The Complete Book of 1 Kings
The Book of 1 Kings
Fasten your seatbelt—here come the sexiest, schemingest, soap-operatic Bible chapters since the Garden of Eden!
Like your grandma, King David is always cold, no matter how many sweaters he's wearing. Unlike your grandma, however, old King David has procurers who find the hottest young virgin in the land and order her to cuddle up with him. This is a poignant episode because it captures the decline of David, once the most virile man in Israel. When they bring lovely Abishag—nice face, shame about the name—to his bed, David doesn't even make a pass at her! David—who used to unsheath his sword at anything in a skirt, who picked up not one but two of his wives at funerals, who had so many concubines that he could cast off 10 of them and not miss a beat—can't even make a pass at the foxy, naked virgin in his bed. These four verses tell us everything we need to know about the state of David's kingship: The scepter is limp, his royal powers have waned.
But he's not dead yet. David is still monarch and alive enough that his wives and kids are lobbying him furiously to settle the succession in their favor. Eldest surviving son, Adonijah, raises a militia, recruits Gen. Joab as his right-hand man, and holds a grand animal sacrifice to affirm his status as heir. Alarmed by Adonijah's scheming, the prophet Nathan advises Bathsheba to push her son onto the throne. Bathsheba "reminds" David that he had promised that Solomon would succeed him. Perhaps David actually did make this promise, but it seems more likely that Bathsheba is duping a forgetful old man. Nathan, colluding with Bathsheba, also reminds David of his supposed vow. David falls for their scam and has Solomon anointed king. This is, of course, a retelling of the Isaac/Rebekah/Jacob/Esau story. As in the Genesis version, a scheming mother finagles her vulnerable, possibly senile, old husband to favor a younger son over an older one. Like Jacob, younger son Solomon is a pawn, a passive participant in his mom's scheme. Solomon, fated to become the wisest man on earth, reveals no wisdom at all during this drama. He manages to become king without saying a single word!
Once Solomon is anointed, Adonijah realizes the jig is up and seeks sanctuary by grabbing the horns of the altar. Adonijah asks for Solomon to spare him, and Solomon does.
David's deathbed is a very emotional, heartfelt scene that suddenly turns mafia. It starts with David offering eloquent, profound counsel to Solomon about how he must follow the laws of Moses. Then suddenly, David changes gears and starts telling Solomon which scores he should settle. Solomon should forgive one loyal follower (Barzillai) but should make sure to kill Joab—even though he has been Israel's best commander—because Joab committed pointless murders in peacetime that disrupted David's diplomatic efforts. More disturbingly, David orders Solomon to kill Shimei, who was the relative of Saul who shouted curses at David during Absalom's coup. If you remember that strange encounter, David was actually quite resigned to the curses, and seemingly untroubled by them. Later, David had vowed not to take revenge on Shimei: "I will not put you to death with the sword." So, it's incredibly slimy—dare I say Clintonian?—for David to circumvent this promise by ordering Solomon to execute Shimei. It reminds us just how cruel and self-centered David can be.
The he dies! We sure will miss him.
The drama never ends with this family, though. David's not cold in the grave when Adonijah visits Bathsheba. After he assures her that he has not come to kill her, he begs a favor: Could she ask Solomon to let Adonijah marry Abishag (who's still gorgeous and still, apparently, a virgin). Bathsheba agrees to speak to Solomon on Adonijah's behalf. The king, after assuring his mother that he will grant her any favor, explodes at her request: "Why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well!" Let's try to explain Solomon's rage. First, he's furious at Adonijah's sexual one-upmanship—bedding the woman his father couldn't and Solomon hasn't. More importantly, Solomon surely fears that Abishag's connection to David will rub off on Adonijah. If Adonijah is permitted to take Abishag, who was more-or-less David's final wife, then he will gain status: Sexual conquest could preview actual conquest.
So, Solomon orders Adonijah's execution. Isn't this an overreaction? Even if Adonijah was trying to score at Solomon's expense, doesn't this betray the safe-conduct promise he gave to Adonijah in Chapter 1?
When Joab hears of Adonijah's death, he realizes that Solomon is trying to settle all his scores at once, just like Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather, following his father's death. (OK, OK—that must be my fourth Godfather reference already in the blog. I declare a moratorium—at least for a month.) Joab flees to the altar for sanctuary. Solomon sends his hit man Benaiah, who also took out Adonijah, to assassinate Joab. Joab refuses to leave the altar and dares Benaiah to kill him on that sacred spot. Solomon tells Benaiah to go ahead and do it—an early indicator of Solomon's own casual attitude toward the Lord and his holy ground. Benaiah strikes Joab down. (I'll miss Joab, too—what a character!)
