We know that David was followed by his son King Solomon. The kingdom lasted about 100 years. Based on what happened next, most scholars refer to the “Kingdom of Israel and Judah” as the entity over which David and Solomon ruled.
Under Solomon’s rule the Temple in Jerusalem was build and dedicated. The Kingdom and Solomon enjoyed the blessings of the Lord. Solomon enjoyed great prestige – his fame spread so far that the Queen of Sheba came to experience his wisdom (1 Kings 10). But things began to unravel for the Kingdom under Solomon’s rule.
1 King Solomon loved many foreign women besides the daughter of Pharaoh (Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites),2 from nations with which the LORD had forbidden the Israelites to intermarry, “because,” he said, “they will turn your hearts to their gods.” But Solomon fell in love with them.3 He had seven hundred wives of princely rank and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart.4 When Solomon was old his wives had turned his heart to strange gods, and his heart was not entirely with the LORD, his God, as the heart of his father David had been…Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and he did not follow the LORD unreservedly as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:1–4,6)
In the latter part of Solomon’s life, the discontent and rebellion had already begun.
29 At that time Jeroboam left Jerusalem, and the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite met him on the road. The two were alone in the area, and the prophet was wearing a new cloak.30 Ahijah took off his new cloak, tore it into twelve pieces,31 and said to Jeroboam: “Take ten pieces for yourself; the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I will tear away the kingdom from Solomon’s grasp and will give you ten of the tribes.32 One tribe shall remain to him for the sake of David my servant, and of Jerusalem, the city I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel. (1 Kings 11:29–32)
All of this came to pass after the death of Solomon in about 931 BCE. Most of the tribes (ten Northern tribes) except for Judah and Benjamin refused to accept Rehoboam, the son and successor of Solomon, as their king. The unrest against Rehoboam arose after he refused to lighten the burden of taxation and services that his father had imposed on his subjects. When Rehoboam went to Shechem to receive the fealty of the 12 tribes, the tribal leaders asked for relief, but Rehoboam promised to “doubled down”
15 The king did not listen to the people, for the LORD brought this about to fulfill the prophecy he had uttered to Jeroboam, son of Nebat, through Ahijah the Shilonite.16 When all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king: “What share have we in David? We have no heritage in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Now look to your own house, David. “So Israel went off to their tents” (1 Kings 12:15–16)
Jeroboam was proclaimed king over all the Northern tribes at Shechem. After the revolt at Shechem at first only the tribe of Judah remained loyal to the house of David. But very soon after the tribe of Benjamin joined Judah. The northern kingdom continued to be called the Kingdom of Israel or simply “Israel”, while the southern kingdom was called the Kingdom of Judah.
According to the Bible, for the first sixty years, the kings of Judah tried to re-establish their authority over the northern kingdom, and there was perpetual war between them. For the following eighty years, there was no open war between them, and, for the most part, they were in alliances as necessary, co-operating against their common enemies, especially against the Assyrians.
The Books of Kings and Chronicles, in part, are an assessment of the kings of north and south. The northern kings are condemned without exception, and the royal line degenerates from the divine election of Jeroboam I through a succession of short-lived dynasties to the bloodbath of Jehu’s coup d’état, and finally dies out in a series of assassinations. No doubt, the judgment might skew from time to time, but the trajectory was certainly on target. Jeroboam II, however, reigned for 41 years – clearly a time of stability and has it turns out, also quite prosperous. Jeroboam, being the exception to the pattern only gets 7 verses.
Longer story, short, in or around 720 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel (called Ephraim by some prophets), was savagely conquered by Assyria and a number of its inhabitants deported, replaced by conquered people from other countries. The Hebrew Scriptures relate that the population of the Kingdom of Israel was exiled, becoming known as the Ten Lost Tribes. To the south, the Tribe of Judah, the Tribe of Benjamin and the people of the Tribe of Levi, who lived among them of the original Israelite nation, remained in the southern Kingdom of Judah. The Kingdom of Judah continued to exist as an independent state until 586 BCE, when it was conquered by the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Why all of this information and history of the kingdoms? Back to Jerobaom II. He lived in an age when the two Kingdoms got along as needed. All-in-all he wasn’t a horrible king, in fact things prospered. His successors lead them down the path of destruction – and through all this Hosea was prophet – in the good times and bad. Chapter 4 is thought to be square in the period from the death of Jeroboam II in 746 to the seizure of royal power by King Hoshea in 732. The period covers only fourteen years, yet it produced seven kings, five dynasties, a major war from 736 to 732, and the loss of the northeast section of the kingdom to Assyria (2 Kgs 15:27–31; Isa 8:23).
Today’s first reading is from the Prophet Hosea:
1 In their affliction, they shall look for me: “Come, let us return to the LORD, For it is he who has rent, but he will heal us; he has struck us, but he will bind our wounds.2 He will revive us after two days; on the third day he will raise us up, to live in his presence.3 Let us know, let us strive to know the LORD; as certain as the dawn is his coming, and his judgment shines forth like the light of day! He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth.”4 What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your piety is like a morning cloud, like the dew that early passes away.5 For this reason I smote them through the prophets, I slew them by the words of my mouth;6 For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts. (Hosea 6:1–6)
The centerpiece here of a longer section of Hosea is a prayer (6:1–3), lovely in itself, stitched carefully into the context by word play and parallel ideas, and then rejected because of Israel’s insincerity. The most beautiful words cannot save an ugly heart. While the words speak of conversion, Israel refuses the consequence of adequate repentance.
In verse 4, as in 11:8–9, we eavesdrop on the compassionate heart of God struggling against the inevitable destruction of Israel. Verse 5 smote them through the prophets – Hosea is just one of a number of prophets (not all of whom left us writings) who have been warning Israel, such as the elders in Num 11:16–30, Samuel in 1 Sam, Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kgs 17-2 Kgs 13:20. A conscience that is stirred and challenged becomes a destructive force for revenge and self-justification if one does not obey it. Verse 6 is a classic text (see 1 Sam 15:22; Ps 50:14; Matt 9:13; 12:7). Ritual acts like sacrifice and holocaust were intended to externalize in a sacred assembly the interior spirit of obedience and adoration before God. Without love and knowledge of God they are a sham, or, in Ezekiel’s words, a “whitewash” (Ezek 22:28).
As we enter more deeply into our own days of pandemic crisis, many will indeed cry out to the Lord. As we rapidly move from the heady days of record profits and stock prices – prosperous days indeed – into calamity. As we rapidly move from cautionary tales from abroad, to stories close to home, into lock down and isolation. In these days ahead, consciences will be stirred, but it comes to nothing if we will not hear and obey the voice of God. It comes to nothing if there no change of the heart.
A little bit of Scripture, some history, and hopefully food for thought. Thanks for reading.
Be well. Be safe. Be holy.