People

Solomon by Sarah Malena

King Solomon is a man of legend. I don’t simply mean that he was a great man responsible for extraordinary deeds. I mean the King Solomon that you are likely envisioning right now is a product of centuries of accumulation of tale upon legendary tale.

What we have inherited from the tales of Solomon is the biblical image of the wise and ambitious king who conquered a vast territory, not through military might like his father David, but through diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence. We have the man who built the first monotheistic temple in Jerusalem, who transformed the city into a world-renowned center, who was helped in these endeavors by an extraordinary gift of wisdom and wealth from God, and who authored psalms, proverbs, poems, and philosophy.
 

Who was the historical Solomon?

Despite the challenging fact that we do not have any evidence of Solomon from his own day (mid-tenth century BCE), there is good reason to believe that the legendary Solomon grew from a historical core. The primary history of Solomon’s career is recorded in 1Kgs 1-11. Within these chapters are records of Solomon’s rise to power over rival factions in the newly established royal family. Solomon secured his succession through careful manipulation of the aged David, with the help of his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan, and then found justification for the execution of David’s presumed successor, the heir apparent Adonijah. Following a consolidation of his own power, Solomon sought to elevate the status of Jerusalem as well, carrying out a building program for his capital city that would convey a message of importance in the region. The construction of the temple was the highpoint of this effort. These steps were of prime importance in the ancient Near Eastern political climate. Many elite families were competing to become the dominant regional power. Solomon, the shrewd politician and ambitious builder, was a product of these times.

Other less desirable aspects of Solomon’s career may have stemmed from similar historical circumstances. Solomon followed the model for ancient Near Eastern kingship, but it proved contrary to values that would become biblical theological foundations (see Deut 17 and 1Sam 8). Solomon notoriously oppressed his subjects through hard labor in order to build the temple and royal complex. He reportedly became a man of excess and enriched himself from tribute and the products of the land. He built altars for the worship of foreign gods, notably those worshiped by his foreign wives, and Solomon participated in this worship. His leadership style led to dissent among the populace and nearly ended the fledgling dynasty in Jerusalem. Famously, the Israelite territory divided into two kingdoms immediately following Solomon’s death, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam retaining a fraction of the territory and the rest falling away to his rival Jeroboam.
 

Benevolent wise king or abusive autocrat?

The sketch drawn so far does not conform well to the image of the wise and reverent king that Western culture—built upon Jewish and Christian traditions—has emphasized, but Solomon the legend quite naturally grew from this historical core. Over time, biblical authors and editors combined various traditions to form what is now Solomon’s history in 1 Kings. Later authors sought to explain how an unlikely successor to David could have accomplished so much and how a flawed leader and imperfect servant to God could have been responsible for the creation of God’s earthly residence. 

One response was that Solomon was simply exceptional. His story grew to illustrate the point. One of the most memorable examples is the visit from the queen of Sheba (1Kgs 10:1-13). Embedded in descriptions of Solomon’s wealth and world trade connections (1Kgs 9:26-10:29), this account highlights all of Solomon’s strengths. Through the mouth of the queen we learn that Solomon was a wise, benevolent, and just ruler. She reports that Solomon and his god, Yahweh, had earned the respect of the world. 

The clearest illustration, however, comes from words put into God’s mouth by one of the biblical authors. Unlike other kings who learned of divine will through prophets, the narrator reports that Solomon received God’s wishes more directly (1Kgs 3:4-15; 1Kgs 11:9-13). With the absence of the middle-man prophet, Solomon appears to be uncommonly close to God. According to 1Kgs 3, God offered to give Solomon whatever he wished. Solomon responded well by asking for wisdom. God replied, “I do now according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1Kgs 3:12). With that divine decree, Solomon the legend was fixed in history.
 

