Melakhim Alef Chapter 12
The nation of Israel gathers in Shekhem for the official coronation of Rehavam, Shelomo’s son and successor. Yarovam, no longer needing to fear Shelomo, is returned to Israel from Egypt to represent the population and bring their grievances before the new king. Specifically, they request an alleviation of the severe tax burden that had been placed upon them by Shelomo and which, now that the major public works projects had been completed, was no longer necessary.
Rehavam requests three days to consider the matter and consult with his advisers. The elder statesmen who had formerly advised Shelomo recommend that Rehavam acquiesce to the petition of the people. If he treats his subjects in a kind and compassionate manner now, they reason, he will win their allegiance and loyalty and will be able to demand more of them in the future. Rehavam’s young friends, however, advise him to deal harshly with the nation and to inform them that his regime will be even more exacting than that of his father.
Rehavam abandons the counsel of the elders and adopts the “no nonsense” policy endorsed by his childhood companions. Unsurprisingly, the high handed and threatening tone of Rehavam is not well received, the populace rejects his authority, and a rebellion begins to take shape. When Rehavam sends his officer Adoram to collect taxes, the people pelt him with stones, killing him; Rehavam himself escapes harm and finds refuge in Jerusalem.
Yarovam is chosen as King by all of the tribes except for Yehuda. Rehavam gathers a military force of one hundred eighty thousand men, comprised of members of the tribes of Yehuda and Binyamin, and prepares to put down the rebellion and reunify the kingdom. However, Hashem sends a prophetic message to Rehavam, informing the king that these developments were divinely ordained and ordering him not to go to war against his fellow Jews. Remarkably, and to his tremendous credit, Rehavam heeds the word of Hashem and calls off the attack.
Yarovam builds up Shekhem and Penuel, establishing them as key cities in his new regime. However, he immediately becomes concerned with a serious problem that he fears will threaten his sovereignty. Yarovam realizes that the nation is accustomed to traveling to the majestic and glorious Temple in Jerusalem for the festivals. He is worried that visiting the Bet Hamiqdash, which is so intimately connected to King David and his dynasty, will awaken feelings of nostalgia in the Jews and will draw them back to Rehavam and the House of David.
Therefore, Yarovam establishes two sanctuaries for his kingdom, one in Bet El and one in Dan. At each, he places a golden calf, and declares that there is no more need to go to Jerusalem; quoting the statement made by the Jews at the time of the original golden calf, he says, “these are your gods, oh Israel, who took you up from the Land of Egypt”.
In addition to changing the venue of worship, Yarovam alters the calendar, moving the holiday normally celebrated in Tishrei (Sukkot) to the following month, Marheshvan. Lastly, instead of Kohanim and Levites officiating the worship of God, Yarovam selects citizens from all the tribes to perform this function. All of these changes effected a clear break between the religious practices of the Kingdom of Yehuda and those of the King of Israel.
There is a great deal to explore and consider in this chapter. Let us begin with the coronation of Rehavam and his poor choices of behavior. It is surprising that the ceremony took place in Shekhem, located in the tribal territory of Yosef, and not in the capital city of Jerusalem that was historically linked to the House of David. Apparently, Rehavam was aware of the heighten tensions and resentment toward him in Israel on account of some of the actions of his father that had alienated them. There was a particularly anti-Shelomo feeling within the families of Yosef – the historic rivals of Yehuda – of which Yarovam was a member. Holding this event in Shekhem may have been a conciliatory gesture on the part of Rehavam, motivated by a desire to calm these tensions and to set a tone of unity and collaboration among the tribes.
At the same time, Rehavam’s decision to follow the advice of his younger contemporaries is puzzling. What inspired them to offer such ill-considered counsel, and what persuaded Rehavam to adopt it? As a new king, Rehavam confronted a serious dilemma. On one hand, he understood the importance of winning the support and endorsement of his subjects. On the other hand, he feared coming across as overly weak in the eyes of the people, inviting their disdain, or being labeled a “pushover”. He needed to establish his authority and power as king and not to seem wishy-washy from day one. So while he saw that agreeing to the request to lower taxes would increase his popularity in the short term, he worried that it would cause the people to question his strength as king.
