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.
- David appoints Solomon as his successor before he dies. He advises his son to take effective action against certain people in order to ensure that that kingdom remains intact. David dies and Solomon becomes king of the united twelve tribes of Israel.
- Solomon kills all of the people who could potentially cause him problems.
- Solomon marries the daughter of Pharaoh and establishes alliances with foreign nations, assuring peace by marrying hundreds of women. In total, he marries seven hundred noblewomen and takes three hundred concubines.
- Solomon has a vision at Gibeon in which he asks God to give him wisdom. God grants him wisdom; he becomes the most intelligent of all people.
- The text shows Solomon demonstrating his wisdom by settling a dispute brought before him by two prostitutes, both claiming to be the mother of the same child.
- Solomon partitions Israel in a way that generally does not correspond to the division of the tribes. It would appear that his intention is to cause the people to stop identifying with the ancient tribal structure and to think of the nation as one united entity. He appoints governors over each division. Two of the tribes that he is careful to divide are the tribes of Joseph presumably so that the two strong tribes not unite against him to install a leader from their tribe.
- Solomon undertakes massive construction projects and the results are described as splendid.
- He levies a large tax on the people to pay for his constructions.
- He builds a magnificent Temple and a palace for himself. Construction of the Temple takes seven years and the palace takes thirteen years to build.
- He holds a dedication celebration for the Temple that lasts many days, during which many thousands of animals are sacrificed.
- Solomon has a second vision wherein God warns him that if he does not obey the divine commands he will be punished. This warning hints to the reader to recognize that something is wrong.
- The queen of Sheba visits Solomon and is impressed with his wisdom and his many splendid possessions, demonstrating that Solomon was successful in accomplishing his goal of awing foreign nations.
- Solomon imports many horses from Egypt.
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.
- Solomon intended to unite the twelve tribes into a strong united nation, yet immediately after his death, as recorded in chapter 12, ten of the tribes split off from the monarchy of Solomon’s son and formed their own nation because they were dissatisfied with the way Solomon conducted his reign – his high taxes and enslavement of his people for the constructions – and his son declared he would continue his father’s behavior.
- Solomon married many wives to improve relations with other nations; but, as chapter 11 testifies, his wives “swayed his heart after the gods of others, and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God.” The marriage to seven hundred women and having three hundred concubines raises serious doubts that Solomon respected women and treated them properly. It is therefore ironic that the only testimony of his wisdom is from three women, two prostitutes and a pagan queen.
- He built the First Temple to draw his people to God and offered many sacrifices. But his wives persuaded him to build many, not one, houses for their idols, where Solomon burned incense and offered sacrifices in these houses.
- He erected many impressive buildings to impress his own people and foreign nations. But, far from being impressed by the building, the people were upset by the taxation, and their complaints, as stated, led to the division of his kingdom after his death. The new nation of the ten tribes built their own temples.
- Solomon extolled himself by stating that God spoke to him twice. There were also two divine communications after he built the pagan houses of worship. Both of these later prophecies were negative. In the first, God foretold that his kingdom would be split after his death. Commentators contend that this prophecy came through a prophet, since Solomon was no longer worthy of direct communication. In the second, God spoke to Jeroboam though a prophet to tell him to become king of ten of the tribes.
- Solomon sought to bring his people internal peace and rest from outside interference, but his actions provoked three rebellions against him during his lifetime. Two were from rebel leaders, not monarchs of nations. They were foreigners from whom Solomon failed to anticipate danger despite his many marital alliances. The Bible does not indicate how the two adversaries disturbed him, but apparently it was by constant nagging guerrilla attacks. They were antagonists “against Israel all the days of Solomon.” The third rebellion, led by Jeroboam, was from Solomon’s people, whom he tried to unite. Despite his wealth, national connections, and wisdom, he was unable to overcome these antagonists.
- Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh to create peace and good relations with Egypt. Yet Pharaoh harbored two of the rebels, one of whom married into his family. Solomon thought that he could marry for national Israelite interests; meanwhile, the king of Egypt had his own national interests that Solomon overlooked.
- Solomon made Jeroboam tax collector over the house of Joseph. Curiously, inconsistently, and unwisely, while Solomon divided the tribes into several sections to diminish their tribal loyalty, he retained their identity for tax purposes and assigned Jeroboam as the tax collector for the two Joseph tribes. Also, strangely, Jeroboam was from one of the tribes of Joseph from whom Solomon tried to protect himself. Jeroboam, as we saw, led one of the three rebellions and also fled to Egypt where Pharaoh protected him until Solomon died.
- To assure that the reader perceives the irony contained in the narrative of Solomon’s life, the story concludes, after listing the wrongs that he committed, with the stark irony, “And for all the rest of the deeds of Solomon and all that he did with his wisdom – behold they are recorded in the book concerning the deeds of Solomon.”
- Another stark indicator that the chapters were written with an eye towards its irony is the fact that throughout the nine chapters there is little written to indicate why Solomon was a great king other than that he built the First Temple (followed by quite a few temples for idols) and his superb intellect as certified by the somewhat questionable stories of the two prostitutes and the queen of Sheba (questionable in the sense that it is unclear what specifically Solomon did to demonstrate his wisdom to the queen). If the book of Kings intended to tell the reader about the glory of Solomon’s reign, it should have offered details that were not subject to ironic interpretation.
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.