This is day 8 for me of writing 15 min/day (day 9 for people who started on time). I’m busy with a lot of things, but among them preparing a hermeneutics course I teach this fall. So I’m thinking a lot about biblical interpretation, and the importance of both reading widely and reading closely.
On that note, here is a question for you: In the Bible, is King Solomon a good guy or a bad guy? Perhaps you remember him from Sunday school as the wisest king the world has ever known, the son of David that God named “Jedidiah” (beloved of the Lord), the one with whom we associate the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Things went sour at the end of his life, I guess, if you ever read that far in 1 Kings, but that is apparently the fault of his wives, right? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The narrative about Solomon I want to focus on is in 1 Kings 2–11. There we read about the end of David’s reign, his transfer of the kingdom to his son, another son’s stab at the throne, righting of wrongs done to David (or during his reign) that for one reason or another were left up to Solomon, a God-given gift of wise rule, an incredibly extravagant temple, two appearances of the Lord to Solomon, and many more things. The reader is floored by the wealth, the wisdom, the women… Wait a minute…
It doesn’t take a Marxist to do a double-take at the opulence. But careful readers of scripture do more than a double-take: they begin to shake their heads.
First Kings is a part of what is called the Deuteronomistic History. Now, there are all kinds of ways to get lost from the main point here, about the crazy reigning opinion that Deuteronomy was “found” at (i.e., written for) the time of Josiah’s religious reforms. But forget that nonsense (unless you’re reading for comps like me). The upshot is that the narrators of the history that runs from Joshua to the end of 2 Kings assess that history in terms of the theology of Deuteronomy.
With that in mind, and with a finger in 1 Kgs 10 and 11, flip over to Deut 17:14–20. We are in the middle of the longest sermon ever preached on the 10 Commandments, and Moses is laying out the Lord’s instructions for a king. Now read this section side-by side with the description of Solomon’s reign in 1 Kgs 10–11. What do you see?
The king must be a fellow Israelite: check. He must not accumulate horses, and specifically must not go back to Egypt to get them. Oops. What about lots of wives, and lots of silver and gold? Oh, dear.
On a first pass, with Deuteronomy far from your mind, Solomon’s reign is pretty stinking impressive, I admit. But with a little digging, and a little more attention to the text, and what do you get? The narrator is subtly (or maybe not so subtly) undermining the last and greatest leader of the united monarchy, and setting you up for the division of Israel into north and south, and the eventual destruction of the temple and exile of the people of God. Despite his reputation for wisdom, Solomon is a wise guy sporting a jet black hat.
This is why hermeneutics—even at the most elementary level of sticking close to a text and knowing your English Bible—is important.
With thanks to my seminary prof Miles V. Van Pelt, who first brought the interplay of these passages to my attention a few years ago.