Friday, June 27, 2008

Solomon's Largesse: 1 Kings 9:10-28

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

I was wrong - the author of 1 Kings is just wildly bouncing back and forth between fawning praise and bitter criticism.

A couple days ago I noted the conditions set out in Deuteronomy for determining a bad king - too many horses, too much contact with Egypt, too much gold, too many wives. The latter half of 1 Kings 9 implicitly adds another: too much fraternization with foreigners.

Before I noted that God seemed pleased with the work done in his name, but now the author of 1 Kings sounds a note of caution. Part of the payment given to Tyre, says the writer, was a promise that 20 Galilean towns would be given to the king of Tyre as vassal properties. Solomon follows through on this promise, though Tyre seems less than grateful, since it names the new province "the Worthless Land." It's also revealed that at some point during the proceedings, Tyre also made a personal payment to Solomon in the amount of four metric tons of gold. Deuteronomy 17 said a king shouldn't own too much gold or silver. I don't know how much gold is too much, but I know that 4 tons of gold is currently worth about $115 million, which sounds like a great deal of gold to me.

Later, Solomon builds a fleet of ships which sails to Ophir and bring him a profit of 420 talents of gold - in other words, an extra $400 million or so. Gold, gold, gold for everyone!

The next paragraph starts with the rather chilling phrase, "Here is the account of the forced labor King Solomon conscripted to build the Lord's temple, his own palace, the supporting terraces," and the city walls. The slave labour is also used to rebuild a new city given to Solomon by the Pharaoh as a wedding gift (he captured Gezer, burned it to the ground, slaughtered its Canaanite inhabitants, and then gave the smoldering ruins to Solomon as a wedding present). They were also used to build large military bases throughout Israelite territory. The slave labour allegedly included pretty much everyone in the area who wasn't an Israelite - Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and so on, and Solomon made them into a permanent "slave labor force," according to the Bible. The Israelites remained as Solomon's "fighting men, government officials, officers, captains, and commanders."

The division of labour is interesting because it suggests that Israel has gradually transitioned from an introverted Israelite society based on Israelite labour into an empire built on slave labour, à la ancient Rome - or, more relevant to the present discussion, ancient Egypt, which also had a grand king (the Pharaoh), state religion, slave labour (in the form of the Israelites), and so on.

Adam Michnik once said that "Those who start by storming Bastilles will end up building new Bastilles." It took the Israelites quite a while, but 1 Kings seems to be suggesting that that is precisely what they have done. To the dealings with Egypt I mentioned before, we can now add an excessive personal supply of gold. The author of 1 Kings is gradually chipping away at the image of Solomon as ideal king.