Tuesday, July 15, 2008

1 Kings 9 - 11: Solomon's Wisdom in Full Maturity! Wait, What?

The Bible, as I have said so many times over these last few years, is full of surprises. Here we have a Big Famous Biblical Hero, Solomon, who after a possibly shady rise to power has actually put together a strong administration, built the Temple and other major buildings, and may or may not have put through ambitious religious reforms. The man is famous for his wisdom. So, we can reasonably expect to see many great works and progress for the Israelite kingdom as he reaches his prime, right?


As it turns out, no. Solomon turns out to be yet another of our long line of major Biblical characters who have characteristics that don't get talked about in the Big Book of Children's Bible Stories. Since we are generally given a highly sanitized version of these characters, it is constantly surprising to see how often the Bible presents them as, shall we say, refreshingly human. Or, deeply flawed. Take your pick.
Solomon's Downfall

In Solomon's case, it seems that man shares a little problem with his late father. To wit, he's a bit of a horndog:

King Solomon... loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter -- Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites.... (11:1) He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines.... (11:3)
This record would stand until Wilt Chamberlain's legendary performance in the late 20th Century. Now, the multicultural harem is not a problem in and of itself. (Although it seems like it would be a distraction to the head of state, but never mind that.) The problem is, all of these foreign wives come with their own religious upbringing. Solomon, besotted by infatuation with his various partners, allows his enthusiasm for ecclesiatical architecture to run away with him. He starts building places for the various Mrs. Solomons to worship.
On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the destable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (7-8)
This is, of course, profoundly against the rules. And Solomon -- the wisest guy in town! -- ought to have known better. All of Israelite history since Moses has been a cycle of God punishing the people mightily for worshipping other dieties, and then forgiving them after repentance. The only exceptions in this cycle have been the reigns of King Saul, who stayed true to God but just got some details wrong, and King David, who whatever else one might say about his character was able to toe the line religiously.

The Weakening State

So as you would expect, things begin to go downhill for the administration. God lets Solomon know that he'll be allowed to serve out his term in office as a courtesy to his late father, but that Solomon's son will have the throne taken from him. Rebellions begin to break out, and have to be put down.

A few posts back, I mentioned that there seemed to be some loosening of cohesion between the various Israelite tribes. Solomon appeared to have healed that division, but now the coalition seems to be weakening again. Rebels named Hadad the Edomite and Rezon son of Eliada attract entourages of armed men and harass Solomon's forces. One of Solomon's officials, Jeroboam, gets told by Ahijah the Prophet that God is going to rend the kingdom, and that he can be the man to control 10 tribes' worth. Jeroboam flees to Egypt to start some serious plotting.

Will Solomon Be Up to the Challenge?

With rebellions cropping up in the countryside and the unity of the state eroding, what will Solomon do? One imagines that the second half of 1 Kings will be his redemptive and presumably very wise response to events. So it's a bit of a shocker that he up and dies at the end of Chapter 11. And I have to say, with such a major Biblical figure, I certainly expected a life span of more than 11 chapters. (Although, maybe there's more material about him later on. Song of Solomon sounds like it might have something to do with him.)

Next Week: I don't like the looks of this power vaccuum....

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