Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

King Solomon in History and Tradition

Posted by foryourfaith on August 16, 2010


King Solomon is renowned for his wisdom, wealth, and wives. He’s credited in the Hebrew Bible with ruling over an empire that stretched from Egypt to the Euphrates. However, like his father David, Solomon and his accomplishments have become the subject of recent controversy.

The Epitome of Wise Governance

Solomon’s reign was considered to be the golden age of Israelite and Judean history, at least from a casual reading of the biblical account. His reign lasted forty years, approximately 970 to 930 BCE, and he was buried in Jerusalem, the city of David, which Solomon expanded magnificently.

In the Book of Chronicles, the chronicler neutralized any negative aspects of Solomon’s reign and elaborated on his role as builder of the famous Temple in Jerusalem and cofounder with his father David of the United Monarchy. The Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs appear to credit Solomon for vast amounts of wisdom. So it is not surprising that his reign came to be considered the epitome of splendor and wise governance, not to mention wealth.

But the biblical text reveals certain ironies. Wealthy Solomon developed cash-flow problems. Powerful Solomon was troubled by adversaries close to home. And wise Solomon apparently exploited his people through forced labor and other despotic practices, so that the bulk of his kingdom chose to break away after his death.

Wealth and Women

Solomon’s reign is among the first where specific ties may possibly be drawn between the biblical and archaeological records. In 1 Kings, there is mention of several cities that Solomon built or fortified, including Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. Archaeological excavations at these sites have revealed layers of building and fortification remains that were dated to Solomon’s reign and which do in fact suggest, both by their large scale and similar design, that they were centralized (a royal building program, perhaps). So there may have been material evidence of Solomon’ accomplishments as a builder. On the other hand, this same evidence shows that his accomplishments were rather modest when compared with the kings of Egypt or Mesopotamia.

In 1 Kings, Solomon loved many foreign women, including the daughter of a Pharaoh, as well as Moabite, Ammonite, Ebonite, Sidonian, and Hittite women. Solomon had seven hundred wives and princesses an three hundred concubines. We are told that these women turned his heart after other gods. He built sanctuaries to the gods of the Moabites and the Ammonites, respectively, and therefore God became angry with Solomon and sent adversaries.

Solomon had an abundance of silver and gold. In 1 Kings, the weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was 666 talents, besides that which came from the traders, the traffic of the merchants, and the kings of Arabia and governors of the land. King Solomon made two hundred large shields of beaten gold and a great ivory throne overlain with the finest gold.

The biblical account from Genesis through 2 Kings serves as the primary source of information on Solomon, but the presentation in the Hebrew Bible consists largely of extended descriptions of Solomon’s cultic activities and sweeping claims about his great wealth, wisdom, and international prestige. However, the meager information available today simply does not support the sweeping claims, and biblical minimalists and theirs claim that the account of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible bears no relation to the archaeological record.

Solomon inherited a kingdom from David that was not unified by any means. The fact that he was able to hold it together was one of his many accomplishments. The trend of a Jerusalem-based kingdom reached full development under Solomon. He was wealthy and powerful by the standards of the early first millennium BCE, but he should probably be regarded more as a local ruler of an expanded city-state than as a world class emperor like Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. He engaged in the usual royal pursuits, including building programs and patronage of literature. Whether he was wise or not was something to be discussed even in his own day, and like many of the kings of his day and afterward, Solomon had international contacts, including the famed visit of the Queen of Sheba (if it actually took place).

A Peaceful King

Solomon is described in the Bible as a peaceful king, and this may well have been the case. There are no known clashes, military or otherwise, during his reign. The achievements credited to him lie mostly in the religious, economic, and cultural spheres. He completed the Temple at Jerusalem, erected buildings in other cities, and made trade alliances and economic treaties with neighboring countries. He might not have been as vigorous or creative as David, but he did piece together the empire.

Solomon had inherited this kingdom from his father David, and he managed to keep control of it by various diplomatic connections, including through his wives. At that time, it was common to cement a treaty by having the signers marry each other’s daughters. A lot of the women in Solomon’s palace may well have gotten there because of the various peace treaties that he signed with his neighbors. It’s easy to see foreign politics underlying these marriages, because these are women of the countries with whom Solomon would have wished to be at peace. In particular, the daughter of the King of Egypt played a prominent role. She’s mentioned five different times, which may indicate that he wanted to be friends with Egypt. He also cultivated extensive trade relationships with various countries and sent ships to the land of Ophir to bring back gold, valuable wood, and other luxuries. Because his Israelites were not seafarers themselves, he was supported in this by the king of Tyre form the coast of Lebanon, where the sea-going Phoenicians were located.

Solomon’s Temple

The king of Tyre in 1 Kings put shipwrights and sailors at Solomon’s disposal, and so Solomon had a city constructed for his fleet on the northern coast of the gulf of Aqaba. Excavations have confirmed that ruins in this area may indeed be those built by Solomon. The Bible tells us that this is when Israel became open to the international world. Great buildings were erected and literature was collected.

However, this whole development must be seen in fairly modest terms within a small area. It is highly doubtful that the empire stretched from Egypt to the Euphrates. More likely, it was about the bounds of the modern state of Israel as it exists now, if even that. This age of Solomon should not be underestimated, however. Rather, it should be appreciated, because immediately upon his death, violent conflicts broke out and the United Monarchy split into the Divided Kingdoms.