The elders correctly concluded that the essential consideration for Rehavam at this point should not have been the temporary, superficial appearance of strength. His primary priority should have been earning the endorsement and loyalty of his subjects. True power is found in strategic leadership, not brute force or threats. A humble and conciliatory approach might have seemed like weakness to Rehavam on the surface but, in fact, would have ultimately secured his position as monarch.
His friends who had grown up with him were, like him, wealthy, privileged and not fully in touch with the mindset of the commoners. They overestimated Rehavam’s ability to “flex political muscle” at this stage of his career and underestimated the potential for revolt among the citizens of Israel. Lacking clarity as to the real significance of the moment, they preferred the macho, confrontational and heavy handed approach that appealed to the insecure ego of Rehavam over the measured and patient response advocated by the elders.
They encouraged Rehavam to behave in an authoritarian way and to put the people in their place, so to speak. And since, in the short term, this indeed made Rehavam feel stronger and more in control, he was swayed in the direction of their misguided advice. Of course, this decision fed the flames of resentment that were already burning in Israel against Shelomo’s regime, further reinforcing the perception that the royal family was elitist, self-serving and dismissive of the concerns of ordinary people. Rebellion under these circumstances is hardly an unexpected response.
Dissecting the anatomy of Yarovam’s revolt is a fascinating exercise. He establishes the political focus of his kingdom in two cities that are historically associated with the Patriarchs, Shekhem – which plays a significant role in the Books of Yehoshua and Shofetim, as well as in the Book of Beresheet with the stories of Yaaqov and his sons – and Penuel, which featured prominently in the story of Gideon in the Book of Shofetim, and was the first place Yaaqov arrived when he returned to Israel from his sojourn with Lavan.
Yarovam places his altars in locations with great historical significance as well – Bet El, consecrated by Yaaqov Avinu as a place of worship, and Dan, where the “graven image of Mikha” had been worshiped from the beginning of the period of the Judges until the rise of the Prophet Shemuel. There is a sense here of “going back to basics” and “returning to our roots”, which we can almost imagine was the slogan of Yarovam’s movement. These geographical choices indicate a desire to turn back the clock of history to a simpler time, a time that predated any monarchy, a time when all citizens of Israel were truly free men.
This is not the only way in which Yarovam proclaims a populist agenda. By putting his sanctuaries at the far North and far South ends of his kingdom, respectively, he sends the message that the entire land from top to bottom, not just these two spots and CERTAINLY not just Jerusalem, is sacred and an appropriate place in which to worship God. In rejecting the special status of the Kohanim and Levites, he makes the prospect of officiating in worship open to everybody, not just to descendants of Levi or of Aharon.
There are two remarkable parallels to Torah stories in the description of Yarovam and his behavior. The first, and most obvious, is to the incident of the Golden Calf. The language used to declare the introduction of the calves at Dan and Bet El is, word for word, the language that was used at the time of the Golden Calf in the wilderness. Yarovam, like Aharon Hakohen, will subsequently offer sacrifices at the altar in Bet El before one of the calves.
Moreover, Yarovam names his children Nadav and Aviya, a rather obvious reference to Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu. Ironically, those sons of Aharon died when they brought an unauthorized offering into the sanctuary of Hashem; perhaps Yarovam, in selecting their names for his children, means to “negate” that narrative as the reason for their demise, thereby justifying his own creation of unauthorized modes of divine worship.
The parallel goes deeper than this. Aharon HaKohen was motivated to fashion the Golden Calf because of his fear that the people, panicking over the absence of Moshe, would rebel against him and possibly kill him (according to the Midrash, they did, in fact, kill Miriam’s son, Hur.) Ultimately, the people believed that without Moshe present, Hashem’s providence had departed from them. Aharon compromised and created the Golden Calf to reassure the nation that God was still with them and in order to keep the nation under control, as it were.
