Sometimes It Takes Courage
Haftarat Chayei Sarah, 1 Kings 1:1–31
David Friedman, UMJC rabbi, Jerusalem
Four verses of our haftarah section grabbed my attention as I read them this week:
Now Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith, put himself forward and said, “I will be king.” So he got chariots and horses ready, with fifty men to run ahead of him. (His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” He was also very handsome and was born next after Absalom.) Adonijah conferred with Joab son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest, and they gave him their support. But Zadok the priest, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, Nathan the prophet, Shimei and Rei and David’s special guard did not join Adonijah. (1 Kings 1:5–8)
We’re reading here about a palace power grab. King David was dying, and the royal family and officials knew it. In short order, a new king would have to emerge. Adonijah, one of David’s sons, did not hesitate to attempt to seize power. He did not wait for his dying father to declare a successor, nor did he wait for an official announcement from the royal officials. He decided that he was fit to be king!
The Torah informs us that Adonijah “was also very handsome, and was born next after Absalom” (1:6). By mentioning good looks and the figure of Absalom, the text associates Adonijah with Absalom. The Torah hints that Adonijah’s moves for the throne would be just as illicit as the prior effort of his brother Absalom. Adonijah had his reasons to believe he was next in line, and he immediately jumped on the opportunity to seize power as his father was dying and thus unable to interfere.
We are even told that Adonijah was spoiled: “His father had never rebuked him by asking, ‘Why do you behave as you do?’” (1:6). Perhaps prior behavioral problems spurred this editorial comment in the Torah. It appears that Adonijah had gotten used to not being restrained from carrying out his desires. And his desire was to be the acclaimed, powerful king of his people.
Adonijah aggressively took action to gain the kingship: he prepared a coronation parade—including chariots, horses and messengers. He added King David’s retired, popular, elite military commander Joab, as well as the respected cohen, Abiathar, to his entourage of supporters. So now he had a renowned military man and also a respected religious figure behind him. To Adonijah, his ascendancy to be king was a sweet “done deal”.
And then we have a sudden mention, in verse 8, of five men and a company of bodyguards who took a brave stand. By simply not joining Adonijah, they were making a strong statement. These few undoubtedly held that only King David, still alive, had the authority to name the next king. Adonijah was undoubtedly aware that his brother Solomon had been promised the kingship (rumors and news fly fast in royal settings). Speed was of the essence for Adonijah, and hopefully the king would die without being able to talk and make public his appointment of a successor. We see that Adonijah was cunning: he speedily invited those who would support him, skirting those who could bring his plans down. “[Adonijah] invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the special guard, or his brother Solomon” (1 Kings 1:9–10, emphasis added).
The support of the five influential men of verse 8 would be given to another prince, at the proper time. Each of these five men countered the influence of Adonijah’s support system: for example, the high-ranking military officer Benaiah countered Commander Joab; the opposition of Zadok the cohen countered the support of Abiathar the Cohen.
These men mentioned remind me of other Torah figures who “bucked the tide” that was headed in the wrong direction. Men like Calev and Joshua opposed the 10 tribal leaders who gave an errant accounting of the Land of Israel; the 3,000 Levites at the incident of the golden calf stood up for righteousness; Elijah our prophet stood alone against 400 false prophets on Mt. Carmel (one against 400 is extremely poor odds).
We know how our narrative concludes:
[David] then took an oath: “As surely as the Lord lives, who has delivered me out of every trouble, I will surely carry out this very day what I swore to you [Bat-Sheva] by the Lord, the God of Israel: Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne in my place.” (1 Kings 1:29–30)
Zadok, Benaiah, Nathan, Shimei, Rei, and the king’s personal guards did not join in this fray. All of these men were well-known in royal affairs. We can surmise what would have happened to them had Adonijah succeeded to grab the throne. The minimum scenario would include a loss of role and job, and expulsion from the city of David, Jerusalem. The more likely scenario would include loss of life or possible imprisonment; loss of property and threat to one’s immediate family. It would not have been easy for these men to slither away from Adonijah unnoticed, had he become the king. Nor are these five men recorded to have tried to escape. They made their decision and apparently were willing to live with the consequences.
Obviously, the stakes were high. Their decision to oppose Adonijah’s claim was a courageous act with serious implications. Have you ever been in a situation like that? Did you ever have to make a choice as to which person or cause you would back, knowing that the consequences could result in loss of employment, problems for your family, loss of reputation, persecution, maybe even loss of life? If so, then you also know that it in such a situation, it takes a lot of courage to make a firm decision.
I am disturbed when I see or experience grabs for power, especially in our communities. Such things do unfortunately occur. It takes courage on the part of leadership to stand against such actions while encouraging healing and restoration.
Our world is lacking in courage. As students of our Messiah, we are empowered by him to act courageously, wisely and compassionately. Let us not forget this. If we think that we lack the personal courage to stand up for righteousness, let us remember: “You have not because you do not ask” (James 4:2b) and, “All things that you ask for, believing, you will receive” (Matt 21:22). We can and will stand with courage, together, in order to further his kingdom.