Sibble Sunday: Payback (1 Kings 2–4)

Onwards! Meant to get closer to on time this week, but, ah, well, life is sometimes busy.

Short snarky summary: Solomon consolidates power by killing everyone and impresses everyone with his baby-bisecting skills.


Chapter 2 is a delightful display of widely directed hypocrisy and deceit. David is actually dying, instead of just ailing, and he’s using his last moments on earth to mete out a few final gasps of his peculiar brand of justice. Specifically, he has some last requests concerning Joab, Shimei, and Barzillai. Joab he finally sees fit to condemn, for his blatant acts of murder against his fellow military commanders (he doesn’t condemn the murder of Absalom, which I guess he doesn’t have proof of, or of Uriah, where he himself is far too complicit), and demands that Solomon not let Joab die peacefully. Barzillai you might not remember too well: he provisioned David’s government-in-exile back in 2 Samuel 17, when they were trying to outmaneuver Absalom. Shimei we’ve seen at least twice before — he’s a kinsman of Saul who jeered at David’s retreat in 2 Samuel 16, and then came back in Chapter 19, after David’s victory, to beg forgiveness. It also occurs to me that Adonijah had in his party a fellow named “Shimei”, whom I at the time didn’t recognize. It doesn’t make too much sense for a Saulite to be backing the claim of a member of the Davidic dynasty, but then the Deuteronomists might not have designed characters that subtly, and a partisan of any except the true line in their eyes (i.e. Solomon, not Adonijah) was pretty much indistinguishable from a Saulite/Ten-Tribes-Israelite/rebel.

All three of David’s final judgments are a bit peculiar. Barzillai’s because he’s already offered Barzillai honor in 2 Samuel 19, and because there’s not much David or Solomon could do to help Barzillai: he’s rich, respected, comfortable, and fairly aged. He has everything he could reasonably want and doesn’t need anything within Solomon’s power to give. Joab’s is interesting just because Joab’s been a horrible, untrustworthy schemer all along and David never saw fit to do anything about it during his lifetime. Shimei is an even odder case: on two occasions, David’s courtiers specifically lobbied to execute him, and David was explicitly merciful, and praised for it, and mentions his mercy now in describing his history with Shimei. And now, at this late date, there’s a sudden reversal, which is both odd and rather unjust.

The Shimei situation actually makes more sense if you read him as being a supporter of Adonijah, because it at least provides a reason to re-evaluate him. But that part doesn’t show up in David’s recitation of Shimei’s crimes.

Anyways, Solomon doesn’t start with either of the executions David commanded. Rather, he lets his brother jump the queue. Adonijah approaches Bathsheba in a conciliatory manner, and, while acknowledging Solomon’s sovereignty, humbly asks for Abishag as his wife. You remember Abishag, right? She was the extraordinarily beautiful virgin sent in to warm up King David. As requests go, this one is pretty reasonable. It’s not entirely obvious to me that the disposal of Abishag’s hand is in Solomon’s power, but, hey, he’s the king, and she’s at court, so, sure, why not. But this is a basically harmless concession to Adonijah. She may be at court, but she’s not the daughter or sister or wife of anyone important. She served the king, but he never legitimized any sort of concubinage or other status. She’s basically an extraneous court lady at this point and her marriage to Adonijah seems utterly harmless, but Solomon completely loses his shit over the request, and basically accuses Adonijah of still being too powerful and well-connected, and that he forfeits his life with this demand. This is a pretty fast turnaround from the Solomon of last chapter who promised that no harm would befall Adonijah, but rabbinical authorities either didn’t notice, didn’t care, or have some contrived exegesis, because Solomon is supposed to be a good guy. After dispatching his new man-of-all-work, Benaiah, to execute Adonijah, he then decides to further consolidate power by stripping Abiathar (who supported Adonijah) of the priesthood and conferring it solely on Zadok. Abiathar’s dismissal is described as fulfilling a previous promise of God’s, from back in 1Samuel 3, that the house of Eli would end in shame.

Now, Joab, who’s always been the canniest of whatever group he’s with, hears of Adonijah’s death and Abiathar’s shame and knows which way the windo is blowing, so he goes in to the Tabernacle to claim the sanctuary of the altar, just like Adonijah did last chapter. This time, though, Solomon isn’t negotiating and he just sends Benaiah to slaughter Job. Oddly, the text neither condemns this act nor mentions any sort o public condemnation, even though bloodshed in the house of God seems like a particularly condemnation-worthy act (certainly it did to Joab, who banked on Solomon not having the nerve to do it).

