Thibble Thursday: Happy Families are All Alike (1 Kings 8–10)

More of the book of Kings, and for once close to on time.

Short snarky summary: Solomon is awesome. Everybody loves Solomon and he is insanely rich and powerful and wise.

I am starting to realize that Solomon is straight up a less compelling character than David. David’s tale is fraught with danger, banditry, war, civil war, adultery, murder, rebellion, extremely disappointing children, and other high drama. Solomon came in with a bang settling old scores, but his reign, billed as a period of peace and prosperity, is actually kind of dull by comparison. These three chapters are a case in point. Very little actually happens during them, and we’re treated to agonizingly detailed descriptions of Solomon’s wealth and his public works and his diplomacy and suchlike.

Through Chapter 7 we learned all about the construction of the Temple and Solomon’s palace, so it’s not actually all that surprising that Chapter 8 deals chiefly with the inauguration of the new House of God. The Ark of the Covenant is taken to the temple, and sacrifices and prayers are offered. Interestingly, I think this chapter might be the first to describe the contents of the arm: namely, the two tablets inscribed by Moses. I don’t think that, in spite of all the construction details back in Exodus, we ever got a notion that the Ark had any contents, other than the spirit of God.

The sacrifices are blandly described as uncountably numerous, while the prayers offer a few fascinating facets of the story not offered elsewhere. Solomon’s first prayer contains the unfortunate assertion, in verse 13, that the Temple is “a stately house where you may dwell forever.” Remember this line as an example of Solomon’s wisdom in the next book, when the Babylonians burn it to the ground. They don’t make forevers like they used to.

Another intriguing snippet appearing here in Solomon’s prayer/sermon is in verses 17–19, where he asserts that David asked to build the House of God, but that he was commanded not to and that his so would build it in his stead. This incident Solomon is reporting went completely unmentioned in David’s story. I’m not sure whether it was an excision from the story of David, an imaginative addition to the story of Solomon, or whether we are supposed to read Solomon’s assertion here as a self-serving lie.

The rest of Solomon’s prayer is mostly a tedious affair, asking God to take notice of the people who built him this house, forgive them when they turn away, help them in battle, and so forth. The inevitability of transgression and the hope for forgiveness is, perhaps, a rather Deuteronomical motif, and this is a kinder, gently echo of Moses’s imprecations against an Israel fallen out of divine grace back in Deuteronomy.

But that’ Chapter 8 pretty much in its entirety. Fourteen days of revelry and feast, and sacrifices which in the end evidently numbered 142,000 livestock. The smell must’ve been terrible.

Chapter 9 moves into more rather tedious boosterism, leavened with a light sprinkle of narrative. God talks to Solomon, because of course he does, and he delivers the traditional carrot-and-stick approah seen in Deuteronomy: he spends three verses promising Solomon that as long as he remains faithful he and his descendants will remain on the throne, and then spends four promising that if he or his descendants break faith (by worshipping other gods, which is, like, the biggest sin in Deuteronomic morality), then his reign will bebroken and the Isrraelites exiled.

After these promises, we get a slight bit of narrative, but a rather mystifying one. Solomon repays Hiram’s various services (this is Hiram the king, if we assume the craftsman in Chapter 7 is a different person) by giving him twenty cities in Galilee (which would be contiguous with Hiram’s own domain, presumably, assuming we’re reasonably clear on the boundaries of Tyre), but Hiram was displeased with them. And then Hiram sends Solomon 120 talents of gold (almost ccertainly a nominal payment, at best, for that quantity of land).

This narrative fragment is tantalizing in its omissions. Hiram was unhappy, but why? Were the towns unsatisfactory? And why did he pay, and a nominal price, for these unsaitisfactory towns? Was the payment (or even the gift of land) some sort of veiled insult? It’s hard to figure out what to make of this story, because it seems like theres some political subtext I’m not getting.

Well, we next learn of Solomon’s great civic works, which would seem a lot greater if we weren’t being reminded he accomplished them with slave labor. He fortifies lots of cities and garrisons, builds a fleet of ships to trade and enrich Israel, offers sacrifices, and suchlike. Among the cities he garrisons is Pharaoh’s dowry gift from when Solomon married his daughter, which is maybw good diplomacy but bad piety, since marrying Egyptians is, I’m pretty sure, forbidden.

In Chapter 10 we meet a character whose identity many know: the Queen of Sheba, who comes to admire Solomon’s might and test his wisdom. There are many, many folktales, both in Jewish and other traditions, about just how she tested his wisdom, but unfortunately the Biblical text is pretty silent on exactly which puzzles, riddles, and questions she used to try his skill. But we’re told she is impressed, which means that this chapter, too, is fully of gooey, effusive prise for Solomon and his general awesomeness. She gives him generous gifts of gold and silver and אלמגים wood, which, like so many botanical and zoological terms in the Bible, is a bit vague. The best guess we have for its identity is sandalwood.

Chapter 10 is rounded out with a continuation of the dull list of fantastic luxuries Solomon had built for his court, including gold chalices and ivory thrones and an enormous number of chariots. That sort of thing. The most notable aspect of this is that his yearly tribute was apparently 666 talents of gold, number which most people associate strongly with a very different book of the Bible.

Next up: do we get some narrative? I hope we get some narrative. I don’t think I can take much more description of expensive things covered in gold.


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

One Response to Thibble Thursday: Happy Families are All Alike (1 Kings 8–10)

  1. Chris H. says:

    2 Samuel 7:1-17 is where David thought to build the House of God, but got the idea shot down. In verses 12-13, God speaks of raising an offspring from David who will build that house for Him.

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