King Solomon in His Ancient Context

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Excerpt The Solomon Narrative describes a greater range of material culture than other parts of Kings. It therefore allows greater possibility for assessment in the context of the ancient world: can the creations attributed to Solomon’s craftsmen be set comfortably in the tenth century, or do they belong only to later years? Continue reading

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This article was first published in the Summer 2002 issue of Bible and Spade.


A book known from fragmentary copies to be at least 2000 years old, reports the history of kings of Israel whose rule began 1000 years earlier. Although the Book of Kings was certainly written before ca. 200 BC, when it was translated into Greek, its actual age cannot be determined. The last event recorded, the elevation of Jehoiachin of Judah from prison to the table of King Awel-Marduk in Babylon, can be set soon after that king’s accession in 562 BC. Whether the work was completed shortly after that time or during the following two or three centuries, the historian needs to know what reliance he can place on those reports since there are no other accounts of most of the events they portray from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. In particular, do the chapters about Solomon, 1 Kgs 1–11, which we shall call the Solomon Narrative, reflect situations of the tenth century BC or do they represent concepts about that era which only became current hundreds of years later? Was there a splendid ruler in Jerusalem about 950 BC? Do the reports embroider a more modest kernel, or are they the fables of folklore, or the wistful concoctions of exiled Jews who imagined their past in the light of Nebuchadnezzar’s magnificence, or the fictions of theological propagandists? Although the texts are literary compositions, they plainly have a theological purpose and are part of a religious compilation, the Hebrew Bible. They are not thereby rendered worthless as factual sources, for the most artistic literary composition and the most tendentious concoction may portray circumstances and events with great accuracy while arranging them or interpreting them for aesthetic ends or according to a philosophy the reader recognizes as unacceptably biased. While the literary and theological aspects of the Solomon Narrative and their analyses may have value in themselves, the first purpose of this essay is to examine the Narrative in the light of knowledge about the ancient Near East to discover whether it may tell of a tenth century BC king ruling magnificently in Jerusalem or not. Were the Solomon Narrative a hitherto unknown writing embodied in a recently excavated manuscript some 2000 years old, a primary mode of evaluation would be contextual, so that will occupy the major part of this essay.

The Cultural Context

The Solomon Narrative describes a greater range of material culture than other parts of Kings. It therefore allows greater possibility for assessment in the context of the ancient world: can the creations attributed to Solomon’s craftsmen be set comfortably in the tenth century, or do they belong only to later years? Arguments brought against a tenth century reality often rest on what modern scholars think likely and need to be balanced against the evidence from ancient times.

The Use of Gold

The Temple

Although absence of certain details precludes definitive reconstruction, it is clear that Solomon’s temple pattern followed a long-established plan of porch, main hall and sanctuary, with storerooms built against the outside walls (Kitchen 1989) and a surrounding courtyard, and could well belong to the tenth century or earlier or slightly later periods (Dever: 1995).
1 The majority of commentators are prepared to admit archival documents or Specifications lie behind sections of the descriptions of the Temple, as of Solomon’s palace, his court and his foreign relations. With regard to the Temple, while details of its structure, dimensions and arrangements gain ready acceptance, when it comes to the lavish embellishment of the interior with gold, almost all shift their ground and try to minimize or reject the relevant phrases, sometimes on text-critical grounds. While the designs of gourds, flowers and cherubim carved in the wood paneling have plentiful analogies in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age of the Levant, although woodwork from those periods is hardly known,2 the overlaying of the paneling, the ceiling, and the floor of the whole temple is rejected. One modern author has written:

Forceful arguments have been put forward for deleting all references to gold plating in the Temple; some of these references are absent from LXX, and later descriptions of the Temple and its treasures lack references to gold plating (cf. 2 Kg 14:14; 16:17; 18:16); Ezekiel knew of no gold plating... [verse 20] is suspect because of its claim that the whole of the inner sanctuary was gilded. The claim that he overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold is an exaggeration that probably originated from a later tradition about the splendor of Solomon’s Temple (Jones 1984:1.169).3

Leaving the textual questions for later attention, the objection raised from the absence of references to the gold plating in subsequent parts of Kings can be dismissed, for we can hardly suppose that the final compiler(s) of the book would have been so unintelligent as to narrate the removal of the treasures of the Temple by Shishak in the reign of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:26) and then assume a considerable and obvious part remained in position over the next 200 years. That Hezekiah stripped off the gold he had put on the Temple doors (2 Kgs 18:16) does not mean that such adornment had never been there before. For the writer(s) of Kings, Hezekiah’s embellishment went the same way as Solomon’s, loot for a powerful enemy. “Suspicious” or “gross exaggeration” are the judgments passed on the claim of a complete gold overlay for the interior (1 Kgs 6:20–22, 30). Whereas for some it is wholly unacceptable, others allow thin or partial gilding, one even suggests “liquid gold sprayed on,” in the light of Proverbs 26:23 where the same Hebrew verb (sapa) applies to glaze on a potsherd (Grey 1970:168). Now while a piece of pottery can receive a coaling of liquefied metal without harm, it is difficult to conceive of wooden paneling so treated. In every other passage a rendering “to coat, to plate” seems most appropriate and the cognate words in Hebrew and Ugaritic lend their support. Interestingly, the Assyrian and Babylonian accounts of gold decoration for temple walls mostly use a verb meaning “to dress, to clad.” Even those commentators who show some awareness of the uses of precious metal in the ancient world are prone to dismiss the gold overlay of Solomon’s Temple, yet surely no critical attitude can be taken without a thorough scrutiny of the ways gold was used to decorate temples in antiquity; judgments made from the ways society views gold in 20th century Europe or North America are inappropriate for a document from ancient Israel. Moreover, for a century or more travelers have told of gold plated buildings in India and Burma, which should alert everyone to the differences which may exist between cultures. An ancient report of the burial of Egyptian pharaohs in solid gold coffins might have evoked skepticism had not Tutankhamun’s tomb been found with its treasures almost intact.

