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The Rehoboam Syndrome and Its Cure


Much of the Hebrew Bible undermines the prevailing view of power and hierarchical control in the ancient Near East. From the creation stories that hold male and female in equality, even to rejecting the patrilocal concept of the “house of the father,”[1] to the repeated rejection of the primogeniture,[2] to the rise of Nimrod and the tower of Babel, hierarchy and control suffer from the stories and their telling. Then, in a clear voice of protest, Judge and Prophet Samuel, counters Israel’s demand for a king with the divine message about the king’s ways. The entire statement centers on the verb “to take” as its leading word. He will take and take and take until Israel will be his slaves.[3] The response of the Israelites to this somber message is, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”[4] Though their desire for someone to govern them may stem from the concern in Judges 21, due to the terrible event of the Levite’s concubine, Samuel has already pointed out that having a king will not solve the problems of immorality that exist among them. They persist and God permits them to have a king, but he chooses someone of Benjamin, the tribe whose evil deed caused Israel initially to want a king.[5]

Power corrupts, and Saul aborted the divinely given arrangement of God first, prophet second, and king third by disobeying the prophetic word. Consequently, God turns to another and promises King David that he will have a perpetual dynasty. Yet David’s successor, Solomon, fulfills Samuel’s prophecy of how a king would abuse his power. So much so that, when he dies, the Israelites beg his successor, Rehoboam, to lighten up his heavy handedness. The older men also advise him with these words: “If you will be a servant to this people and serve them . . . , then they will be your servants forever.” Such a concept of the king as servant to the people, foreign to the rest of the ancient world, led Rehoboam to refuse and promise harsher measures than his father had shown. In consequence, the entire northern Israelite community splits off from the tribe of Judah and form its own kingdom. Power not only corrupts; it divides. Which side, then, did God endorse in the split —north or south? The best answer may be “Neither.” Yet a little-known prophet makes one thing clear: God supported the split.[6]

The Rehoboam cause ended in ultimate tragedy for both sides: both went into exile; one side came home again. But that side eventually suffered from disunity with two sides—Pharisees and Sadducees—not getting along with each other. They finally found unity, not in what they shared in common, but rather in what they opposed: Jesus. It took both sides to put their Messiah to death. And here lies a new truth: both sides were wrong, not merely by the false beliefs that they held, but by their rejection of the One who brought them the truth. They missed the Way to the Father because they let their desires for power and supremacy blind them to the mission of Jesus. They huddled in their groups precisely because they needed people to control as a means to exercising authority and power. And when the group got too big and too diverse, division became the means of purification and regaining of power.

God has always had a problem with groups: groups tend to let Him down because they huddle and keep to themselves, lean toward power, and try to determine who belongs and who does not. The only group that God gave His Son to save is the whole world.[7] He has only developed groups because it was the best way to try to get the word of His saving grace out to the world, to inclusively mingle with and draw in all kinds of people. Yet each of His groups has tended to do the opposite of His plan. To quote Jesus: “You lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. . . . You cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”[8]

The true group will not huddle and fight to keep people out because the Way is not limited to a group but resembles a path, “a straight and narrow path, cast high above the world” of pride, selfishness, and power. As long as they keep “their eyes fixed on Jesus” who is right in front of them, they will be safe.[9] This narrow path may well be the line between the two sides, yet that line is not a balance of both sides combined but rather a third perspective built on the original truths that both sides have lost. Many on either side of that narrow road will not join the middle line that divides them because neither side is willing to get close enough to the other side to find it. To get close to the other side requires humility and love; and desires for control destroy these qualities.


L. Jean Sheldon, is Professor of Old Testament at Pacific Union College. She specializes in Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Rehoboam's Insolence by Hans Holbein


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[1] In which the newly wed husband brought his wife from her parents to live with his family (Gen. 2:24).

[2] In which the younger was preferred over the older: Isaac over Ishmael; Jacob over Esau; Judah over Reuben; Ephraim over Manasseh; and Moses over Aaron.

[3] 1 Samuel 8:10-17. The verb is actually implied two times more in the Hebrew text (see the NRSV).

[4] 1 samuel 8:19, 20, NRSV.

[5] See Judges 19-21, especially 21:25.

[6] 1 Kings 12:20-24.

[7] John 3:16.

[8] Matthew 23:13, 15, NRSV.

[9] Ellen G. White, Early Writings (Washington, D.C.: The Ellen G. White Publications, 1982), 14.

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