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Solomon is quite a complicated fellow. During his legendary rule, he displays various competing traits. He's humble yet extravagant, brutal yet pious. He builds Israel to its greatest heights, only to lay the foundation for its dissolution. To simplify things, we'll look at three roles he plays throughout 1st Kings: (1) cunning tyrant; (2) righteous architect; and (3) ill-fated sinner.
The first two chapters of 1st Kings read like The Godfather: The heir apparent to the family business (i.e. the monarchy) struggles to preserve the legacy of his aging father (Don David) against usurpers. He finds that the halls of power are full of treachery and soon finds himself forced to either back down or get his hands dirty. Solomon, like Michael Corleone, chooses the latter in a big way.
When his brother Adonijah, who's already on thin ice for a failed power grab, enlists Bath-sheba to subtly regain some of his claim to the throne, Solomon wastes no time in getting rid of him. "Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! Now therefore as the Lord lives, […] today Adonijah shall be put to death" (2:23-24). He quickly sends his enforcer, Benaiah, to do the deed.
Benaiah, by the way, has got to be the deadliest right-hand-man since Darth Vader. He had, prior to becoming Solomon's assassin, already killed many strong men in battle and may or may not have fought a lion. In a pit. During a blizzard. Solomon keeps him pretty busy for the rest of the chapter as he fulfills David's dying wishes.
Solomon banishes Abiathar the high priest and puts Shimei on probation, then turns his attention to Joab, who murdered a few of David's pals way back when. Joab tries to save himself by holding onto the altar in the tabernacle, but Solomon sends Benaiah to "strike him down and bury him" (2:31). And when Shimei violates the conditions of his probation, Solomon sends Benaiah to kill him, too. At the end of this bloodbath, Solomon has eliminated all of his enemies in Israel: "So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon" (2:46).
Now granted, all of the guys Solomon bumps off are guilty of some crime or another. Still, you've got to be pretty ruthless to send your crony around killing people. Somehow we doubt that that's an above-the-board approach to the Israelite criminal justice system. And yet, just when we think we've got Solomon pegged as a coldblooded despot, he transforms for the next 8 chapters into a veritable saint.
Solomon is the Warren Buffet (a.k.a. "The Oracle of Omaha") of the Bible. Like the legendary billionaire, Solomon is best known for (A) his wisdom, and (B) his wealth. Both of these came to him because of his righteousness. He was so good that "the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, 'Ask what I should give you'" (3:5). Solomon only wants to be a good king, so he asks, "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil" (3:9). The Lord is so pleased with Solomon's priorities that he showers him with not only crazy wisdom but also "riches and honor all [his] life" (3:13). Suddenly Solomon has "very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that [it] surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. […] People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom" (4:29-30, 34).
The most famous of these visitors is the Queen of Sheba, who is so blown away by Solomon's big brain and beaucoup bucks that "there was no more spirit in her" (10:5). Though 1st Kings only devotes ten verses to the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon, many throughout the ages have filled in the details the Bible leaves out, and the QoS has taken on huge cultural significance.
Nowhere is this truer than in Ethiopia, where tradition holds that Solomon and the Queen, whom they know as Makeda, got very close during her visit, and ended up having a son who became the first emperor of Ethiopia. There is even genetic evidence that this could be true. Either way, it injects some exotic romance into King Solomon's story, and most of the films (check out our "Best of the Web" section for more on this) made about Solomon have followed the Ethiopians's lead. As a result, the Queen o' Sheba has sort of become a Cleopatra figure to King Solomon's Mark Antony.
Possible dalliances with visiting queens aside, 1st Kings portrays Solomon as a paragon of prudence whose leadership turns Israel into a political and socio-economic heavy-hitter, ushering in an age of prosperity and growth: "Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy" (4:20). Soon, Solomon announces the endeavor that will define him forever: "[T]he Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God" (5:4-5).
The temple construction reinforces Solomon's closeness to the Lord: Throughout the process, he regularly speaks directly to Solomon (see 6:11-13; 9:2-9). And at its completion, Solomon dedicates it "so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other," and he urges all of Israel to "devote yourselves completely to the Lord our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, as at this day" (8:60-61).
This middle period of Solomon's life represents the apex of his power and righteousness. He writes prolifically: In addition to his "three thousand proverbs, and his songs number[ing] a thousand and five" (4:32), he is also traditionally considered the author of Ecclesiastes and, of course, Song of Solomon. Beyond just the plain ol' genius-level wisdom the text talks about, various religious traditions hold that he also possessed some pretty awesome superpowers. In rabbinic literature, Solomon has power over animals and demons (source), and the Quran says that he can talk to animals (Quran, Surah 28:18-19) and control the wind and jinn, who build him houses of worship, public works, and art (Quran, Surah 34:12-13). In other words, the guy's practically a god.
And then, incredibly, he goes and muffs it up in the final chapters. And all for nothing but a harem full of hundreds of beautiful princesses.
Solomon's downfall consists of basically three stages: (1) out of control polygamy, (2) succumbing to idolatry, and (3) letting political problems pile up.
We don't really know what possessed Solomon to want 1,000 wives and concubines. Most kings would probably be good with, y'know, like 500 or so. It's likely that he was at least partially motivated by politics. His first nuptials were part of a "marriage alliance" (3:1), and it stands to reason that Solomon would continue to use marriage as a political tool. The problem is that a lot of his wives are Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites, and God has said, "'You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods' (11:2). But Solomon's probably thinking, "Lord, it's me. I'm the man. Remember that temple I built you? And all that wisdom you gave me? C'mon." So "Solomon clung to these in love" (11:2), and you know the rest.
In his old age, Solomon's "wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God […]. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. […] Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who offered incense and sacrificed to their gods" (11:4-5, 7-8). Even Solomon—who has had personal contact with God himself—apparently can't ignore the wishes of so many, many, many wives.
Naturally, after they had been so tight just a few short years ago, the Lord can't even believe this. "Then the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord […]. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, 'Since this has been your mind and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant'" (11:9-11). Which leads us to the aforementioned political problems.
In retrospect, even before God raises up some enemies to cause trouble in Israel, Solomon isn't exactly doing everything right. He conscripts everyone of non-Israelite descent into "slave labor" (9:21), which people don't like. After his death, they complain that Solomon "made our yoke heavy" (12:4), and even his own son admits that "my father disciplined you with whips" (12:14). These little seeds of dissent were just waiting for guys like Hadad (11:14) and Rezon (11:23)—and especially Jeroboam—to raise a little bit of rebellion. It doesn't reach boiling point until Solomon's dead, but he is clearly the one who lays the foundation for the collapse of the empire he and his father built (see 12:16-19).
Which raises the question: How could Solomon have let himself slip like that? He was the man. He was the wisest dude ever. He knew God, like, on a first-name basis. And yet he dropped the baton at the very end of the race. What's the deal? At what point did he go wrong? Some might argue that his prosperity was his undoing. You know what they say: Mo' money, mo' problems. But if that's the case, then why did God give it to him?
And on that note, why would God bless Solomon so much if he was building the temple and making his money on the backs of slaves? It's entirely possible that the whipping, etc., came only after Solomon's apostasy, but maybe not. Just goes to show that if Solomon's a complex guy, maybe it's just because he worshipped a pretty complex deity—at least until he didn't.
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