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.
Did you know…?
- Solomon’s wise man reputation has been his most influential characteristic.
1Kgs 4:29-34describes 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 28– 2Chr 9contains an alternative history of Solomon, which relies heavily on 1Kgs 1-11but conveniently glosses over many of Solomon’s less flattering qualities.
- The author of
1Kgs 11:1-3claims 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 1-11is 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.
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
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
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 (
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 (