The Complete Book of 1 Kings

If He's So Wise, Why Did He Betray God? Plus, What the Queen of Sheba Really Asked Him.
What's really in the Good Book.
Nov. 17 2006 3:24 PM

The Complete Book of 1 Kings

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The Book of 1 Kings

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Like every building dedication in the 3,000 years since, the Temple opening ceremony has a big crowd, too many dignitaries, long speeches, and bad weather—the cloud caused by the Lord's presence prevents the priests from performing the service.

Solomon delivers a phenomenal speech—a long plea to God that is one of the most persuasive prayers in the Bible. The speech is Solomon begging God—humbly but forcefully—to just please pay attention! A skilled debater, Solomon begins by acknowledging that God doesn't have to dwell here in the Temple or even notice the Israelites at all. He's God—He can do what He wants. Even the universe can't hold Him, Solomon acknowledges, so it's silly to expect Him to bother with this little house. Still, Solomon asks, could You please be merciful enough to open Your eyes and ears to the prayers from the Temple, to "heed and forgive" the worshipping Israelites? When an injustice has been committed, could You please listen and judge the evildoer? If the Israelites are defeated because they've abandoned You, but then repent, could You please answer their prayers? If there's a drought, or famine, or even mildew, and the Israelites beseech You for help, could You please take action? He goes on in this vein for quite a while, building up to this final prayer, which is the most compelling of all:

When they sin against You—for there is no man who does not sin— ... and they repent and make supplication to you … oh give heed in Your heavenly abode to their prayer and supplication.

What grabs me in that verse is the parenthetical "for there is no man who does not sin." The greatness of Solomon's speech (and of Solomon generally) is his forthright acknowledgement of human frailty. God has often been impossibly demanding, issuing perfectionist laws and smiting for even minor transgressions. Solomon, by contrast, marries the ideal and the real. His prayer doesn't claim that the fallible Israelites are better than they are or try to pretend that they can follow God's laws steadily. The other lawgivers (notably Moses) begin with a presumption of perfect behavior and warn of the consequences of failure. Solomon begins with the presumption of failure—albeit well-meaning failure—and seeks mercy.

Solomon and all of Israel feast for a week. The death toll? 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep!

The Lord answers Solomon's prayer. He appears to Solomon in a dream and promises to abide in the Temple forever. He also assures Solomon that his family will always rule Israel—as long as they follow God's laws. A brilliant little detail: If the Israelites abandon Him, God warns, the Temple will fall to ruins, and everyone who walks by its wreckage "shall be appalled and shall hiss." Shall hiss—isn't that sinister?

As payment for all the Temple building materials he sent (cypresses, cedar, gold), Solomon gives 20 towns in Galilee to the King of Tyre. This is the first recorded example of Israel trading land to its neighbors, and it doesn't go any better than the more recent swaps. Hiram complains that the Israeli towns are dumps.

Welcome to Israel, Queen of Sheba! She hears of Solomon's wisdom and travels all the way from—well, where is Sheba, anyway? Ethiopia?—to test him with hard questions. Sadly, the Bible does not record what Sheba's questions were, only that Solly answered all of them easily. I'm very curious what she asked. Were they savant-type questions like: What's the cube root of 98,543,306? Or SAT questions like: Based on the data supplied, what is the average speed of an ox-cart between Jerusalem and Bethel? Or Philosophy 101 questions like: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, why does evil exist? Or Jeopardy-style questions like: Category is Patriarchs—He was the king duped by Abraham. Or trick questions like: Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?

What do you think she asked him?

The Queen is so impressed by Solomon's wisdom that she "was left breathless." Is this a euphemism, too? Are we supposed to think she checked out more than his IQ? They lavish gifts on each other, then she heads home.

Solomon is wise, but he's not frugal. He makes a throne of ivory covered in gold. His cups were gold; his knives and forks were gold (and thus probably got all bent out of shape by the dishwashers). "Silver did not count for anything in Solomon's days."

Solomon also seems to be the first successful international arms merchant. His dealers import chariots from Egypt at 600 shekels each, then resell them to the Hittites and pocket the profits.

It's not just Sheba and Pharaoh's daughter who catch Solomon's eye. He "loved many foreign women." Like Samson, he doesn't really dig Jewish chicks, preferring the transgressive thrill of the pagan. But it gets Solomon in trouble, just like it did Samson. Right after mentioning Solomon's love for foreign girls, the chapter restates God's warning to the Israelites not to consort with them, "lest they turn your heart away to follow their gods." But Sol won't listen. With 700 idol-worshipping wives and 300 infidel concubines, Solomon finds himself corrupted in his old age. He starts worshipping Ashtoreth and Milcom, and even builds shrines to—check out the wonderful use of the word "abomination"—"Chemosh the abomination of Moab … and Molech the abomination of the Ammonites."

Solomon's idolatry raises a fundamental question about the difference between wisdom and faith. If Solomon were truly wise, presumably he would not build shrines to rival gods because he would know—thanks to his great brain—that the Lord would punish him for it. Such idolatry would be a terribly unwise move. The Bible clearly distinguishes Solomon's incomparable intellect from his unreliable faith. He's brilliant in the mind but weak in the soul. The story of Solomon, in fact, can be seen as the opening salvo in the war that still rages between reason and belief. Which does God ultimately favor? As I argued way back in Genesis, God clearly feels fondly for clever people. Particularly in the early books, He consistently favored smart people over moral ones. But now it's not so clear. God lovesDavid more than Solomon, presumably because David was always faithful to Him. Yet that's not the whole story, because though God loves David better, Solomon's rewards are greater: He's richer, his land is peaceful, he builds the Temple and grand palace. And now consider the third variable: morality (which is separate from fidelity). Although David is more faithful than Solomon, he is also less good. David commits unspeakably immoral acts (see: Uriah the Hittite), while backsliding Solomon lives a pretty righteous life. Except for taking a few scalps at the beginning of his reign, Solomon lives well and reigns marvelously. Adding it all up, it does seem that the Bible considers David the winner. His unswerving faith counts more than Solomon's goodness and wisdom.

The Lord rages against Solomon's idolatry and vows to take away the kingdom from his descendants. Egged on by the prophet Ahijah, a man named Jeroboam rebels against Solomon. The Lord ordains that Israel be split, with Solomon's heirs ruling only Judah, while Jeroboam controls the rest of the country. This is the enormously high price the Chosen People must pay for Solomon's idolatry. Because Solomon betrayed the Lord, the Israelites will lose their peaceable empire and sink into a horrid civil war. It doesn't happen just yet. Solomon chases Jeroboam out of Israel. While Jeroboam's exiled in Egypt, Solomon dies, and his son Rehoboam becomes king of Israel.

But he won't be king for long, I'm guessing. And I bet Jeroboam's coming back.

Thoughts on Blogging the Bible? Please e-mail David Plotz at plotzd@slate.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.) 

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