The strains that existed in the Jewish kingdom became evident even during the lifetime of King Solomon.
The Jewish people, by nature, are very difficult to unite. They are fiercely independent and independent-minded. The unity that existed during the reigns of Kings Saul, David and Solomon was not artificial, but it depended upon the grandeur of the leader’s personality. Ordinary leaders are incapable of holding the Jewish people together. Unfortunately, the Sauls, Davids and Solomons of the world are rare. That is why most of the time the Jewish people do not find themselves united.
By Solomon’s time, the Jewish people had defeated their enemies, built the Temple, developed a burgeoning economy, become the center of the civilized world and achieved peace. They had reached the zenith. The problem with reaching the top is that the only way to go is down.
It only took a few years after the death of Solomon (I Kings 11:43) for the Jewish kingdom to divide and become two irrevocably separate kingdoms. The ten northern tribes made their own government and were called Israel with their capital the city of Samaria. The two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained loyal to the House of David centered in Jerusalem. They became known and the kingdom of Judea (from whence the word “Jew” was eventually derived).
This division continued for approximately160 years until the Assyrians defeated the kingdom of Israel, sending it into exile. That left only the kingdom of Judea, which itself existed just another 160 years until the Babylonians conquered them and drove them into exile.
The event that Jewish Tradition marks as the beginning of the end for the Jewish kingdom was Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh. That single act undermined him in his role as leader.
There was a brilliant young scholar at the time by the name of Jeroboam ben Nebat. He would become one of Judaism’s greatest villains and the man singly responsible for sealing the tragic fate of the kingdom. In truth, he was an extraordinarily gifted, superior person with an abundance of charisma, as well as a great organizer and, above all, a magnificent scholar.
How could such a person fail so miserably?
The force which drove all his actions – indeed, his life – was not a desire to better king and country but the pursuit of power. That was the fuel that burned in his engine.
Why did Jeroboam deserve to be king, the Talmud asks? Because he was not afraid to chastise Solomon. Why did he come to such an evil end, the Talmud asks? Because he did it publicly, for his own self-aggrandizement, in a way to show up Solomon.
That was the beginning of his undoing.
When Solomon died his son Rehoboam became king (I Kings 11:43). He was young, vain, unaccomplished, overbearing and prone to follow bad advice.
Solomon had not died a popular king. Nevertheless, if Rehoboam would have put the peoples’ best interests first they would have followed him. However, if he was going to continue to exploit and tax the people heavily for his own grandiose pleasures, then they did not want him.
The prophets and sages of the Sanhedrin advised him to go easy on the people. “Gain their confidence. The throne is not that secure. Do not say or do anything rash that might break up the Jewish people.”
In one of the most foolish decisions of all time, Rehoboam listened to the advisors who told him to deal harshly with the people: “My father chastised you with whips. I will whip you with scorpions” (I Kings 12:14).
Jeroboam was waiting in the wings just for a moment like that. He was the newcomer with bundles of charisma promising change. That is why right after Rehoboam made his fateful speech the people came to Jeroboam and asked him to be king (I Kings 12:20).
The ten northern tribes followed him in a bloodless rebellion. Combined they owned 75% of what was once a single kingdom. They also had a much more powerful army. Indeed, during much of the nearly two centuries of its life the Northern Kingdom was a formidable empire in its own right.
By contrast, Judea, which according to most estimates never had more than 600,000 people during the First Temple era, controlled not more than a few square miles of hilly, unfertile land. Moreover, for the majority of the time they were a land-locked country without access to the Mediterranean Sea and could not conduct business without incurring debts to the traders that controlled the coast.
However, they possessed one great asset: Jerusalem.
The Bible commands all Jews to make at least three pilgrimages every year to the Temple (Deuteronomy 16:16). Jeroboam knew that if his new kingdom was to survive he had to undermine the centrality of Jerusalem.
“And Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now [with the pilgrimage festival approaching] the kingdom is [in danger of] returning to the house of David. If this people go up to bring sacrifices in the house of God at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn back to their master, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go back to Rehoboam king of Judah’” (I Kings 12:26-27).
Consequently, he had made his fateful decision and forbade the Jews under his control from going to Jerusalem. To enforce his decree, he mobilized the military and placed armed guards all along the border. In effect, he made the Berlin Wall.
