Friday, July 31

1 Kings 5: We come now to several chapters descriptive of the Solomonic prosperity of Israel in the mid-tenth century. David, Solomon’s father, taking advantage of the decline of Babylon at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and the geopolitical vacuum created by the lackluster Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt at its western end, had carved out a small empire for himself, subduing the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Syrians, and making mercantile arrangements with the seagoing Phoenicians to the north.

To all of this fortune Solomon falls heir when David dies in 961. It is possible that in all of history Solomon has no equal in his ability to read both maps and ledgers. His father having incorporated the Edomites to the south, Solomon controls the port and Gulf of Aqaba (Elath) and the Red Sea. This extensive waterway affords access to ports along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the east of Africa, and, through the Indian Ocean, a thousand other places. To the north Israel is bordered by the Phoenicians, whose shipping merchants are delivering and picking up cargo at ports all around the Mediterranean basin.

Looking at this picture, Solomon decides to go into business, serving as the middleman between the Phoenician markets in the Mediterranean and the sundry mercantile opportunities around the Red Sea. It proves to be a time of booming material affluence.

Besides the favorable geopolitical situation, several other recent developments aid the prosperity attendant on Solomon’s reign: First is the beginning of the Iron Age in that part of the world, with its greatly improved axes, hoes, scythes, plowshares, and other tools and farming implements, leading to less labor and increased productivity.

Second is the greater use of calcium oxide to seal cisterns and wells allowing for improved water conservation and, in turn, greatly increasing agricultural yields.

Third is the adoption of a common alphabet in the eastern Mediterranean world, permitting more efficient bookkeeping, uniform bills of lading, invoices, and other forms of written communication essential to commerce.

Fourth is the greater use of the camel. This animal, already important in the economy of the Fertile Crescent, serves as Solomon’s chief vehicle of commerce along the overland trade routes extending north-south between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon’s reign is, therefore, a period of enormous prosperity, in describing which the Bible speaks repeatedly of gold.

Besides being a time of economic prosperity, however, Solomon’s reign is also a period of several attendant social changes that will prove significant, though not invariably beneficent, as time goes on. First, the prosperity itself, especially the agricultural productivity, enhances the people’s diet, lengthening the average life expectancy, lowering the age of puberty and menarche, and thus increasing the population.

Second, the need for labor in the commercial sector draws many farmers from the land to enjoy the less onerous life of merchants, caravan drivers, and so forth.

This means fewer and larger farms, now rendered more productive by better tools and a greater water supply. At the same time, with fewer farms, fewer people are now able to control the food market—and prices. These higher prices, along with the lower wages inevitably prompted by the swelling of the urban labor force, become subjects on which the prophets of the coming centuries will venture a remark or two, consistently negative.

Fourth, the centralization of commerce under Solomon’s political control leads to higher taxes and a breakdown of local tribal loyalties that have served, up to this point, to provide traditional stability to the people.

Fifth, and related to the higher taxes, among the northern tribes there will be a growing discontent with the south, especially the royal and priestly establishment at Jerusalem. The better farmland and the bulk of the nation’s wealth are found in the north; yet the king and his capital are in the south, at Jerusalem.

Finally, Solomon’s economic and political ties with Phoenicia eventually lead to the deep religious and moral infidelities symbolically associated with the most famous of these Phoenicians, a lady named Jezebel.

Saturday, August 1

First Kings 6: The account of the temple’s construction, which occupies the next two chapters, includes a section that speaks of other building projects: Solomon’s palace, the judgment hall (the particularly important “hall of pillars,” where the king also oversees forensic cases), and a palace for the daughter of pharaoh, the king’s chief wife.

The construction of the temple begins in April of 957 B.C., identified as the 480th year after the Exodus (verse 1). In its general layout, Solomon’s temple consists of two inner rooms that form the sanctuary, and a vestibule, or porch. On three sides, it is surrounded by auxiliary chambers. The central room of the structure is the sanctuary, or holy place.

The farther, inner room, cubic in shape, is the most holy place (“holy of holies”), the throne room of God. It is overlaid with gold (verse 20). Within it are placed two images of angelic guardians, which are called the Cherubim. These are winged figures resembling the Egyptian sphinx. From what we know of other such figures archeology has uncovered in the region, they often serve as the supporting parts of a throne. Hence, they apparently represent the throne of God, who “thrones upon the Cherubim.” These figures are about fifteen feet high; their wings spread from wall to wall on a north-south axis.

