READING THE FIGURE OF SOLOMON: A PROPOSAL: The wise king’s folly, and what came of it (1 Kings 1-12)

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January 27, 2013 by jmar198013

1 Kings 1-12: The wise king’s folly, and what came of it

Daniel Hays describes the effect of a straightforward reading of 1 Kings 11 vis-à-vis 1-10 as “a schizophrenic narrative relationship,” remarking that “[t]he two portrayals . . . seem to describe two very different individuals.”[1]

A common way to deal with this incongruity within the narrative is the compositionalist approach. While there is a frustratingly complicated spate of variations hypothesized for reconstructing the text’s compositional history, the basic consensus is that an editor/redactor/school has taken over older sources which come from a variety of ideologies, some pro-Solomonic. The censure of Solomon, however, comes from the Deuteronomist(s), writing in an exilic setting.[2] Now, a rather pathetic irony emerges the more one attempts to trace the compositional history of 1 Kings 1-11: all the work seems to be useless. Gary Knoppers, for instance, in his two-volume work on the deuteronomistic history, spends about fifteen pages drawing from a wide array of historical sources and text-critical data, before finally concluding that what I have previously called a straightforward reading of the text is essentially the correct one.[3]

The point is, while it is quite plausible that 1 Kings 1-11 evidences a complex compositional history, the insights gained from a detailed reconstruction of that history do not seem to give an adequate explanation for Solomon’s sudden decline into idolatry in 1 Kings 11. For this, we will need to approach the narrative in a way that is sensitive to the presuppositions and organizing principles of the text itself. We will need to be attentive to intratextual cues and intertextual echoes, and we will need to recall that 2 Kings 25 (detailing the exile and the destruction of Solomon’s temple), Deuteronomy, and 1‑2 Samuel converge to create the appropriate context for reading this block of text.[4]

In this section, four narratorial comments concerning Solomon’s notorious wisdom will be briefly analyzed (1 Kings 3.28; 4.29-34; 5.12; 10.23-28) in order to posit the notion that what appears, on the surface, to be a celebration of Solomon’s reign as a “Golden Age” is really an ironic censure of Solomon.[5]

This wisdom motif has been chosen because the expectation was that Solomon would use his wisdom to enact justice (1 Kings 3.11-12, 28; 10.9). The words of the Queen of Sheba are most illuminating in this regard—she unwittingly lodges a prophetic critique toward Solomon in 1 Kings 10.9: “Because the LORD loved Israel for ever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” When “justice” (mišpat) and “righteousness” (tŝedakah) are used in such close proximity, a hendiadys is formed which communicates a concept not unlike our phrase “social justice.”[6] John Olley describes the situation implied by the combination of tŝedakah with mišpat as one of “just and harmonious society.”[7]  However, narrative subtleties within 1 Kings 1-11 imply that Solomon’s reign was hardly conducive to that sort of society. When read from the perspective of 2 Kings 25, and Deuteronomy, the entire affair may be deemed “vanity and a striving after wind” (Eccl. 1.14).

The first of these notices comes just after Solomon’s famous verdict concerning the two prostitutes with the dead baby (1 Kings 3.16-27): “And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to render justice” (1 Kings 3.28). Working backwards to the first time Solomon’s wisdom is mentioned in 1 Kings, it is found on the lips of David who, in his final words to Solomon, instructs him to use his wisdom in executing Joab, David’s tempestuous military commander, and Shimei ben-Gera, who had insulted David in a moment of extreme vulnerability (2 Sam. 16.5-13).[8] Solomon quickly executes these two (1 Kings 2.28-34, 36-46), as well as his rival Adonijah (2.13-25). In 1 Kings 3.16-28 Solomon’s wisdom is also linked to an “execution,” though it is aborted.[9] Furthermore, Solomon’s wisdom is not said to incite love or admiration, but simply “awe.”[10] Up to this point, this wisdom is primarily embodied by Solomon’s swift recourse to the sword.[11]