That act sealed the schism between the north and south.
The Cement that Binds the Jewish People
It is important to understand that by forbidding travel to Jerusalem, Jeroboam effectively nullified the unifying force of the Jewish people: Judaism. The cement that binds the Jewish people together is the Torah. Removing the cement results in an extremely fractured people.
However, the Jewish people cannot exist without believing in something, even if it is atheism. All the “ism’s” of the twentieth century found devoted armies of religiously-orphaned Jewish followers – oftentimes leaders – for their cause, notwithstanding the fact that Jews ultimately suffered the most from movements like Communism and Socialism. Jews are believers.
Once Jeroboam stripped his kingdom of belief in God he had to find a substitute to funnel the peoples’ natural inclination for transcendent meaning. The Jewish people had sinned with the Golden Calf, and even centuries later its aftereffects were still burned into their bloodstream like a dormant virus. Jeroboam exploited that and introduced the worship of not just one but two golden calves (I Kings 12:28).
He set them up at all the key points on his side of the border. At the same time, he disparaged the Jews of Judea. Their beliefs were old fashioned and out of step with modernity, he told his many followers. His movement was progressive. Through him they would become part of a greater world.
In addition to the golden calves, Jeroboam opened the land to the importation of non-Jewish deities like Baal, Asherah and other Phoenician gods. In a short time, the majority of the Jewish people became largely non-Jewish in their outlook and behavior. Virtually everything that leaders from the time of Samuel had accomplished to eradicate idolatry from the Jewish people was undone by Jeroboam in almost no time. It takes a long time to build something, but not much time to destroy it.
Jeroboam became the prime example of someone who “sinned and caused the masses to sin (I Kings 14:16)”. Everyone’s sin was “accredited” to him. As a result he lost his share in the World to Come, the Talmud says.
The Forces of History
All subsequent monarchs of the kingdom of Israel followed Jeroboam’s lead. Not one of them was a believer in God.
In Judea, it was cyclical: there were good kings and bad kings. Every other generation or so a great king stepped forward and strengthened the faith of the people in Torah and God. That never happened among the kings of the Northern Kingdom. They followed the mold of Jeroboam.
Furthermore, the Northern Kingdom never had a dynasty. There was a father, a son and then a coup with an assassination. That sums up their entire history. It was a history no different than any of the other nations of the time. Revolutions, assassinations, paganism, idolatry, empire, war, aggression – that is the legacy Jeroboam left.
Nevertheless, the Northern Kingdom was more successful in a secular sense than the Kingdom of Judea to its south. Of course, in terms of Jewish eternity and simple survival there was no comparison. The northern tribes were exiled never to return. They ended up on the ashbin of history. If you behave like history, then the natural forces of history act upon you. Only when you behave in a meta-historical way can you rise above history and the forces that act upon the masses.
The schism that Jeroboam caused within the Jewish kingdom was the beginning of the end. The Jewish people never again had twelve tribes working together. There was never even a movement to reunite. The ten northern tribes slipped inexorably toward the bottomless pit of history.
Judea was saved because 1) they were not seduced by and entrenched in idol worship, 2) the dynasty of David and 3) the prophets who were able to influence them, and 4) the Temple in Jerusalem. Those elements saved Judea from the fate that befell the Northern Kingdom.
All the events of Tanach – the twenty-four books of the Bible — are repeated over and over again in history. They are not anecdotes of what happened, but guidelines to current and future behavior as well. The eternal lessons about divided kingdom are as much about the utter destructiveness of selfish leaders as they are about what can bring a naturally fractious, independent-minded people together as one.
 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.
 Talmud, Sanhedrin 101b.
 See also II Chronicles, Chapter 10.
 Talmud, Sanhedrin 102a.
 Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a.
 See Sanhedrin 110b.
 Nicholas Berdyaev (1874-1948), a non-Jewish Russian philosopher, wrote: “…their destiny [i.e. the destiny of the Jewish people] is too imbued with the metaphysical to be explained in either material or positive historical terms…. I remember how the materialist interpretation of history, when I attempted in my youth to verify it by applying it to the destinies of all other peoples, worked. But it broke down in the case of the Jews…. Their destiny seemed absolutely inexplicable from the materialistic standpoint. And indeed, according to the materialistic and positivist criterion, this people ought long ago to have perished.”