In front of this inner sanctuary stands an altar of cedar wood, overlaid with gold. Although the temple is constructed of stone, no stone is visible within it, being overlaid with paneling of cedar wood, on which there are intricate carvings of gourds and open flowers.

Corresponding to the seven days of Creation, the temple’s construction requires seven years. In this respect it is instructive to note how often these two chapters use the verb “finish” (kalah—6:9,14,38; 7:1,40), the very word used in Genesis 2:1 to speak of the completion of God’s creative work.

The temple has other features associated with the original garden in which the first man was placed and over which he was appointed as caretaker and vice-regent. These features include the images of vegetation and animals on the interior wooden paneling (verses 14-18).

A parallel account in Second Chronicles 3 specifies that the temple is constructed on Mount Moriah, the scene where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Sunday, August 2

First Kings 7: The material in this chapter is disparate, with interruptions in the narrative of the temple’s construction.

First, there are eight verses that speak of the two royal palaces (for the king and his chief consort) and the hall of judgment.

As the Lord’s son (verse 14), Solomon wants his own house close to the Lord’s. This physical proximity of the two “dwellings” is sustained throughout the successive generations of monarchy, when the precincts of the temple are extended to the royal palace and other official buildings of the realm. That is to say, the Lord’s own kingship over the people—the principle that made them, in fact, His own people—includes the king as the Lord’s viceroy.

The political effect of this inclusion is two-fold. It enhances the legitimacy of the royal house, established by the Lord’s covenant with David, and it serves as a reminder to the king that his occupation of the throne is a matter of stewardship; he is answerable to the judgment of the One who inaugurated that covenant.

Second, there is a description of the masonry (verses 9-12) in the temple. Before the narrator goes on to describe the metal work in the temple, however, he wants to speak of the chief artisan of this work.

Third, he introduces a second Hiram (called Huram in Chronicles), an expert sheet metal worker, who is probably named after Solomon’s collaborator, the king of Tyre. His mother is described as the “widow of the tribe of Naphtali.” This perhaps means she is the widow of a member the tribe of Naphtali, since we are elsewhere told that the lady herself is a Danite (Second Chronicles 2:14). (Josephus claims that this artisan is a full-blooded Israelite—cf. Antiquities 8.3.4). In respect to this Hiram, the reader recalls that Moses, in the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness, made use of another charismatic artist, Bezalel (cf. Exodus 31:2-5).

Fourth, the story proceeds to tell of Hiram’s work on the brazen pillars (verses 15-22), the molten sea (verses 23-26), the various stands and lavers (verses 26-29), and the other utensils (verses 40-47) and vessels (verses 48-51) needed for the appointment of Israel’s prescribed services of worship.

Monday, August 3

First Kings 8: The description of the temple’s dedicatory services fills the text from 8:1 to 9:9.

First, the Ark of the Covenant must be moved to its new residence (verses 1-9), as David had desired many years ago. It is the Ark—containing the two tablets of the covenant—that makes this temple a holy place and ties it to Israel’s ancient and defining history.

Second, as a mark of the Lord’s approval of the Ark’s transfer to Solomon’s temple, the cloud of the divine presence descends upon the place (verses 10-11). As though to emphasize the Ark’s disappearance into the inner part of the temple, Solomon begins his benedictory prayer by reference to the Lord’s resolve to “dwell in thick darkness” (verse 12). This reference aligns the darkness of the windowless Holy of Holies with the darkness on the top of Mount Sinai when the Torah was given (Exodus 20:18; Psalms 18 [Greek 17]:10-11).

Once the Ark disappears into the Holy of Holies, it effectively disappears from history. The Book of Kings never again speaks of it. It remains concealed forever, nor can we say what finally became of it.

The eventual loss of the Ark, which is not—curiously—lamented anywhere in the Bible, may be regarded as an indication of its transitory place in history. The Christian reader will regard its disappearance as initial evidence, at least, that God does not dwell in buildings made with hands, which are “the figures of the true.”

Third, Solomon’s benediction over the people (verses 12-21) refers to two covenants, the covenant with David and the prior covenant with Israel. The linking of these two certainly strengthens the legitimacy of the Davidic covenant. Whereas the Christian reader takes the joining of these two covenants as a matter of theological fact, Israel’s subsequent history indicates that the conjunction was not so obvious to all of Solomon’s contemporaries. Within a short time of the king’s death in 622, most Israelites decisively abandoned the house of David.

