Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Solomon the Wise? 1 Kings 3-4

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

The following two chapters appear to be fawning praise of Solomon. He offesr a ridiculously enormous sacrifice of a thousand burnt animals, and then has a dream in which God offers to grant him three wishes (well, only one wish actually). Solomon asks for wisdom that will help him as king, acknowleding that he is young and inexperienced. The dream-God seems surprised that he didn't ask for wealth or long life, or even death to his enemies, but "discernment in administering justice" - the mark, it would seem, of a truly good king. So much for the militarism that still survived in Samuel. Because Solomon is so selfless, dream-God says that he will give Solomon riches and a long life too. Solomon responds by holding even more sacrifices, plus a giant feast. He appoints officials over all Egypt and creates a sort of feudal structure under which they collect taxes in the districts and then pay him a portion of their income.

Solomon's wisdom rapidly becomes the stuff of ludicrously high praise. Solomon, the author of 1 Kings writes proudly, was wiser than anyoe sel on earth, even "the men of the East." He was famous, spoke 3000 proverbs and wrote over a thousand songs. He was a botanist, a biologist, and a sage. When two prostitutes came to him disputing over an infant (one has killed the other's, and now falsely claims that hers is the infant who is still alive), Solomon tricks the guilty woman into admitting her guilt by making the ghoulish proposition that the baby be cut in two and half given to each woman. (The guilty woman is prepared to accept half the baby, but the real mother, naturally, would never bear to see her son killed.) The Israelites are "awed" by Solomon's wisdom and justice.

It's fawning praise and I suppose I can understand why I thought Solomon was supposed to be a positive model. On the other hand, even in these early years of his reign, there's a disturbing layer of subtext. Recall that way back in Deuteronomy 17, "Moses" included some rules for the future Israelite monarchy. Along with exhortations to know and follow God's laws, Moses establishes five specific prohibitions that a king must not under any circumstances violate: he must not have too many horses, he must not make people go back to Egypt or buy horses from Egypt (the symbolic humiliation of returning to Egypt was a common threat in the Torah), he must not take "many" wives, and he must not accumulate excessive wealth.

How's Solomon doing, according to this Mosaic measure of quality rulership? Not very good, it turns out.

First, Solomon starts out chapter 3 by marrying the daughter of Egypt's Pharaoh. Marrying foreigners was explicitly banned under the Israelite law, and marrying a Egyptian must be particularly dubious given the history of the two countries.

Second, Solomon has an enormous number of horses. How many it's not entirely clear: the NIV says it's four thousand stalls for chariot horses and twelve thousand horses, but admits in a footnote that according to the Hebrew manuscripts, it's actually forty thousand horses and twelve thousand charioteers. I realize Deuteronomy didn't specify exactly how many horses was too many, but I'm fairly certain that 40 000 is enough to qualify.

Whether Solomon has excess wealth is unclear, but he certainly has great appetite for material goods. His empire spans from Iraq to the Sinai and he collects enormous tribute, including "daily provisions" in the amount of 200 bushels of flour, 400 bushels of meal, thirty cows, a hundred sheep and goats, and innumerable deer and birds. Yum!

So then, even while the author of 1 Kings seemingly falls over himself praising Solomon's fine qualities as a just ruler, he works in some details which, given the Mosaic context, have to be interpreted as sharply critical of the king.

I suppose the only question remaining is: did the author of 1 Kings write as he did in order to criticize Solomon in light of Deueronomy, or did the author of Deuteronomy write as he did in order to criticize Solomon in light of 1 Kings?