 


Golden Shrine which housed Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus, ca. 1325 BC, now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Gold overlay to enhance temples is attested in antiquity in Mesopotamia and in Egypt by contemporary texts and also by physical remains in Egypt. In Assyria, in the seventh century BC, Esarhaddon restored the shrine of Ashur, plated its doors with gold and “coated the walls with gold as if with plaster” (Borger 1956:87). His son Ashurbanipal did much the same, “I clad its walls with gold and silver” (Thompson 1931:29). In Babylon a century later Nebuchadnezzar recorded his enrichment of the shrines of the gods. “I clad (them) in gold and made them as bright as day” and Nabonidus (555–539 BC) followed him, “I clad its walls with gold and silver and made them shine like the sun” (Langdon 1912:178, 222). The tradition stemmed from much earlier epochs in Babylonia, for Enmetena (also read Entemena) of Lagash built a temple for his god “and covered it with gold and silver” about 2400 BC (Cooper 1986:67, La 5.27; cf. 60 La 5.6)

Egypt supplies more extensive evidence. After many years of labor, a French scholar, Pierre Lacau, wrote an essay on the meaning of certain holes and channels in various ancient Egyptian stone monuments (1956). Relating his observations to the statements in contemporary texts, he was able to show that pillars, doorways, and sections of walls were covered with gold sheets. The holes and channels had been cut to enable the metal to be affixed to the stone surfaces. In the Temple of the Sacred Boat at Karnak stood 12 columns erected by Tuthmosis III, ca. 1450 BC, each about 3.5 m (11 ft) high, designed to represent bundles of papyrus. Each was entirely covered with gold, fastened in slits cut at suitable points in the pattern, vertically in the body of the column and the capital, horizontally in the base. In another hall at Karnak, 14 columns rose to the roof. Their design was similar, a papyrus stem, and they, too, were plated with gold from top to bottom. These pillars were larger; an inscription states that they were 31 cubits, that is 16.25 m high (53 ft). Other pillars erected in Egypt commemorated royal piety. These are obelisks exemplified in Cleopatra’s Needle (Engelbach 1923; Habachi 1978). Some had gold plating in the very top only, others over the upper half, and others all over their surface. One pair is recorded to have been 108 cubits high (about 56 m, 180 ft). Like the columns, the stone blocks of doorways and the carved slabs in temple walls show how metal sheets were fastened to them: the plating was attached by means of nails. Plating was apparently the richest form of decoration. Evidence exists that the Egyptians were also in the habit of plastering stone surfaces, then applying a thin gold foil to the plaster. The inscriptions do not make clear which method was used when they catalogue the royal achievements, they use a term that means literally “worked,” but which Lacau argued can be rendered “plated” in these contexts.

The prosperous centuries of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BC) provide most of the records of this type of embellishment in Egypt, and some examples will make the royal activities clear.
4 Tuthmosis III (ca. 1490–1436 BC) built a shrine for Amun at Deir el-Bahri “plated with gold and silver,” with a floor similarly adorned. Amenophis III, in the next century, decorated several structures in this way. Of one temple in honor of Amun at Thebes, he claimed it was “plated with gold throughout, its floor is adorned with silver, all its portals with electrum.” while the temple al Soleb had the same treatment, except that “all its portals are of gold.” Ramesses (ca. 1279–1213 BC) provided his mortuary temple at Abydos with doors “mounted with copper and gilded with electrum.” Later in this period, Ramesses III (ca. 1183–1152 BC) ornamented temples in exactly the same way. At Medinet Habu he constructed a shrine of gold with a pavement of silver and doorposts of fine gold. His Kanak temple was supplied with “great doors of fine gold.” Another of his works may be noted here: Ramesses III made a sacred barge for the god to travel along the Nile. It was 130 cubits long (68 m, 223 ft; long enough to carry two obelisks 30 m or 100 ft high); its timbers were cedar and it was overlaid with gold to the water line.

The doors of Solomon’s Temple turned on golden sockets (assuming that is the meaning of pôtôt 1 Kgs 7:50). “It seems impracticable that the hinge sockets in the floor and lintel should be of gold,” (Gray 1970:202) said one commentator, yet ancient practice actually supports the Biblical text. Stone sockets to hold the lower end of hinge posts are common throughout the Near East from the Early Bronze Age onwards. In Mesopotamia kings used to inscribe those they set in important temples and a number survive. In at least one case the rim of the stone was covered with gold foil pressed hard over the engraving so that the inscription was visible on the surface of the gold.5 That, surely, shows how the golden sockets of Solomon’s Temple should be understood; the surface of the stone was plated with gold, not reaching into the socket itself.

 

Golden Bowl depicting a hunting scene, Ugarit. Syria, ca. 1350 BC, now in the Louvre, Paris.

“Overlaying the floor [of the Temple] with gold is unlikely” according to one writer, “absurd” according to another. Martin Noth was willing to accept the gold overlay of the walls, but not the floor (1968:126). Among the Egyptian texts cited were mentioned a floor “wrought with gold and silver,” another “adorned with silver,” a third “its floor is of silver.” These records differ in mostly having silver for the floors, not gold, and it is objected that gold would be impracticable because of its softness. That objection may have some force, although it may be slightly lessened by observing that the priests probably entered Solomon’s Temple barefoot.

In presenting his material, the Egyptologist Lacau spoke of the “astonishing way the Egyptians were prepared to make use of gold” to decorate their monuments and added that the majority of Egyptian statues of deities in stone and bronze to be seen in our museums were originally enhanced in the same way, with a golden overlay, something that is visible on certain figures from Ugarit and other sites in the Levant. The gold plating on the wooden shrines that housed Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus and coffins and other Egyptian objects is not the fine gold leaf of today. 0.0002 mm thick or less, but foil with a thickness varying between 0.01 and 0.09 mm (Lucas 1962:231–33). Gold foil brightened the carved ivory work of Iron Age furniture. Much thinner gold was applied to stucco molded scenes in Egyptian tombs, where the molding could not support any weighty attachment. However, plating on temple walls and obelisks may have been at least as substantial as that on Tutankhamun’s shrines.