Fourth, Solomon begins his dedicatory prayer (verses 22-30) by speaking once more of the divine promise to David. The Chronicler’s account indicates that the king, who began the prayer standing, then ascended a bronze platform placed in the court of the temple and knelt down on that platform, continuing to pray with arms outstretched to heaven (Second Chronicles 6:13).

Fifth, the dedicatory prayer continues, and attention is given to a series of hypothetical circumstances in which all future prayers of believers are to be directed toward the temple (verses 31-53). The reader will recall—from Daniel’s prayer in exile—that prayer in the direction of the temple was continued, even after the temple was destroyed.

Sixth, Solomon concludes the dedicatory prayer by invoking, once again, a blessing over the assembled people (verses 54-61), and consecratory sacrifices are offered over a period of days. In the Massoretic text of Kings and in Josephus (Antiquities 8.4.6), this rite is continued for fourteen days, whereas the Greek text speaks of just seven days, a feature reminiscent of the Creation account in Genesis 1.

Tuesday, August 4

First Kings 9: There are several distinguishable components in the present chapter:

First, the Lord responds to Solomon’s dedicatory prayer by speaking to him again, as He did at Gibeon (verse 2). This divine response clearly takes place at Jerusalem, perhaps indicating that the new capital has replaced Gibeon as the proper locale for divine messages (cf. Acts 22:17).

This response contains both a promise of divine fidelity and a warning of divine sanction. Josephus (Antiquities 8.4.6) regarded the latter as a forewarning of what was to take place in the temple’s later destruction, when Jerusalem became, in fact, “a heap of ruins” (verse 8; cf. Micah 3:12; Jeremiah 26:18).

Second, we learn how Solomon finances these building projects in Jerusalem (verses 10-14). In payment for all this largesse poured out on the southern tribe, Judah, he sells twenty northern cities! He is following the earlier example of his pharaoh father-in-law, who paid his daughter’s dowry by stealing from the Philistines (cf. verse 16). In this story, we begin to gain an inkling of why there is, among the northern tribes, a growing discontent that Solomon fails to address. His son, Rehoboam, will eventually pay for this neglect.

Third, we learn of more building projects, and it is instructive to observe that they essentially consist, in fact, of military installations (verses 15-22). That is to say, they are walled fortresses that stand guard along a large road connecting the western end of the Fertile Crescent to Mesopotamia in the east. Solomon’s extensive commercial connections make use of this road, and he wants to protect that trade from the Bedouin marauders always active in the Middle East. Among these fortresses, a special prominence attaches to Megiddo, which serves as a storage facility. Archeology has uncovered there the stables built by Solomon to house the horses he brought from Arabia, scheduled for delivery to sundry Mediterranean ports—all the way to Spain—by means of Phoenician transport ships.

For the construction of these fortresses, Solomon uses slave labor from the remnants of the earlier Canaanite peoples who still live in the land (verses 20-21).

Fourth, we learn that Solomon himself “offered burnt offerings and peace offerings on the altar which he had built for the Lord, and he burned incense with them before the Lord” (verse 25).

Finally, we learn of Solomon’s southern fleet, without which his mercantile enterprise would have come to nothing (verses 26-28). Because the Israelites are not a sea-going people, Solomon makes use of the skills and experience of Phoenician sailors. Since this commerce includes ivory and two species of monkeys (cf. 10:22—where the Hebrew word probably means baboons, rather than peacocks), Solomon is certainly dealing with the east coast of Africa. The jewels and sandalwood referenced later (10:11-12) indicate trade with India.

This summary of Solomon’s southern maritime activity serves to introduce one of the Bible’s most intriguing characters—Jesus spoke of her!—the royal lady who makes her appearance in the next chapter.

Wednesday, August 5

First Kings 10: The realm of Sheba—or Saba, as the place is called in ancient Assyrian documents—was situated at the extreme southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, the area now known as Yemen. From those same Assyrian texts, as well as from inscriptions found at Sheba’s capital city, Mâreb, we know a thing or two about the history of the place during the first millennium before Christ.

First, we know that Sheba flourished most of that time as a major mercantile link between the Far East and the southern Mediterranean, and a glance at a map of the area quickly explains why this should be the case. Sitting on both sides of the corner formed by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Sheba dominated the narrow Straits of Bab el Mandeb by which these two waters are joined. This meant that Sheba could effectively control the traffic coming down from those twin horns formed at the north of the Red Sea by the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba.

