1 Kings 3 The Wisdom of Solomon

Luca Giordano, Dream of Solomon, (1694-1695)

1 Kings 3: 1-2 A Powerful But Troubling Alliance

1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David, until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD.

The marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt is viewed very differently based upon the perspective one uses. In the world of power politics this is an audacious beginning to the reign of Solomon. The Pharoahs of Egypt very rarely made alliances by marrying off their daughters, they often viewed other kings as unworthy of such a prize. Solomon’s alliance with Egypt would have been an alliance with the most powerful empire of the day and have instantly made Solomon’s kingdom more secure from a political/military perspective. Yet, it is interesting that the acknowledgment of Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharoah is narrated before the granting of wisdom to Solomon. From a worldly or historical perspective this is an act of great political shrewdness, but the book of Kings is not primarily written from this perspective and kings will not be valued for their political or military prowess but by their faithfulness to their calling under the law.

The picture of Solomon is more complicated than the wise king who has great wealth and whose reign is one of peace and prosperity when presented in 1 Kings. The marriage of Solomon to the daughter of Pharoah at the beginning of his reign is mirrored by the evaluation of the ending of his reign when “King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh…and his wives turned away his heart.”  As mentioned earlier, this book of 1st Kings is a part of a collection of works in the bible often called the Deuteronomic history by scholars since it evaluates things through a theological lens similar to the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy has specific guidance for what a king of Israel is to be:

16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. Deuteronomy 17: 16-20

Deuteronomy envisions the king being a model of a different way than Egypt. They are not to return to Egypt for military might, to acquire many wives for themselves, or great wealth. In many ways Solomon is the opposite of the ideal king when his overall reign is evaluated. This small note before the upcoming scenes strikes an ominous note for a reader used to hearing the perspective of the law as reflected in Deuteronomy.

1 Kings 3: 3-15 A Dream and a Desire for Wisdom

3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. 4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.

Solomon travels to Gibeon to offer sacrifices. As mentioned in the previous verse, this is a time before the temple is built and the worship of the LORD becomes centered in Jerusalem and Solomon’s travel to this place of offering would be viewed as an act of devotion. Solomon here is viewed positively as one who loves the LORD.[1] Many scholars also believe that this act is to seek a visionary experience, entreating the God of Israel for guidance or inducing a prophetic experience. Dreams were viewed as a place where God would communicate with God’s chosen one, but also could be viewed by some prophets as something less than a direct revelation of God. Regardless, the dream of Solomon where the LORD appears to the new king is viewed in a positive manner as is Solomon’s request for an understanding mind[2] to govern the people. Many have followed the words of the text to understand Solomon as a young boy, but this is probably not the case. Solomon’s reference to himself as a little child probably refers to his inexperience as a leader of the people.

Solomon’s choice of an understanding mind rather than revenge for enemies, long life or wealth is, in the view of 1 Kings, the wise and faithful one and Solomon will be remembered as a king who possessed wisdom. several psalms, much of the book of Proverbs as well as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes will be attributed to him. It is unlikely that Solomon is the author of Song of Song and Ecclesiastes. Yet God grants in the narrative grants Solomon unconditional wealth and honor and conditional long life if Solomon remains faithful in addition to wisdom. The question that the narrative will have to examine is how Solomon uses this wisdom and how it benefits the people. It is also important to evaluate Solomon’s use of wisdom both in the world’s judgment but also in the judgment of the law of God. If Solomon uses this wisdom for the acquisition of wealth, power, and political standing it may be viewed positively by the world, but it may not fit the vision of God for what Solomon’s reign is hoped to be.

1 Kings 3: 16-28 A Strange Case for the King

16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.

23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'” 24 So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” 26 But the woman whose son was alive said to the king — because compassion for her son burned within her — “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” 27 Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” 28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.

This well know story of Solomon and the two prostitutes has a folksy feel to it. Many commentators believe this is a story of wisdom that becomes a part of the Solomon story to demonstrate Solomon’s wisdom, but it is a strange story for several reasons. The first thing to notice about this story is the complaint of two prostitutes merits the time and judgment of the king of Israel. There is no moral judgment placed upon these two women for their vocation, or the reality that the fathers are not engaged in the life of their sons. The assumption is that prostitution is a normal part of the life of the people and that there is nothing unusual about these two women living in a household and making a living in this manner. What the story finds unique is the lack of other witnesses to demonstrate who the true mother of the living child is.

Solomon’s judgment to threaten the life of the child to discern who the true mother is may be emotionally effective in this case since one woman would rather give up her child than see him killed, but the story depends upon the lack of empathy of the other woman. What would have happened if both women wanted to give away the child. As Brueggemann can state, “This is a strange wisdom that governs by violence.” Many commentators from the Rabbis to modern evaluators have been suspicious of the wisdom of this threat attributed to Solomon. Perhaps there are other paths a judge may have taken, examining the household or the dead baby for example, but we still need to remember that the case of two prostitutes is brought before the king of Israel. Solomon judges who the mother is by their emotional attachment to the child and the story never tells us if this is the true birth mother. We, and Solomon, make this assumption and the bonds of compassion may be stronger than the bond of blood at times.

The point of this narrative is that Solomon has a heart that listens and that in the absence of other evidence he hears the actions of the heart towards the threatened child. Israel, in 1 Kings, views the judgment as fair and wise as Solomon was able to discern a solution where others perhaps had not. We can debate the ethics of threatening a child’s life to see the mother’s reaction, but this is a story from a different world with different ethics. In that world, Solomon demonstrates God’s wisdom to execute justice.

[1][1] ‘Love’ in the scriptures does not refer to the idea of romantic attachment but sole and obedient loyalty. (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 46)

[2] Literally “a heart that listens”. In Hebrew physiology the heart is the organ of comprehension so the translation of a listening heart as an understanding mind makes sense when you understand how they would place wisdom in the body. (Cogan, 2001, p. 187)

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