The next narratorial comment (1 Kings 4.29-34) follows an account of Solomon’s taxation policies (4.20-24), and his amassing of a sizable chariot corps (4.26). Though the people of Judah and Israel are said to be happy and safe (4.20, 25), the text does prompt us to pause and count the cost of this security.[12] Already Solomon is treading upon ground forbidden by Deut. 17.16 by garnering these horses; this disregard for Torah on this matter is fully realized by 1 Kings 10.26‑28.[13]

1 Kings 5.12, the third of our narratorial footnotes, says: “And the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as he promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon; and the two of them made a treaty.” This text is bracketed by two accounts which tend to paint Solomon in a negative light. The account of his reestablishing trade relations with Hiram of Tyre in anticipation of his forthcoming building enterprises (1 Kings 5.1-12; cf. 1 Kings 6-7) seems innocent enough, but it will end in 1 Kings 9.9-14 with Solomon handing over twenty cities in Galilee to Hiram in return for services rendered. Though Knoppers attempts to blunt the edge of this account by arguing that if anyone was short-changed in this transaction, it was Hiram because the cities proved worthless to him (1 Kings 9.12-13),[14] it should be apparent to the reader that ceding any portion of the promised land to a foreign king is not to be construed as wisdom. Hays, sensitive to the fact that this story is simply one more link in a narrative chain leading to 2 Kings 25, notes that “[i]n a story that is hurtling downward toward the complete exile of the people from the land, Solomon’s casual release of 20 cities is ominous.”[15]

The second account bracketing 1 Kings 5.12 is that of the conscripted labor foisted upon Israel (5.13-18). Two points must be borne in mind in order to recognize the significance of this account. First, it is already anticipated by 1 Sam. 8.11-17, which details the consequences of kingship. As the books of Samuel are part of the larger Deuteronomic corpus in which 1 Kings 5.13-18 is embedded, the most natural way to read 1 Kings 5.13-18 is in light of that oracle. Secondly, the forced labor is drawn from “all Israel” (5.13). “All Israel” is shorthand for the ten northern tribes (cf. 1 Kings 4.7ff); Judah seems to have been exempted from this development.[16] It is precisely this matter which provides the catalyst for the division of the kingdom subsequent to Solomon’s death (1 Kings 12.3-16).[17]

The final narratorial comment we wish to consider is found in 1 Kings 10.23-28, and is a summary of Solomon’s kingly exploits. It reads like a virtual manifesto of Solomon’s violation of Deut. 17.14-17, especially in the matters of amassing horses and chariots, opening trade relations with Egypt, and the accumulation of silver and gold. The next narrative movement (1 Kings 11.1-6) details Solomon’s violation of Deut. 17.17 (cf. Deut. 7.3-4).[18]

When these four narratorial asides are taken into account, it is clear that, far from presenting a “Golden Age” abruptly interrupted by Solomon’s apostasy, 1 Kings 1‑11 intentionally articulates a king whose heart has never been fully committed to Yahweh or Torah, and whose final apostasy is simply the logical consequence of his double-mindedness.

This conclusion is further warranted by three further narrative considerations, which I shall detail very briefly. First, 1 Kings 3.3 mentions that “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father; only, he sacrificed and burnt incense at the high places.” Here, 3a and 3b are joined by the contrastive räk suggesting discordance between the two clauses.[19] Second, in 1 Kings 6-7, there is the juxtaposition between the amount of time Solomon spent building his own house and that building a house for Yahweh (“He was seven years in building it [the temple]. Solomon was building his own house thirteen years,” 1 Kings 6.38b-7.1a).[20] Third, the theophanies which punctuate the text, culminating in judgment against Solomon (1 Kings 3.5-14, 9.2-9, 11.11-13), are more ominous at every turn, placing further conditions and restrictions upon the LORD’s blessing.[21]

When we come to the division of the kingdom under Solomon’s successor Rehoboam (1 Kings 12.1-16), we are able to view this turn of events on two levels. A surface reading of the text informs us that this development is God’s judgment upon Solomon’s infidelity (1 Kings 11.11‑13). Yet, the text also informs us that the catalyst for this division is Rehoboam’s hard-nosed resolve to continue his father’s oppressive social policies (1 Kings 12.12-14). Ultimately, it seems as though Solomon’s failure to keep good faith with Yahweh’s people is symptomatic of his double-mindedness with regard to Yahweh himself.