Likewise, through the Gulf of Aden, Sheba was open to shipping on the
Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and places beyond.
Thus, with respect to sea travel Sheba was the tangent point of two great mercantile spheres.

Some of the business, in fact, stood nearby. Immediately to the north of Sheba was Ophir, probably to be identified with Havila, a region celebrated for its gold (e.g., see Genesis 2:11; Job 22:24; 28:16). Over to the west lay Ethiopia, or Cush, a kingdom sufficiently imposing to control Egypt for some periods, and, from the south, there extended the horn of Somalia. As Asia’s vital southern link with Africa, then, Sheba was in a position to gain, hold, and control great wealth.

Second, we also know the names of five of the queens of Sheba. As all of these lived in the eighth and seventh centuries, however, none of them can be identified with that Queen of Sheba who came to visit Solomon in the mid-tenth century before Christ. A pity, in truth, for some of us would dearly like to know the lady’s name.

Doubtless her appearance in Solomon’s court was related to the latter’s recent entrance into the powerful circles of international commerce. Through his extensive dealings with the Phoenicians, whose ships docked in harbors on all three continents bordering the Mediterranean basin, Solomon’s port at Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba became an important link in a new mercantile chain that now stretched from Ceylon in the southeast to Gibraltar in the northwest. The queen’s arrival at his court, then, was clear evidence that Solomon had become a “player” on the big scene.

The event surely signified more, however. After all, Solomon was still far from being the queen’s equal in the world of international commerce. Indeed, his recently gained status in this respect depended entirely on his hegemony over the land of Edom, which contained the port of Elath, for this was Solomon’s sole connection with the Gulf of Aqaba. If royal visitations, therefore, depended on “rank” among the international powers, we would expect Solomon to be visiting the Queen of Sheba rather than vice versa.

Holy Scripture is clear that this was not the case. We are told that the Queen of Sheba, who could have handled her commercial relationship with Solomon through the usual business channels, was prompted solely by a desire to see for herself whether this new king was as wise and discerning as his reputation proclaimed. Nor was the lady disappointed at what she saw: “I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard” (1 Kings 10:7).

In the Gospels of Matthew (12:42) and Luke (11:31) this royal Gentile, “the Queen of the South,” becomes a type of the true seeker and believer. In both places she is contrasted with the Lord’s enemies, the unbelievers who refuse to recognize that “a greater than Solomon is here.” Accordingly, Sheba’s magnificent lady is made a figure of Mother Church, standing rapturously in the presence of the wiser Solomon. We make our own her praise and proclamation before the throne of Christ: “Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel!” (1 Kings 10:8–9).

Thursday, August 6

First Kings 11: Up to this point in the narrative, there have been no signs that Solomon was less than a perfect king. Indeed, without the present chapter, nothing prepares the reader for the tragedies that befell the realm after Solomon’s death.

The demise of Solomon is told here in a sensible and comprehensible sequence: the spiritual compromise attendant on Solomon’s choice (and number!) of wives (verses 1-8), the resurgence of regional rivalries in the kingdom (verses 9-13), the rebellion of Hadad the Edomite (verses 14-22), the emergence of trouble in Syria and Hobab (verses 23-25), and the insurrection of Jeroboam the Ephraemite (verses 26-40). The chapter closes with Solomon’s death in 922 (verses 41-43).

First, the description of Solomon’s huge harem is of a piece with the other signs of his prosperity, which was the subject of the previous chapter. The problem with these pagan wives, according to the author of Kings, was Solomon’s disposition to give way to their religious preference; when these ladies moved to Jerusalem, they brought their own pagan “chaplains” with them, and pagan shrines made their appearance in the capital. That is to say, Solomon’s indulgence of his wives led him into idolatry.

We find a different concern in Sirach (47:21) and Josephus (Antiquities 8.7.5), who ascribe Solomon’s physical lust to his spiritual arrogance.

Second, the Lord rejects Solomon, in much the same terms as He used in rejecting Saul. Faithful to the covenant with David, the Lord qualifies this rejection in two ways: The kingdom will not be split until after Solomon’s death, and a remnant of two tribes will be left to the sons of David.

Third, Hadad of Edom, rather like a terrorist raised in a refugee camp, chafes to return from exile in Egypt in order to free the Edomites from political dominance. Like Solomon himself, he is married into the Egyptian royal family. After the death of Solomon, the Edomites will seize their independence from the Kingdom of Judah.

