I Kings 3: At the Library

I’m at the downtown public library right now. Because my own computer has broken down, I’m doing my weekly quiet time and weekly quiet time write-up at the library. I realize that several of you can’t make it without my weekly quiet time write-up, so I’d be selfish not to write it, right?!

In some cases this Sabbath, I used different sources from what I ordinarily use. Most Sabbaths on my computer, I consult John Gill, John MacArthur, and the Nelson’s Study Bible, and I listen to Calvary Chapel sermons and sermons from a Calvinist web site. Today, however, I read commentaries, mostly scholarly ones that have a Christian, homiletical twist.

One thing I ordinarily miss out on in my weekly quiet times is the ancient Near Eastern parallels. I’d like to correct that somewhat when I return to my usual manner of doing my weekly quiet times, without adding tons of commentaries to my reading list. I may scan the Anchor Bible each Sabbath or order a cheap copy of the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

What were some of the parallels between I Kings 3 and other ancient Near Eastern writings, or literature from other cultures? In both I Kings 3 and other areas of the ancient Near East, a king humbly asks a deity for wisdom, while taking the stance of a small child. His goal is often to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Wisdom is also called “hearing” in both I Kings 3 and ancient Near Eastern literature, implying perhaps that we are wise when we listen to God and to other people. The story of someone in authority proposing to divide a child in half to see which professing mother is the true one also has parallels, which have a similar theme but aren’t exactly like the story in I Kings 3. Probably the closest parallel is a story from India.

Do the parallels between I Kings 3 and other cultures mean that God was at work in non-Israelite religions? Perhaps. The view that Israel was righteous because of her religion whereas other nations were carnal and selfish is an over-simplification. At the same time, one theme that most of the commentaries harped on was the complexity of Solomon as a character: he could be carnal and selfish, but also spiritual and selfless. The commentaries treat Solomon as bad where I (and also the biblical text) tend to give him the benefit of a doubt. They present the Solomon of I Kings 1-2 as a blood-thirsty power-grabber who ruthlessly eliminated his political opponents, but, as far as I can see, Solomon tried to be merciful to his political opponents, in some cases being more merciful than his father David wanted him to be! Only when they abused his mercy did Solomon take drastic action. And Solomon had to do so, since how could he govern the nation if people were continually seeking to overthrow him? The exception to Solomon’s policy of mercy would be Joab, whom Solomon put to death without hesitation. But I Kings 2 treats this as justice for Joab’s shedding of innocent blood.

But the commentaries draw a contrast between the ruthless politician Solomon of I Kings 1-2 and the meek, humble, spiritual, “put his nation above himself” Solomon of I Kings 3. I agree with their view that Solomon made poor decisions even before he turned to the dark side. Last week, I talked about how Solomon in I Kings 2 had Joab killed in the holy place, showing no concern for God’s laws of purity, which seek to separate the contamination of human death from the sanctuary. I said that such an attitude set the stage for Solomon’s later disregard for God. So I agree with the commentaries’ overall point, even though I disagree with how they support it.

I thought about the complexity of Solomon last night as I watched Mysteries of the Bible. According to the episode that I saw, Solomon put the glory of his kingdom, his building projects, and his foreign wives ahead of God and the nation of Israel, which was why most of Israel revolted against his son and seceded from the union. In I Kings, we see that Solomon made Israelites into corvee laborers and imposed heavy taxes. That contrasts with the Solomon of I Kings 3, who put his nation before himself by asking God for wisdom rather than wealth and glory, and who also heard the case of two prostitutes, who were in one of the most vulnerable and disdained groups of Israelite society.

I struggled a little with I Kings 3:1, which states that Solomon married the Pharaoh’s daughter and let her stay in Jerusalem until he finished building his own house, the temple, and the walls of Jerusalem. Commentaries came down hard on Solomon for this. Some said that he was delaying the construction of the temple, or that he placed his own palace or Egyptian bride before God’s house and the security of the nation. I don’t sympathize much with the claim that he didn’t build the temple fast enough, since, heck, he had just come into power! Give the man some time! Maybe there’s something to the argument that he prioritized his palace over the temple, for I Kings 3:1 mentions the palace before the temple. And, although I Kings 6-7 discusses Solomon’s construction of the temple before that of his palace, it also says that Solomon spent more years on his palace.

I think the point of I Kings 3:1 is that Solomon let Pharaoh’s daughter stay in Jerusalem (the holy city) because she didn’t have another place to crash. Things were pretty chaotic at that time, for Solomon hadn’t yet launched his massive building projects. The following verses illustrate this point further, for they say that the Israelites and Solomon sacrificed at the high places, for there was not yet a temple in Jerusalem. When Solomon launched his building projects, he made a house for his Egyptian wife and moved her out of Jerusalem (I Kings 7:8; 9:24). Before that time, things were pretty disorganized! I Kings 3:1 may be trying to justify Solomon letting an Egyptian live in God’s holy city, something that interpreters (including the Septuagint) considered scandalous.

While I Kings 11:1 criticizes Solomon marrying an Egyptian and other foreign women, for the reason that they turned him from God, Solomon actually strikes me as rather magnanimous. According to the commentaries that I read, the Pharaoh usually didn’t marry his daughters off to foreigners (Amarna Letter no. 14 ln. 14), so he must have been pretty desperate to give his daughter to Solomon. Commentaries speculate that Egypt was weak in the tenth century B.C.E., so it sought an alliance with Israel, a power to its north. And Solomon helped her out as the friendly neighbor that he was! But, while it’s good to help people out, there may be a need to be careful.

I also struggled some with the issue of high places. I Kings 3 goes out of its way to apologize for Solomon worshipping at the high place of Gibeon, but I Chronicles 1 says that the Tabernacle and the bronze altar were at that location. There are scholars who may argue that Chronicles is trying to make Solomon look more godly than I Kings 3 presents, but I have problems with that idea. Joshua 9:27 portrays the Gibeonites as helpers in the sanctuary, possibly implying that the sanctuary at Gibeon was considered legitimate. And II Samuel 6:27 says that David built a tent for the ark in Jerusalem, which indicates that the Tabernacle had to be elsewhere, since it wasn’t covering the ark in Jerusalem. Why else would David build a tent? Would the Tabernacle have been if Gibeon? But if that were the case, then why’s I Kings 3 so uncomfortable with Solomon sacrificing there (“but he still loved the LORD…”)?

These are my thoughts on I Kings 3! The next two weeks, I won’t be doing my weekly quiet time, since I’ll be in Indiana, and I don’t want to lug all my books back there. But I have a book by Mary Gordon on Jesus, and one by Tim Keller about idolatry, so I’ll be doing some Sabbath spiritual write-ups. Stay tuned!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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