Outside Egypt and the Near East a similar attitude to gold was prominent among the founders of western culture, the Greeks of Athens. In the Parthenon stood a masterpiece of the sculptor Pheidias, the 10.5 m (34 ft) high statue of Athene. It was made of wood with ivory additions and a plating of gold which could be removed if required.

None of these records or examples can prove there was a gold-plated temple in Jerusalem at any time, but their testimony is sufficient to confute all the objections to the Biblical descriptions as exaggeration or fantasy. The enhancement of the Temple ascribed to Solomon is entirely compatible with ancient practice.

 

Golden Goblet and bowl from the Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq, ca. 2500 B.C.

The Palace Furnishings

Tableware.
“All Solomon’s drinking vessels were of gold and all the plate of the House of the Forest of Lebanon was of red gold” (1 Kgs 10:21, NEB), Scattered specimens of gold plate from all parts of the ancient Near East and Egypt imply there is no need to see exaggeration here. The pieces prized in modern museums are the few survivors of great quantities that were fabricated, remodeled, looted, melted down and turned into other objects. That there were golden utensils of all sorts in considerable numbers is plain from ancient texts which there are no grounds for discrediting, for example, the golden vessels enumerated in the Mari letters of the 18th century BC (Dalley 1984:57–62), or the many bowls and dishes of gold listed as gifts in the El-Amarna letters of the 14th century BC (Moran 1992: nos. 14, 22). Vessels from the Royal Cemetery at Ur of the third millennium BC and from various hoards of the second millennium found in Egypt, the dishes from Late Bronze Age Ugarit and from a tomb somewhere in the Levant, those in the tombs of Assyrian royal ladies at Nimrud and from various Persian sites of the First millennium illustrate the continuing fashion for gold plate among the wealthy, a means of display which continues to the present day. Golden tableware would be expected in the palace of a wealthy monarch.

Shields. Five hundred golden shields in two sizes adorned Solomon’s palace (1 Kgs 10:16–17) and David had earlier taken gold shields from the officials of Hadadezer of Zobah (2 Sam 8:7). At first sight this might seem to be an example of “the extravagant details... the imagination which writers about the Age of Solomon had allowed full rein” (Pritchard 1974:32). Examination of ancient records and artifacts indicates that, like the tableware, the golden shields fall within the scope of royal display. The closest parallel is given by Sargon II of Assyria in rehearsing the booty he took from the temple of Haldi, chief god of Urartu, in Musasir, near Lake Urmia, in 714 BC. His men removed

six shields of gold which hung to right and left of his shrine, gleaming brightly, with heads of fierce dogs protruding from the centers, by weight 5 talents and 12 minas of red gold.

In addition, a sculptured slab in Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad depicts soldiers ransacking the temple, some carrying a large shield in each hand, while some shields still hang upon the walls. Although no golden shields have been found and the earliest references, apart from Solomon, belong to the late eighth century BC, the concepts of ancient cultures allow no case for rejecting them.6

The Throne. “The king also made a great throne of ivory and overlaid it with fine gold” (1 Kgs 10:18. NEB). A throne of ivory was not. of course, made of solid ivory, any more than was Ahab’s “ivory house” (2 Kgs 22:39), or the Jewel Tower in the Tower of London was made from a gem. In the last case, it contained the Crown Jewels, in the other two, the ivory was an extensive decoration. There are no grounds for rendering “inlaid with ivory’’, nor for supposing that surfaces other than those veneered with ivory were covered with gold (Jones 1984:1.169). Discoveries at many sites have made ivory veneered furniture a familiar product of the ancient Near East. The manufacture was well-established by the Late Bronze Age (e.g. at Megiddo) and flourished in the Assyrian period, as the hoards from Nimrud, Khorsabad, Arslan Tash and Samaria demonstrate (Barnett 1982; Herrmann 1996). Thrones and couches were made of wood with ivory covering them entirely, as seen in a tomb at Salamis where a chair and a couch could be reconstructed from the crushed ivory fragments. To modern eyes, the creamy while ivory, expertly carved, is attractive in itself, but to ancient eyes it was something precious to be enriched further by inlay of semi-precious stones or colored glass and by gold foil overlay. Little of that survives today, yet there is sufficient to prove it was the case and the black stains of the bituminous glue used to hold it in place are widespread among the ivories from Nimrud. Describing one piece retaining some gold foil, the modem excavator of Nimrud wrote,

There is little doubt that the majority of the ivories found in Fort Shalmaneser had been similarly covered with gold (Mallowan 1966:576).

The ivories from the Israelite palace at Samaria retain minute traces of comparable covering (Crowfoot and Crowfoot 1938:9–12). In the context of these finds and set beside the golden thrones of Tutankhamun, an ivory-veneered throne, plated with gold, is certainly a conceivable product of ancient Near Eastern furniture maker’s art.

 

Golden pan with strainer from the Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq, ca. 2500 B.C.

Amounts of Gold

If Solomon’s use of gold can be given credence in the light of practices known from antiquity, what can be said of the enormous quantities the Solomon Narrative records? The king of Tyre and the queen of Sheba each brought him 120 talents, 420 talents came from Ophir, while “in one year the weight of gold came to Solomon was 666 talents”(1 Kgs 9:14, 28; 10:10, 14). Taking the talent as about 33 kg (73 lb), the first two amounts equate approximately to 3,960 kg (3.9 tons), the third to 13,860 kg (13.6 tons) and the fourth to 21,800 kg (21 tons) of gold. The modern reader’s initial reaction is incredulity; these are the figures of legend, of Ali Baba’s cave or Grendel’s hoard! (In 1979 the gold reserve of Great Britain was about 68,000 tons.) Yet Solomon’s gold demands to be treated in the same way in respect of its quantities as for its uses; the amounts of his gold should be set beside amounts claimed for other ancient kings if a fair assessment is to be made.