Fourth, a new ruler arises in Syria, named Rezon. During Solomon’s time he is hardly more than local marauder, but his dynasty will, in due course, become a serious political problem for the Chosen People.

Fifth, toward the end of Solomon’s reign, Shishak the founder of the twenty-second dynasty in Egypt, provides sanctuary for an Ephraemite rebel named Jeroboam. He will return to Israel, after Solomon’s death, to seize the rule over Israel’s northern tribes.

Sixth, Solomon’s death is a good occasion for reflecting on the “mixed bag” that was his life and reign. To many Israelites at the time—especially in the north—he must have seemed like another pharaoh, of the sort Moses had to deal with. There is no doubt—in the minds of the biblical authors—that Solomon was to blame for the political and social upheavals that followed his passing.

Friday, August 7

First Kings 12: Rehoboam was almost the perfect example of what the Bible means by the word “fool.” Because he was the son of Solomon, Israel’s wisest king, furthermore, this foolishness was a matter of irony as well as tragedy.

After Solomon’s death in 922, this heir to Israel’s throne traveled to Schechem, to receive the nation’s endorsement as its new ruler. The move was especially necessary with respect to Israel’s northern tribes, a people touchy about their traditional rights and needing to be handled gently. Even David, we recall, had to be made king twice, first over Judah about the year 1000 (2 Samuel 2:4,10) and then over the north some years later (5:4-5).

Those northern tribes, for their part, seemed willing to be ruled by Rehoboam, but they craved assurance that the new king would respect their ancient traditions and customs. Truth be told, they had not been entirely happy with Rehoboam’s father, Solomon, and they sought from his son a simple pledge that their grievances would be taken seriously in the future (1 Kings 12:1-4). A great deal depended on Rehoboam’s answer.

The new king apparently took the matter seriously, because he sought counsel on what to say. He began by consulting the seniors of the royal court, the very men who had for forty years provided guidance for his father. These were the elder statesmen of the realm, those qualified to give the most prudent political counsel.

Significantly, these older men urged Rehoboam in the direction of caution and moderation with respect to the northern tribes: “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever” (12:7).

Rehoboam, nonetheless, eschewing the instruction of his elders, followed the impulses of his younger companions, who encouraged him to stand tough and not let himself be pushed around. Indeed, they urged Rehoboam to be insulting and provocative to the petitioners (12:8-11). Pursuing this foolish counsel, then, he immediately lost the larger part of his kingdom (12:12-16).

As I suggested above, there is great irony here, for it may be said that one of the major practical purposes of the Book of Proverbs, traditionally ascribed to Solomon, was to prevent and preclude exactly the mistake made by Solomon’s son. According to Proverbs, the fool is the man who ignores the counsel of the old and follows the impulses of untried youth.

Many a life has been ruined—and in this case a kingdom lost—because someone preferred the pooled stupidity of his contemporaries to the accumulated wisdom of his elders. Those whose counsel Rehoboam spurned, after all, were not just any old men—they were the very ancients who had provided guidance to Israel’s most sagacious monarch.

Rehoboam’s reign of seventeen years knew its ups and downs—the downs dominant. Five years after the story narrated above, Pharaoh Shishak, founder of Egypt’s twenty-second dynasty, invaded the Holy Land and took pretty much whatever attracted his eye: “In the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem. He took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house. He took away everything. He also took away all the shields of gold that Solomon had made” (14:26).

The Sacred Text goes on to remark, “King Rehoboam made in their place shields of bronze” (14:27). By setting bronze shields in the Temple to replace the golden shields of Solomon, Rehoboam enacted a truly wretched symbolism. Some of the ancients (Daniel, Hesiod, Ovid) spoke of an historical decline from a golden age to a silver age, and thence to a bronze age. No one disputes, of course, that Solomon’s was a golden age (10:14-29). However, the reign of Rehoboam, his heir, was a declension, not just to silver, but all the way to bronze. The lplunge, when it came, came at once, in a single generation.

Rehoboam remained, Josephus tells us, “a proud and foolish man” (Antiquities 8.10.4). He never recovered from the singular folly of his first political decision. After Shishak’s invasion, this thin, pathetic shadow of his father and grandfather reigned under a humiliating Egyptian suzerainty for a dozen more years. Like every fool, he had a heart problem. The final word about Rehoboam asserts, “he did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord” (2 Chronicles 12:14).