Sarah Malena, "Solomon", n.p. [cited 18 Apr 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/solomon

Contributors

malena-sarah

Sarah Malena
Assistant Professor, St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Sarah Malena is an assistant professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She specializes in intercultural relations in the eastern Mediterranean and how interactions impacted social and ideological change. She is the author of “Influential Inscriptions,” in Writing and Scribalism: Authors, Audiences and Text in Social Context, edited by Mark Leuchter (T&T Clark, forthcoming), and “Spice Roots in the Song of Songs,” in Milk and Honey, a collection of essays on ancient Israel and the Bible, which she coedited with David Miano (Eisenbrauns, 2007). Her current project, Fertile Crossroads, focuses on elite exchange networks in the early stages of the Iron Age (ca. 1100-800 BCE) that shaped the developing identities of the Israelites, Philistines, Phoenicians, and others.

Solomon was king of Israel when the first temple was built.

Did you know…?

  • Solomon’s wise man reputation has been his most influential characteristic. 1Kgs 4:29-34 describes Solomon as the wisest man in all the land, crediting him with 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs. The biblical books of Proverbs, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), and two Psalms (72 and 127) are also attributed to him, as are later wisdom traditions such as the Wisdom of Solomon.
  • The quintessential illustration of his “wise and discerning mind” is the verdict to cut in two the baby that was claimed by two women (1Kgs 3:16-28). Solomon’s decision revealed the true mother, the one who would give up the child to spare its life.
  • 1Chr 282Chr 9 contains an alternative history of Solomon, which relies heavily on 1Kgs 1-11 but conveniently glosses over many of Solomon’s less flattering qualities.
  • The author of 1Kgs 11:1-3 claims that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines; these women receive the bulk of the blame for Solomon’s worship of other gods.
  • Solomon’s history in 1Kgs 1-11 is arranged thematically to create a morality tale. It emphasizes Solomon’s good qualities before the construction of the temple and his flaws after the temple was dedicated. The symmetrical pattern, which scholars call chiasm, prioritizes themes over chronological or historical accuracy.
  • The story of Solomon’s meeting with the queen of Sheba grew to become a great love affair according to some traditions. The monarchs’ offspring, Menelik I, was believed to have carried the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia where he founded a Solomonic dynasty (recorded in the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast). Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, claimed to have been from this dynasty.

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

1Kgs 1-11

The Struggle for the Succession
1King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.2So his servants sa ... View more

Deut 17

1You must not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep that has a defect, anything seriously wrong; for that is abhorrent to the Lord your God.2If there ... View more

1Sam 8

Israel Demands a King
1When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; ... View more

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

1Kgs 10:1-13

Visit of the Queen of Sheba
1When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, (fame due to the name of the Lord), she came to test him with hard questions. ... View more

1Kgs 9:26-10:29

Solomon's Commercial Activity
26King Solomon built a fleet of ships at Ezion-geber, which is near Eloth on the shore of the Red Sea, in the land of Edom.27Hiram ... View more

1Kgs 3:4-15

4The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.5At Gibeon th ... View more

1Kgs 11:9-13

9Then the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice,10and had commanded him ... View more

1Kgs 3

Solomon's Prayer for Wisdom
1Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh's daughter and brought her into the city of David, unt ... View more

1Kgs 3:12

12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.

1Kgs 4:29-34

Fame of Solomon's Wisdom
29God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore,30so that Solomon's ... View more

1Kgs 3:16-28

Solomon's Wisdom in Judgment
16Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.17The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman an ... View more

1Chr 28

Solomon Instructed to Build the Temple
1David assembled at Jerusalem all the officials of Israel, the officials of the tribes, the officers of the divisions tha ... View more

2Chr 9

Visit of the Queen of Sheba
1When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to Jerusalem to test him with hard questions, having a very great re ... View more

1Kgs 1-11

The Struggle for the Succession
1King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.2So his servants sa ... View more

1Kgs 11:1-3

Solomon's Errors
1King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women,2from the na ... View more

1Kgs 1-11

The Struggle for the Succession
1King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.2So his servants sa ... View more

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