Was Solomon really wise?

It is generally not a good idea to share drafts which will be change, hopefully improved in time. I published 33 books, and my 34th will be in book stores in April. I finished three others which will be published soon. I am working on my 38th book which is about King Solomon, a study of I Kings 1-11. I finished a draft of chapter 3 of the eleven today. It is the famous tale of Solomon’s dream in which God promises him wisdom and the better known tale of Solomon deciding a case involving two prostitutes to determine which of the two is the true mother of a child.  I hope that you find my analysis interesting.

 

Chapter 3

Solomon’s wisdom

 

Two stories in this chapter are rather well known and most people who are familiar with the Bible feel certain that they know what the Bible states about these events. But most people who think they know are wrong. The first event Solomon’s dream in which God appears to him and asks him what he wants. Solomon requests the ability to distinguish between good and evil. God replies, since you did not request wealth and honor and the defeat of your enemies, I will give you these three as well as making you smarter than all who lived before you and all who will come after you; and “if you follow my ways and observe my ordinances and commandments, as your father David did, I will give you long life.”[1] The second prominent event is the judgment Solomon made. Two prostitutes came to him to render a judgment. Each said they lived together, each had a child within a three-day period. One woman claimed that, the child of the other woman died, and the other woman took my living child from my bed while I slept, and substituted her dead child. Solomon said that since there was no proof to whom the living child belonged, he would cut the child in two and give each an equal share. One woman cried out that he should not kill the child, but give it to the other woman; while the other woman agreed that the child should be split. Solomon decided that the true mother of the child was the woman who was willing to give the child up rather than see it killed. Everyone who heard how he solved the case marveled at his wisdom. But did God really speak to Solomon in his dream? And was his act with the two prostitutes wise?

 

Introductory three verses

Prior to narrating the tale of Solomon’s dream and the trial, the narrator of I Kings prefaces with three sentences which state three things: Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and brought her to the city of David prior to “building his own house, and the Lord’s house, and the surrounding wall of Jerusalem.”[2] The people “sacrificed in the high places because there was no house built for the Lord.”[3] “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, but he sacrificed and made offerings in the high places.”[4]

These three verses can be seen as irrelevant to the events that follow and, as many scholars such as Ehrlich contend, misplaced, perhaps belonging as the end of chapter 2. Each verse is ambiguous.

Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter

Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter is so significant that it is mentioned five times in I Kings. But the Bible does not explain the significance. Does Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter show Solomon’s success and wisdom, that he was so powerful that the king of Egypt not only was willing to unite with him, but even be willing to give Solomon his daughter? And does it show Solomon’s wisdom, that he felt at the beginning of his reign that it would be to his and his country’s benefit to have such a union?

Or, to the contrary, it hints at his foolishness. Verses 1-3 are “the seeds of his own destruction.”[5] His marriage to a non-Israelite bothered later Jews to the extent that Slotki, and others insisted that it was obvious that she must have converted. They say this despite there being no hint of this in the text, which we would expect if it really happened because it would unambiguously show that Solomon acted wisely. They say she converted despite the concept of conversion not existing until around 125 BCE when John Hyrcanus forcibly converted the Edomites and created a disastrous situation, when one of the converted descendants, Herod, killed the Judean king’s family and assumed the throne.

Deuteronomy 23:9 states that children born to Egyptians may only “enter the assembly of the Lord” after the third generation.[6] Since the traditional view is that conversion existed since the days of Abraham, although this is not in any biblical text, tradition interpreted the verse to mean “after the third generation of an Egyptian who converted.” Accordingly, the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 76b, Abarbanel, and others have difficulty seeing Solomon not violating what they see as a biblical prohibition.

Furthermore, the first verse goes on to say that he married her before he built his own house, the temple, and the walls of Jerusalem. Does this hast show wisdom? The Babylonian Talmud Berachot 8a, Rashi, and others state that this verse shows Solomon’s disgraceful behavior.

Additionally, chapter 11 relates that Solomon not only married one “foreign” woman, but many, and “his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not whole with the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David.”[7] He even built temples for the idols. Is this verse warning us to be careful in how we interpret Solomon’s dream where he hears God promising him wisdom?

This issue aside, who had the upper hand in the political maneuvering culminating with Solomon’s marriage. We do not know because the Bible is silent on this point. But Olan Hatanakh opines that Solomon had the upper hand: (1) Pharaoh not only gave his daughter to Solomon, but also the great fortress of Gezer, while Solomon gave Pharaoh nothing.[8] (2) We have many ancient documents that show that kings give their daughters to rulers of other lands together with other gifts to demonstrate that they recognize the greater power of the recipient.

