When Solomon in his youthful fury banished old priest Abiathar to his rural backwater hometown of Anathoth little did he know what he was storing up for his descendents. Unlike his father David, who was politically astute and who knew instinctively what his people could bear, Solomon, in his haste to establish himself as sole king in Israel murdered Joab, and his half brother, and established Zadok as his priest in Jerusalem.
David, by contrast, knew that to head off any possible insurgency, and to secure the fragile alliance between North and South he had to walk a delicate line. Jerusalem was central to the strategy, a city unconquered by the tribes and after his startling conquest of the city he established it as his “neutral” capital, created a standing army and began putting in place the infrastructure for kingship.
People would have been sniffy enough about urban living without adding into the mix a new method of governing the nation, so David retains two priests. Zadok, who represented everywhere that Israel was going under David—establishing royalty as the dominant model of government and the foremost religious motif. And since the management of this journey of change would be complex he added Abiathar into the mix. Abiathar could trace his lineage long back. His conservative credentials were unquestioned. And with these two in harness David established his kingdom and brought the nation together.
Solomon destroyed it almost as soon as he rose to the throne. By listening to his young, hothead advisors, he chose one route, much as his father did, but without his father’s political nous. With the banishing of Abiathar, Solomon alienated a significant proportion of his people, and breathed new life into the old enmities. The kingdom splits, rallied by the cry ‘to your tents O Israel!’, a summoning to the ancient ways perhaps.
From there the trajectory of both nations was inexorably downwards. The southern kingdom holds out a little longer, until the rise of Nebuchanezzar, the Babylonian king. But as the end approaches, and the experiment with kings comes to an end, an ancient voice emerges onto the scene, coming from of all places, the rural backwater of Anathoth, and from a priestly family at that.
Jeremiah, who had his doubts about the city of Jerusalem, and the kingship, and despised the prophets, priests and leaders in a city that only fed people what they wanted to hear, was a voice calling them to the old faithfulnesses. Not simply a reactionary conservative and more than a grumpy old man. He read the culture of his day and saw through the surface performance of religious activity and the commodification of faith.
The culture of faith today badly needs Jeremiahs. With our religious trinkets, our conference circuits, our obsession with pragmatic spiritualities and corporate approaches to church growth we retain the surface of faith but may be more in thrall to the world than we are capable of noticing. Who’s living in ‘Anathoth’ today, watching us, inwardly seething with a righteous anger, waiting for the right time to speak? And what might he or she say to us? Who and what would be the targets?