Sibble Sunday: House of the Holy (1 Kings 5–7)

Travel, conferences, other kind of not-great excuses for taking a few weeks off.

Short snarky summary: Solomon builds a temple. Well, actually, Hiram of Tyre builds a temple. To be more accurate, a force of conscripts raised by Solomon and Hiram build a temple.

I’ve talked about the relationship between myth and history a fair bit before, and tried to be pretty fair to myth: it may not be verified, but it’s often also unfalsified. We don’t know there wasn’t, say, a king Saul who did all the things Saul supposedly did, and it’s very hard to prove such a negative. The fogginess of myth is mostly based on its limited scope. Solomon is the first king to supposedly operate on a large scale, and at the same time as we maybe start being able to believe these kings exist, we stop being able to believe in their accomplishments. Let’s start with an easy one, from the beginning of Chapter 5: “Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt.” OK, that’s a pretty significant wodge of territory right there, including not only Israel and Transjordan but about half of modern Iraq. We aren’t given northern or southern bounds, but any empire that wide would probably also stretch up into Lebanon and Syria, and down into Saudi Arabia. And herein is the problem: there were some pretty good record-keeping cultures in and near those places. The Hittites (who might have been a bit too early) and the Assyrians (who definitely weren’t) both left behind a lot of artifacts and records, or at least far better records than the Israelites did. Conflict or even contact with a strong Israelite empire is conspicuously missing from the records. We’re fuzzy on dates, of course, but there is basically not a single Assyrian record suggesting that Israel was anything except for a provincial backwater (literally provincial, in fact, after its conquest).

Chapter 5 continues in a less explicitly falsifiable vein, discussing the tremendous tribute taken by Solomon from his prefects, the insanely luxurious provisions he had at the palace, and the peace the land enjoyed. Again, the peace is believable, as no contemporary records suggest Israel as a party to hostilities, and the evocative phrase of “each man dwelling in safety under his vine and fig tree” is used for the first time (but not the only, I don’t think), in describing this state of affairs in Israel.

Rounding out the paeans of praise to Solomon is a description of his extraordinary wisdom, exceeding that of a number of personages who were presumably meant to be illustrious to the reader but whose names mean nothing to me (a quick perusal on one of them, “Ethan the Ezrahite”, indicates that he is credited with authorship of the 89th Psalm and might have been a character of the same name listed among sundry Levite servitors in 1 Chronicles 15). More concretely ssessable is the list of his literary and erudite endeavors, including the authorship of 3000 proverbs (several of which are, unsurprisingly, in the book of Proverbs), 1005 songs (including the blatantly erotic one which gets itsown book in the Bible), and extensive discourse on the natural world. Both Judaic and Islamic sources (as well as hermetic Christian-derived groups) are also fond of the notion that Solomon was well versed in esoterica and demonology, but I think that bit isn’t actually in the bible.

Next up in Chapter 5’s summary of Solomon’s early reign is diplomacy with King Hiram of Tyre. It’s not clear whether Hiram is supposed to be a vassal of Solomon’s or not, here: he’s a king in his own rights, but if the Israelite dominion is as large as it’s claimed to be, then Hiram’s kingdom in Lebanon would actually be a subject state. Anyways, Solomon seeks to renew his father’s friendship with Hiram (which is the first I’ve heard of it, mind), and also to command Hiram in what’s going to be Solomon’s big engineering project: the building of a great central Temple. It’s kind of odd that he’s doing this without a specific mandate from God, seeing as how he was in contact with God back in Chapter 3, and nothing was said about the Temple at that time. Hiram and Solomon work out a deal, wherein Hiram cuts cedar for Solomon and receives food in exchange. This episode ends with the rather ugly spectacle of Solomon conscripting 30,000 Israelites to serve as forced labor in the Lebanese mills, the mmines, and shuttling supplies between those places and home. This is basically slavery, and it’s a bit jarring to see it done by the character who’s supposed to be the good guy.

Incidentally, Hiram, unlike Solomon, is a figure for whom we have some archaeological evidence. Titus Flavius Josephus mentions him, and although Josephus was something of a fabulist, his text is apparently simply a transcription of the rather more trustworthy historian Menander. Tyrian history also gets interwoven with Carthaginian myth, so Hiram is notably attested to outside of the suspiciously self-citing Judeosphere. There’s also apparently a tomb, the Qabr Hiram, which historical dating methodologies suggest is not actually the tomb of a 10th-century BCE Tyrian king.