Before surveying other texts, the matter of the figures themselves deserves notice. It is easy to dismiss large numbers in ancient documents as erroneous. A king might inflate his wealth to impress other kings or his subjects, or scribes might make mistakes, as apparently with the number of Solomon’s horses between 1 Kings 4:26 (40,000) and 2 Chronicles 9:25 (4,000). Until Hellenistic times Hebrew scribes wrote numbers in words; they did not use ciphers, except in business documents when they borrowed the Egyptian hieratic system, or perhaps occasionally the Phoenician ciphers, so any errors have to be explained in the light of that knowledge (Millard 1995). Accountancy was an activity, imposing accuracy and thousands of cuneiform documents exhibit it. Some documents provide both the total and the figures of each constituent, showing that a large total could be a sum of many parts. Round totals could be used where fractions were a needless detail. When only the totals are available, they should be treated as accurate unless there are good grounds for thinking otherwise. In dealing with amounts of gold in ancient lexis another aspect to be kept in mind is the quality of the gold. Not every amount was of 24 carat standard. Unfortunately, the exact significance of Hebrew words describing gold is unclear (sâgûr, “pure,” or “red.” pâz, “fine”).

Most records of gold in royal inscriptions are of lesser amounts. Shalmaneser III of Assyria, campaigning in Syria in the mid-ninth century BC, received three talents of gold and other precious things from the king of Carchemish who was ordered to pay 1 mana (0.5 kg or 1 lb) with other materials annually thereafter. Haifa century later, Adad-nirari III received 20 talents of gold when Damascus surrendered to him (ca. 600 kg; 1.320 lb) with 2,300 talents of silver (ca. 69.000 kg; 68 tons). These are typical figures. There are larger ones. When Hoshea was made king in Samaria, he paid to his overlord, Tiglath-pileser III, 10 talents of gold, but when the same emperor accepted the submission of Tyre he received 150 talents of gold (4,500 kg; 4.4 tons), more than the earlier king of Tyre reputedly gave to Solomon. A few decades later, Sargon II of Assyria took Babylon. He ensured his generosity to the conquered city’s gods was remembered by having inscribed upon his palace wall at Khorsabad,

I gave as a present to Bel... and the gods of the cities of Sumer and Akkad, from the year of accession [as king of Babylon, 708 BC] until my third year, 154 talents, 26 mana, 10 shekels of bright gold, 1,604 talents, 20 mana of bright silver, incalculable amounts of bronze and iron, precious stones in heaps ...

In modern terms, the gold was about 5,100 kg (5 tons), the silver 53,000 kg (52 tons).

Egypt was a famous source of gold. An Assyrian king, who, like his Babylonian contemporaries, wrote to the pharaoh asking for gold, about 1340 BC, “Gold in your land is like dust, one simply gathers it up” (Moran 1992; 39; cf 44.48). Egyptian texts list some amounts obtained from mines in various regions and others received as tribute (Vercutter 1959). Great quantities were stored in the palaces and presented to the temples. Amenophis III boasts he presented to the temple of Montu in Kamak 25,182 deben (=2,290 kg; 2.241 tons) of refined gold; Tuthmosis III donated to the temple of Amun in Kamak 152, 10[7] deben in lumps and rings (13,837 kg; 13.6 tons), and other figures could be added. Most astounding of all are the gifts Osorkon I (ca. 924–889 BC) claims he devoted to the gods of Heliopolis: 594,300 deben of gold, silver and lapis lazuli, 2,300,000 deben of silver and gold (respectively 54,063 kg; 53 tons and 209,231 kg; 205 tons). These figures are engraved upon disjointed fragments of a monument and the larger may include the smaller, so their full purport is uncertain (Kitchen 1996:300–304). Nevertheless, even if exaggerated, when taken with the figures for earlier kings, they exemplify the ways the pharaohs thought it proper to use great quantities of treasure.

Meager beside those figures, yet still noteworthy, is the amount of gold applied to the statue of Athene Parthenos in the small Greek city-state of Athens. When it was dedicated in 438 BC, the weight of the gold plating was said to be forty talents (1,030 kg; almost 1 ton). “This gold was put on it in such a way that it could be quickly removed, doubtless in case of financial stringency” (Sutherland 1959; 73).

Sources of Gold

Egypt had her native gold supply, Israel had none. Could a tenth century king accumulate great amounts of gold in Jerusalem? 1 Kings notes the various sources of Solomon’s gold, Tyre, Sheba, Ophir. trade and gifts (1 Kgs 9:26–28; 10:10–12, 14–15, 22–29). Sheba lay far from Israel in the modern Yemen and her early history is unknown. Her prized products were frankincense and myrrh, a source of great wealth through trade (Kitchen 1997). In addition, there are gold mines in the area which have been worked intermittently since ancient times. Some near Taif are of pre-Islamic date, although how early they are is not yet determined. In 1987 a press report told of samples taken at ancient workings near Riyadh in Saudi Arabia which

indicated one of two veins... might contain up to one million tons of ore grading at a very rich 20 to 30 grams of gold per tonne (The Daily Telegraph 25: v: 1987; cf. Twitchell 1953).

We may speculate that such a “lucky strike” enriched the queen of Sheba.

The location of Ophir remains a mystery; if it was the goal of a three-year return voyage, it was obviously a distant place. The Red Sea coasts, Yemen, Somaliland, India have all been canvassed as its location, but no answer can be given. Wherever Ophir lay. its gold was known in the eighth century BC, for a receipt scratched on a potsherd found at Tel Qasile, north of Tel Aviv, acknowledges, “Gold of Ophir for Beth-Horon: 30 shekels” (Renz and Röllig 1995:229–31). At that time the name could have become a term for a quality of gold rather than pointing to its place of origin, just as damask no longer comes from Damascus exclusively, nor muslin from Mosul, while it could point to the place of origin. The fact that no other sources describe the exotic products of Ophir. or how to find it, need not be a cause for wonder, or for declaring Ophir a mythical place. In Egypt the marvels of the distant land of Punt are described and illustrated in the temple of Queen Ilatshepsut built at Deir el-Bahri. Wood and incense were known as products of Punt long before and for long afterwards, but the strange animals and precious metals brought from the country appear only in Hatshepsut’s reliefs. After the end of the New Kingdom, Egypt’s links with Punt were broken until the era of the Ptolemies (Kitchen 1971, 1993a). To speculate again, Solomon may have taken advantage of a “lucky strike” in Ophir. Gold-mining history is well acquainted with major finds which enrich their discoverers, then are rapidly exhausted.

