Salt, Light, and the Sundering of Israel: Reflections in Election Week
by The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund | November 5, 2020One of the most dramatic Old Testament stories is how the Kingdom of Israel rips itself in two. It’s told in 1 Kings 9-13. Mostly, what I want to do today is retell it.
To set the stage: the ascendancy of King David unites the Israelite tribes and begins a season of triumph over Israel’s historical adversaries like the Philistines. Despite seasons of The Sopranos-esque conflict within the royal family, the Kingdom of Israel survives David’s reign intact and reaches the apogee of its power under David’s son, Solomon. This is when the real trouble starts.
Solomon is renowned for his wisdom and for accomplishing great feats of expansion, like building the Temple in Jerusalem. But despite his gifts and accomplishments, Solomon is a hard ruler (9:15-22), and he is tempted by the many gods of his many romantic interests (11:1-8). His ego and philandering will eventually be the end of the kingdom as one kingdom.
Solomon’s personal failings instigate the sundering of Israel, and these are inseparable from what we moderns might call his policies (11:9-13). Solomon’s heart is the problem (9:4, 11:9), the cause of both his own bad actions and much of the sickness in the kingdom. It’s also important to note that the sundering of Israel doesn’t happen in Solomon’s own lifetime, but in the generation following him. The damage is done, but the real fracture happens later.
When Solomon dies, his son Rehoboam succeeds him (11:41-12:1). Rehoboam is an unmitigated disaster. He hears the counsel of wiser and more experienced men who tell him that the people of Israel will follow him faithfully if he will be the people’s servant and speak good words to them (12:7). But Rehoboam rejects their counsel, preferring instead to surround himself with sycophants (12:8-11). In the crudest of locker room talk, they tell Rehoboam that the only way to outdo his dad Solomon is to be an even harsher task-master, to give his own ego even freer rein than did Solomon.
Notice what has happened: Solomon’s character sets the standard for what kingship looks like in the eyes of the younger generation. When Rehoboam becomes king, his way of surpassing his father is simply to out-Solomon Solomon, only Rehoboam lacks Solomon’s virtues. Rehoboam says to the Israelites, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (12:14).
This won’t do. The people reject Rehoboam’s leadership, crying, “What share do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse” (12:16). In other words, there is no evidence in Rehoboam’s attitude that he wants to be a servant for the whole of Israel. He has made himself the adversary of too many people, and they respond in kind.
The kingdom splits: the northern tribes run Rehoboam out of town and follow a new king named Jeroboam. (Yes, in a classic dose of biblical confusion, the two leaders’ names rhyme: Rehoboam and Jeroboam. I recommend thinking of them as simply R and J.) Rehoboam rules in the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jerusalem is, and Jeroboam rules the majority of tribes in the northern kingdom, what is sometimes called Ephraim, where places like Bethel and Dan are.
Rehoboam thinks about going to war against the north, but a prophet says, “Look, God thinks that is a really bad idea. You were a jerk, so take your licks and let them be” (12:21-24, paraphrasing). For once, Rehoboam listens to reason.
At this point, things could have died down and the two kingdoms could’ve shared a measure of peace. But it wasn’t to be. Jeroboam sets up shop in the northern territories, but he notices that his citizens continue to travel south to Jerusalem to participate in rituals at the Temple there. This is the grand Temple Solomon built, and it’s one that God clearly favors (9:1-5).
But Jeroboam is insecure about his citizens’ continuing to trek south into Rehoboam’s kingdom of Judah for all their important religious and cultural observances. So Jeroboam does the one thing every Israelite should know not to do: he makes two golden calves; builds shrines for them in Dan and Bethel so they’re convenient for everybody to get to; and then tells his citizens, “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (12:28). Insert face-palm emoji.
Here again, we see that a king’s personal failings and his policies are not easily separated. The construction of shrines and boosting the statuses of two cities are policy moves, maybe, but they are connected to Jeroboam’s own insecurities. Jeroboam seems not to trust his own citizens, living in fear of what they might do if they continue to worship the Lord in Jerusalem (12:27). Thus, golden-calf policies.
I’ve always wondered if Jeroboam would actually have preferred it if his southern rival had mustered Judah and marched north for war. It is always simpler to lead when you can point your people towards an enemy. Fear of an enemy prevents scrutiny of your own side. An enemy threat prevents leaders from having to separate their own egos from the roles they fill. But being against something is never enough to sustain a community for the long haul. It is always harder and messier to trust your people to identify and pursue corporate goods alongside you, but this work is always necessary.
One final scene is worth relating. A prophet comes up from Judah to visit Jeroboam where he is standing by the idolatrous altar he has made in Bethel. The prophet condemns Jeroboam’s using kingly power to make idolatrous golden calves. Jeroboam flies into a rage and points at the man, crying “Seize him!” But Jeroboam’s outstretched hand withers on the spot as proof that God is against him (13:1-5).
That one moment is symbolic of the whole saga. A king’s outstretched hand is a symbol of authority, an iconic exercise of power. This is doubly so when the king is standing in front of a religious site, as Jeroboam was. But when power is not exercised in accordance with God’s intentions for it, which is to say when power is not exercised on behalf of the good of the people leaders are called to serve, that power will inevitably turn back on the wielder. The hand of Jeroboam withers.
Good kings in the bible are not afraid of the truth; they are faithful shepherds like David (1 Sam. 16:11-13, for example). Solomon, Rehoboam, Jeroboam—they were not shepherds.
