With the media in New Zealand currently preoccupied with the imminent General Election, it is perhaps apposite to leave aside for the moment all thoughts of teapots, taping devices, and tactical voting and turn our attention to some biblical politics – First Testament style. One particular biblical figure that has always come under his share of political scrutiny is King Solomon, who took over the throne of the united kingdom of Israel after his father David’s death. Over the years, biblical scholars have attributed Solomon with an array of soubriquets that range from ideal ‘gold-plated’ king to selfish dictator; there seems to be as many opinions about his political acumen and leadership style as there were subjects in his kingdom: ‘as many as the sand by the sea’ (1 Kings 4.20). These widely conflicting views all stem from the Solomonic traditions in 1 Kings 3-11 themselves, which chart both the dizzying heights and humiliating lows of this character’s monarchical career. So, it is to these traditions to which our attention will now turn, as we consider a few of Solomon’s political strengths and weaknesses.
According to 1 Kings 4, Solomon’s new and expanded temple-state bureaucracy, which he set up in his new capital Jerusalem, was highly successful; Israel and Judah ‘ate and drank and were happy’, each person living in safety under his [and her?] own vine and fig tree. However, this centralized Jerusalem-based administration did appear to come at a cost – to some of Solomon’s subjects at least. The king imposed a new structure of territorial organization on the kingdom, dividing ‘all Israel’ into 12 fiscal districts for tax collection purposes (1 Kings 4.17-19a), with each district providing food for ‘the king and his household’ one month per year. This structure of organization replaced the more traditional division and naming of the land according to tribal boundaries, thereby seriously undermining time-honoured tribal authority, identity, and power networks, which David had tolerated when he was king. While around half of the twelve districts did retain the original tribal boundaries and place names, tribal autonomy was still essentially lost, as all 12 districts were now under direct supervision by crown-appointed prefects. One wonders just how popular this loss of customary and age-old tribal authority and individuality was, given the obvious importance of tribal affiliation for group and community identity in Israel at the time.
Moreover, Solomon’s taxation of ‘all Israel’ starts to look decidedly dodgy when we note that he appeared to be taxing only the northern territory of the kingdom, whilst giving the southern area of Judah a generous tax ‘break’ (1 Kings 4.19b). Given the huge extent of provisions each territory was supposed to supply for the royal larder, one can imagine that the exemption of Solomon’s own southern homeland from this burden would have caused a considerable amount of resentful mutterings among his northern subjects. [A rather similar scenario took place in Scotland in the 1980s.]
A further cause of north-south unrest likewise comes to the fore when we consider Solomon’s ethically dubious decision to keep unemployment figures down by using conscripted labour. In 1 Kings 9.15-25, we are told that he utilized slave labour from among the indigenous Canaanite people still living in the land to complete his many massive building projects. While the writers of this narrative may have expected readers to laud Solomon’s policy of exempting Israelites from such slave labour (1 Kings 9.20-22 – cold comfort for the indigenous slaves, surely), it is less clear what they intended their audience to make of the king’s decision to conscript ad hoc temporary forced labour from among the Israelites in order to complete the building of the new temple-palace complex in Jerusalem (1 Kings 5.13-17). Even more dubiously, this conscripted labour was pulled only from the northern territory of Israel; as with his system of taxation, Solomon felt inclined to let his fellow southerners have an easier time of it than their northern cousins. Again, this surely makes us wonders if everyone in Solomon’s kingdom really did ‘eat and drink and be happy’ under their own fig tree or vine.
At first glance, Solomon appears to have posessed some fairly decent diplomatic skills that allowed him to ensure a time of peace and security for his kingdom. He participated in a number of diplomatic marriages to foreign women (1 Kings 3.1, 11.1), which enabled him to formalize peace treaties and diplomatic entente with potentially rival ancient Near Eastern polities. He also formed political alliances with other international powers through trade agreements and some impressive diplomatic hospitality; who, for example, can forget his famous schmooze-fest with the Queen of
Sheba (sadly for us, sans teapot and tape recorder), where Solomon’s status and wisdom so bedazzled the queen that she bestowed upon him a huge gift of gold, spices, and precious stones?
On closer inspection, however, it appears that Solomon’s diplomatic relationships with other ancient Near Eastern rulers were sometimes less impressive than first imagined. Take, for example, his affiliation with King Hiram of Tyre, where Solomon’s status vis-à-vis this king is more akin to that of servant or vassal subject than political counterpart. Hiram, we are told, supplied Solomon with timber for the construction of his temple in exchange for an annual payment from Solomon of extravagant quantities of wheat and hand-pressed oil for Tyre’s royal household (1 Kings 5.9-11). This treaty essentially put Solomon in the same submissive and subordinate position in relation to Hiram as his northern subjects were with him – providing food for the royal table.
As we’ve already seen, Solomon took full advantage of trading opportunities with other foreign powers that at times appeared financially beneficial; in 1 Kings 9-10, there are various descriptions of his new commercial ventures, including maritime and land trade, which seem to have been fairly successful, given the dazzling display of luxury goods and wealth he is reported to have accrued through these new business enterprises. However, there are also hints in the text that strongly allude to some glaring inadequacies in Solomon’s economic expertise. For example, 1 Kings 9.11 mentions Solomon ceding 20 cities in Galilee to King Hiram as payment for timber and gold imported from Tyre. Such a payment method implies that Solomon’s state treasury had a serious fiscal deficit, despite all the alleged wealth accrued through international trade and tribute. Moreover, his policy of importing skilled foreign labour and luxury goods (ivory throne or peacock, anyone?) in exchange for exports of staple products such as wheat and oil would surely put any treasury minister into a tailspin.
So, what conclusions can we reach about Solomon’s political performance? If he were standing as a NZ parliamentary candidate for the Theocrat Party on the 26th November, would we be likely to put a cross in his box? Well, in his favour, he did manage to maintain the Damoclean unity of the very fragile kingdom that he inherited from his father David and that in itself was no mean feat. However, he achieved this at an indefensible cost to his subjects, particularly those Israelites in the north and the indigenous Canaanites who remained in the land. Unjust systems of taxation, conscripted and slave labour, and questionable economic policies all serve to make Solomon’s political portrait look distinctly unattractive. Furthermore, there is some irony in the fact that a number of these policies that he used to hold his kingdom together seem to have ignited a tinderbox of resentment in the northern kingdom of Israel, which ultimately led to its secession from its southern neighbour Judah immediately following Solomon’s death. While 1 Kings 11.1-4 blames Solomon’s apostasy against God for this breakup of the united kingdom, we could hypothesise that there may have been other, more secular political reasons for the split.