 

Golden Bowl decorated with animals, Ugarit, Syria, ca. 1350 BC.

Palace Provisions

The system for provisioning Solomon’s court involved dividing Israel into 12 districts, each to supply the requirements for one month. Vaguely similar forms of regional organization for feeding the court can be observed in sixth century Babylonian documents (Dougherty 1925). From an earlier time, a large collection of cuneiform tablets stored in jars in the city of Ashur tallies the regular offerings the provinces of the kingdom sent for the temple of the god Ashur in the reign of Tiglath-pileser I (ca, 1114–1076 BC)(Pedersén 1985:1.46). The system is so simple there is no need to seek outside influence for its application in Israel.

The quantities supplied for the sustenance of Solomon’s court are large: 30 cattle, 100 sheep, 30 kor of fine flour (ca. 6,600 1). 60 kor of meal (ca. 13,200 1) daily. They win acceptance from some modern scholars (Montgomery and Gehman 1951:127–28; Gray 1970:142), and others doubt or discount them (Jones 1984:1.147; Millar and Hayes 1986:195). No verdict should be passed without attention to figures of other ancient courts. The number of people dependent upon an ancient royal household was very high. The 5,400 men who, Sargon of Akkad boasted in the third millennium BC, ate at his table would have demanded no small provision. The king of Mari’s entourage in the 18th century BC and that of Seti I and a successor in Egypt in the 13th century BC consumed big amounts, too (7201 of flour for bread daily while Seti’s court was on a progress). The Ashur temple’s supplies from the province, mentioned above, included 1,000 homers of grain per annum, which may be about 100,000 1; Solomon’s court, naturally a much larger establishment, took about six times as much. Upon the inauguration of his new palace in Nimrud (ancient Kalhu). Ashumasirpal II of Assyria held a ten-day festival for 69,574 people and proudly listed the produce collected for it. Heading the list are 100 fat oxen, 1,000 calves and sheep, 14,000 sheep of a certain type, 200 more oxen, 1,000 more sheep, 1,000 spring lambs, followed by numerous other animals and fowl, 10,000 loaves of bread, 10,000 jugs of beer, 10,000 skins of wine and much else (Oppenheim 1969). While no text displays an exact parallel to this part of the Solomon Narrative, those quoted, with others, indicate comparable systems of collection and amounts supplied.

The Archaeological Context

Physical remains may be expected of the works erected by a king who was reputed to be a great builder in his capital, principally, and at many other places, yet excavations of tenth century levels have disclosed “buildings were simple and modestly constructed from materials locally available,” according to J. B. Pritchard (1974:35). Absence of any building certainly Solomonic in Jerusalem should not cause surprise, given the city’s history of frequent destructions and rebuildings. At the northern end of the hill of the “City of David,” running across it, Kathleen Kenyon uncovered a part of a wall of massive blocks which she assigned to Iron Age I and also part of a wall which she compared with “Solomonic” casemate walls at Gezer. Hazor and Megiddo, although she could not date it with certainly (1963:17). The citadel at Samaria makes an instructive comparison. There, parts of the Israelite palace of the ninth-eighth centuries were discovered very badly damaged by later construction, especially by the work on Herod’s temple for Augustus, while some of the area was inaccessible to the spade. Although that site has been subject to far less upheaval than Jerusalem, a glance at the excavators’ plan will show how fragmentary the remains of the Israelite palace really are (Crowfoot, Kenyon, and Sukenik 1942: pl 2).7 Moreover, at Jerusalem, where Solomon’s Temple stood, the returning exiles did their reconstruction after 538 BC, Herod rebuilt it almost entirely, then Roman, Christian and Muslim rulers rearranged the site and erected new buildings, culminating in the Dome of the Rock and the el-Aqsa Mosque. Herod’s enormous extension of the Temple platform to the south may have swept away any surviving parts of Solomon’s palace that had adjoined the Temple. Excavation within the sacred enclosure is impossible and, as bed-rock is near the surface in much of it, no substantial elements from the tenth century BC could be expected to exist still.

Elsewhere, the widely publicized city gates at Gezer, Hazor and Megiddo have been commonly attributed to Solomon and stratigraphic evidence is adduced especially for Gezer (Holladay 1990; 1995). Without any confirmatory inscription, this attribution cannot be considered final. If accepted and associated with buildings at Megiddo in Stratum VA/IVB, they attest to not inconsiderable construction work of good quality (Millard 1991:24–25).8

Observing “the relative mediocrity of tenth century archaeological remains in Palestine,” J. M. Miller, with others, assumes that implies a lesser potentate than the Solomon Narrative portrays (1991). Yet we should ask what material an extravagant 40 year reign might leave. Outside the capital, which would naturally enjoy some “trickle down” effect from the monarch’s wealth, how far would the royal income spread, taking “ silver...was reckoned of no value” (1 Kgs 10:21) as a hyberbolic expression on a par with “gold is like dust in your land”? Important towns might receive new defenses and official residences, which the gateways, casemate walls and certain buildings in Megiddo may represent; smaller places might not see any of that. The material benefit for the majority of the people would be in the peaceful conditions and so better food supply and general prosperity. It is hard to know what clues that would leave for the archaeologist except perhaps through skeletal studies, but regrettably few tenth century burials have been excavated. House plans and building methods would not be likely to change: improved plastering, woodwork or furniture do not endure ruin and envelopment in damp soil. Imported luxury goods will only be detectable if they were themselves durable or transported in foreign containers of pottery or glass; perishable goods carried in wooden containers or sacks or bags of leather or cloth will be invisible.

