Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Solomon in Kings: Good History and a Great Story

My previous blog dealt with the historicity of the biblical account of the meeting between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. We saw that there are credible reasons for looking at 1-2 Kings in the OT as reliable history. In this blog, I'd like to look at another feature of the stories of Solomon in 1 Kings. They are not only reliable history but also highly creative and artistic literature. Robert Chisholm (Interpreting the Historical Books) has observed that rather than "a dry record of bare facts about what happened in the past," the OT historical books contain "exciting and fascinating stories" of a highly literary nature that "read more like a historical novel complete with plot structure and character development" (p. 21). These stories "are historically accthat co urate," but also we should also recognize that they possess "an aesthetic, literary dimension that contributes to their theological development and purpose" (p. 26). The Bible is about real people and real events, but the artistry of biblical narrative rivals the best forms of historical fiction.

The story of Solomon in 1 Kings 1-11 reflects the creativity of biblical narrative. The writer extols the great accomplishments of Solomon but at the same time undermines praise of Solomon with subtle indicators that Solomon's accomplishments weren't so great after all. We could say that the narrator his damning Solomon with lavish praise. An excellent study by J. Daniel Hays ("Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11") brings out these aspects of the story. The story of Solomon highlights his successes in chapters 1-10 and relegates the story of his failure and apostasy to chapter 11, but there are numerous ways that the narrator suggests that even Solomon's successes foreshadow his failures. In a sense, the time of Solomon's reign was the best of times for Israel, the time when Israel was closest to being a true empire, but those best of times were also the worst of times. Solomon was truly a "great" king, but mostly he was "great" at not following the Lord.

It is certainly significant that Solomon's greatest accomplishments involve the accumulation of wealth (1 Kgs 10:14), horses and chariots (1 Kgs 10:26), and women (1 Kgs 11:1), the three things specifically forbidden of the Israelite king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8, Solomon makes 59 specific references to the book of Deuteronomy. He obviously knew its teachings very well, but he ignored the central thing that Deuteronomy had to say to him as Israel's ruler. Solomon was a wise man who collected proverbs and songs, but he was also a foolish man who collected wives and concubines.

There is something troubling about Solomon's rule from the very beginning. Unlike with Saul and David, there is no indication that the Lord specifically chose Solomon to be the ruler over Israel. David, Nathan, Zadok, Bathsheba, Benaiah, Adonijah, Joab, Abiathar, Abishag are all involved in the intrigues and politics of violence and sex that ultimately place Solomon on the throne, but the missing character in all of this is Yahweh himself. The prophet Nathan speaks but not on behalf of Yahweh. The Lord is obviously involved in the process that leads to Solomon's accession to the throne, but it is never explicitly stated that Yahweh chose him for the job.

Nothing could be more positive that Solomon recognition of his need for God's help at the beginning of his reign (1 Kings 3:1-15), and it is certainly praiseworthy that he chooses the attribute of wisdom over riches and wealth. In requesting wisdom from God, Solomon literally requests that God give him a "hearing heart" (Heb. leb + shema`) so that he might know the difference between "good" (Heb. tob) and "evil" (Heb. ra`) (1 Kgs 3:9). This request is exactly what the king should ask for, but the larger story of Solomon seems to stress that Solomon's commitment to this quality was rather half-hearted. The story begins with Solomon "loving" Yahweh (1 Kgs 3:1), but it ends with him "loving" foreign women (1 Kgs 11:1). The word "heart" appears three times in 1 Kings 11:4 to speak of Solomon's defection away from the Lord, and Solomon fails by doing what is "evil" (ra`) in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kgs 11:6). Solomon's prayer at first blush appears to be an act of great piety, but in fact, Yahweh's answer to this prayer highlights more the culpability of Solomon's failure and apostasy. God gave Solomon everything he needed to be a great ruler, but Solomon was ultimately more interested in other things, the trappings of wealth and power that he appears to eschew at the beginning of his reign. Solomon's apostasy was more a gradual decline than the moral equivalent of falling off a cliff.

Solomon's resolution of the dispute between the two women over who was the mother of the living child in 1 Kings 3:16-28 is a prime example of Solomon's wisdom and his concern for justice. However, there is something wrong about the fact that both of these women are prostitutes. Prostitution was an "abomination" in God's eyes (cf. Deut 23:18), and yet these women brazenly enter the king's presence without fear of retribution. It suggests something of the moral decay that becomes evident in Solomon's own life. The metaphorical use of prostitution (Hebrew zanah) elsewhere in the OT also suggests that this scene foreshadows the religious apostasy that Solomon himself will later create because of his worship of foreign gods.