Solomon's third target is Shimei, whom the king sentences to house arrest in Jerusalem. Sure enough, the minute Shimei violates the sentence—he chases down some escaped slaves—Solomon gleefully takes his revenge. Enter Benaiah, carrying sword.
Solomon marries Pharaoh's daughter! Yes, you read that right: Solomon marries Pharaoh's daughter. What about all God's laws against intermarriage, His fear that miscegenation would turn His people into idol-worshippers? What about God's warning against treaties and alliances with heretics? Apparently Solomon doesn't think they apply to him: He chooses the realpolitik marital alliance over Mosaic law.
And God seems relatively unbothered because Solomon (at least for the moment) is a faithful steward, always making burnt offerings to the Lord. God appears to Solomon in a dream and asks what he wants. Demonstrating his first spark of wisdom, Solomon says that he's just a "young lad" and he needs "an understanding mind" so that he can rule justly over his people. This impresses God to no end: He was expecting Solomon to ask for wealth or long life. "I grant you a wise and discerning mind; there has never been anyone like you before, nor will anyone like you arise again." But wait, it gets better: "And I also grant you what you did not ask for—both riches and glory all your life—the like of which no king has ever had." Solomon soon finds his dream coming true.
First evidence: The king is petitioned by two women fighting over a newborn. Both just gave birth. One baby died. They both claim the surviving son. Now equipped with 100-percent divine-certified gray matter, Solomon devises the fabulous sword trick of threatening to cut the baby in half. He immediately discovers the real mother, the woman willing to give up motherhood in order that the baby might live. It's a great stunt and reflects genuine wisdom. No wonder that the Israelites soon "stood in awe of the king."
Here is the part of the cut-the-baby-in-two story they never taught me in Sunday school. The two women are prostitutes. Yes! Another group of prostitutes! Perhaps the story is told about ladies of the evening because it shows Solomon cares about justice for even the lowliest of his people. Or perhaps there are just a lot of hookers in the Bible.
Solomon's Cabinet is listed. There's a minister for the army, just like we have. There is no secretary of labor, but there is a minister for forced labor. There's no vice president, but there is a designated "companion of the king." And as for separation of church and state, forget it. Solomon's top official is a priest, and there are two other priests in the Cabinet as well.
Bible name alert: One of Solomon's regional governors is "Ben-Hur."
Chapter 5 to Chapter 7
Solomon's kingdom seems vastly bigger than David's, stretching all the way from Iraq to Egypt. It's really an empire, since all kinds of subkingdoms within his demesne pay tribute to him. He gets extraordinarily rich. His stable holds 40,000 horses. (I recant what I wrote a few days ago about Bible numbers getting more realistic.) Solomon brings peace to the land. I confess I find this peace slightly inexplicable, since he's not credited with fighting any wars, and Israel's neighbors had been nothing but trouble for the previous 400 years. Why should they suddenly roll over for Solomon?
There's a magnificent passage paying tribute to Solomon's wisdom. It's essentially a list of everyone he is smarter than. His wisdom is greater than the combined wisdom of all Egyptians and all Kedemites. He's wiser than "Ethan the Ezrahite" (the Marilyn vos Savant of his day!) and "Heman, Chalkol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol," who were presumably the Foer brothers of the ancient Near East. He writes 3,000 proverbs and 1,000 songs. He's a botanist, an ichthyologist, and an entomologist. He's a poet, a musician, and a judge, a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker.
Solomon decides to build a temple for the Lord. He imports cedar trees from Lebanon (then makes a treaty with King Hiram of Tyre—the first of many Israeli-Lebanese accords that won't last). Solomon imposes forced labor over Israel to get the temple built. It takes seven years. These chapters include tons of particulars about the temple's construction and interior decorating—only interesting for the Architectural Digest set—but by far the most remarkable detail is this: The temple is only 60 cubits by 20 cubits—90 feet by 30 feet—way smaller than your average McMansion and an anthill compared to the size of Jerusalem's Temple Mount. (I assume the Second Temple was much bigger, right?) Solomon's temple seems especially paltry when we learn that his own palace is more than twice as big—and that he takes 13 years to build it. Which house does he care about more, his or the Lord's?
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.