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The following is from chapters 25 and 26 from my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets
The Deceptive Description of Solomon
Chapters 2-11 of I Kings discuss the life and acts of King Solomon. Most people think he was a great king, but is this what the chapters actually say?
The Acts of Solomon
The following is a synopsis of the events of Solomon’s life as they are described in nine of the ten chapters that report on his actions. I will discuss chapter 11 separately.
Is This the Description of a Great King?
The nine chapters describe a man who intended from the start to have a successful reign. He assured his goal by killing his adversaries. Knowing that the Israelites had been living as separate non-united tribes until the reign of King Saul, he attempted to ensure that they remain a single entity during his and his descendants’ rule by dividing the nation into districts that did not correspond to the tribal divisions. He undertook a grand construction campaign and financed it with sizable taxes. The Bible describes his successes as the acquisition of wisdom, the building of huge constructions, and the attainment of riches.
What are we to make of this story? Did he do well or not?
Even before looking at chapter 11, certain questions arise. Are the two stories where he impressed three women, two prostitutes and a foreign queen, good examples of the wisdom that a king should show his nation? Was this the behavior that people wish from their king? Would they be impressed that he bedded a thousand women and astonished three women? Why is there no indication that he helped the people in any way? There is no reference to the institution of legal or cultural reforms or the furthering of arts and literature; no attempt to educate the nation or bring his people to a better understanding of God is reported. Instead, his accomplishments came on the backs of his people whom he taxed greatly.
And, let us look a little deeper, wasn’t Solomon taking a foolish gamble that one of the women would say don’t kill the child, give the child to the other woman, that this shows the true mother? Couldn’t the lying woman think, I have gone too far in trying to steal a child, I will not take the extra step and allow the child to be killed? Isn’t it also possible that both women would be so thunderstruck by Solomon’s decision that they could not speak? And in regard to the queen of Sheba, does many possessions denote a wise man? Was the queen a good judge of wisdom? Shouldn’t we conclude that neither story proves that Solomon was wise? Indeed, doesn’t the story of the two prostitutes show Solomon to be foolish? And, doesn’t the story sound like a fairy tale?
Chapter 11: Demonstrating Irony
The dictionary states that the “essential feature [of irony] is the contradiction between the literal [that which is stated] and the intended meaning, since one thing is said and another is intended.”
Solomon may have had good intentions, but, amazingly and ironically, every one of his acts missed its mark.
Why Did Solomon Act Unwisely?
Remarkably, Deuteronomy 17:16–17 places three restrictions on an Israelite king. He may not have many horses, he is forbidden to have many wives, and he may not accumulate too much gold and silver. The Bible states that these three things will lead the king away from God. These rules are significant because they describe the very things that Solomon did – and Solomon did stray from God. The description is so apt that some scholars believe that the three Deuteronomy rules were composed after Solomon’s death as a critique of his reign.
Be this as it may, whether the laws preceded Solomon or were written after his death, the laws are intuitive, and a wise man should not have violated them. History is rife with examples in which the overindulgence of kings in possessions and wives made them corrupt. If Solomon was wise, why did he make this mistake?
This situation calls to mind the words of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who, among other things, taught the concept of the ubermench, the superior man or superman. According to Nietzsche and others, laws are made to control average people, who might otherwise live destructive lives and harm themselves and others. Many laws are only important because they accomplish the purpose of helping the average person. By average person, Nietzsche means over ninety-nine percent of the human race.
These laws, he claims, were not created for the ubermench. The superior person is able to use his or her intelligence and make decisions that are appropriate for him or her at a particular moment.
Maimonides: A Similar Understanding of the Law
Maimonides discusses the reasons for the biblical laws in Book Three of his Guide of the Perplexed. In chapter 27, as well as other chapters, he informs his readers that the purpose of the law is three-fold: to teach truths and to control and improve individuals and society. In chapter 34, he states that laws are like the good forces of nature generally. “The various forces of nature produce benefits which are general, but in some solitary cases they cause injury. We must consequently not be surprised when we find that the object of the law does not fully appear in every individual; there must naturally be people who are not perfected by the instruction of the law, just as there are beings that do not receive from the specific forms in nature all that they require…. It is impossible to be otherwise…. [L]aws cannot be like medicine that varies according to the different conditions of persons and times.”
In other words, laws must be written to produce the best result for the majority of people, to improve their minds and behavior. But laws cannot by their very nature help all people. People are different in their intelligence and needs, and the law that helps society generally may not help, indeed may hurt, a particular individual. A very intelligent person is not benefited by the truth that is taught to the average person because he or she understands more than what is being taught. This person also may not need the constraints of the law designed to aid individuals and society for he or she may be able to act contrary to the law and help better him or herself and society. The law therefore was not written for this individual. In common parlance, one would say, this person is “above the law.”
This is theoretically true, but is it true in practice?
The answer is “no.” Why? Because no one is perfect.
Applying the Concept of the Ubermench to Solomon
Since Solomon according to the Bible attests, was the smartest person alive, he was an ubermench and must have been aware of it. He also knew the prohibitions against overindulgence in possessions and wives, either through the Bible or through simple reasoning, but he thought that this rule applied to the common king of average intelligence and not to him. He was certain that he had sufficient intelligence to control himself and not abuse his duty to his nation as its king. He obviously thought that he should secure many possessions so that other nations would respect Israel and that he should have wives from many nations in order to form peaceful alliances with them.
His reasoning was flawed; the concept of the ubermench is only theoretically sound. There is no one, no matter what his or her intelligence, who has sufficient intelligence to disregard the law. Although Nietzsche was brilliant, even he had some notions that were not very intelligent; he also suffered mental illness toward the end of his life. As great as Maimonides was, he relied on the primitive science of his time. He knew that he was smarter than anyone else, but he also knew his limitations; he knew that he must never violate any of the divine or rabbinical commandments, and he did not do so.
Many commentators contend that Solomon did not do wrong. They insist that the only error Solomon made was that he allowed his wives to worship idols. He, they say, never worshipped idols and was always faithful to God. What, then, was the reason that his kingdom was split? They contend that it was because he was not as righteous as his father David. These commentators, including the Talmud, insist that David never sinned, even in the episode of Bat-sheba and the murder of her husband. However, our approach addresses the simple meaning of the text, which indicates that Solomon did act improperly.
Some biblical sections should be understood as irony, as passages that mean the opposite of what they state. They were written ironically in order to provoke our thinking; irony is one style of good literature. Solomon is described in ways that rouse our admiration. We are tempted to see him as the ideal king who was able to accomplish all that we consider to be good.
But Bible readers are then shocked into realizing that they were wrong. Remarkably, every seemingly positive thing that Solomon did went amiss. Where he intended to improve his kingdom, he actually laid the groundwork for its destruction, as described in the story of the division of the kingdom in chapter 12.
The concept of the superior person who is not subject to the law, recognized by Jews and non-Jews, even by Maimonides, is that laws are designed to help the majority of humans better their minds, their lives, and social conditions. This concept contends that laws, which are fixed, by their very nature cannot be applicable to all people – certainly not to the person who has a superior intellect. While it appears to be a sound theory, the story of Solomon is just one demonstration that it is not practical.
While the text appears to be extolling Solomon and his deeds, the story is, in reality, an example of a man who saw himself as being above the law. A reader who recognizes that biblical text employs literary styles can recognize the irony in the story and understand Solomon’s character differently than it appears at first glance. Solomon felt that he could violate the biblical commandments because of his intelligence and self-control. He was wrong. He destroyed his own life and the unity of his nation, which split after his death.
 The rabbis mention this lesson in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b.