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The following are chapters 27 and 28 from my book “Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets,” which show again that what we think is true is not what the Bible actually says.
Why Would God Punish Future Israelites for Solomon’s Misdeeds?
In the previous chapter, we saw how Solomon misused his innate intelligence and committed the three transgressions that Deuteronomy warns kings against. As a result of his behavior, we read how Solomon had a vision, either through a prophet or a dream or more likely in an awake realization, that his kingdom would be ripped asunder, divided into ten and two tribes, and that his son would only rule over the smaller entity of two tribes. The dream came true after Solomon died. The division of the kingdom affected the lives of the now divided nation in many adverse ways. This chapter addresses the problem: if Solomon did wrong, why should the nation be punished and suffer for it?
Arnold Ehrlich’s Answer
Arnold Ehrlich asks how God could punish all of the Israelites for Solomon’s deeds and what rationale there was for the punishment; the behavior of the ten tribes only worsened after the split of the kingdom. It was as if God forgot that He was supposed to act justly and only punish the perpetrator of a misdeed, as if God lost His divine ability to foresee the future.
Ehrlich’s answer is nothing more than an opportunity taken to expound the theory we saw earlier about the truthfulness of the biblical life of David and Solomon. Convinced that David and Solomon were no more than mythological characters invented by authors who wanted to record the history of Judah and Israel, Ehrlich asserts that the books of the Prophets were written by later authors and based on tales told traditionally about the characters. His answer, therefore, is that the question only relates to a fictional story.
The Problem with Ehrlich’s Answer
Leaving aside the issue of whether the biblical history of the early Israelite kings is true, and focusing only on the whether or not Ehrlich’s answer solves the questions raised, we see that in his rush to expound his theory of the imaginary history of Israel, he fails to answer his own questions. For even if the stories are mere fables, the questions still exist.
Even assuming that the stories are fables, one must ask why the writers describe God punishing innocent people. Why did they say that God rendered a punishment that affected not only Solomon’s son’s generation but also the entire history of Jewry? Why did God inflict a punishment that made the situation worse than it was, since the split-off kingdom abandoned God and worshipped idols?
An Alternative Assumption and an Answer
Both Ehrlich and traditional commentators make a mistaken assumption that causes the problems that Ehrlich noted. This is the belief that when the book of Kings states that God did something, this statement should be accepted literally: God felt that his creation was not perfect, it needed help, He meddled in the laws of nature, and performed the act that the Bible ascribes to Him.
If we accept Maimonides’ understanding that whenever the Bible ascribes an act to God, it is only reminding us that God is the ultimate cause of the described action because God created the laws of nature, we realize that God did not punish Solomon, and come to an entirely different understanding of what occurred. In this way, we can answer all of the questions raised. Also, since we see that only the Maimonidean approach makes sense, it serves to prove that it is correct.
Solomon, Not God, Provoked the Punishment and Hurt His People
The history of Solomon should be understood as follows:
Of his own free will, and thinking that he was smart enough to avoid the consequences of overindulgence in possessions and wives, Solomon hedonistically gave in to intemperance. As a result, as Deuteronomy predicted, he suffered for his greed. His wives persuaded him to practice idolatry. His need for possessions and taxes to finance their acquisition led to a revolt by ten of the tribes who were tired of the high taxes that were enacted to satisfy his lifestyle.
God did not punish the Israelites. Solomon’s misrule and standard of living caused the rebellion.
The story of Solomon and the results of his misbehavior that affected his entire nation raise questions: how could God punish the entire nation for Solomon’s acts and why would God punish the Israelites in a way that led them to worship idols? Arnold Ehrlich answers that the story is simply a fable, but this does not eliminate the problem. Even if the story is untrue, why did its author ascribe these irrational acts to God?
Once we apply Maimonides’ understanding of Scripture to the story, the problem disappears. Maimonides taught that whenever the Bible states that God performed an act, it only makes this statement to remind its readers that God created the laws of nature that gave humans the free will to behave as they choose. Thus, God did not punish Solomon. The split in his kingdom and the history that followed was the natural and easily predictable result of Solomon’s behavior. Once again, we see that what is assumed to be a punishment can easily be read as a natural outcome of Solomon’s behavior; this rational understanding of the text puts to rest the difficulties traditionally raised concerning Solomon’s misdeeds and their consequences, and it shows that the Maimonidean approach to Scripture is the rational way of interpreting otherwise problematical episodes.
Trading Land for Peace: A Biblical Example
One of the most heated and sometimes vitriolic disputes among Jews today is whether it is biblically permissible to give up land of the State of Israel in order to secure peace with Palestinians. Simply stated, one of the religiously oriented arguments against relinquishing land is that the land is holy and was promised by God to the Jews.
Four answers can be given to this assertion. (1) Neither land nor any other object is holy; holiness is created by how the land or object is used. (2) God never promised the Israelites particular borders and never helped the Israelites acquire all of the ideal land of Israel. Indeed, the Israelites never, with the possible exception of part of David’s reign, held all of the ideal area of Israel. (3) Some cynics might say that if God did promise the land to the Jews, the promise was His alone; it is not the responsibility of present-day Jews to fulfill a promise made to them. (4) Finally, there is no scriptural verse requiring Jews to hold all of the land that their ancestors once occupied.
Be this as it may, the issue is not simple. Many questions can be asked, and we will address two of them.
One of King Solomon’s First Acts
When Solomon succeeded his father David and became king of all of Israel, his first act was to build the First Temple and a palace for himself. I Kings 9:11 states, “Hiram king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress trees, as much as he desired, and King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of the Galilee.”
Why Did Solomon Give Hiram Twenty Cities?
The Bible gives no reason for Solomon’s gift. It may have been part of Solomon’s payment for the wood that Hiram supplied. Some people speculate that the relationship between the two kings was not equal. Hiram had the upper hand and Solomon gave the cities as the tribute of a vassal to a lord. Other scholars suggest that the two kings were on equal footing, but Solomon had overextended himself in his building schemes and needed resources. Still others note that the parallel story in II Chronicles 8:2 states the reverse, that Hiram ceded territory to Solomon, and explain that each biblical book is telling part of the story: the two kings traded cities.
Whatever reason is given to explain why Solomon gave Hiram Israelite territory, it is clear that he did so, and did not seem to be concerned with a divine requirement prohibiting such a transfer. It is also clear that he gave the cities to Hiram either to guarantee peace by paying his bill and cementing a relationship or to secure funds so that he would have enough resources for his people to live lives of comfort and peace.
What Is the Bible’s Reaction to Solomon’s Act?
The Bible does not condemn Solomon for giving twenty Israelite cities to the king of Tyre. Furthermore, none of the traditional medieval Bible commentators, who are generally concerned about halakhic matters, criticize him.
The question of whether the current population of the State of Israel should give up land in Judea and Samaria in order to secure peace is argued from many angles. One of the arguments is that the Bible mandates that no part of the land of Israel should be abandoned. Those who maintain this position need to answer why the Bible informs us that Solomon exchanged land for peace and neither the Bible nor the rabbis condemned him. Is there any other way to rationally understand this chapter? One can, of course, say that the cities that Solomon gave to Tyre were not part of the ideal Israel. However, a straightforward reading of the biblical passages does not say this.