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 won’t solve the problems of immorality that exist among them. They persist and God permits them to have a king, but 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 their 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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8091
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What a precise description of the present power struggle in the Church. Group-thinking vs. embracing cultural, existential and theological plurality. Thanks!

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The Rehoboam Syndrome and Its Cure (3 July 2017) by Jean Sheldon was fascinating reading. These lines particularly hit home as I am thinking about unity in our church, in our political priorities on this July 4 weekend:
“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.”
Very wise words for us today, It’s not knowing “doctrine” that’s important, it’s knowing God. Only through entering into an intimate, personal relationship with the living God and leaving behind any false doctrines and theologies created by men and church tradition (male supremacy, etc), can we ever hope to find the unity Jesus prayed for: “I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be made perfect in one…Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory…” (John 17:23-24). How many times have we heard that somebody was “causing division in the church?” Well, maybe they were supposed to! After all, there are two things that cause division according to the Bible: truth and error. Too many in positions of leadership have "…let their desires for power and supremacy blind them to the mission of Jesus.”

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But Rehoboam doubles down:

“Whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, so shall I add tenfold thereto. Whereas my father chastised (tortured) you with whips, so shall I chastise you with scorpions. For my littlest finger is thicker than my father’s loins; and your backs, which bent like reeds at my father’s touch, shall break like straws at my own touch.”[3]

This is an example of a developmental failure of a child to say no to his father, an important psychological milestone necessary to acquire an autonomous self. Failure to do so cripples the child psychologically to the extent that his potentials are limited to his father’s identity, thus giving truth to “The apple does not fall far from the tree.” As a consequence of Rehoboam’s failure to master his “oedipal complex” stage, Israel suffers and the the United Monarchy of Israel splits up.

History repeats itself with the current SDA GC leadership and the WO debacle. Why is our fearless leader TW unable to reverse his father’s WO policy trajectory? Potent evidence that a leader should have acquired the psychological spine to say no to his father before being able to lead for all. Likewise, shall we watch as the United Monarchy of SDA split under TW’s watch?

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this is an interesting take on egw’s first vision, so endemic to classical adventism, in view of her important subsequent prophecy that “divisions will come in the church”, and that “two parties will be developed”, 1SM:114, which is, of course, just what we are seeing now…i’ve heard interpretations of 1SM:114 center around the concept that one party in the church is the “wheat”, and the other party is the “tares”, since the second part of this prophecy moves directly from an outline of “two parties” to a description of “wheat” and “tares” growing up “together for the harvest”…generally, it isn’t hard to find exponents of conservative adventism express the view that conservatives are the “wheat”, and liberals are the “tares”…but this article implies, as I have tended to think, that the prophecy actually specifies that “wheat” and “tares” will develop in both parties…

i suppose we are now waiting to see what “two parties” actually means…does it mean a formal split, as in two rival GC’s, which would definitely recall the rehoboam split, or does it simply mean a continuance of what we have now, which is an uneasy truce for the sake of world unity and finances punctuated by recurring displays of separate visions, such as the recent Unity2017 and ordination of la sierra’s beverly maravilla, and actual battles for power, such as san antonio 2015 and annual council 2016…for egw’s prophecy to mean an actual rehoboam split, i believe we would need to see one part of the church rebel completely against church authority and voluntarily leave…if the GC excises pro-WO unions because they are defying a sitting GC vote, as some are calling for, we of course would have a split, but this wouldn’t be a rehoboam split…in the rehoboam split, ten tribes left judah of their own accord, while one tribe stayed…and it was only the prophet shemaiah’s warning that prevented rehoboam from forcing the ten tribes to return…

of course a split of any kind will be unsettling for the average adventist, to say the least…the fact that other denominations have split along some of the same fissures as WO will be little comfort…those whose heart is in the visions of our prophet will likely need to learn to depend wholly on our invisible god without a sense of any institutional props…can this be part of what another egw prophecy means, which says that the 144,000 will see “every earthly support cut off”, DA:121…

i have to say that the combination of san antonio 2015 and the donald trump presidency in 2016 has plunged me into such a state of cynicism, that were the ten unions that hosted Unity2017 to suddenly announce that they were leaving the GC, i can’t say i’d feel surprised, at all…in fact i’d likely see a corollary between the ten tribes who left rehoboam and the ten unions leaving the GC…equally, if TW decided to reduce PUC and CUC into mission fields, i’d probably feel that i’d seen it coming…my sense is that the world and our church have turned an important corner…we are not now where we were just two short yrs ago, nor are we accelerating in the same direction…

