Monday, January 19, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 4

In this chapter, we are given a detailed account of Solomon's wealth and national administration.

This chapter begins by giving us a list of Solomon's officials, which is conceptually similar to the two lists of officials under David that we read in the book of Samuel. Some of these names are familiar, and some are not. First of all, "the priests" are listed twice. First we are told "the priest" is Azariah son of Zadok, and second we are told that "the priests" are Zadok and Abiathar. This is weird. In 1 Kings 2 we were told that Abiathar was removed from the priesthood, which suggests that the list of officials is probably taken over a time range in Solomon's rule, and not at a single instant. It's also not strictly chronological, because Abiathar has already been removed. Therefore this list is probably the set of officials that served under Solomon for some time period, both previously and into the future. More likely than not, Abiathar was removed from the priesthood and some time later, Azariah succeeded his father as the high priest.

Secondly, Benaiah remains over the army since Solomon assigned him in 1 Kings 2.

None of the other names are very familiar to me, and they are only given passing mention in the bible. Instead of focusing on the people in Solomon's court, I think it's more instructive to look at what kinds of officials are important enough to mention. Most of the roles are similar to what existed under David, but a few are new. The "deputies" are a new administrative role created by Solomon. This shows an increasing structure and probably also increasing scope of authority that exists under Solomon compared to David. Perhaps even more tellingly, Solomon creates a minister over "forced labor", which sounds vaguely ominous to me. This implies to us how Solomon managed his vast building projects on the one hand, and his somewhat authoritarian rule on the other hand. As we will later see, Solomon primarily conscripts his own people into forced labor, though it's possible that he also enslaved other peoples. I’d also like to point out that “the king’s friend” is an official role, and we can reflect on this that the various “friends” of king David were probably also officials in his court, even though they weren't mentioned in David’s lists of officials.

The twelve deputies are entirely unknown to us, as far as I can recall, and I don't believe they are mentioned anywhere else besides their role as Solomon's officials.

The rest of this chapter is primarily devoted to telling us about how great Solomon was. Apparently he ruled over a very large area, had tremendous wealth, and was renowned across the world for his great wisdom and poetic creation, as well as various botanical and biological manuscripts. I don't think I have much to say about this except for one point, which is the horses.

Gathering a large number of horses certainly fits the theme of this chapter, which is emphasizing Solomon's wealth and power.  However, what makes this part a bit different is that it appears to contradict the LORD's command in Deuteronomy 17:16.  David, for his part, captured many horses but then hamstrung all but a few hundred.

This passage, however minor and incidental it might seem, should concern us.  Solomon does not appear to be following the Law completely, and his behavior may arouse the anger of the LORD at some later time, even though he is not being rebuked for it right now.

Even so, it appears that everything is going great for Solomon so far.  His vaunted wisdom is paying off not just with his intellectual accomplishments and fame, but also with very real military and economic power.  This is almost definitely the apex of Israel's historical power and it certainly shows in these descriptions, and nearly the rest of his life is going to be just as triumphal.  It's only at the end of Solomon's story that we learn how his spiritual indiscretion is going to result in problems for Israel as a nation.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Bible Commentary - 1 Kings 3

In this chapter, God answers Solomon's prayer for wisdom in a dream, and Solomon issues a wise judgment between two women over a baby.

This is an interesting chapter that contains one of the more famous biblical stories, the "judgment of Solomon". It begins with several brief notes about Solomon's rule that allude to the structure of how Solomon's reign will go. I will address these in order.

First, Solomon establishes an alliance with Egypt by marriage. This is one of the first alliances-between-equals that we have seen. In the past, Israel has in some cases been dominated by its neighbors, and in other cases dominated its neighbors. This meant that their relation to other nations was essentially feudal, either ruling over somebody as lord, or being ruled over as a vassal or servant. These relationships were typically abusive, with the dominating party extracting food, wealth or free labor from the submissive party.

