|“Check me out. I’ve got blonde hair! That’s how I know this is a dream.” -Solomon
Good writing has structure. What we see at the beginning prepares us for what comes at the end. Better writing prepares us at the beginning for what comes at the end without making it obvious
. On other words, it prepares us without tipping the hand. It warns, and it hints, but it also conceals. Kings is good literature. It does this. But, many times, the structures we are used to in modernity aren’t the same as in antiquity, especially in Hebrew antiquity. Rather than three point lists or bulleted addresses, but instead they valued symmetry. Or, as others often call it, chiasm(us)
. So, for example, although there are many different ways of arranging the book of kings, many commenters end up with something like this:
- A. Solomon: Single Kingdom (1 Kgs 1.1–11.25)
- B. Creation of the Northern Kingdom (1 Kgs 11.26–14.31)
- C. Kings of Israel & Judah (1 Kgs 15.1-16.22)
- D Omride Dynasty: the Baal cult in Israel (1 Kgs 16.23–2 Kgs 12)
- C’Kings of Israel & Judah (2 Kgs 13–16)
- B’Fall of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kgs 17)
- A’Judah: Single Kingdom (2 Kgs 18–25)
If we dig even deeper, just looking at Solomon, we can see a similar sort of symmetry. Others have arranged it other ways, but it I’ve always considered it thus:
- A. Solomon’s Rise to Rule (1–2)
- B. Solomon’s Rule in Wisdom (3–4)
- C. Building the Temple (5–7)
- C’ Dedicating the Temple (8–9)
- B’ Solomon’s Rule in Folly (10)
- A’ Solomon’s Rule Condemned (11)
One of the good things about considering structures in this way is that it helps sensitize us to what the author is trying to do. Once we know the ending we can look back to the beginning and re-interpret events and understand—even if their meaning was opaque at first—exactly what we should have seen. 1 Kings 3 tells the famous story of Solomon asking for wisdom. But, before this—and seemingly unrelated!—are the first two verses, which do not tie to anything else in the ensuing story.
Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD (1 Kgs 3.1–2).
Now, even inside these statements we have something that causes us concern, but is immediately ameliorated! After all, doesn’t the text itself say that people were sacrificing at the high places only because there wasn’t a temple yet? And, further more, doesn’t the very next verse note that Solomon loved the LORD! (Although it, too, has a qualifying remark: “But he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places.”).
So what are we to do with these statements? The text rushes on, leaving us wondering but giving us no time to wonder! On rushes the narrative: we learn of his wisdom, we see his wisdom, we see how his practical wisdom in ruling brings him to expand his administration, re-organize the empire, increase his wealth… But each of these things leaves a splinter in our minds. They leave a splinter in our minds because we don’t know if these things are good or not. Conservative theologian and exegete, Paul House, puts it this way:
At this point in the story, the author expresses neither approval nor disapproval of Solomon’s activities. Certainly the author presents Solomon as a man-made wise by the Lord. Of course the people seem happy now. But Moses’ warnings, especially the one against collecting “great numbers of horses” (cf. Dtr 17.14–20), and Samuel’s cautions against royal excesses (1 Sam 8.10–18) linger in the minds of seasoned readers. What long term good can come of such traditionally non-Israelite practices? (1–2 Kings, 117).
House gets right to the point. He recognizes that the narrator in Hebrew history is often reticent. Even in such a terrible section of awful immorality as Judges 19–21
, the most we get is the cryptic, “there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The same is true, here.
But we are to wonder and—once we get to the end of the story—we realize that the seeds of Solomon’s fall are right here before our eyes. The marriage to an Egyptian princess that we wondered about (1 Kgs 3.1
)? It was the first of many marriages to foreign wives which led his heart astray (1 Kgs 11.1–6
). The proclivity for worship at high places we thought was ameliorated (1 Kgs 3.2
)? It was what eventually led him to worship other gods (11.7–8
). Those heavy taxes which favored Judah at the expense of the North (4.1–28
)? It caused his son no end of grief (1 Kgs 12
), just as Samuel promised (1 Sam 8.10–18
). And those many horses, the testament to his wealth (1 Kgs 3.26
)? It exactly violated God’s commands for kings, and tied back to him going down to Egypt (Dtr 17.14–20
My last post
looked at Solomon’s absolute beginnings (before he even came on the stage!) and questioned whether King’s author was attempting to show that Solomon gained his throne through deceptive means. Although this post isn’t about intertextuality, it is employing another literary device: trying to see what the author meant using not just the words that he wrote, but the comparisons and connections he employed. Once we open ourselves to those elements, it raises new questions.
For example, even though Solomon may not have turned from God until later, recognizing this parallel structure helps us recognize that these problems exist in Solomon from the very beginning. And once we see them in chapter three, it’s hard not to wonder if they’re present already in chapters one and two. Is the king who lost his throne thanks to the good politics the king who gained it from the good politics? Is the king who lost his throne thanks to the undue influence of women the same king who gained it from the undue influence of a woman? Maybe. Just maybe.