1 Kings 4-5 narrates Solomon's administrative and organizational accomplishments in which he establishes a powerful royal bureaucracy, but the irony is that Solomon has become precisely the type of king that Samuel had warned the people about when they had first asked for a king in 1 Samuel 8. Solomon establishes an empire, but conscripts large numbers of the people into his army and work forces. The royal bureaucracy demands exorbitant provisions of food that must come from the land and labor of the people (1 Kgs 4:7, 23). Even though the people enjoy food, drink, and security (1 Kgs 4:20, 25), it comes at the cost of heavy taxation (1 Kgs 4:22-23; 1 Kgs 4:27-28).

Solomon's great accomplishment was building the temple, but even that accomplishment is tainted. There is no mention that Solomon ever pays the workers who labored to construct the Temple, in contrast to Josiah's later action when he commissions repairs on the temple (see 2 Kgs 22:3-7). The reference to the exodus in 1 Kings 6:1 in the context of forced labor makes Solomon appear like the Pharaoh in oppressing the Israelites to build this great house of worship for the Lord. The Temple is an impressive structure, and Solomon seems to exult in the fact that he is the one who has built the temple (cf. 1 Kgs 8:13, 20, 27, 43-44, 48). Solomon takes seven years to build the Temple, but 13 years to build his own house (1 Kgs 6:38-7:1). Throughout the rest of Kings, Solomon's great Temple is going to be systematically dismantled because of the apostasy of king and people (see 1 Kgs 14:26; 2 Kgs 16:17; 2 Kgs 18:16; 2 Kgs 25:9, 13-17).

The visit of the Queen of Sheba to recognize and honor Solomon perhaps represents the pinnacle of Solomon's international acclaim. This scene represents in some sense what God designed for Israel when he chose them to be a "holy nation" and "kingdom of priests." Israel was to mediate God's blessing to all other nations, and God designed that the nations would come to inquire of Israel concerning their God when they saw the great blessing that God bestowed on Israel for obedience to his covenant commands. However, when the Queen of Sheba sees the splendor of Solomon's palace, she comments only about the happiness that his reign brings upon those who live in the palace with him (1 Kgs 10:8). Her ironic comment about "justice and righteousness" in 1 Kings 10:9 perhaps implies that those qualities have disappeared from Israel during Solomon's reign.

Helping people to see the artistry of biblical narratives is one of the ways that we can help the Old Testament to come alive for modern audience. Biblical illiteracy is one of the serious problems in our churches today, and even people who know these stories may have never deeply reflected on their meaning and significance for their lives. The artistry of biblical stories ultimately point us to their theological message and their relevance for Christian living today. Even before Solomon's great apostasy in chapter 11, there are evidences of moral failure and spiritual neglect. And Solomon's life continues to remind us of the great differences that often exist between human achievement and success in the eyes of God.

If you would like to see further development of these features of the story of Solomon, please see J. Daniel Hays, "Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11" Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28 (2003): 149-174.

1 comment:

  1. If it is true that Solomon’s various accomplishments are tainted with selfishness, then it does not seem as if this king lasted very long in utilizing the wisdom he so desperately sought for. Dr. Yates argues well for this point, and it would seem that from the offset (or close to it) Solomon decided to strike out on his own. I am not completely convinced that this is the case and would like to study the issue a little bit further, but this posting has certainly paved the way for a great start.

    Of course, in no way should this negate the goodness found within Solomon’s accomplishments (especially in the building of the Temple), to include the revival towards God that the Israelites experienced (1 Kings 8). If an ulterior motive was involved on Solomon’s part, this does not change the fact that God moves in powerful ways despite one’s sin. This, I think, is the main crux of the Scriptures. Not so much what Solomon did or did not achieve, or what was or was not his reasoning behind those achievements, but the fact that the people of God came together in national and spiritual unity to lift up the name of the Lord! It is important for believers to remember that, ultimately, the point of the Bible is not to glorify man but God. Like the ancient Jews may we all join in, as God’s people, and also be “joyful and happy because the LORD had been good to his servant David and to his people Israel” (1 Kings 8:66).