Thursday, June 26, 2008

Solomon the Architect: 1 Kings 5 - 9:9

This post is part of a revolutionary Biblical commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Solomon decides to build the long-awaited permanent temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, and even though he doesn't get a long dictation of instructions from God (as Moses did in Exodus), the Bible still takes a long time to describe his plans, which call for the finest in imported Lebanese cedar. At the center is an "inner sanctuary" in which the Ark of the Covenant will be kept. (Today, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a similar space within which it claims the Ark now rests.) Various bronze decorative items are prepared for Solomon, mostly by a famous craftsman named Huram. Finally, the Ark of the Covenant is brought to the temple by the priests and Levites.

With the temple built, Solomon turns his attention to the matter of his own palace. This is a symbolic reversal of his father David, who built his own palace and then wondered about making a house for God. Is this a subtle criticism of King David, injected by the author of 1 Kings?

Solomon's palace, like the temple itself, is an impressive structure; he calls it the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon and it's also, as the name would suggest, made of imported cedar.

What's interesting about Solomon's work is that his architecture is a multinational project. Israel's xenophobia is starting to diminish, it would seem (is this moral criticism of Solomon or some long-awaited tolerance on the part of the author? One wonders...). The cedar is purchased from Lebanon via Tyre. Huram is also from Tyre, though his mother was a Naphtali Israelite. Partly in exchange for the work and the resources, Solomon gives twenty Galilean towns to the king of Tyre.

The various Israelite royal festivities have been competing with each other in gore and blood for a while now, beginning under Saul and David. Solomon now tops them all by dedicating the new Temple in a ceremony which saw the sacrifice of "so many sheep and cattle that they could not be recorded or counted." Given the penchant of the Biblical authors for counting damn near everything, this is a telling admission - especially in light of the fact that someone was on hand to count all the animals available in a second, smaller part of the ceremony which followed later, and involved the sacrifice of 22 000 cattle and 120 000 sheep and goats. Holy fucking Christ. Israel sure has a lot of spare meat available for an early agricultural society.

The Ark is placed carefully into the holiest part of the sanctuaries by the priests and then a dark cloud fills the temple. Solomon takes this as a sign that the Lord is ready to "dwell forever" in the new Temple. He therefore delivers an extremely lengthy speech, followed by an extraordinarily lengthy prayer. It's actually a really cool, well-written passage in my opinion, even if I don't think much of Solomon himself. It's so well written, in fact, that I actually find myself agreeing with my Men's Bible, in which Philip Yancey calls the prayer "majestic." God seems to agree, and he appears to Solomon in a dream again, promising him that if he is righteous God will "establish your royal throne over Israel forever."

In the last entry I speculated that the author of 1 Kings was critical of the monarchy, but at this point I have to wonder whether I was being a little idealistic, or at least jumping the gun a little (since I know for a fact that the criticism of Solomon will resume later). God seems quite pleased with his new king's deeds, despite the fact that way back in 1 Samuel he didn't seem to want a king at all. By blessing Solomon's joint architectural projects (the temple and the palace), God is simultaneously blessing the new social and political order of Israel.