K. Bodner, Jeroboam's Royal Drama

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Bodner, Keith, Jeroboam's Royal Drama (Biblical Refigurations; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). Pp. x + 167. Paperback. US$27.95. ISBN 978-0-199-60188-2.

Keith Bodner's study of Jeroboam is a contribution to the Biblical Refigurations series, which examines prominent and lesser-known biblical characters within their textual, cultural, and interpretive contexts. The series showcases various methodological approaches; Bodner engages the biblical character through the dual lens of narrative criticism and theories of political power, although narrative criticism is his primary entry into the text. In the application of these methods, Bodner reveals a complex portrait of Jeroboam—not the “prototypical evil king” (p. 1) as often depicted in biblical studies—but one that shows the “compelling immediacy of a sophisticated ancient narrative, fraught with irony and imaginative vitality” (p. 141). The text's narrative art crafts Jeroboam as one who arises in response to Solomon's sins. Granted astonishing promises, these are lost only through his abuse of personal power directed to safeguard his reign and through his abuse of cultic power that fashions an alternate cult.

Bodner's prolegomena shows the way in which he applies his methodology to discern the “power profile in the Jeroboam story, and inquire as to why he is portrayed this way on the narrative canvas” (p. 3). A brief review of other interpretive works of the narrative shows how his approach builds on earlier readings. Finally, Bodner sets his own reading in three interpretive contexts. The first is that of narrative criticism. The value of narrative criticism is demonstrated throughout the monograph and Bodner's conclusion argues the value of combining narrative criticism with other methodologies. The second context attends to historical-critical concerns in a “modest” (p. 11) way. Setting the finished narrative in the exilic period as part of the Deuteronomistic History, Bodner occasionally asks how the dynamics of power might speak to such an audience. The third context explores the narrative's power dynamics. These dynamics are expressed through a network of relationships rather than in a unidirectional, top-down fashion (p. 13). Additionally, Bodner explores the divinely-sanctioned nature of the power expressed in Jeroboam's rise, noting in the interactions of Jeroboam and Ahijah a “sophisticated meditation on power” (p. 15).

Chapter 1 sets the institution of kingship in context, showing that the canonical narrative prior to the monarchy anticipates kingship and the tension inherent in the institution. In the reign of Saul, David, and Solomon, Bodner explores briefly monarchic abuse of power directed toward personal gain, tribal favouritism, and cultic control for political gain. The chapter concludes by positioning the prophetic office as that which circumscribes monarchic power. These same power dynamics extend into Jeroboam's narrative.

Bodner's five core chapters (chs. 2–6) work consecutively through 1 Kgs 11–14 with two chapters (chs. 3–4) devoted to 1 Kgs 12; each commentary chapter explores issues of power through a close narrative reading. Thus, exploration of 1 Kgs 11 shows that rebellion against Solomon arises from his abuse of power, and that Jeroboam's own rise to power is facilitated by YHWH's agent, Ahijah. The first chapter devoted to 1 Kgs 12 explores Jeroboam as critique of royal power and as foil to Rehoboam's exercise of power; the second chapter devoted to 1 Kgs 12 shows Jeroboam's misuse of royal power in the construction of the golden calves and how that abuse compares to Ahijah's prophetic commission. First Kings 13 works with the incident of the prophet and the man of God as a political allegory, a play-within-a-play (pp. 97–98) that highlights Jeroboam's inflexibility in the face of complex power interactions. It is his inflexibility that assures his own loss of power. Finally, 1 Kgs 14 notes the implacable power of YHWH and his prophet while contributing to the subtle characterization of Jeroboam through the narrative of Jeroboam's wife. Yet, despite the fine narrative exploration, this chapter does not directly address her own powerlessness and what that might communicate of Jeroboam, focusing instead on her role as grieving mother and its emblematic power in the ongoing experience of Israel and Judah (pp. 137–8).

The treatment of Jeroboam's wife shows that Bodner's use of the lens of power is a secondary window into the text. He is attuned to issues of power and they inform both his questions and the conclusions he presents. But it is the lens of narrative criticism that is prominent as he unfolds the narrative. It is this method in which Bodner is particularly adept.

Applying narrative methodology, Bodner draws out clearly the subtle characterization of Jeroboam. This is often achieved by contrasting Jeroboam to other narrative characters. For instance, noting details of the text that reveal Solomon was already married to a foreign wife before ascending the throne, Bodner points to Solomon's long legacy of misconduct (p. 33). Bodner suggests that the narrative—which at no time speaks of a harem for Jeroboam—at least allows for Jeroboam to be positively compared to Solomon on this count (p. 124). More, when Jeroboam is introduced as God's chosen replacement for the king he is painted in tones reminiscent of David's rise, which suggests the replacement will have a “career trajectory not dissimilar to David” (p. 35). Further contrast is made in the characters' exercise of power: both Solomon and Rehoboam exercise (and misuse) power through discipline and punishment. Jeroboam, however, exercises power initially through prophet-directed resistance. Only when his resistance moves to populist cultic reforms is his God-given power misused (pp. 94–96). Bodner works carefully with the narrative of Jeroboam's cultic reforms, showing that these “objects of power” (p. 79) become the means by which Jeroboam loses YHWH's support.

Bodner attends to narrative motifs as is common in narrative criticism. Thus, the motifs of the hand (pp. 34–35, 105, 128) and torn clothing (pp. 34–35, 104) are carefully traced, showing how they contribute to the bestowal and removal of Jeroboam's power. Bodner also spends time drawing out canonical connections suggested by the narrative details, and this brings added interest to the narrative exploration. Many of these are expected connections, as, e.g., in the case of Jeroboam's return from Egypt which finds parallels in Moses and the Exodus account (pp. 63–64). Others are unexpected and raise the question as to which of such parallels can be legitimately drawn. Thus, when Jeroboam is promoted over the labour of the house of Joseph, should his cloak (which plays an important role in the drama) construe him in the guise of Joseph (p. 53)? Or later, when blind Ahijah is paralleled to Eli, should the parallel also extend to compare Jeroboam's wife to the wife of Phinehas (pp. 125–6)? Bodner raises such possibilities in reading but does not predicate his whole argument upon them; one can thus consider his comparatives but agreement with them is not necessary to affirm his overall argument.

Finally, a note about Bodner's writing style which unmistakeably carries his distinctive voice. It is engaging and often playful, as evidenced by the numerous headings that mark narrative sections of text (for instance, “Dressed for Success” heads the discussion of Ahijah ripping Jeroboam's cloak; “Rags to Riches” heads the discussion of Ahijah's prophetic words to Jeroboam). The headings are appropriate to the content, will bring a smile to those who are familiar with the narrative, and also serve to draw in those for whom the narrative (and biblical studies) feels unfamiliar and too stuffy. Notes are sufficient for further study but not overwhelming; an extensive bibliography provides access to further reading. A subject index is helpfully provided.

Bodner's narrative exposition of Jeroboam's royal drama is an engaging read for non-specialists, introducing them to the subtlety of Hebrew narrative and the formative power of Jeroboam's rule. For specialists, Bodner's careful study is able to provide fresh insights and new avenues into this crucial tale.

Lissa M. Wray Beal, Providence Theological Seminary