Saturday, June 28, 2008

Solomon Goes Too Far: 1 Kings 10 - 11:13

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

We had some firm social criticism, and after a brief break to praise Solomon's wisdom, the author of 1 Kings returns to what is becoming his favorite pastime. (The Bible is like Fox News: fair, and balanced.)

Solomon receives a visit from the queen of Sheba. She has heard of Solomon's great wisdom and excellent walk with God, so she comes to visit, "to test him with hard questions." What sort of questions? Logic? Theology? Theoretical physics?

No one seems to know where Sheba is either, for that matter; Wikipedia says it was either in Ethiopia or Yemen, which aren't even on the same continent, though they are both south of Israel, which I guess counts for something. Either way, the queen of Sheba - who doesn't get a name in the narrative - is most impressed, though she seems more impressed by the wealth of the palace than by the wisdom of Solomon. She promises to deliver a positive report to her country and agrees with Solomon that God must love Solomon and Israel, in order to do such wonderful things for them.

Ah, yes, the Benjamin Franklin argument: "If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" No, I suppose it isn't - but then, we'd have to look at all the other empires God has therefore "aided." Like the evil Egyptians, for example. And the Romans. And all the others who oppress the ancient Jews, though I suppose we haven't got to those yet.

Solomon also profits handsomely from the visit, adding new treasures from Sheba to what the author of 1 Kings is now referring to as the king's "royal bounty." In this case, he gets 120 more talents of gold, along with "precious stones" and the largest shipment of spices ever delivered to ancient Israel.

And that's just the start! If there was any doubt that the author is contemptuous of Solomon, the next verse sweeps that doubt away:

Solomon now has an annual income in gold alone of 666 talents, i.e. about $650 million a year, which is a tidy sum, I suppose. (This doesn't include an extra set of separate revenues that Solomon collects from his trade with the states in Arabia.) All together that gives him enough excess gold that he indulges in a massive renovation project for his palace, including two hundred large gold shields (each weighing 7 pounds), three hundred "small" gold shields (about half the size for each), and a new gold-and-ivory throne complete with golden lions - "nothing like it had ever been made for any other kingdom." Solomon also orders all the palace's cutlery and dishes remde from gold, and throws out the old silver dishes on the grounds that Israel is now so rich they have no need of cheap silver. He sponsors yet another fleet of trading ships, which sails with its counterpart in Tyre on three-year voyages to collect cargoes of ivory, apes, and baboons.

Baboons? Cool. Though I don't know why Solomon would need baboons.

In addition to the 40 000 horses referenced before, Solomon now has a chariot army numbering twelve thousand horses and 1400 chariots. He makes silver "as common in Jerusalem as stones," plants cedar groves everywhere, and even has a flourishing international arms trade, importing chariots from Egypt and selling them at a profit to the Hittites and the Arameans. Even worse, Solomon starts importing horses along with the chariots - yet another violation of Deuteronomy 17.

That covers the horses and riches restrictions on kings, which Solomon clearly isn't concerned with. Now it's time for the restrictions on marriage, an area in which Solomon's excesses are probably much better known. Solomon, says the author, "loved foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter" - and he loved them in the hundreds. Solomon marries Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites - and his excesses become so extreme here that the author actually interjects with an explicit judgement, reminding readers that God once told the Israelites never to intermarry with foreigners. Solomon doesn't care: he has 700 wives "of royal birth" and three hundred concubines, presumably those who are not "of royal birth."

According to 1 Kings, it is the women more than anything that cause Solomon to go astray. He starts experimenting with the various religious faiths of his many wives, like Ashtoreth, Molech, and all the other fun pagan gods that the Israelites have alternately loved and hated through the years. Eventually he's persuaded to introduce religious tolerance to Israel, building ritual places for the Moabite and Ammonite faiths. He burns incense and offers sacrifices to every god imaginable.

Unsurprisingly, this makes God quite angry. He says that Solomon is going to be fired as king, just like Saul was (actually the same language is used, something about "tearing away" the kingdom from the king). But because David was righteous, God says, he will spare the royal house and let one tribe remain as a "kingdom" for future generations. I'll bet it's Judah! God also says that because Solomon was so nice in building that Temple and all, he's going to hold off on the rebellion until after Solomon dies.

What is the lesson to draw from Solomon? We could be misogynistic and suggest that his foreign wives were what did him in (indeed 1 Kings seems to think this one is the most important). It certainly doesn't appear that he was inherently an evil and despicable man - after all, one of his first acts as king (after the dubious murders conducted at the beginning of his reign, anyways) was to ask God for wisdom and guidance so that he could be just, after which he promptly built a Temple for God, the first truly permanent structure of worship in Israel.

It's tempting to stop at the "foreign women are dangerous" line, and a quick Google search suggests to me that a lot of people do, but it's worth noting that this is just the last of the many sins that the author of 1 Kings is chiefly concerned with (except for the brief reference to the Pharaoh's daughter early on). What about his massive gold hoard? Or his excess of horses? If we go by the measure of Deuteronomy 17 rather than the more limited prohibition against foreign wives, we can see that Solomon is much more corrupt than just the presence of some pagan wives can explain. And this has occurred to him despite the fact that he seems to be righteous and well-intentioned to begin with.

Indeed, it's hard to draw from 1 Kings the implication that Solomon has really become so depraved that he honestly believes in and worships all these gods - at least not without doing great injustice to the notion of Solomon as a wise man. He's known God on an intimate basis and devoted much to furthering God's position in Israel - at least as he understands it, which is in the form of permanent physical monuments to God's power. I suspect Solomon isn't a pagan so much as a politician. He sees political benefit in appealing to minorities - so he shows up to their worship services and follows along in exchange for their support for his government. Maybe I'm trying to write too much contemporary culture into ancient history, but I can see this being plausible. It certainly happens often enough today.

And for most of his life, it pays off - he's a pretty successful king by any normal material measure.

The problem, I suspect, is meant to be a systemic one. God never did want a king in Israel, and, the author of 1 Kings suggests, this is the inevitable result when frail human imperfection is combined with the potential power of a militarized and imperial state. In the short term the state can try to wed the religious and secular agendas by showering the priesthood with fancy gifts like new temples, but in the long run the goals of these two institutions are mutually exclusive.