Here too, Yarovam is faced with a genuine crisis. The people have good reason to believe that Hashem is with the Kingdom of Yehuda and that the Divine Presence dwells in Jerusalem, as symbolized by the glorious Temple. Yarovam feared that the people, seeing that the “real” relationship with God is mediated through the Bet Hamiqdash and the Kingdom of Yehuda, will be persuaded to return to there and be a part of it. Yarovam’s golden calves were designed to reassure his subjects that Hashem was, indeed, with them. In fact, rather than being limited to the Temple precincts like in the Kingdom of Yehuda, God’s presence permeated the entire Kingdom of Israel and could be found anywhere in between the sanctuaries that were established at the northern and southern borders.
In essence, Yarovam’s two golden calves were his answer to the two golden Keruvim in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, and an “improvement” on them. The Divine Presence was conceived as residing in between the Keruvim in the Holy Temple, the place fashioned to serve as the “footstool” of the Shekhina and from which Hashem would communicate with Moshe. In Israel, the Divine Presence was not nearly as limited – it rested in between the golden calves in Dan and Bet El, which included the entire country!
It is important to mention that the golden calves of Yarovam, like the one made by Aharon, were not intended to be objects of worship or idols; they were, like the various golden objects in the Bet Hamiqdash, meant to represent Hashem’s presence in a concrete way. We can see from his conduct and statements throughout the next couple of chapters that Yarovam never wavered in his belief in God; he never “converted” to actual idolatry or adopted religious practices or imagery from pagan cults. He merely used a “Jewish” symbol of the Divine presence, drawn from the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf, to reassure his subjects that despite the distance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Temple, Hashem was still with them.
The similarities between Yarovam and Qorah (Korach) are also intriguing and remarkable. Both abolished or attempted to abolish the class distinctions between Kohanim, Levites and Israelites, and both sought to officiate as Kohen Gadol themselves. Moreover, Yarovam uses a phrase borrowed straight from Qorah when he says “rav lakhem”, it is too much for you to go to Jerusalem, just as Qorah challenged Moshe with the words “rav lakhem”, you have taken too much for yourselves. What is the link between Qorah and Yarovam?
Just like Qorah before him, Yarovam promotes a populist message to facilitate his own rise to power. By demonstrating that he wants to offer the Kohanic privileges to everyone and to allow places of worship to be constructed anywhere, he continues the crusade against the Kingdom of Shelomo, a kingdom that had been branded as politically and religiously elitist. The view that divine service could only be conducted in Jerusalem, and only by Kohanim was, according to Yarovam, as fraudulent and corrupt a claim as the assertion that only a descendant of David could sit on the throne of Israel. As with all popular revolts, any and all kinds of class distinction or privilege become anathema and are seen as part of the oppression sponsored by the state. Yarovam, both politically and religiously, portrays himself (as Qorah did) as the great liberator who frees the common man from the hegemony of the self-appointed elite class.
(Another context where the phrase “rav lakhem” is used is in the Torah when Hashem tells the Jewish people to take leave of Mount Sinai and begin their journey to the Promised Land. There, the language is “rav lakhem sov et ha-har hazeh”, you have spent plenty of time encircling this mountain, and the time has come to move forward to the next stage of your development. Based on this literary allusion, we may infer that Yarovam marketed his new kingdom under the banner of “progress”, as if to say, “enough of this focus on a single mountain in Jerusalem, the time has come for us to move beyond this limiting framework and expand the boundaries of legitimate worship.” In other words, he didn’t merely claim that his vision of Jewish life was ALSO valid – he claimed that it was superior to the form that preceded it.)
Yarovam’s agenda clearly contradicted the Torah and was inconsistent with the high expectations Hashem had of him. Nevertheless, one cannot but marvel at the depth of his insight into the political, social and religious factors he had to negotiate in order to achieve his goals and the brilliance with which he orchestrated his plans. Study of the structure of his rebellion provides us with a better understanding of why and how movements like Yarovam’s and Qorah’s gain adherents and how we might be able to stop them from doing so.