If the tenth century is elusive in Palestinian archaeology, the conclusion that it was relatively poor is not inevitable. A common archaeological phenomenon has to be taken into account: only the final phase of occupation before a major destruction or desertion will leave rich archaeological deposits, for the last inhabitants will have discarded almost everything more than three generations old. This universal phenomenon is demon-strated most clearly in Assyria. At Nimrud, Ashurnasirpal II (ca. 883–859 BC) built a large palace. Various modern museums treasure its carved stonewall panels bearing his names and scenes of his exploits. Until Layard revealed them in 1845, they stood undisturbed because later kings built new palaces on other sites in the city and Ashurnasirpal’s palace was relatively little used. While the inscriptions on the walls and other monuments attest the activity of the scribes, the number of cuneiform documents on clay actually dated in Ashurnasirpal’s reign is merely one. That does not mean the scribes were few, or lazy, or writing in ink on papyrus; rather it tells us that later generations had no need to keep most of the documents their ancestors wrote. By contrast, from the last century of the Assyrian empire, there are hundreds of tablets of all types. The area of Jerusalem was too small for successive kings to found palaces in new sites, so the Nimrud situation could not arise, and instead, we may assume, the kings of Judah occupied and renovated Solomon’s palace. To our disadvantage, the common writing material in Israel was perishable papyrus, so no documents comparable to the cuneiform tablets are available.

Now the failure to find any inscriptions of Solomon is also noted as a counter-indication to the Biblical portrayal of him. “Why has there not been found a single inscription, not even a fragment from Solomon himself?” (Miller 1991:30). The answer lies in the circumstances just outlined, which are part of the accidental element in archaeology, and in the ancient practice of reusing old building blocks, irrespective of their previous role, very evident at Megiddo.9 When a rapid calculation reveals that only 16 out of 113 kings ruling in the Levant between 1000 and 600 BC, including the kings of Israel and Judah, are known from their own inscriptions, the absence of Solomon becomes less remarkable, it is less significant still when we recall that there has yet to be found in Palestine a monument inscribed with the name of another powerful and wealthy ruler of the land, many of whose buildings are still visible, King Herod, who reigned one thousand years nearer to our day than Solomon (Millard 1991:117–18). The lack of physical remains is not an insurmountable objection to accepting the statements of the Hebrew historians.

 

Solomonic Gate at Gezer, ca 950 BC.

The Historical Context

The assumption that a king of the stature of Solomon would perforce appear in the records of contemporary states has also led to a negative view of the claims the Solomon Narrative makes when it is learned that there are no extra-Biblical references to him. Yet again, the ancient context deserves careful examination before any deductions are made.

The absence of Solomon’s name from ancient texts is not peculiar, it is a symptom of our poverty; very few documents relate to that time in ancient Near Eastern history. The events that took place in Syria and Palestine during the tenth century BC are largely unknown to us. This is the position:

A. There are no Assyrian or Babylonian records of the tenth century BC, which could be expected to name the king of Jerusalem. Both kingdoms were in decline for most of the century, Assyria beginning to recover from about 925 BC, and neither had contacts so far to the west and south because they were harassed by Aramean tribes moving east from the Euphrates. There are Assyrian royal inscriptions, but they are concerned with internal affairs until the last quarter of the century, while from Babylonia “except for [one stela], no original text is more than four lines long” (Brinkman 1984:296). It was not until 876 BC that Assyrian forces reached the Mediterranean. Shalmaneser III, shortly afterwards, tells of the recapture of a town near the Euphrates which had been in Assyrian hands long before but had fallen to an Aramean prince about 1000 BC. The Aramean, it has been suggested, was the Hadadezer who carried his rule to the Euphrates or beyond and whom David overthrew (2 Sam 8:3; 10:16; and Malamat 1973:142).

B. The Arameans were becoming powerful in Syria, the Assyrian sources make clear, but from them there are no documents written before the middle of the ninth century BC and their later writings do not look back so far as the tenth century.

C. The realm of Solomon’s ally, Hiram of Tyre, is archaeologically almost wholly unknown and there are no texts from the city or related to it older than the eighth century BC. Josephus reproduces information he gleaned from the Menander of Ephesus’ Annals of Tyre, and another author’s Phoenician History, with reference to Solomon’s ally, Hiram, but how old or how reliable they were cannot be established (Bunnens 1995:222–25). The other Phoenician cities are equally silent; their archives would, of course, have been on papyrus scrolls.

D. Egypt supplies no more than a handful of inscriptions relating to Palestine in any way from 1000 BC onwards, the outstanding one being Shishak’s list of places his forces visited, carved on the Bubastite Portal at Karnak. None of these inscriptions name any king of Israel or Judah. Shishak’s campaign was commemorated by a triumphal stele he set up at Megiddo, of which a fragment survives, and there were certainly other contacts, betokened by a vase inscribed with the name of Osorkon II (ca. 874–850 BC) that once graced the palace at Samaria where the excavators found it smashed. It was probably a gift to a king of Israel from the pharaoh. Later, pharaoh Necho marched north and killed king Josiah at Megiddo (2 Kgs 23:29–35). So far the only record of this triumph from the Levant is a fragment proclaiming Necho’s control of Sidon. This scanty harvest from Egypt results from her generally weak state from the 11th century onwards; Shishak’ s sally into Palestine was an isolated enterprise. It is debated whether a scrap of triumphal relief of Siamun celebrates a victory in the Levant, or somewhere else. Not a single administrative record relates to external affairs, so the absence of Solomon’s name from Egyptian texts carries no weight at all. His marriage to a daughter of a pharaoh is consistent with what is known of Egyptian policy at the time (Kitchen 1996; 1988).