Chapter 6 begins with one of the few chronological waypoints for a story which has often been vague about the date. The construction of the Temple is important enough, apparently, for it to be dated precisely to 480 years after the Exodus. I don’t actually care enough about chronological consistency to check how well this synchronizes with the actual post-Exodus story; I assume Bishop Ussher of the Seder Olam Rabbah already worked it out, anyways. The rest of the chapter is a reconstructionist or model-maker’s dream, full of rather pecific detils about what was where, and how big everything in the Temple was. In broad details, there was the large temple structure itself, built of stone and overlaid with cedar, as well as the inner sanctum, overlaid with gold. All of this gets a lot of decorative detail, particularly of cherubs. There’s also a mysterious 3-story outbuilding.

This outbuilding’s purpose and layout is a bit strange, starting with the fact that its higher stories are evidently wider than its lower, which seems like poor architecture. Also, it’s not clear what this structure is actually used for. Maybe it gets described in greater detail later. Certainly the Temple would need outbuildings, so maybe these chambers are for storage or housing of servitors or suchlike. The House of God took Solomon seven years to build, which would sound a hell of a lot more pious if that line weren’t followed up immediately by the comparison to Solomon’s own house taking 13 years to build. Apparently Solomon loves God slightly more than half as much as he loves himself. Chapter 7 describes Solomon’s palace in about the same detail as it does the Temple, but with significantly higher dimensions. I’m honestly unclear on what to make of the comparison between the palace and the Temple, since the text seems to draw attention to the greater grandeur of the former, which seems not to cast a favorable light on Solomon from a religious perspective (and the Deuteronomists certainly thought priesthood was more important than monarchy). So as is so often the case when trying to figure out the motives of the redactors, I find myself suspecting some sort of agendas at cross-purposes, with an anti-monarchial message slipped sideways into a praise of Solomon and his gorgeous temple.

Now, we are told, Solomon sends for Hiram of Tyre who is “the son of a widow of Naphtali”, which throws all my previously calculated notions of Hiram into disarray. The King of Tyre is a half-Israelite? I’m assuming, of course, that this Hiram and the Hiram of Chapter 6 are actually the same person, which seems reasonable, but it’s a bit odd to see this presumably foreign, possibly subject potentate as a member of Solomon’s own nation. Also, this Hiram is a master bronzesmith, which seems a rather menial task for a king. So maybe he is a completely different person.

Apropos, another fun fact about Hiram of Tyre, which is another reason (if not a very good one) to doubt the authenticity of the Qabr Hiram: according to Midrashic sources, Hiram might have been one of eleven (or so) people who never died but were taken into Gan Eden alive. Of these eight, two are fairly well known for the direct Biblical references to their ascension: Enoch, back in Genesis 5:24, and Elijah, in 2 Kings 2:11. The other nine are pretty much purely exegetical. Abraham’s servant Eliezer apparently got to heaven due to a rash vow of his master’s; Asher’s daughter Serakh must have gone to heven because there’s no record of her dying; Pharaoh’s daughter was ascended for saving the savior of the Jewish people; Jabez of the tribe of Judah for, uh, I dunno, he only appears, like, twice in two chronologies in Chronicles, maybe the rabbis liked his name or something; Ebedmelech the Cushite for provisioning Jeremiah the prophet (sidenote: Cush is Ethiopia, so whatever any given Christian white supremicist might say, there is unmistakably ancient biblical exegesis asserting that there are black people in heaven); three more post-Biblical characters for what were probably political-ploy reasons, just like how Dante sorted his friends and foes in the afterlife; and finally, Hiram of Tyre. It’s not clear what Hiram’s doing in this extraordinarily sainted pantheon, since he basically did exactly what he was paid to do, but fortunately I feel no need to actually defend crazy rabbinic fanfic, just note its existence.

The rest of Chapter 7 is devoted to the specifics of Hiram’s bronzework, with the usual decorative details of pomegranates, lilies, cherubim, palms, and suchlike flourishes. Only a few specific details jump out of this long, detailed, and frankly rather tedious itemization of metalwork. First off, in verse 21 he names the primary columns of the portico. One of them’s named Yakhin and the other Boaz. I don’t know why these particular aspects of the house get names, or what their names are supposed to signify. The other notable aspect, beloved of Bible-reading math and/or trivia buffs, is the great bath, described in verse 23 as having a circumference of 30 cubits and a diameter of 10, making π equal to 3. A great deal of ink has been shed on this subject by other people, so I’ll just note that it might not have been perfectly circular, and that they’re not clear about whether those were interior or exterior measurements, before skipping over this overanalyzed bit of geometry.

Next: inauguration!


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

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