Early Israelite prophets are not averse to a little drama! Moreover, their choice of dramatic form is often quite effective and instructive. One of the more striking and poetic moments is when Ahijah prophesies that Jeroboam will become the king of Israel.
Jeroboam has a new garment he is wearing that day—perhaps a cloak. Ahijah finds Jeroboam while he is out in a field, pulls the new cloak off of him, and tears it into twelve pieces! (1 Kings 11: 29-30).
How must Jeroboam be feeling as Ahijah is doing this? It is quite striking that he is willing to meekly stand there and let Ahijah pull this stunt in the first place. Jeroboam is explicitly described as “a mighty man of valour” (v. 28), and has a position of high authority in Solomon’s administration, so he is accustomed to being treated with quite a bit of deference, and he is capable of extracting deference from the unwilling when necessary. Yet here he accepts what would normally be a major affront to his dignity, bordering on assault. Evidently he knows Ahijah and respects his role quite a lot.
Ahijah then hands Jeroboam back ten pieces out of the twelve—not even the whole of the original garment. The drama of watching his clothing torn apart is almost eclipsed by what Ahijah says next, however: “thus saith the Lord . . . I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to thee” (1 Kings 11:31).
Jeroboam is to be king over ten of the tribes of Israel, and over half of its current territory. One might think that he would think of this as good news, something to be rather excited about. Who doesn’t want to be king? Jeroboam has shown great ability in administering a few things; perhaps he feels he would deserve to be made ruler over many things. Jeroboam might be tempted by the nature of the announcement to take it as an enormous compliment, being chosen by God, and an occasion for jubilant celebration. One would really hope that the choice of a king would be both of these things.
The manner of Ahijah’s announcement, however, clearly shows that in this case it is not good news at all, and no one should be celebrating. A beautiful garment that was whole before will be ripped apart. Jeroboam’s ascension to the throne will involve a rift in Israel that will not be healed until the end times. More, the garment is not just ripped in half, but into twelve pieces. The division will go much deeper than a division of the kingdom in two. Rather, in the wake of Jeroboam’s rule we see the northern kingdom of Israel rocked by a series of violent succession struggles, making Judah look idyllic by comparison. Where Solomon received tribute from far and wide, neighboring powers are now emboldened to attack the divided nation, both north and south. The northern tribes plausibly see their rejection of the rule of Solomon’s son Rehoboam as an escape from affliction (1 Kings 12:1-16), but it turns out to be an exchange of one affliction for a set of deeper and more intractable ones.
The personal confrontation of pulling off Jeroboam’s own cloak is quite remarkable, but is also integral to the message of the prophecy. Ahijah’s language, “I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon . . .” might suggest pulling a cloak off of Solomon, rather than Jeroboam, or at least bringing another cloak for the occasion rather than taking Jeroboam’s. Yet if Ahijah had brought another garment to rip apart before Jeroboam, handing him ten pieces would still have seemed to imply some gain for Jeroboam himself, and it is not. The suggestion seems to be that while he will become king, he would be better off continuing in his current role as an officer. Where Jeroboam before had enjoyed a beautiful, new garment, representing Israel’s strong and peaceful unity, he is handed ten torn pieces, divided against the others and with emboldened enemies. Not only does the nation in general suffer, but Jeroboam himself reaps a legacy of sorrow. When his son Abijah is sick, Jeroboam turns to Ahijah, hoping for a favorable message from the prophet. Instead he receives a rebuke, and his son dies. While another son, Nadab, inherits the throne from Jeroboam, he is killed after two years, and all of Jeroboam’s other descendants are wiped out along with him.
As vivid as the message of the prophecy is, sadly, Jeroboam does not take it to heart. The metaphor of the torn garment urges Jeroboam not to see his kingship as an opportunity for personal gain, but to recognize the division of the kingdom as a terrible collective loss. The people of the northern kingdom do not fundamentally want to be separate from the people of Judah; they are simply asking for a lighter burden of service and taxation. Jeroboam has the opportunity to build a secure heritage through faithfulness to God (1 Kings 11:38), and to lay the groundwork for unity with Judah under a better king. However, instead Jeroboam deliberately deepens the division in Israel, radically changing their religious practices and revising the exodus narrative, to entrench the separate loyalty of the northern tribes. This idolatry leads to generations of waywardness and suffering, and ultimately to Israel’s capture and scattering by Assyria.
Though the prophecy is briefly described, and its form initially baffling, the history that follows shows that its distinctive symbolism is richly appropriate.