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Was God Toying with Solomon?

How Israel Split and the Road to Tisha B’Av

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Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The reign of King Solomon marks the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel. But just a generation later, everything goes downhill. As soon as Solomon’s son, Rechavam, takes the throne, civil dispute splits the Kingdom in two – ultimately leading to the Temple’s destruction and exile. 

Solomon was known for his great wisdom, wisdom that was actually a gift from God, granted to Solomon in a dream. But if God was willing to give Solomon great wisdom, why didn’t He give him wisdom he really needed… the wisdom to avert this disaster just around the corner? 

This is not just a textual question but a deeply personal one: If God wasn’t there for Solomon, how much personal guidance can any of us expect during the greatest trials of our own lives?


Transcript

Rabbi Fohrman:  Hey everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta. 

On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the loss of the Temple that Solomon built. And today I want to talk with you about one of the most dramatic turning points on the way to that catastrophic event. It’s a moment that goes all the way back to the reign of King Solomon, architect of the Temple that was destroyed. It’s a moment when everything seemed right. And then somehow, in a flash… it all went wrong.

I’m talking here about the moment the kingdom of Solomon splits. You know, the loss of the united kingdom of Israel – that’s the first great piece of the legacy of Solomon being dismantled. And hundreds of years later, the destruction of the Temple is the last great piece of Solomon’s legacy to fall. 

A Brief Moment of Unity

The surprising truth is, Israel only existed as a real empire, an impressive world player, for a very short time, for the reign of just two kings, David and his son Solomon. Those were the glory days of Israel. If you think about David and Solomon together, these two men are responsible for four books of Tanakh among themselves: the books of Psalms, Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), Mishlei (Proverbs), Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Solomon – there’s peace and prosperity throughout his kingdom. He builds the Temple, and at its dedication, he invites the whole world  to come worship there. It really looks like this utopian, United Nations moment, global unity around the possibility of worship of a common Father.

But somehow, after Solomon everything goes downhill, precipitously. In the very next generation, the kingdom literally splits in two. Solomon's son Rechavam (Rehoboam) becomes king of Judah, ruling the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south, and a rival, Yeravam (Jeroboam), from the house of Ephraim – he becomes king of Israel, ruling the other ten tribes in the north. Neither kingdom is much of an empire. Neither is much of a world player.

And it’s not just that there’s political ruin here; there’s spiritual ruin, too. Just a few verses after the kingdom splits, there's golden calves literally being set up by Yeravam for worship in Bethel. What follows in the Northern Kingdom is a string of kings, almost all of whom are idolaters. Indeed, the rest of the Book of Kings is characterized by God sending prophet after prophet to kings who were essentially not following God's will and trying to get them to mend their ways somehow, trying to get the people to mend their ways. And it never really happens. Ultimately, the Temple is destroyed. Minus those brief shiny moments of David and Solomon’s reign, the political story of Israel from here on in – it’s a slow and painful decline leading right into Tisha B’Av. 

But here’s the thing: There’s this really intriguing, unique moment, early on in Solomon’s reign when he’s just a young king, when it feels like things could have been different. We’re told God comes to the young King Solomon in a dream, and the Almighty offers him in that dream anything his heart desires (I Kings 3:5). Just ask for it. 

The Gift of Wisdom

Solomon, this boy-king, responds to God that he feels inadequate to rule over the people, and he asks for the wisdom to judge them properly. And God? God is so impressed with that choice, with that request, that God says He’s going to provide Solomon with the wisdom he seeks. And not just wisdom, but with fame, riches, and military success too, all the other things that Solomon could have asked for. God seems ready to indulge this new king in unbelievable, unprecedented ways. 

But you and I, we know something that Solomon didn’t know. We know, in retrospect, that this whole wonderful kingdom fell apart a generation later in the days of Rechavam. So doesn’t that kind of take the wind out of the sails of that earlier moment in Solomon’s life, that dream when God so magnanimously offered to be of help to him, to give him whatever he wanted? All those gifts that God gave Solomon – in retrospect, isn’t it just like God rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? I mean, it sounds like God is helping Solomon with this wisdom, wants to be of help to him – but is He really? Who cares about being really smart, if that’s not what Solomon needs to make his reign a real success? Who cares about having enough wisdom to tell the Queen of Sheba the answers to all of her secrets, wisdom enough to impress Chiram, Solomon’s ally to the north – when all that is going to come to naught a short generation later? What good is any of it if the kingdom splits and ten of the tribes spiral towards disaster? 

Was God just sort of toying with Solomon in that dream?

Does God Give Us Advice?

So you might say by way of an answer: Look, you know… counsel, advice? You can’t really expect those things of God. That’s actually not His job. He’s not in the political consulting business. You know: You want to learn how to be a good king, how to build unity, how to properly exert power? Go get an executive MBA from Columbia for that. Go read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Go take some advanced courses on political science. Don’t come to Me. Me, God, I’m in the business of religion. My job is just to give you mitzvot, and your job is to obey them. Solomon, you keep My commands, and you’ll have a successful reign as king, and so will your children. Abandon My mitzvot, and it's all over.

And you know, God does sort of say that to Solomon; He does warn him to obey His commands or it will all be over. But still… does that make the whole story with Solomon’s request for wisdom some kind of pointless charade that God just plays along with? Solomon explicitly asked God for guidance – guidance and wisdom to be an effective king, a successful king. And God seems to say: Sure, I’ll give that to you. But where does that happen? Yes, Solomon has the wisdom to understand botany. He can answer riddles from the Queen of Sheba. Everyone comes to seek his wisdom. But where was the wisdom that really mattered, the wisdom that he and his children would need to somehow avoid a civil war? It seems like such a tease. Here’s your wisdom, Solomon. Just not the wisdom you really need. 

So the question I’m really asking, I guess, is also a personal one, too. It seems tantalizing to believe that maybe God is in the advice, counsel, and wisdom-providing business. Maybe not just for Solomon but for others – at some level, maybe even for us? But if at that moment even Solomon didn’t get the advice, the wisdom, the guidance that he needed in life to get by from God… what hope do I have? When I don’t have special dreams of God appearing to me to grant my wishes, what hope does little old me have of getting advice from God? If God is in the business of providing guidance of some kind, do I have any hope of getting any of that?

These are the questions I want to entertain with you today.


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