rethinking bible “heroes”: how wise was solomon?

In my last post I looked at the character of Joseph in Genesis and suggested that perhaps he became a far more sinister character than is often thought.

I also suggested that the way we perceive some Bible characters could have more to do with our taste for imperial theology than with thoughtful reflection.

In this post I will turn my attention to Solomon.

Solomon

Most Seasoned Bible readers are aware that Solomon did not, as is often said, “finish well.” He married a lot of foreign wives for the sake of international diplomacy and compromised himself with their gods.

Despite this ending it is often thought that Solomon ‘started well.’ But how true is this? By comparing aspects of Exodus and Genesis with Solomon’s story in Kings we might be surprised by what we find.

Wes Howard-Brook shows comprehensively that the Bible’s description of Pharaoh is strikingly similar to that of Solomon in 1 Kings.* Here are some important examples:

  • Both use slave labour (1 Ki. 4:6; Ex. 1:11)
  • Both have storage cities (‘arey mamiskenoth) built by slave labour (1 Ki. 9:15, 19; Ex. 1:11)
  • Both narratives have a story of a women giving birth to boys and questions over babies’ life and death (1 Ki. 3:16ff; Ex. 1:16ff)
  • Both utilise chariots and horses (1 Ki. 9:19, 22; 10:26; Ex. 14:9
  • Both force the populace into hard labour (qasheh) (1 Ki. 12:4; Ex. 1:13-14)
  • Both “awoke, and behold! It had been a dream” (vayyiqats par’oh vehinneh chalom) (1 Ki. 3:15; Gen. 41:7; used nowhere else in the Bible)

When compared to Pharaoh in this way a number of Solomon’s activities look quite oppressive, quite imperial. Solomon was of course the high point of power and wealth in Israel – is this necessarily a good thing?

Howard-Brook suggests that Exodus was written subsequent to the Kings narrative, not prior, and thus the Exodus description of Pharaoh is in fact a critical statement about Solomon and not the other way around.**

(That Exodus was written later than Kings is, in most academic circles, wholly uncontroversial.)

Perhaps more condemning for Solomon is a comparison made with him in Genesis (also widely agreed to be written post-Kings):

Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:9)

“… but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” … So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 2:17; 3:6-7)

As Howard-Brook says of this linkage:

… Solomon is overheard praying (in his dream) for exactly what, from the perspective of Genesis, has been forbidden to humanity. He rightly deems that only this “forbidden fruit” can enable one to govern “your great people.” In other words, with the Genesis text in mind, Solomon’s prayer states clearly that only YHWH – or one usurping YHWH’s command – can rule YHWH’s people.***

The implications for this are strong, if subtle. The request of Solomon to God is commented on in the Genesis narrative by comparing it to the primeval sin of Adam and Eve. Just as this couple sought to become like God by seeking his power to decide good and evil, so too, according to Genesis’ perspective, did Solomon.

His particular wisdom is not then something to aspire to; it was not wisdom submissive to God, but wisdom seeking to become God.

The ill-gotten wealth and power of Solomon, along with his eventual downfall, reveal the folly of his wisdom. If he were truly wise he would have acted in accordance with God’s plan for humanity; instead he built a powerful empire on the back of forced labour.

Solomon surely did not finish well, but nor did he start well. Our appreciation for his awesome success, wealth and power screams of our collusion with imperial power in this day and age.

MCA


* Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 100.
** Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”, 103-104.
*** Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!”, 106.
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Posted on November 15, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hi Matt, I’ve been reading your blog for a while but this is the first time I’ve made a comment. I find your musings on the character of Solomon very insightful.Perhaps this is a long bow to draw, but this post made me think of how historically Christianity and imperialism/colonialist enterprise have often become entangled, and not necessarily for good.

    For example, in the past in Australia, Aboriginal missions often relied on the unpaid labour of the residents to build church buildings, and mission organisations often took a cut from the sale of basic food rations in order to make a profit. Hence mimicking the practices of the government of the day rather than seeking to serve others.

    Similarly, in the past few years I have observed the organisational culture and practices of some Christian organisations in developing countries where I have worked. Even in our present postcolonial context, I notice that some (not all!) organisations tend to be so closely aligned to the culture and values of the the first world nation from which they are ‘sent,’ that they end up directly or indirectly exploiting those they claim to serve.

    I often wonder how this can be avoided, and I guess I just pray that as Christians from Australia we can have enough self-awareness about our own backgrounds, and the history of the church, that we don’t confuse propelling our inherent privilege with following God, the way it appears Solomon did.

    • Hi Linda,

      I would completely agree with your thoughts here. This is not only one of reasons why I want to explore such readings of the Bible, but also one of the reasons why I work for TEAR Australia.

      A friend of mine argues that most Christians in privileged contexts simply use faith in Christ as a thin veneer to spiritualise lives that look like everyone else. I think he is onto something.

      I think you are right in saying we need self-awareness. Certainly we need the voice and work of the Spirit.

      Thanks for your comment linda, I hope to hear more from you.

      Matt

  2. Thought you might’ve been reading “Come Out My People!”!

    • You know it brother!

      In that book Wes has, in an incredibly articulate way, summarised how so many of us have felt about reading the Bible in an imperial context.

      I assume you have felt the same about his book?

  1. Pingback: Monopolizing Marriage: Gay Marriage and Other Traditional Versions | Filipino Freethinkers

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