[1] J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28.2 (2003):149. This article provides a most helpful overview of both classic and more recent treatments of the life of Solomon in 1 Kings, and was also of great assistance in pointing out the strengths and deficiencies associated with various ways that the Solomon narrative has been approached, whether compositionally or holistically.

[2] So Richard D. Nelson, The Double Redaction of the Deuteronomistic History, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 18 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 119-23; cf. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 274-89. Jon Levenson, “Who Inserted the Book of the Torah?” Harvard Theological Review 68 (1975):203-33; Baruch Halpern, The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 107-21, 207-40. Noth, of course, supposed only one Deuteronomistic redactor, allowing him a freer hand with his sources, and crediting him as “the author of a comprehensive historical work.” In The Deuteronomistic History, 76.

[3] Gary Knoppers, Two Nations Under God: The Deuteronomistic History of Solomon and the Dual Monarchies. Volume 1: The Reign of Solomon and the Rise of Jeroboam, Harvard Semitic Monographs 52 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), 123-37.

[4] J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him?” 155.

[5] This approach to reading 1 Kings 1-11 was suggested by Johnny Miles, Wise King—Royal Fool: Semiotics, Satire, and Proverbs 1-9, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 399 (London: T & T Clark, 2004), 42. I would have liked to study the narrative in more detail, but considerations of brevity compel me to choose a more concise interpretive framework. For fuller treatments of the narrative as such, see Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), 15-76; J. T. Walsh, 1 Kings, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 150‑56; Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 11-152; and J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him?” 149-74.

[6] See Richard Shultz, “Justice,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:839.

[7] John W. Olley, “Righteousness” in the Septuagint of Isaiah: A Contextual Study, Septuagint and Cognate Studies 8 (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), 112.

[8] P. J. Leithart’s justification of David’s request and Solomon’s follow-up as a fulfillment of Mosaic justice (Num. 35.9-34) is clever, but seems forced. In 1 & 2 Kings, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 39.

[9] Johnny Miles, Wise King—Royal Fool, 43.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, 54.

[12] J. T. Walsh, 1 Kings, 89-90.

[13] Yutaka Ikeda offered that the horses and chariots were meant for royal processions, and that the text implicitly praises Solomon for opening up trade relations in his “Solomon’s Trade in Horses and Chariots in Its International Setting,” in Studies in the Period of David and Solomon and Other Essays, ed. Tomoo Ishida (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1982), 215-38. This reading, however, is insensitive to the broader narrative designs of 1-2 Kings, especially since Solomon’s acquisition of horses amounts to full-fledged Torah disobedience.

[14] Garry Knoppers, Two Nations Under God, 124. Nelson, First and Second Kings, 63-64, also follows this line of reasoning, designating the account as “an illustration of Solomon’s financial acumen.”

[15] J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him?” 171.

[16] J. T. Walsh, 1 Kings, 100.

[17] On Solomon’s use of forced labor, see J. Alberto Soggin, “Compulsory Labor Under David and Solomon,” in Studies in the Period of David and Solomon and Other Essays, ed. Tomoo Ishida (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1982), 259-69.

[18] J. Daniel Hays, “Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him?” 173.

[19] J. T. Walsh, 1 Kings, 72.

[20] Johhny Miles, Wise King—Royal Fool, 43.

[21] E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., Narrative History and Ethnic Boundaries, 253-58.

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