Finally, we get to the other person David commanded Solomon to kill: Shimei, who may or may not have also been one of Adonijah’s loyalists. Again, based on his interactions with David alone it’s not clear why anyone should want Shimei dead at this point, so if he were an Adonijahite it would do a lot to explain his role in the narrative. Surprisingly, though, Solomon doesn’t kill him, but puts him under house arrest, promising to suspend his deathsentence as long as he doesn’t leave Jerusalem. Of course, after a few years, he goes chasing off after runaway slaves, and Solomon has Benaiah lop his head off too. And now, the story says, Solomon was secure on his throne, having killed public dissidents and presumably terrified the less well-known disaffected.

Chapter 3 indicates that in addition to domestic tranquility, Solomon pursued friendly international relations, marrying an Egyptian princess, and pursued divine favor, making a great sacrifice at a major shrine. God visits Solomon in a dream, offering whatever he needs to givern well, and Solomon chooses wisdom. It’s from this incident, and probably from the Book of Proverbs attributed to Solomon, that Solomon is considered to be characterized by great wisdom.

But the example everyone knows of his great wisdom is what comes next in this chapter. Two women, who the text informs us are prostitutes, come to Solomon with a story of a dead and live baby (apparently the mother accidentally killed the baby by lying on it; these details, along with their profession, often don’t make it into sanitized versions of the story), and an argument as to which is the mother of which. Now, I’ll admit I don’t wholly understand this setup in light of the prostitution angle: while a legitimate-born child to a household could be a boon, a child of prostutution, unless there was some sort of mandate on the father for support, seems like a net minus which they’d be just as glad to be rid of. I suppose we’re supposed to read some sort of maternal tenderness into the tale, but then the false mother doesn’t really work too well except as being deranged by grief. But let’s move past motivation and assume both actually do want the child. Anyways, as everyone who learnedBible-stories knows, Solomon then judged that the parents would get to split the baby and had a sword produced for the purpose, whereat one of them immediately ceded her claim while the other said, “OK, go ahead and split it on up.”. Whereupon Solomon makes his judgment, but exactly what that judgment is a bit clouded by dubious use of pronouns. The text identifies the first woman as the true mother, but a few verses later he orders the baby given to “her”. Which “her”? Damned if I know, and the Hebrew text uses a fairly standard pronoun. Technically, nothing in the text indicates how he actually judged. Maybe he said, “Oh, since someone’s ceded her claim, the other wind by default!” Of course, traditional reading has it that he judged in favor of the woman who abandoned her claim, on account of the notion that a true mother’s love would lead her to self-sacrifice, but it’s worth noting that the way everyone remembers the story is not actually immediately clear from the text.

Also worth noting is the occasional suggestion that the story is a political allegory dealing with the bisection not of babies but of the state of Israel-Judah. The Deuteronomists were a bit obsessive on that point. Of course, then the most obvious roles for the litigants are Solomon and Adonijah. And, remember, just like the true mother, Adonijah ceded his claim when it became clear how costly victory would be. The problem with this reading is that it’s rather thematically incoherent with the rest of the Deuteronomist platform: Solomon is the house of David, the monarch of Judah, and Adonijah, his parentage notwithstanding, comes to represent the post-Saulite rebels of Israel. The pro-Davidic Deuteronomists would never tip an anti-Davidic tale into their narrative, would they?

Well, they might. In Samuel, if not so much in Kings, the pro-Davidic redactors seemed to be waging a subtle textual war with an anti-monarchial group within the Deuteronomists. With regard to Saul, both groups were on the same page, but after David became king, there was a fair bit of tension. Maybe the ugly anti-Davidic slant to this story is not so much against Solomon as against kingship in general.

Chapter 4 is a pretty tedious recounting of Solomon’s administrators. A few are either familiar faces or relatives of familiar faces: Nathan’s sons are courtiers, hatchetman Benaiah is the general of the army, but it’s mostly a dull list, although in the matter of priesthood it’s kind of weird: it lists Zadok’s son as “the priest”, and then later Zadok and Abiathar as “the priests”, which is clumsy editing in a lot of ways, not least the fact that Solomon dismissed Abiathar from the priesthood two chapters prior. Anyways, Chapter 4 is mostly a dull list: first of narratively unimportant courtiers, and then or narratively unimportant prefects. Only the last verse, proclaiming peace and prosperity in the land, really matters.

Next time: engineering feats!

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Sibble Sunday: Payback (1 Kings 2–4)

  1. gsanders says:

    That’s an interesting tidbit regarding the judgment of Solomon and your discussion of the anti-monarchist reading makes a good deal of sense. Also, given what I know of history and the pro-Davidic case, I think I generally find the anti-monarachal school to be a valuable addition.

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