A Homiletical Spiral for Preaching Old Testament Narratives
- Wednesday, July 29, 2009
"Altar! O Altar!" cried the man of God who had come from Judah. In 1 Kings 12:30, the narrator had explained in retrospect how Jeroboam's schemes had so entrapped the Israelites, causing them to "sin" by diverting their worship from Jerusalem. The man of God was from Judah, the province that contained Jerusalem, and he proclaimed that a king from Judah would burn Jeroboam's illegitimate priests upon the illegitimate altar. The word of YHWH spoke of a coming king and was attested by a sign. The man explained that as proof that what he had proclaimed was true, the altar would tear apart and the wood and fatty ashes be spilled. When Jeroboam tries to stop this by stretching out his arm and ordering the prophet's capture, his arm 'withered' to such an extant that he could bring it back to his body. The king, about to offer sacrifices to YHWH, had been miraculously enfeebled! Just then the altar tore apart and the ashes spilled as the words of YHWH had declared.
It is very easy to see that the king was reckoning with a power greater than he. The withering of the king's arm served at least two purposes in the narrative. First, readers would undoubtedly have recalled how a similar spontaneous affliction had been a sign that was given to Moses in order to authenticate his call and mission. The man of God was thus able to prove to Jeroboam and to those in attendance (and let's not forget the reader) that he was a genuine prophet of YHWH. However, if Jeroboam had not raised his arm, then it seems unlikely that his arm would have been so afflicted. The man of God did not need to legitimate himself in this way since he had already offered a sign that would validate his word. The altar had split and the ashes had been spilled immediately after the withering of Jeroboam's hand. Therefore, the narrator may have had a second purpose in mind.
In Exodus 3:20, YHWH declares that he would stretch out his hand and strike down the Egyptians. The IVP Background Bible Commentary explains that an outstretched arm was an "Egyptian metaphor" that symbolized the power and might, especially of the king, in ancient Egypt. 4 In addition, then, to the frequency with which the phrase appears in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the image of an outstretched arm was culturally and politically significant beyond the biblical story. Jeroboam's outstretched arm is yet another figurative pointer to the Egypt motif, but it also signifies something more. The Israelite king's outstretched arm was impotent to thwart God. The writer of Deuteronomy 17 understood that with the advent of the monarchy came much power to the person who was installed as king, but his power was understood to be derivative and subject to that of YHWH.
At the end of the Solomon story, the narrator mentions how Solomon had not served YHWH like his father David did. As a result, YHWH appointed an "adversary" for Solomon who had taken refuge in Egypt. Jeroboam, too, fled to Egypt when he had fled from Solomon and was given refuge there. One might say that in spite of YHWH's defeat of the Egyptians (and their gods) long ago and his more recent promise to David regarding the establishment of his throne, Egypt continued to pose a serious threat to the Davidic monarchy (and by implication, to the people's well being). That Jeroboam's outstretched arm had instantaneously withered as he reached toward the prophet reminds the reader that Egypt (metaphorically, of course 5 ) would not ultimately succeed in its endeavor to recapture the Israelites.
Hope, according to the man of God, lay in a future Judahite king who would overturn Jeroboam's religio-political reforms and restore truer forms of YHWH-worship. Josiah is mentioned by name in 1 Kings 13:2, but his story is not told until 2 Kings 22. Significant for our purposes is how the unnamed man of God of 1 Kings 13 announced that Josiah would slaughter the illegitimate priests upon the altar and burn human bones on it. Bones apparently played a significant role in Josiah's reform according to 2 Kings 23. He time and again "defiled" shrines throughout the land by pouring or burning bones on them. One would think that such a permanent way of rendering the high places unfit for worship would prevent the people from ever returning to Egypt; however, Josiah in the end was killed by (of all people) the king of Egypt himself (2 Kings 23:29). The question is raised, then, if Josiah did not accomplish what the man of God said he would, what becomes of the word of YHWH that he proclaimed? In posing an answer we should note how with the death of Josiah, the Israelites became subjects of Egypt, but they were soon turned over to Babylon. In light of our examination of the Egypt motif, it is especially interesting to recall 2 Kings 24:7: "The king of Egypt did not venture out of his country again, for the king of Babylon had seized all the land that had belonged to the king of Egypt, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates." (NJPS) Though we shall not be able to further explore the idea, it seems that the Egypt motif has been replaced by Babylon and that henceforth the Israelites no longer need to concern themselves with Egypt.
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