The situation with regard to Solomon is not unusual. Many ancient kings and events are known to us from single accounts, sometimes contemporary, sometimes later, and many more kings and events are unknown to us because they are not documented. In reality more written documents of ancient times have perished than we shall ever recover, in Egypt, in Mesopotamia and in Palestine. There is no justification for overlooking these facts and propagating a skeptical stance as one journalist did:

Even more disconcerting [than the lack of Hebrew inscriptions from Solomon’s day] is the fact that there is not a single contemporary reference to David or Solomon in the many neighboring countries which certainly were keeping records during the tenth century. At a time when the Bible tells us that Solomon created a major empire in the Middle East, none of his contemporaries, not even the Phoenicians, apparently noticed the fact (Magnusson 1977:155).

How far removed from the evidence that assertion is should be evident, especially inasmuch as no appropriate Phoenician writings of the time are extant.

Admitting the cultural and historical contexts could allow a king to reign in Solomonic splendor, objections are voiced on the grounds of Jerusalem’s minor importance and the limited size of the Davidic realm. Yet the rise of small states to great glory, then their rapid or gradual decline is a feature of world history, an able leader turning circumstances to his advantage. Herod the Great is a parade example, having an annual income at the end of his reign, which Josephus reported as 1,050 talents, ruling a kingdom which was partitioned immediately after his death and erecting magnificent buildings which had lost their glory within 75 years.

As suzerain over Palestine from the Mediterranean eastwards across the Jordan and from the Red Sea to the Euphrates, Solomon could control major trade routes outside Israel, including the northern parts of those that brought incense from the Yemen (we may imagine a mutually beneficial agreement between the king of Israel and the queen of Sheba) all contributing substantially to his revenue.

 

Cartouches of Pharaoh Shishaq I on a fragment of a limestone stela from Megiddo, now in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

The Nature of The Hebrew History Book

Content

The Solomon Narrative is part of the Book of Kings, an account of the history of Israel and Judah from David’s death until the fall of each kingdom. No other people of the ancient Near East has left a comparable narrative history, written in the third person, relating frankly royal and national failure beside triumphs, spanning several centuries. It is interpretative narrative, without pretence to be otherwise, its presupposition being Israel’s God was in charge of her career through a covenant relationship, ordering affairs to make the impact he wished upon kings and the people. In that respect, the writers had common ground with their neighbors who also proclaimed their gods gave victory or punished their devotees by military defeat, although nowhere else is the covenant idea spelt out. Completed in or after the Exile, is the work a satisfactory historical source for a time 400 years before?

Scribes in Assyria and Babylonia kept some sort of running records of noteworthy happenings on which they based the Babylonian Chronicles and Assyrian Eponym Chronicles. Wooden tablets covered with wax were the most likely materials for those log-books (Hebrew lûah), but they have perished. By analogy, we may surmise, the Hebrew scribes compiling Kings had similar sources, on wax or on papyrus, and, also by analogy, those texts could be many generations. Were the whole of Kings to be demonstrably folklore or highly embroidered stories, there would be a case for dismissing all or parts of the Solomon Narrative as on par with the Arabian Nights, but wherever the book can be checked against adequate records from other states, it can be seen to be a reliable record, keeping its own purpose and view in mind. The absence of those records for Solomon’s reign, which has been taken as license for wholesale skepticism, should not lead to that part of the book being treated so differently from the remainder.

The theological cast of Kings, running through the book, may have already colored its sources, it need belong only in the time of the final compilation; indeed, it could reach back to the time of Solomon. The theology and style are usually termed Deuteronomistic because they have much in common with the book of Deuteronomy, which is associated with the outcome of Josiah’s reform in 622 BC, and also with the book of Jeremiah, whose prophecies began a little earlier. All examples of that doctrine and style are thought to come from the same period, late in the seventh and in the sixth centuries BC. Yet the similarity need not require contemporaneity. The Deuteronomic style has many parallels in the Assyrian royal inscriptions and in them the same style can be followed over many centuries. For example, phrases in “annals” of king Tiglath-pileser I, who ruled ca. 1100 BC, recur, with minor variations, in monuments of Sargon II, 400 years later, or in the “annals” of his successors Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal.10 Concepts continuing across the centuries in Assyrian records include, in particular, evaluation of a foreign king’s conduct in terms of keeping a treaty or covenant. That appears in an “epic” poem about Tukulti-Ninurta I (ca, 1244–1208) and recurs for 500 years. The Assyrian literature echoes concepts typical of the Hebrew, “Deuteronomic,” literature, which there is no need to place entirely within a short span of time. It is attractive, now, to argue that Kings may embody material from much earlier written records with little editorial alteration, so its accounts of events in Israel and Judah from David and Solomon onwards may be taken as satisfactory historical sources. That is not proof that they are true, but it does require those who argue their value is small to offer a much stronger case grounded in knowledge of ancient practices.

Various specific criticisms are made of the Solomonic Narrative implying a lack of historical verity, beside those already treated. There is a supposed contrast between Solomon’s quantities of gold and the allegedly small amount of gold David received, the Ammonite crown, weighing one talent, is cited (2 Sam 12:30), but 2 Samuel does report other, unspecified amounts, which were probably larger, in the gold shields taken from Hadadezer of Zobah, the gift from Toi of Hamath and spoils from other nations, all listed in 2 Samuel 8:7–12. The apparently vague references to Solomon’s contemporaries, the Queen of Sheba and the Pharaoh, are brought into contrast with the naming of Shishak and other rulers in later chapters. This is another weak argument. 1 Kings 11:14 22 presents the episode of Hadad, the Edomite nationalist, who had as wife Tahpenes, sister-in-law of Pharaoh; she is named, but not her important relative, the king of Egypt. The absence of the royal name implies no more than that it was unnecessary for the narration. Where one name is present, Hiram of Tyre, it is contrarily taken as a sign of “folkloristic character” because Hiram is a common Phoenician name, as if a king could not share a current name (Pritchard 1974:32). The assertion that Solomon’s rule extended from the Egyptian frontier to the Euphrates has to be balanced, it is averred, against the reference to the troublesome trio, Hadad of Edom, Rezon of Damascus and Jeroboam of Ephraim (1 Kgs 11:14 40; and Miller 1997:28). That argument might be reversed, too, for the very presence of the reports about these three can be taken as a testimony to the record’s authenticity, as they could hardly be the inventions of a writer trying to magnify Solomon. Moreover, if the records about the first two can be trusted as “post-deuteronomistic insertions...probably derived from archival sources” (Jones 1984:237), then they testify to the availability at a late period of old documents not entirely favorable to Solomon. Throats posed to an emperor by opponents or nationalists do not deny his rule, they challenge it, and they may be successful or they may not, as history frequently reveals. Lastly, for this purpose, we note the assumption that God appearing in a dream to Solomon sleeping at the shrine in Gibeon and the marriage to pharaoh’s daughter are reckoned doubtful because similar stories occur in other languages (Miller and Hayes 1986:195). That is as unsatisfactory an argument as one that says John F. Kennedy was not assassinated because stories of assassinated presidents exist independently in the same country and others.