Offering sacrifices in “high places”

The chapter’s second sentence states that people “sacrificed in the high places because there was no house built for the Lord.” Does this mean that despite not having a temple in Jerusalem, the people still showed their love of God by offering sacrifices outside Jerusalem?

However, Deuteronomy 12:11 states that the Israelites must bring their sacrifices “at the place where the Lord your God will choose to cause his name to dwell there.”[9] There is no mention in the Torah of “high places” or an allowance to offer sacrifices in such places. The plain meaning of the verse is that sacrifices may only be offered in a single place. Yet, the rabbis, in the Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 117a and elsewhere, apparently noting that the Israelites offered sacrifices where ever they wanted to do so, explained the verse as saying that one is allowed to make a sacrifice outside of Shiloh where there was a sanctuary and Jerusalem, only when the sanctuary at Shiloh was destroyed and the temple was not built in Jerusalem. Thus, the passage may be stating that Solomon did wrong because he did not start to build the temple until the fourth year of his reign.

Olam Hatanakh contends that the original writer of Kings saw nothing wrong with offering sacrifices in “high places,” and it was only at a later time that an editor inserted the criticism. All the Judean kings allowed such sacrifices with the sole exceptions being Kings Hezekiah and Josiah.

Solomon’s love of God

The third verse, like the two prior ones, is also unclear. When the narrator tells readers that “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David, but he sacrificed and made offerings in the high places,” should we understand that he is saying the Solomon acted properly? Should we interpret the Hebrew rak positively, as “even though [he offered sacrifices]” outside Jerusalem, or negatively: he was generally good “except” he was not perfect. He did something wrong. Additionally, while he is praised for “walking in the states of his father David, he is not praised for following the laws of God.

Is the Torah not mentioned here because, as we stated in the former post-Pentateuchal books, the Israelites and Judeans did not know about the Torah until the time of Josiah? It is not mentioned again in verse 6, in Solomon’s dream, where he says to God, that his father David “walked before you in truth, righteousness, and uprightness of heart.”  

The dream in Gibeon

Solomon traveled to Gibeon where there was a large sanctuary, apparently the largest of the “high places,” what verse 4 calls “the great high place.”[10] While there he offered to God “a thousand burnt offerings,” and had a dream.[11] It is possible that at the beginning of his reign, knowing the long lasting discord between the northern tribes and Judea, he felt it would be diplomatic to travel to an Israelite city to offer many sacrifices, instead of Jerusalem.

We can, and I think should realize that Solomon had another thought at the beginning of his reign as he began to sleep, and this influenced the content of his dream. In other words, the dream was not a prophecy. It was a reflection of his thinking, as were the dreams of Jacob when he left his parents’ home in fear in Genesis 28:10-17, and at the Wadi Jabok when he was concerned about being killed by his brother Esau in Genesis 32:25-30, Joseph’s two dreams in Genesis 37:5-10, the two dreams by Pharaoh’s servants in Genesis 40:5, Pharaoh’s two dreams in Genesis 41:1-7, and more. Each dream reflected the dreamers awake concerns.

In the dream, Solomon imagines God speaking to him and asking him what he himself had been thinking about: as he begins to rule his people: what does he want – or need – the most. He respond “an understanding heart to judge your [God’s] people, to distinguish between good and evil.”[12] God replies: since you did not request long life, riches, the defeat of your enemies, but only asked for understanding to discern justice, I will give you the discerning heart, “so that there was no one like you before you, and no one will arise like you in the future.”[13]

God also promised him riches and honor, more than any former king had. “And,” here God adds a conditional promise, “if you walk in my ways, keep my statutes and commandments, as your father David did walk, then I will lengthen your days.”

Solomon awoke, “and, behold, it was a dream,” he went to Jerusalem, stood before the ark, offered sacrifices, and made a feast for all his servants.[14]

Several things should be noted: The text itself calls what transpired a dream, not a prophecy,[15] the dream focused on Solomon’s concerns, the theme of a person being offered by a genie or a god whatever he wants and he makes the right decision that gets him more than he asked for is contained in many fables, the Torah is not mentioned, but God makes a condition with Solomon saying if he acts properly he will be given long life. This idea of God making a condition, as if God had no idea whether Solomon will act properly in the future, does not fit the notion of many people that God knows all, even what will transpire in the future.

It seems that Solomon wanted to distinguish himself from his father and King Saul. While David and Saul were known as a warrior, Solomon wanted to be known for something different, his wisdom. The first recorded event, a trial of two prostitutes, may have been composed to prove that he attained wisdom. But does it really? Additionally, Solomon is told in both Kings and Chronicles that he would be smarter than all the people who preceded him. This must have included Moses. What are the authors of Kings and Chronicles saying about Moses, and by extension about the Torah?

Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed 1:2, interprets the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Eve being incited by a speaking snake, as a parable, because snakes do not talk. He states that the “tree of good and evil” in the parable stands for morality. There is a difference between morality and “truth and falsehood.” The former is designed for the common folk who lack the intelligence to think about what is true and what is false. They are given a list of moral concepts that they are capable of understanding and performing. God, in the Genesis parable, is telling readers of the Torah, if you are capable, do not make decisions in life based on morality, but on what is true and false. Study how the world and people function and make decisions in life based on this knowledge. While this is how Maimonides understood “good and evil” in Genesis. It is unlikely that the author or editor of Kings meant to tell us that Solomon fell into the category of the foolish uneducated majority of people who could only rely on morality but not true understanding.

The case of the two prostitutes

The story of Solomon demonstrating unusual wisdom by means of a clever trick is similar to fables found in many countries. Scholars have identified 22 parallel fables in many countries.[16]

According to the tale, two prostitutes, who lived together, came to Solomon for judgment.[17] One bore a child and three days later the other also bore a child. The mothers slept in the same bed with their child. One mother accidentally smothered her child, took the live child of the other woman and substituted the dead child. Each claimed the live child as her own. There were no witnesses to the events.

Solomon told the women that since it was impossible to determine the parentage, he would cut the child in two and give each a half. One of the women cried out that he should not do so, let the other woman have the baby. The other woman said let neither of us have the child; cut it in two. Hearing this and without explaining his judgment, Solomon ruled that the woman who cried out is the true mother and should be given the child.

A close reading of the tale reveals that it is senseless. It is possible that the woman who cried out was the one who stole the other’s child, and she did not want to see the death of a baby as a consequence of her act. She so fervently wanted a child that she stole the other woman’s child. She did not want this stolen child to die as her natural child did. It is also possible that the prostitute who said “cut the baby in two” was the true mother, she did not want to hang onto the child who would be hindering her trade, she saw that the other prostitute wanted her child to the extent that she stole her child and did not care that she was thereby hurting her. So not wanting her child and wanting to hurt the other out of revenge, she told Solomon to kill the child. This is just one of many possibilities. My point is that the described reactions of the two women is no proof of who was the mother.

Others have recognized this difficulty and have suggested that it was something else that Solomon saw that prompted him to render the ruling as he did. The Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b states that Solomon knew the true mother because God told him. Kil mentions the supposition of a sage Radbaz who said Solomon knew the proper mother because he saw that the facial features of the child resembled his mother, or Solomon saw that the true mother was a calm woman who would not turn over during her sleep and smother her child, while the other woman was frenetic.

Kings vs. Chronicles

II Chronicles 1-9 contains the chronicler’s version of Solomon’s rule. It does not have the introductory three verses that is in Kings, nor the trial of the two prostitutes, most likely because of the chronicler’s desire to present David and Solomon in a favorable light. Similarly, in order to enhance Solomon’s vision regarding his wisdom, it does not state that it was a dream and does not mention his desire to tell the difference between “good and evil,” he wants wisdom. It says God appeared to him. It states that Solomon went to Gibeon and justifies the trip by contending that the Ohel Moed of Moses as well as the bronze altar from Moses’ time was there. However, curiously, it also says that Solomon will be smarter than all the people who lived before him.

 

[1] Verse 14.

[2] Verse 1.

[3] Verse 2.

[4] Verse 3.

[5] Cogan, page 189.

[6] Note that the language speaks about joining the community, not becoming Jewish.

[7] Verse 4.

[8] 9:16.

[9] I understand that the term “name” in the Bible frequently means “essence,” as in the description of God “the Lord is one and his name is one,” certainly is not saying that God has only a single name. The verse is stating that there is only one God who has a single essence, not as some mystics say, God has ten parts.

[10] These places are also translated as “outside sanctuaries.”

[11] Verse 4. The offerings were an apparent “thank you” for being installed as king. We can reasonably suppose that the number 1,000 is hyperbole and denotes “many.”

[12] Verse 11. The heart among the ancient Israelites was the body part that thinks, in contrast to our idea that thoughts come from the mind.

[13] Verse 12.

[14] Ehrlich contends that the words “behold it was a dream,” emphasize that this was a natural dream, not a revelation.

[15] This bothered the chronicler who calls the event a prophecy, and does not even suggest it was a dream.

[16] Olam Hatanakh. “It is very likely legendary; a stock example of judicial wisdom, Similar stories were told of other rulers of the period” (Robinson, page 54).

[17] The Aramaic translation, the Targum, translates “innkeepers,” to make the text more delicate, as was done in Joshua 2 regarding Rahab. Gersonides and others agree they were innkeepers. We do not know the practice of the time: did people come to the king to decide even small matters, or did they approach the king only after a lower court was unable to decide the matter (Kil).

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