The Historian and the Chronicler
Solomon's reputation is well established: first and fore most he was a wise man. His biographers recount the various phases of his reign with admiring wonder. He acquired great wealth and his every effort prospered. Politically he contrived to strengthen his position with skill. The Scriptural writer refers shortly to certain blemishes but the overall picture remains impressive. The theme of Solomon's wisdom recurs on practically every page.
It is a judgment approved by posterity. In the modern East, including Islam, 'the wisdom of Solomon' is proverbial. The same phrase has a place in most European languages.
Nevertheless, this picture contains inconsistencies. In the first place, the account given of the series of events in his reign is to some extent unsatisfactory, and its tone arouses suspicion. An apologia (a formal defense or justification) is not history. Secondly, it is very difficult to endorse the unqualified optimism expressed by his biographers. They regard his reign as a success without precedent, and yet this is entirely contradicted by what happened after it. For as soon as he was dead (931) his work crumbled, and this indicates that it began to crack during Solomon's lifetime. A poor testimonial for an architect of genius!
These volumes are solely concerned with history, and our first contact with Solomon as portrayed in the Scripture, suggests that corrections to the narrative must be made.
The historical treatment required
The main lines of his authentic biography are not so difficult to establish as might at first appear. It is comparatively easy, both to retain what is truly great and striking in his reign and also to allow for exaggeration in the narratives, legendary elements and dubious anecdotes. This method will enable us to reach fairly certain knowledge of the truth.
There are two preliminary points that need clarifying. First: what was the intellectual approach of the writers of these chapters? Secondly, what exactly was meant by the wisdom of Solomon which provides the unifying factor in this narrative? It is necessary to know this if we are to avoid serious misunderstanding.
The two Scriptural recorders of Solomon's life
There are two main Scriptural sources for his life: the First Book of Melechim and the Second Book of Divre Hayamim.
The Book of Melechim originated among the prophets. Its composition, as we have it now, probably dates from the seventh century B.C., but it seems certain that it is based on documents almost contemporary with Solomon's period.
The Book of Divre Hayamim, on the other hand, is a product of the kohen tradition. Its final version dates from the second century B.C., but the author drew heavily upon the Book of Melechim, which in some places he repeats word for word.
These two authors emphasized the importance of the Great Tabernacle of Yerusalem, which they regarded as the exemplar of all qadash places and the spiritual centre of Yisrael. They praised this imposing tabernacle erected to the honour of YAHWEH, and they praised the king who built it. They attributed exceptional qualities to him, and describe him as a superman. His personal worth surpassed that of all his contemporaries.
Clearly, these writers put forward their theocratic thesis with the aim of convincing us that Solomon, the builder of the Great Tabernacle, was an incomparable monarch. We must be careful therefore to make the necessary allowances.
What in fact does 'wisdom' mean?
How was this great gift bestowed on Solomon? At the beginning of his reign he went to Gibeon, a village a few miles north of Yerusalem, to sacrifice and offer incense there. The king was anxious to impress the people with his magnificence, and on the altar of Mosheh 1 he offered a thousand holocausts. Then, in line with an ancient eastern tradition, he decided to spend the night in the tabernacle so that during it he might be granted a dream inspired by YAHWEH. 2
The Scriptural writers relate that during his sleep, YAHWEH did in fact visit Solomon, and, at his request, bestowed wisdom upon him, that is, the qualities needed by a statesman if he is to govern his people well.
This 'wisdom', therefore, in no way resembles the essentially moral wisdom described by modern philosophies. In the ancient East, and, specifically, in the time of Solomon, it means something entirely different -a special ability in managing affairs in their political and administrative aspects.
Inevitably, the scribes were swift to embellish this picture with features calculated to provoke our admiration. The characteristics ascribed to Solomon must help later generations to appreciate his supposed literary activity, the subtle verdicts he could give through his knowledge of nature's secrets, and the mental agility which enabled him to solve baffling problems. This was a characteristic occupation of eastern monarchs at this time. For some of its features there is an historical foundation. Each case will be examined as it occurs.
To some extent we now have the key to the story of Solomon. Ultimately his famous 'wisdom' amounts to a kind of speculative reflection on the visible world.
1 At this period, Yerusalem possessed as an historical relic the Ark of the Covenant, constructed two centuries before, at Mosheh' command. It contained the tables of the Law and David had had it transferred from Kiriath-jearim to the new capital of the kingdom. The high-place of Gibeon, for its part, claimed to have two venerable items of Mosaic origin the Tabernacle (also called: The Tent of Meeting) which had provided a shelter for the Ark, and the portable altar (called the altar of holocausts) on which Mosheh had sacrificed to YAHWEH throughout the journey across the Sinai peninsula. Gibeon was a former Canaanite 'high-place' changed into a Yahwist tabernacle when Yisrael took possession of the country. It was a rival of Yerusalem, a much more recent establishment.
2 Ancient peoples attached much importance to such dreams and believed that sometimes they were a means of con1municating with a god. There is an interesting resemblance between Solomon's nocturnal vigil in the tabernacle of Gibeon and the Greek custom practiced in the temples of Aesculapius:the sick spent the night in them, and, while they slept, received from the god himself. Information about the remedies that would effect their cure.
The three principal stages of Solomon's career
The first stage: the beginning of Solomon's reign. An interesting description of the court in Yerusalem, from Solomon's accession (970) to the beginning of the building of the Great Tabernacle (967). The account of this is due most probably to a contemporary of the young king (1 Melechim 3-9:25). The hero is, of course, described in his most favourable aspect; all his deeds bear the stamp of the highest wisdom. The documents utilized are, in general, of real significance.
The second stage: the kingdom at its height. Solomon in all his honour. For this section of the biography, the divre hayamim appear to have made use of a 'divre hayamim of Solomon' (a document that has been lost) as their principal source. The text as we have it (2 Divre Hayamim 1-9} was probably composed in the second century. It contains a certain amount of valuable information, but its authors unfortunately included a number of popular anecdotes embellished with miraculous details, and referring especially to the king's power, wealth and, of course, wisdom.
The third stage is passed over briefly because the scribe found it disagreeable. The author of the Book of Melechim felt bound to acknowledge Solomon's serious sins. The compiler does his best to explain away this unexpected development. While Solomon remained loyal to YAHWEH he earned his reputation as a sage, but towards the end of his life he began building tabernacles for false gods. YAHWEH punished him, and the prince of wisdom who had started his career with such brilliant omens, ended it under a cloud. This, at any rate, is the theological explanation. The historian must be at pains to discover the human reasons for this resounding failure.
Our course, therefore, will be to follow the Scriptural narrative, gladly accepting its wealth of documentation, but duly criticizing those details that demand correction.
To enable the reader to place this reign in the historical context of the great adventure of Yisrael, see graph.
Solomon The Magnificent Index Solomon Sitemap Scripture History Through the Ages Solomon The Historian RADIANT DAWN Solomon's Wisdom SOLOMON IN ALL HIS HONOR David's role in building the Temple Dates of the building of the Temple Division of the Temple The Ark of the Covenant The most Kodesh Place Dedication of the Temple SOLOMON Prince of Peace SOLOMON THE TRADER Solomon's Ophir expedition The queen of Sheba LITERARY ACHIEVEMENTS OF SOLOMON First historical works of the Hebrews What did Solomon write THE SHADES OF NIGHT Political and social failure Solomon's spiritual failure The moral failure of Solomon CONCLUSION of Solomon