Melakhim Alef Chapter 1
According to our tradition, the Book of Melakhim was authored by Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) the Prophet. This is a very significant piece of information to keep in mind as we study the book, because it suggests that the prophetic message of Sefer Melakhim can best be understood in the context of the themes and lessons conveyed by Yirmiyahu to the Jewish people throughout his life and career.
Specifically, we should expect that the Book of Melakhim to help us comprehend the decline and fall of the monarchy of Israel. It will do so by first describing the height of its development and progress, culminating in the rule of King Shelomo and the construction of the Holy Temple, and will conclude with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people by the Babylonians. The Book of Melakhim, like the Book of Shemuel, is one unified work; the division into Melakhim Alef (I Kings) and Melakim Bet (II Kings) is a later innovation that was introduced for convenience.
King David has grown old and can no longer keep warm, even with blankets covering him. His advisers suggest that he find a beautiful young woman who can lie next to him and provide the body heat that he needs. They conduct a national search and select a proper candidate for this purpose, Avishag HaShunammit.
Meanwhile, David’s oldest surviving son, Adoniyahu, has prepared to declare himself the new king of Israel. He garners many supporters from among David’s close associates, including Yoav Ben Tzeruyah and Evyatar the Kohen. Adoniyahu organizes a coronation party for himself, notably excluding the prophet Natan, Benayahu, Tzadoq and his own brother Shelomo from the guest list.
Natan the prophet approaches Batsheva and informs her of these developments, of which King David is unaware. He instructs Batsheva to challenge David on why he has violated his oath to appoint Shelomo as successor to the throne by allowing Adoniyahu to reign. Natan will then enter the palace and confirm that Adoniyahu has indeed declared himself king without involving the prophet, Benayahu, Tzadoq Hakohen or Shelomo in the process. Natan will ask whether this move was authorized by the king or not.
Batsheva implements the plan as directed by Natan, and David responds by affirming his promise to designate Shelomo as heir to the throne. David commands his inner circle of advisers and officers to lead Shelomo on the king’s own mule down to the Gihon River and to coronate him there. Shelomo is then brought to the palace and is made to sit upon the throne in the presence of David himself. Everyone attending the proceedings offers blessings to David and all note the great privilege he has merited to have in witnessing the transfer of power to his son in his lifetime.
Word of David’s response comes to Adoniyahu through Yonatan, the son of Evyatar HaKohen. All those who participated in the “unauthorized” ceremonies of Adoniyahu panic, and he himself takes refuge in the Sanctuary, grasping onto the horns of the altar to claim asylum. Shelomo dispatches a messenger to Adoniyahu to inform him that if he demonstrates loyalty to the new regime, he need not fear for his life. Adoniyahu appears before Shelomo and bows to him, acknowledging the legitimacy of Shelomo’s claim to the throne.
There are several points worth highlighting in this chapter. The first is the curious strategy employed by the servants of David to cure his chills – searching throughout the entire kingdom to find a beautiful young woman. Was it really necessary to undertake such a heroic effort for this purpose? Even granting that this is a “therapeutic” method that works, couldn’t they have found a young woman in the local community? More basically, what is the relevance of this whole episode to the ensuing drama with Adoniyahu?
It seems that the purpose of the description of David’s condition is to convey to us that he is now perceived as passive, withdrawn, sickly and essentially “out of commission”. His lack of involvement in public affairs and absence from the political scene is what sets the groundwork for Adoniyahu’s premature declaration of his own claim to the throne. It does not appear that Adoniyahu saw himself as rebelling against David – after all, several key David-loyalists, including Yoav ben Tzeruya, participate in his coronation. Furthermore, as soon as David makes his official “pick” for king, Adoniyahu discontinues his pursuit of the crown and his movement disbands. Rather, Adoniyahu is capitalizing on the weakness of David and his hands-off approach to the affairs of the kingdom in order to put his own aspirations to power on the fast track.
Adoniyahu was the oldest prince, handsome, charming and popular, so he felt he was a shoe-in for the position. While he may have suspected he was not David’s choice for the job, he was also keenly aware of David’s disengagement from politics at this point in his life and was confident that David would not come out of retirement to protest his assumption of leadership.
We can conjecture that the servants of David who recommended the “national beauty contest” that led to the identification of Avishag Hashunammit were the same servants who backed Adoniyahu’s efforts to claim the throne. By publicizing David’s need for a woman to keep him warm, they made sure that the population became aware of just how feeble the king was and how serious of a vacuum of leadership prevailed in Jerusalem. This, they thought, would make Adoniyahu’s candidacy and immediate rise to power much more appealing.
Another difficulty with the story is the roundabout approach of Natan to addressing David. Why does he prompt Batsheva to speak to the king and only arrive afterwards to confirm her words? Can’t he simply appear before David in his capacity as a prophet and ask him to render a decision on the issue of succession? Alternatively, couldn’t Batsheva alone convey the message?
It seems that Natan understood David’s state of passivity and waning strength and therefore was sensitive to what needed to be done in order to pressure him into taking an official position on a contentious political issue. Had Batsheva come alone, David may have brushed off her request, promising to “take care of it later”, assuming that it wasn’t particularly urgent and hoping not to have to deal with it altogether.
On the other hand, if Natan had discussed the matter with David independently, David’s response might have been more circumspect and less direct; he may have opted to take a “hands off” approach to the controversy. The combination of Batsheva’s request that the oath to her be honored and Natan’s emphasis of the urgency of the situation moved David out of complacency to offer a decisive, dramatic and final answer – exactly what was needed to put the brewing conflict to rest.
As soon as he has declared his preference for Shelomo, David details and initiates an official coronation ceremony full of proper pomp and circumstance, clearly and obviously contrasted with the unofficial, grassroots event organized by Adoniyahu. And as soon as Adoniyahu and his associates realize that David has, surprisingly, reinserted himself into the public arena to make his “endorsement” – an endorsement they know that the nation will embrace and uphold – they accept the fact that their movement has been effectively and permanently undermined in favor of Shelomo’s ascent to the throne.