Formations 06.10.2018: Disruption on the Road

1 Kings 11:29-39

The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (photo by Chris Light).

In front of the National Civil Rights Museum, on the corner of Mulberry and Butler in Memphis, Jacqueline Smith has stood for over thirty years. From this corner, the former tenant and employee of the Lorraine Hotel has called people to boycott the museum. One sign even tells visitors that they “are about to desecrate the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Whenever I’ve been to the museum, Smith’s presence there has disturbed me, because she challenges the good reasons that I’ve come. And to be sure, there are good reasons. It’s important to remember and celebrate the work and accomplishments of the civil rights movement. But Smith disrupts such a celebration, condemning it as an inadequate response.

To make space for the museum, Smith and residents in the boarding house across the street were evicted. The museum’s economic footprint has contributed to gentrification in the area, pushing longtime neighbors out of their community. For Smith, these effects counter King’s vision of economic and racial justice. Instead, she imagines that a full memory of the civil rights movement would lead us to use the space for public and affordable housing, free education, and accessible healthcare.

Ahijah occupies a similar role. The prophet from Shiloh approaches Jeroboam on the road and tears his cloak into twelve pieces (v. 30). And if this action isn’t discomforting enough, he predicts that the royal administrator would lead a revolution after Solomon’s death (v. 31).

Solomon’s idolatry explains this loss of power. “He has forsaken me, worshiped Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways” (v. 33). But for Solomon’s idolatry, Solomon also did much good. He built God’s temple in Jerusalem, created economic prosperity for Israel, and extended its national security.

These are good and important goals, but for Ahijah, the contradictions mark Solomon’s promises of security and his devotion to God as insufficient. Military alliances lead to idolatry. Large building campaigns exploit Israel’s poorest citizens. And for a prophet devoted exclusively to God’s reign, Solomon’s work, important as it may be, must be opposed.

Disruption is the task of prophets. Smith marks the tension between a King who traveled to Memphis to work for the rights of garbage workers and a King whose words can be used to sell trucks. King marked the tension in a nation that promised freedom and justice to all people and counted some Americans as three-fifths people. And Ahijah marks the tension between a memory of God who frees people from slavery and a memory of God who consolidates Davidic power in Jerusalem.

In the next two months, the Deuteronomic historians and the book of Deuteronomy itself will confront us again and again with the tensions between our own values and our own actions. Their condemnations and their promises will unsettle us as they point to the true God.

Harry Low, “The Woman Still Protesting Over Martin Luther King,” BBC News, 13 April 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43562269.

Discussion

• When have you experienced disruption? What values did this experience lead you to let go of and to hold on to?
• In what parts of your community’s religious life is idolatry present? What distinguishes an idol from the true God?
• How might your community fully remember and celebrate the God of Deuteronomy in your community today?

Reference Shelf

Between Devotion and Idolatry

Martin Noth has treated the following account of Solomon’s kingship (1 Kgs 3–11) as a composition, drawn from a wide variety of official sources, by the deuteronomistic historian. The first section (chaps. 3–8) opens with a scene in which God appears to Solomon at Gibeon in a dream following his sacrifices at the “great high place” (3:4-15). This dream, with its associated request for “an understanding mind” (3:9), sets the tone for this narrative of the obedient king, who is wealthy and successful. This section is dominated by the account of the building of the Jerusalem temple, which is so important to the deuteronomistic historian. Following the résumé at 9:1, there is an account of a period of “apostasy and misfortune,” opened by another, more ominous, appearance of God at Gibeon (9:1-9). In the story of the inadequate payment of the his debts to Hiram, king of Tyre, with twenty Galilean towns (9:10-14), and in the account of the sanctuaries to foreign gods built in his dotage (11:1-8—cf. v. 4), we are prepared for a succession of enemies (11:14-40), including Jeroboam, who would later rebel successfully against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.

With Solomon, the movement of Israel from a tribal confederacy (or a segmentary society, or a chiefdom) to a small state dominated by the city of Jerusalem has come to completion. The list of chief royal officials (4:2-6—cf. 2 Sam 8:15-18), followed by an incoherent list of regional administrators (4:7-19), shows a strong central bureaucracy. Other elements of the ancient state—international trade (5:6-11; 9:26-28; 10:14-22, 27-29), expanded urbanization (chaps. 6; 7:1-12; 9:24), including the fortification or refortification of major cities (9:15-19), the organized labor gangs required for this work (5:13-16; 9:15,21), and a standing army, including expensive chariotry (4:26; 9:23)—are strongly suggested by this narrative.

[…]

Behind the celebration of the wealth and wisdom of Solomon in this narrative can be seen a sense of the public cost of this investment in architecture and military equipment. It is generally assumed that the seeds of the revolution of Jeroboam (11:26-40; 12:12-20), which divided the kingdom after his death, grew among those who bore the cost of these lavish royal expenditures.

Roy D. Wells, Jr., “Solomon,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 841–42.

Unexpected Prophets

The obligation is also expressed through some odd characters such as Ahijah the prophet who has no credentials and no visible authorization.
Ahijah may have a sound critical tradition behind him. But he appears “on the road” as something of a nut, wearing a new garment. He enacts a “symbolic act,” a parable that calls conventional assumptions about power into question. We may have a more disciplined notion of prophets in mind, but here the prophet is a weird guy who injects into public consciousness a dramatic alternative possibility. Perhaps as close as we come to such prophetic acts are symbolic subversions such as those undertaken by the Brothers Berrigan who specialize in acts of blood poured on armament installations. Such acts are absurd in the face of established power, as the Berrigans readily acknowledge. Except that such acts do cause establishment power everywhere to tremble, for strange “counter power” is released through such acts that seems to be authorized in ways that the establishment cannot control.

The convergence in our chapter of commandment, revolutionary alternative, and prophetic symbolization serves to put the regime on notice. The actual “end” of the regime comes in chapter 12, in a more routine political act. But who knows to what extent the oddness of chapter 11 evokes and nourishes the determined resistance of chapter 12!

Of course all of this is “unlikely.” It must have been unlikely then, and it is certainly so now, given our power arrangements secured in technology and hidden in bureaucracy. It seemed unlikely to the Shah in Iran and to the apartheid government in South Africa. But the text is not intimidated or silenced by our rational dismissal of such raggedness. The text simply sits there, rather regularly making it impossible to remove from our thoughts and our awareness this sense of obligation that relativizes our best inventiveness. By the end of the chapter, Jeroboam is “on hold.” Indeed, much of the time this ominous obligation is on hold. But that gives little comfort, for “on hold” status is not the same as nullification.

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000), 150–51.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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