King Solomon is a man of legend. I don’t simply mean that he was a great man responsible for extraordinary deeds. I mean the King Solomon that you are likely envisioning right now is a product of centuries of accumulation of tale upon legendary tale.
What we have inherited from the tales of Solomon is the biblical image of the wise and ambitious king who conquered a vast territory, not through military might like his father David, but through diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence. We have the man who built the first monotheistic
temple in Jerusalem, who transformed the city into a world-renowned center, who was helped in these endeavors by an extraordinary gift of wisdom and wealth from God, and who authored psalms, proverbs, poems, and philosophy.
Who was the historical Solomon?
Despite the challenging fact that we do not have any evidence of Solomon from his own day (mid-tenth century BCE), there is good reason to believe that the legendary Solomon grew from a historical core. The primary history of Solomon’s career is recorded in 1Kgs 1-11
. Within these chapters are records of Solomon’s rise to power over rival factions in the newly established royal family. Solomon secured his succession
through careful manipulation of the aged David, with the help of his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan, and then found justification for the execution of David’s presumed successor, the heir apparent Adonijah. Following a consolidation of his own power, Solomon sought to elevate the status of Jerusalem as well, carrying out a building program for his capital city that would convey a message of importance in the region. The construction of the temple was the highpoint of this effort. These steps were of prime importance in the ancient Near Eastern political climate. Many elite families were competing to become the dominant regional power. Solomon, the shrewd politician and ambitious builder, was a product of these times.
Other less desirable aspects of Solomon’s career may have stemmed from similar historical circumstances. Solomon followed the model for ancient Near Eastern kingship, but it proved contrary to values that would become biblical theological
foundations (see Deut 17
and 1Sam 8
). Solomon notoriously oppressed his subjects through hard labor in order to build the temple and royal complex. He reportedly became a man of excess and enriched himself from tribute and the products of the land. He built altars for the worship of foreign gods, notably those worshiped by his foreign wives, and Solomon participated in this worship. His leadership style led to dissent among the populace and nearly ended the fledgling dynasty
in Jerusalem. Famously, the Israelite
territory divided into two kingdoms immediately following Solomon’s death, with Solomon’s son Rehoboam retaining a fraction of the territory and the rest falling away to his rival Jeroboam.
Benevolent wise king or abusive autocrat?
The sketch drawn so far does not conform well to the image of the wise and reverent king that Western culture—built upon Jewish and Christian traditions—has emphasized, but Solomon the legend quite naturally grew from this historical core. Over time, biblical authors and editors combined various traditions to form what is now Solomon’s history in 1 Kings. Later authors sought to explain how an unlikely successor to David could have accomplished so much and how a flawed leader and imperfect servant to God could have been responsible for the creation of God’s earthly residence.
One response was that Solomon was simply exceptional. His story grew to illustrate the point. One of the most memorable examples is the visit from the queen of Sheba (1Kgs 10:1-13
). Embedded in descriptions of Solomon’s wealth and world trade connections (1Kgs 9:26-10:29
), this account highlights all of Solomon’s strengths. Through the mouth of the queen we learn that Solomon was a wise, benevolent, and just ruler. She reports that Solomon and his god, Yahweh, had earned the respect of the world.
The clearest illustration, however, comes from words put into God’s mouth by one of the biblical authors. Unlike other kings who learned of divine
will through prophets, the narrator reports that Solomon received God’s wishes more directly (1Kgs 3:4-15
; 1Kgs 11:9-13
). With the absence of the middle-man prophet, Solomon appears to be uncommonly close to God. According to 1Kgs 3
, God offered to give Solomon whatever he wished. Solomon responded well by asking for wisdom. God replied, “I do now according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you” (1Kgs 3:12
). With that divine decree, Solomon the legend was fixed in history.
Sarah Malena, "Solomon", n.p. [cited 28 Oct 2020]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/solomon
Assistant Professor, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Sarah Malena is an assistant professor of history at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She specializes in intercultural relations in the eastern Mediterranean and how interactions impacted social and ideological change. She is the author of “Influential Inscriptions,” in Writing and Scribalism: Authors, Audiences and Text in Social Context, edited by Mark Leuchter (T&T Clark, forthcoming), and “Spice Roots in the Song of Songs,” in Milk and Honey, a collection of essays on ancient Israel and the Bible, which she coedited with David Miano (Eisenbrauns, 2007). Her current project, Fertile Crossroads, focuses on elite exchange networks in the early stages of the Iron Age (ca. 1100-800 BCE) that shaped the developing identities of the Israelites, Philistines, Phoenicians, and others.