Furthermore, Egypt is one of the most powerful nations in this historical period, so I think this alliance is one of the earliest signals that Israel is in the midst of a political and military ascendancy. Pharaoh would not have married his daughter off to somebody who didn't matter, unless perhaps Egypt was itself in decline (which is possibly also true). Therefore this alliance is different both in terms of the character of their previous interactions and also the scope of influence that it suggests.

Second, verse 1 tells us that Solomon is going to build "a house of the LORD", which is another foreshadowing of the temple. As I may have previously mentioned, the ark of the covenant and other ritual objects were being housed in the tabernacle, most likely the original tabernacle that came out of Egypt and was constructed under the direction of Moses.  It was designed to provide a temporary and movable shelter for the ritual sacrifices and worship of the LORD, as well as a location for the LORD's manifest presence to appear and direct the Israelites. The reason it was temporary and movable was so that the tabernacle could be taken along with the Israelites while they wandered through the desert. Now that the people have found a permanent home in the promised land, it was David's desire and Solomon's responsibility to build a permanent home for the LORD's presence by constructing a much more elaborate building to fulfill essentially the same role. In essence, the temple is almost the same as the tabernacle in terms of layout (with a courtyard, holy place and most holy place) and the sacred objects are the same. The biggest difference is that the temple is meant to remain, while the tabernacle was meant to wander with the people. In my opinion, the difference is primarily symbolic.

Solomon will also build a house for himself (i.e. a royal palace) and a wall around Jerusalem, fortifying and establishing the royal city.  This is to establish the wealth and power of Israel during his rule.

Third, we are told that Solomon loved the LORD, but that he offered sacrifices on the high places which was contrary to the Law. This should leave us with a lingering concern, that while Solomon mostly follows the heart of his father David, he may not follow the LORD completely.  This plants the seeds of future conflict because the LORD seeks wholehearted obedience from his people.

This is the framework in which we should understand Solomon's rule: Israel will grow increasingly powerful on the international stage, Solomon will leverage Israel's wealth to build many great works, and he will have significant, but ultimately incomplete, devotion to the LORD that may cause future problems.

The second part of this chapter can perhaps be viewed as the root of Solomon's power, when he is granted wisdom from the LORD to govern Israel. In essence, Solomon does not ask for personal greatness, but asks for wisdom and understanding in order to be a great king for the nation that he already considers great (v. 8).  And then he demonstrates that wisdom by judging what was essentially an impossible decision.

As a brief aside, I should mention that verse 8 also gives us an idea why David's census in 2 Samuel 24 was considered a sin, because he was trying to count the people that by God's promise is supposed to be too great to be numbered or counted.

Anyway, the LORD chooses to grant Solomon both wisdom and power and glory, because Solomon showed selflessness when he asked for wisdom on how to be a better king, that he might serve the nation and lead Israel well, rather than seek personal glory or fulfillment in the pursuit of his own ambition.  More interesting than that, is the very notion that God would offer Solomon the choice of anything he wants.  That itself is pretty crazy.  I wonder what I would ask for if God told me he would give me anything I wanted.  Would I ask for wisdom, or the fulfillment of some temporary desire like wealth or friends or greatness?

In the final part of this chapter, we are given a story about Solomon's wisdom in action. In the story we are given two nameless women who are, for all intents and purposes, equivalent. Of course, that's because this story is not about the women, or the baby, it's about Solomon.  Even though this is a famous story, it is also very straightforward so I am only going to talk about it briefly.  Solomon did not have any witnesses or evidence to figure out which woman was the baby's mother, so he cannot fairly give the baby to one or the other.  So instead, he simply orders that the baby be killed, and then shows his wisdom by judging the women by their reactions.  It was the mother's love that proved the real mother of the living infant.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if the real mother also wanted the infant to be divided. In that case, I can only imagine Solomon would have done it and killed the child. If neither woman loved the child enough to give it up, then neither woman deserved to have him.