The city with which Solomon’s name is forever linked is the city of Jerusalem, even though little or nothing of what he built there has actually been identified by archaeologists. Solomon’s Temple and palace were built to the north of the Jebusite city, the city of David had captured on the southernmost part of this eastern ridge. Solomon then built up the northern part of that eastern ridge, which is where the Temple Mount lies today. It was not easy to build there – Solomon’s workmen, architects, and construction engineers would have been hard-pressed to build in that area. Nevertheless, the famous Temple of Solomon was built on this northern part of the eastern ridge, about 750 feet to the north of the Jebusite city, joining the two by a narrow strip. But none of this has been confirmed by archaeology, in part because this city has been rebuilt so many times over the last couple of thousand years. The Temple Mount is today the home of the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Islam, located on the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to the Arab world. This particular area is the center of battles that have been fought for Jerusalem over the last four thousand years.

The Temple Mount was probably already a Canaanite high place back in the third millennium BCE. There have probably been five thousand years of continuous religious worship on the Temple Mount, which may make it he oldest piece of real estate in the world with a continuous religious presence. Here is the rock on which Abraham was going to sacrifice Isaac on which Mohammed ascended to Heaven on his nocturnal journey. There are indentations in the rock, which, depending on the story, are either the marks made by the legs of the Ark of the Covenant or the marks made by Mohammed’s steed as he leaped up to the heavens – or by the ladder as he climbed up to the heavens.

Detailed descriptions of Solomon’s Temple are found in the Book of Kings and 2 Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible and in the firsthand evidence of Ezekiel. We are told that the Temple was begun in the fourth year of Solomon’s forty-year-long reign, which was also the four hundred and eightieth year after the Exodus from Egypt. Solomon’s building projects took exactly half his reign, twenty years, and during those twenty years, seven years were devoted to the building of the Temple. One problem here is the presence of symbolic numbers: four, forty, multiples of forty, and seven, and so it might be best not to take these numbers literally.

Once Solomon began to build the Temple, Hiram, the king of Tyre, agreed to supply building materials and skilled workmen. Solomon himself raised forced labor for the project and hired bronzesmith from Tyre, who made bronze fixtures and furnishings for the Temple. When all the work was completed, Solomon stored in the Temple all the things that David had dedicated: silver, gold, and vessels, including the Ark of the Covenant. There was a dedication ceremony that included the ritual transfer of the Ark into the temple and a long prayer by Solomon to reconfirm his promise to David to bless the temple with his presence and to forgive the people. Then there were elaborate sacrifices, followed by a great feast. After the people returned to their homes, God appeared to Solomon and assured him that his prayers would be answered, depending upon the king’s faithfulness. Solomon gave twenty cities to Hiram in payment for everything that Hiram had contributed and the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh was moved to her own house. Solomon then began to make burnt offerings in the Temple three times a year.

Descriptions of the Temple

The Temple itself presents a puzzle. The biblical description is not entirely clear and could be interpreted in a number of different ways, for the Bible’s description of the temple is fairly inexact. The furniture and the utensils are described in minute details, but the building itself lacks detail except for a brief notice concerning its windows. However, descriptions of the internal aspects are described in tremendous detail: the doors to the inner sanctuary, side chambers and so on.

Solomon’s Temple seems to have been a long-room temple, one that is oriented with the entrance on the short side and the shrine on the opposite end of the building. This type of building is not uncommon and can be found in Syria, Greece, and other places. It can be traced back to the so-called Megaron type of building found in Turkey and Greece in the third and second millennia BCE.

Solomon’s Temple seems to have comprised three parts. First was a porch at the front, with two free-standing columns, then came the main hall or sanctuary, and then at the far end was the inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies. This was where the Ark of the Covenant would have been kept.

One scholar claims that the bible says the Temple was sixty cubits (about a hundred and three feet) long, twenty cubits (thirty-three feet) wide, and thirty cubits (fifty-one feet) high. Other scholars say that the whole building was about one hundred cubits long by fifty cubits wide (a hundred and fifty feet by seventy-five feet).

This type of temple is completely unlike the indigenous Israelite temples that existed at that time, which are called broad-room temples (more like a square than Solomon’s Temple). Why didn’t Solomon follow the more usual Israelite temple plan? Why did he build something more like that found in North Syria? The answer probably lies in the fact that when it came time for him to build a house for God, he looked to Phoenician examples. Also, the fact that Hiram of Tyre helped Solomon probably had a lot to do with it. So Solomon’s Temple looked more like a Phoenician temple than an Israelite one.

Solomon’s Royal Cities

Next to the Temple of Jerusalem, Solomon built a palace. It included units such as the House of the Forest of Lebanon, the Halls of Pillars, and the Hall of the Throne, where he was supposed to pronounce judgment. There have been a number of similar palaces discovered, but the Palace of Solomon at Jerusalem has not yet been discovered.

However, a passage from the Hebrew Bible has long attracted the attention of archaeologists. The Books of Kings states that “this is the account of the forced labor which King Solomon levied to build the house of the Lord and his own house and the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem and Hazor and Megiddo and Gezer.”

Indeed, archaeological excavations at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer have uncovered architecture which has long been dated to the time of Solomon. Thus Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo have become popularly known as Solomon’s royal cities. Each of these cities is uniquely situated to command important areas within the kingdom (Hazor in the Jordan Valley, Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley, and Gezer at the foot of the Hill Country). All of these were powerful Canaanite city-states that passed into the hands of Solomon.

In each of these cities have been found multi-chambered gates, so archaeologists thought for a long time that there was a global blueprint used by Solomon’s architects at each of these cities. This idea has come under attack in recent years. It seems that these gateways might not date to the time of Solomon, but could be anywhere form a hundred to two hundred years later. At the very least, they may well date to the period of the Divided Kingdoms, the later part of the Iron Age. In fact, the whole account of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible has recently been called into question and is currently the subject of much debate.


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