READING THE FIGURE OF SOLOMON: A PROPOSAL: Introduction

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January 26, 2013 by jmar198013

Introduction

This study shall focus upon how the description of Solomon in 1 Kings 1‑11 functions in shaping subsequent canonical appropriations of him, and what this means for hermeneutics. What brings this to my mind is actually the passing reference to Solomon Jesus makes in Matt. 6.28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”[1] Whatever Jesus meant by introducing the figure of Solomon into his discourse,[2] what it signified to his audience was conditioned by the composite picture of the king which emerges from the canon of the Hebrew Bible.[3] If my presupposition concerning the actualization of biblical texts is anything near correct, then the signifier—“Solomon in all his glory”—by the time of Matt. 6.29 carried with it a complex matrix of significance much greater than the man Solomon.[4] Assuming that Matt. 6.29 is a part of two triadic units (Matt. 6.19-23, 24-34) concerning acquisitiveness, with 6.24 serving as a sort of pivot or janus[5], then the figure of Solomon may well have been employed as an embodiment of Matt. 6.24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” My underlying aim in this paper is to show that my intuition about the appropriation of the figure of Solomon in Matt. 6.29 fits with the data supplied in 1 Kings.

In short, this study will argue that the figure of Solomon in 1 Kings is a tragic one, judged by the Torah and found wanting. As the descriptive process is pressed into service of the pragmatic or constructive task of hermeneutics, we would assert that Solomon’s function as “a cipher for failed wealth and for futile, empty self-securing”[6] provides for the people of God a metaphor by which to critique a dominant social structure characterized by consumerism.[7]

1 Kings 1-12 in its Broader Canonical Context

In some way or another, any individual block of biblical material must be viewed as a sub-unit or even a sub-sub-unit, and beyond. For the purposes of this study, 1 Kings 1-12 is best viewed in light of its position in relation to a broader unit (Genesis-2 Kings) and an attendant sub-unit (the Deuteronomic History; Joshua-Judges, Samuel, and Kings).[8]

It was David Noel Freedman who suggested that the primary context for reading the Hebrew Bible is to be found—and this point is deceptively simple—in Gen. 1 through 2 Kings 25 (excluding the book of Ruth which is, of course, somewhat displaced in our Bibles). He called this the “Primary History,” and posited that the overarching unity displayed in Genesis-Kings evidences broader editorial work linking these documents into a holistic relationship.[9] Although this thesis needs much in the way of further development, it is promising in that it invites readers to read Scripture with a view to its substantial, if not fundamental, literary coherence.

Martin Noth first nuanced the idea of the “Deuteronomistic History” as a united body of literature running from Deuteronomy through Kings (again, recall that Ruth is excluded). Noth posited that a single editorial hand composed this material during the exilic period.[10] While Noth’s hypothesis of the literary unity of Deuteronomy-Kings has enjoyed a near-consensus status in subsequent research,[11] his articulation of its compositional situation has not.[12] My own concerns with Noth’s articulation of the Deuteronomistic History are sympathetic to those of Brevard Childs. First, Noth’s proposal leaves us with a Tetrateuch instead of a Pentateuch, and Noth never adequately defended this move, which denies the nearly self-evident unity of Genesis-Deuteronomy.[13] Furthermore, his description of the Deuteronomistic History has no way of explaining the book of Joshua’s relation not only to Deuteronomy, but to the Torah as a whole, since Deuteronomy is canonically dependent on Genesis-Numbers, but especially Leviticus.[14] In order to retain an essential appreciation for the thematic unity of Deuteronomy-Kings without appearing to accept wholesale Noth’s articulation of its compositional situation, when this issue is pertinent, I shall refer to Deuteronomy-Kings as the Deuteronomic history.[15]

Situating 1 Kings 1-12 within the Deuteronomic History, which is itself a part of the Primary History of Genesis-Kings, allows the reader to view the events described within a contextual framework that spans Creation to Exile. The story of Solomon’s reign, and the subsequent division of his kingdom, is thereby placed within a purposeful pattern of events whose significance can be seen in relation not only to each other, but a clearly defined metanarrative as well. In this instance, Solomon’s disregard of Torah (specifically Deut. 17.14-17) may be viewed as part of a sequence of events linking Exodus to Exile.


[1] All Scripture citations are from the RSV, unless otherwise indicated.

[2] Suggestions for interpretation are widely varied. Typical are treatments which either assume the reference to Solomon is positive, e.g. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 33a (Dallas: Word, 1993), 165; J. Duncan M. Derrett, The Ascetic Discourse: An Explanation of the Sermon on the Mount (Eilsbrun: Ko’amar, 1989), 54; Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 477-78; or which leave out the discussion of the Solomon figure altogether, e.g. Douglas R. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1993), 73-76. A growing number of scholars see a negative or ambivalent reading of Solomon, a view recently advocated by Warren Carter, “‘Solomon In All His Glory’: Intertextuality and Matthew 6.29,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 65.1 (1997): 3-25; and Walter Brueggemann, Solomon: Israel’s Ironic Icon of Human Achievement (Columbia, SC: South Carolina, 2005), 246-47. David McLain Carr offers a more straightforward comparison between Solomon at Gibeon and the disciples gathered at the mountain in Matt. 5-7: “Just as Solomon requested wisdom and received other items, so the audience is told to seek the kingdom and their other needs will be met.” From D to Q: A Study of Early Jewish Interpretations of Solomon’s Dream at Gibeon, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, num. 44 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991), 169.

[3] That is to say, the original impulse motivating any source material behind the canonical text had been thoroughly eclipsed by its use in that context, while derivative accounts in non-canonical works could not have added much to the audience’s understanding of who Solomon was.

[4] See Burkart Holzner, Reality Construction in Society (New York: Schenkman, 1972), who argues that signification (social meaning) is a matter of how inferences drawn from the semiotic world of a discourse correlate to a particular socio-historical situation. In this case, the figure of “Solomon in all his glory” is the medium through which a broad range of concepts is conveyed to an epistemic community—namely, the audience (or implied audience) of the Sermon on the Mount. For my specific line of reasoning about the significance of Solomon, see Walter Brueggemann, Solomon, 45, who states that “Solomon is located in a very large plot, and he is subject to canonical editorial work, interpretation that transforms him from whatever he may have been in ancient Israelite history into the primary carrier of theological affirmation and theological problematic.”

[5] Glen Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122.2 (2003):286; cf. Walter Brueggemann, Solomon, 247.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Solomon, 246.

[7] Indeed, it may even invite self-critique if James Cone’s portrayal of “white Western Christianity with its emphasis on individualism and capitalism as expressed in American Protestantism” is regarded as anything more than mere vitriol. See his Black Theology and Black Power (New York: Seabury, 1969), 33.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, Solomon, 24-45.

[9] See David Noel Freedman, “The Earliest Bible,” in Backgrounds for the Bible, ed. M. P. O’Connor and D. N. Freedman (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1987), 29-37; The Unity of the Hebrew Bible (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993).

[10] Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 15 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981).

[11] A notable exception being Ernst Knauf’s essay, “Does Deuteronomistic Historiography (DH) Exist?” in Israel Reconstructs its History, Journal for the Old Testament Supplement Series 306, ed. Albert de Pury, Thomas Römer, and Jean-Michael Macchi (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 388-98. But this is largely revisionist spleen-venting geared toward positing a much later date for the composition of the OT materials.

[12] See n. 26 below.

[13] Brevard S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 232-233.

[14] Ibid., 233.

[15] For this admittedly subtle distinction, see Robert G. Boling and G. Ernest Wright, Joshua, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 41-51.

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