I intend no allegory in narrating this bit of scripture on election week. Neither President Trump nor Joe Biden nor any other candidate up for election can be mapped simply onto any one of these characters. But the narrative of Israel’s sundering is instructive for us. The questions it asks are our own
Is the United States one country or two? Will we continue to perpetuate the lie that it is possible, or even desirable, to isolate a leader’s stated policies from his or her demonstrated character (and vise versa)? Are we willing to follow the people we elect into the shrine of a golden calf, or will we continue to make our pilgrimage to Jerusalem? And perhaps most distressing of all: would we actually prefer to defend ourselves—rhetorically or literally—against our ideological enemies rather than repent of our own sins and undertake the fitful, messy work of creating a more flourishing society?
There is a reason that Jesus instructs his followers to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). Salt preserves what is good from spoiling. Light from a city on a hill is a guide to others and a bright, visible statement of hospitality in the midst of darkness. Without salt, a society’s virtues spoil over time. Israel devolves from the shepherd’s rule of King David to the wise but vainglorious Solomon, to the ego and cowardice of Rehoboam and Jeroboam. Wherever we are on this spectrum as a country, it’s clear we need more shepherds and more salt. We need fewer royal hands withering with vainglory, ego, and cowardice.
We also need more light, but frankly it’s not clear that the United States deserves to be called a city on a hill right now, despite our self-image. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that what light God has entrusted to us has been dimmed under our stewardship in recent decades. If light is about hospitality and guidance, maybe God is illuminating for us questions about whether we are actually hospitable. Are we guided by something higher than ourselves and the strongmen onto whom we project our shadows writ large? If not, then what hill are we standing on?
As I am writing this, we have no idea how the Electoral College is going to go. Who knows where it’ll be when you read this. I am no more neutral about the election than you are. Following Jesus has never invited neutrality, and I trust you feel the same. However you voted, I hope your choices were informed by the faith we share.
Our shared temptation in all this, however, is to ascribe too much significance to the decision we’re trying to make as a country, to think that once somebody gets to 270 electoral votes we will have rendered some final moral verdict.
We will have done no such thing. Remember 1 Kings: a society moves through sickness and health over generations. Any one leader may reflect that sickness or health back to us, and he or she has a measure of power to improve or worsen it. This is doubly true for us who elect our leaders every few years instead of watching kings and their descendants ascend to the throne indefinitely. We therefore have no Rehoboam or Jeroboam at whose feet we can easily lay America’s ills or successes. Our leaders’ sins are always ours, at least in part. As are their virtues. We are, in a word, responsible.
We are responsible for our neighbor’s suffering, and we share in her flourishing. We are responsible for the example set by the public figures our children and grandchildren grow up seeing on television; it is never inevitable that they come to influence. We are responsible for the fact that so many of our fellow citizens feel that their country cares so little about them, and that their votes are so meaningless, that Kanye West received over 3,600 votes in Idaho and over 10,000 in Tennessee. I find it hard to believe there were thousands of Americans who honestly felt Yeezy 2020 was a compelling ticket.
We are responsible. Americans don’t like to talk about responsibility; we prefer to talk about freedom. We like to fly the flag of I’m gonna do what I want, and so long as we use the word “rights,” we call it good. But this is not how Christians understand freedom.
One of the very first things God says of humanity is that it is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18). By definition, then, our flourishing is a flourishing-in-community. The ethic of I’m gonna do what I want might work well in a world where human existence was intrinsically solitary. That would certainly be a world in which we would want our leaders to model that behavior for us. But whatever else we could say about that world, it simply isn’t the one God made. I can therefore only assume a do what I want attitude in a world made not by God, but by me. To supplant God as world-maker in this way, either explicitly or functionally, is idolatrous. It’s also exhausting. Creating and sustaining a world is work only God can do.
What if Christians in the United States repented of our vapid rhetoric about freedom and chose instead a substantial rhetoric of responsibility—God-willing, even of care? What if we led a cultural shift that rejected condescension, disdain, cruelty, and the raw assertion of self in favor of the Christian values of peace, care for the weak, careful attention to the good of the whole, and playfulness? What if Christians in the United States were salt and light within our own borders? Would this not be truer freedom?
I believe that it would, and in the short-term, this truer freedom would give us rest. We are exhausted with voting against someone, with having our attentions fought for and piqued on social media, of having our emotions leveraged. We are weary with being told again and again that we are fighting for the soul of our country, as if this were a game of capture-the-flag with the soul of America suspended in the middle. A soul is not something possessed, but who and what one is at the most essential level. The soul of the United States is therefore not the possession of one group at the expense of another. Instead, the soul of the United States is whatever we most essentially are together.
Right now, it seems to me that the soul of America is pretty damn tired. The good news is that the way of salt and light is the way of rest.
Salt and light do what they do by their very nature; there is no great effort involved. Salt simply is salty; it preserves naturally. Light simply is the act of shining; it illuminates and guides naturally. There is a restfulness about doing what is proper to one’s nature. It allows for wholeheartedness without anxiety. Think of the fearful, angry energy Rehoboam and Jeroboam expend—there is no rest there. Is anyone really free who cannot rest?
Your nature is the image of God. Your nature is fundamentally ordered towards the benefit of your neighbor and delight in her sheer otherness. This is love, your saltiness and your shining. It is also rest for those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, as I imagine many of you are.
 This narrative arc is (roughly) in 1 Kings 9-13. All citations in this article are from 1 Kings unless otherwise noted.
 R’s kingdom = the south, contains the city of Jerusalem, usually called “Judah.” R’s kingdom includes the tribe of Judah and likely Benjamin. J’s kingdom = the north, contains the cities of Bethel and Dan and Shiloh, usually called “Ephraim” or “Israel.” J’s kingdom includes the other ten tribes. Both kingdoms are full of God’s people.
 It is a mistake to overly idealize King David, who was also a notorious sinner. Still, in the corporate imagination of the scriptural narrative, his example of fidelity to God is the rule by which other kings are judged.