Text

The Hebrew text can be traced as far back as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which include fragments of Kings and there are allusions to the narrative of Kings in Ben Sira 47:12–22, from the second century BC. The Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek during the third and second centuries BC, so the text existed in some form prior to that date. Variations between the Greek version, the Septuagint, and the traditional Hebrew text within Kings suggest that there may have been some fluidity in its contents at that time and have been made into a tool for disentangling editorial additions and revisions to the book. This is a complex topic, suitable only for passing remarks here. One particular is significant; the Septuagint has nothing to correspond with verses about overlaying the Temple with gold (MT 1 Kgs 6:18, 21a, 22b), and so has been used to support the view that this concept is the product of exaggeration over time (Montgomery and Gehman 1951:150). However, the Septuagint is not consistent, for it does have a rendering of verse 21, “he overlaid it with gold,” and verse 22a which gives the most extravagant description of all, “he overlaid the whole house with gold,” D. W. Gooding has examined the Greek text of 1 Kings beside the Hebrew and shown lucidly that, far from reflecting a Hebrew text more primitive than the traditional, the omissions from the Greek can be put down to scribal errors at an early stage in its history; only when the Greek is read in the light of me Hebrew does it make sense. From this and other studies, it appears little reliance should be placed upon the Septuagint as a guide to the history of the Hebrew text of Kings (1967; 1976; cf. Weavers 1950).11

Conclusion

This essay has argued for a positive approach to the Solomon Narrative, urging its treatment in the light of knowledge about the ancient Near East, and for a shedding of the presuppositions which Biblical scholars have brought to its study. In every ascertainable way, Solomon acted in the manner of the kings around him, if we follow the Biblical text (and more evidence can be added to that which has been set out here). His enormous wealth and the lack of any external corroboration for his reign are the principal bases for modern skepticism. Neither is an insuperable obstacle to crediting the Hebrew reports; there is no external or objective evidence negating them. The possibility that those reports do reflect reliably the reign of king Solomon has to be admitted, even if, at present, there is nothing to prove that they do.


Recommended Resources for Further Study


     
Archaeology &
the Old Testament
Summer 2002 Issue of
Bible and Spade
NIV Archaeological
Study Bible



Footnotes

1. Dever concludes, "the biblical texts, at least the vivid description in 1 Kings, would appear to be based on early, authentic, eyewitness accounts" (p. 609).

2. For fragmentary examples from Jerusalem, apparently burnt in a Babylonian attack, see Shiloh 1984:19, pl. 34.1

3. These comments repeat observations set out by Burney (1903:73), in the wake of previous commentators and repeated by others.

4. Translations of Egyptian texts are found in Breasted 1906–1907; those cited are taken from vol. 2 paras. 375, 883, 890. cf, 886, 889; vol. 3 para. 528; vol. 4 paras. 7, 9, 195, 209; cf. 197.23.

5. Inscription of Shar-kali-sharri, ca. 2200 BC (Jacobsen 1939: no. 80, pl. 68; text in Gelb and Kienast 1990:114–15), with a duplicate from a hinge socket stone (Sollberger and Kupper 1971: IIA5a).

6. From a later date may be noted the "gold shield valued at 1000 minas" sent by Simon the Maccabee to Rome, (1 Mc 14:24; 15:18).

7. Note that the plan is sometimes reproduced as if complete, without making the restorations, as in Herzog 1992:1040.

8. Notice the recent proposal of I. Finkelstein to lower the dates for Megiddo IVA/VB and related levels to the ninth century (1996).

9. The three stellae of Nabonidus found at Haran exemplify this well. They were found reused as paving and steps in the medieval mosque there (Gadd 1958).

10. A collection of scores of phrases and concepts repeated in this way over many hundreds of years has been made by J. J. Neihaus (unpublished). Three instances make the point, two being stock descriptions, the third having theological significance: "I burnt their towns with fire, devastated and destroyed them" occurs from Shalmaneser I (ca. 1250 BC) to Ashurbanipal (ca. 650 BQ; "I made the gulleys and heights of the hills run with blood" in Tiglath-pileser I’s prism (in. 25027 etc) and Sargon II’s eighth campaign (line 135); "the fearful splendor of Ashur my lord overwhelmed them" in Tiglath-pileser I’s prism (iii 69–70), Sennacherib’s annals (ii. 39) and Ashurbanipal’s annals (B.vi.4–5).

11. Note for example, that the Greek version of 1 Kgs 10:16 has "300 spears of beaten gold; 300 shekels of gold to each spear" instead of "200 shields... each of 600 talents."

Bibliography

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Comments Comment RSS

4/14/2011 9:00 AM #

That's it - I won't read any Dan Brown novel from now on . Most of his "research" work doesn't agree with that mentioned in this blog post. Does that mean he spices up the facts in his novels to turn them into a page-turner? I will further look into it.
Thanks.

Debra - 4/14/2011 9:00:31 AM

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