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Saul, David, Solomon, Rehoboam…Pharisees, Sadducees…

TW, SA2015, GC, WO…

Trump, North Korea, ISIS…

SUNday law, close of probation, time of trouble, death decree…

But, but , but… I am told in church that…“GOD is in control”

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Dr. Sheldon,

I’d like to submit a couple of observations on some of the statements made in the article. It really is fascinating that different people reading the same Biblical passage can have such varied understandings. I think the assumptions we bring to the text make a tremendous difference.

In relating the story of Rehoboam’s crippling taxation which caused the ten tribes of Israel to rebel and leave him king over only Judah & Benjamin, you ask the question, 'which side did God support in the split?'
Scripture tells us that God engineered the split. 1Kings 12:15 says, 'So the king did not listen to the people (the advice of the elders); for it was a turn of events from the Lord, that he might establish His word, which the Lord spoke through Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nabat.‘
This word of Ahijah to Jeroboam (who would become king of the ten northern tribes) was recorded in 1Kings 11:29-32. In vs31 Ahijah says’…for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I will tear the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and give you ten tribes.’ This account is verified in 2Chron 10:15.
So, even though Rehoboam listened to his younger counsellors and raised taxes it was really God’s idea and His purpose was to remove most of the kingdom from Solomon’s heirs, which is what transpired.

As I study Scripture I see many instances where God overrules men’s thoughts (or simply injects new thoughts into our minds) for His own purposes. See, for example, Judges 14:1-4; 2Sam 24:1; Prov 20:24; 21:1; Rom 9:11-23. This is a difficult idea to wrap one’s head around for anyone, but especially for those who believe that God never interferes with man’s free will.
So, we are left in somewhat of a quandary. Which of our thoughts (and resulting actions) are ours and which are from God? At this point we cannot know but I believe eventually all will be explained and we will see (and agree with) God’s reasons for acting as He does through us. (I think this is one reason why we are warned to be careful when we judge others). In this age, many of the ways God chooses to implement His plans are beyond our understanding.
This, of course, does not lessen our call to be faithful, submit to God’s chastening and grow in grace to become more Christlike (to nourish the seed of Christ growing within, in other words).

The article also states that, ‘The Rehoboam cause ended in ultimate tragedy for both sides…’. I would agree that the imposition of God’s will on the Jewish people in this situation would have been very disruptive but, since God’s plan for humanity has yet to fully unfold, I’m not sure we should label anything as an ultimate tragedy.

You also wrote that ‘The only group that God gave his son to save is the whole world.’ I agree.
So, I guess the question I would ask you is, do you believe Jesus will ultimately succeed in His mission?

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To be on the side of Christ is to walk on higher ground in humility and in pure love to those whose redemption Christ has purchased. Christ did secure forgiveness and the gift of eternal life for every human being ever born. We can in his power and love live to demonstrate the hope of Christ for every person whichever side they place themselves on in whatever issue is facing their lives or facing their country or their church. Sadly so few of us will be consumed by this great love, but will instead of resisting the power structure of the world, will resist heaven.

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He is. Was He not in control during the time before that men clamored for leaders who did not heed God?
It just gets very uncomfortable sometimes. Prophecy indicates that things like these will occur. They are sad but we should expect them.

Awesome Jean! Let us keep prophesying and hoping that whoever among us that lusts for power will begin to seek the true power that comes from within and cannot be voted or taken away - the power to love. That - pure and simple - will keep us together.