Image: Jeroboam’s Wife Visits the Prophet Ahijah
Painter: Frans van Mieris (1635-1681)
On this Mother’s Day I want to tell a sad story. It is the story of a mother’s love for a sick son and the agony of her heart as she contemplated the imminent death of her child. It is a sad story found in the Bible, but a story that most Bible readers have probably never read, or if they have, they have probably not understood the pathos behind this mother’s agony.
This is the story of Jeroboam’s wife. Her story is found in 1 Kings 14:1-18. Since most Bible readers are unfamiliar with this woman’s story, I will quote only a section of the story. Maybe before you continue reading this post, you should read the story in its entirety. Here is a summary of the story:
At that time Abijah son of Jeroboam fell sick. Jeroboam said to his wife, “Go, disguise yourself, so that it will not be known that you are the wife of Jeroboam, and go to Shiloh; for the prophet Ahijah is there, who said of me that I should be king over this people. Take with you ten loaves, some cakes, and a jar of honey, and go to him; he will tell you what shall happen to the child.”
Jeroboam’s wife did so; she set out and went to Shiloh, and came to the house of Ahijah. Now Ahijah could not see, for his eyes were dim because of his age. But the LORD said to Ahijah, “The wife of Jeroboam is coming to inquire of you concerning her son; for he is sick. Thus and thus you shall say to her.” When she came, she will pretend to be another woman.
When Ahijah heard the sound of her feet, as she came in at the door, he said, “Come in, wife of Jeroboam; why do you pretend to be another? For I am charged with heavy tidings for you. Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam. I will cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will consume the house of Jeroboam, just as one burns up dung until it is all gone. Anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat; and anyone who dies in the open country, the birds of the air shall eat; for the LORD has spoken.”
Therefore set out, go to your house. When your feet enter the city, the child shall die. Then Jeroboam’s wife got up and went away, and she came to Tirzah. As she came to the threshold of the house, the child died (1 Kings 14:1-6, 10-12, 17).
The first thing we discover when reading the story about this mother is that her name is never mentioned and she never says a word throughout the whole ordeal. Although in this story Jeroboam, the prophet Ahijah, and God speak, the sick child and his mother never say a word. Since her name is never mentioned, this mother goes into history in anonymity.
The story begins with the statement that the child of the king was very sick and probably dying because of his illness. In desperation, Jeroboam summons his wife and tells her to disguise herself and go see the prophet Ahijah. Without saying a word, the woman did what her husband told her to do.
Because the name of the woman is never mentioned, because she does not speak throughout the ordeal, and because she did not say a word to her husband, Robin G. Branch, in her book Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women, believes that Jeroboam’s wife was an abused woman.
Branch writes: “The wife of Jeroboam and her marriage indicates the classic signs of spousal abuse. Granted, the verses about her reveal no physical beating. But other textual evidence suggests that she is an abused wife and that Jeroboam is the abuser” (2009: 96).
I disagree with this evaluation of Jeroboam and his wife. To come to her conclusion, Branch has to read between the lines and has to extrapolate from the text characteristics of abuse which, in my opinion, are not there.
Jeroboam was not a saint, but what we have here is the story of a father and a mother who are desperate because their son is in critical condition and probably dying. It was the love of parents that prompted the king and his wife to seek the prophet of God. They loved their son. So, in order to find help for him, Jeroboam and his wife are willing to do whatever is necessary to save their son.
One thing they do is to consult the prophet Ahijah. Jeroboam sent his wife to consult the prophet because he believed the man of God could heal his son. Ahijah was the prophet who announced that Jeroboam would become king of the northern tribes after the death of Solomon.
After he became king, Jeroboam abandoned the Lord. Jeroboam built temples at Bethel and Dan and established the worship of the golden calves in these sanctuaries. Thus, Jeroboam initiated the pagan practices that eventually caused the destruction of the Northern Kingdom.
Another thing that Jeroboam did was to ask his wife to disguise herself and take some provisions for the prophet. The gift she brought was a common way of recompensing a prophet for his services.
A possible reason Jeroboam sent his wife was because he was afraid of what the prophet would say about his religious apostasy. Thus, he sent his wife disguised as a poor woman with a humble gift in order to gain a more favorable judgment from the prophet.
Ahijah was an old man and had lost his vision: “Now Ahijah could not see, for his eyes were dim because of his age” (1 Kings 14:4). The Lord revealed to him that Jeroboam’s wife was coming to visit him and God gave the prophet a message to be communicated to the king. “When she comes, she will pretend to be another woman.”
When Jeroboam’s wife arrived at the prophet’s house, although she was disguised in order to deceive him, Ahijah invited her to come into his house and immediately told her that she was Jeroboam’s wife: “Come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why are you pretending to be someone else? I’ve been told to give you some terrible news.”
Instead of giving good news to the woman about her sick child, Ahijah pronounced a judgment upon her husband and his kingdom. Although the prophet was kind to the woman, his words to her husband were harsh words of judgment. Ahijah spoke about what God had done for Jeroboam and how the Lord had promised him the kingdom after Solomon, but because he had departed from the Lord by promoting idolatry and pagan practices, and because he had done evil in the sight of the Lord by leading God’s people astray, the Lord was bringing judgment upon him, his house, and his kingdom.
In addition, Ahijah told Jeroboam’s wife bad news about her son. The woman had come to Ahijah’s house hoping for a positive word from the prophet that would bring healing to the child. Instead, he said that after she returned to her sick child who was left at home with his father the king in Tirzah, as soon as she enters the city and as soon as she came to the threshold of her house, her son would die.
In the words of the prophet one can begin to see the broken heart of a mother and the agony of love: she knew that as soon as she returned to her house, her son would die. She left the prophet’s house knowing what would happen when she arrived home.
She now has to make a decision: “do I run away from home so that my son may live or do I go home knowing that each step I take is one more step toward my son’s death?” Although the text does not provide any clue to what happened when that mother left Shiloh to return to her home in Tirzah, one can imagine the agony in that mother’s heart.
The first step she took to return home sets up the beginning of her ordeal, an ordeal that will culminate with the death of her son. It is difficult to think about the agony this mother faced as she began to return home. No one can realize or describe the agony this mother experienced on her journey home.
Ahijah had told her: “When your feet enter the city, the child shall die.” But her agony is increased because the boy did not die as she entered the city; he died as she entered her own house.
Why did this mother return home when she knew that indirectly she was the cause of her son’s death? When she arrived home, like Mary in the New Testament, a sword pierced her soul.
The death of the child was soon followed by a funeral and a burial. Because Abijah was only a child and had not participated in the sins of his father, he was the only member of the house of Jeroboam to receive a decent burial: “All Israel shall mourn for him and bury him; for he alone of Jeroboam’s family shall come to the grave, because in him there is found something pleasing to the LORD, the God of Israel, in the house of Jeroboam” (1 Kings 14:13).
No words can explain the untimely death of a young son. No one can understand the agony and the grief a mother experiences when she loses the fruit of her womb. On this Mother’s Day we can only sympathize with Jeroboam’s wife and salute her for her love and for her dedication to her son.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Robin G. Branch, Jeroboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009.