The Kebra Nagast goes through several story arcs: the romance between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and the conception of their son; the return of that adult son to Jerusalem, and the abduction of the Ark; and lastly, Solomon’s life after both his son and the Ark are gone. This part of the series will set the stage for all this action. What were Jerusalem and Israel like during Solomon’s life? How and why did he become so wealthy? How did he get his reputation for wisdom?
Solomon Unique In Both Wisdom and Power
With Solomon’s reign, Israel reached the pinnacle of its wealth and power. Never before had they dominated the world stage the way they did during that Golden Age, and they never would again. Soon after Solomon takes the throne, God appears to him in a dream, and offers to grant Solomon whatever he asks. Solomon petitions God for wisdom, “Give to your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil.” (I Kings 3:9) This choice pleases God, who says, “I have also given you…both riches and honor, so that there shall not be anyone like you among the kings all your days.” (I Kings 3:13) God promises Solomon will be the greatest in both wisdom and political power. So Solomon’s power can be attributed directly to God. But as often happens, practical reasons are also present.
A Quick Summary Of Israel’s History
Events in the past several hundred years of Israel’s history lead to Solomon’s domination of his time. The Hebrews served the Egyptians for 400 years, and Moses led them to freedom in about 1,300BC. (No one knows the exact dates of these events, but biblical scholars have done the best they can with estimates.) The Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 years, and then began their military conquest of the land of Canaan, as directed by God. Once they settled Canaan, they lived in tribal groups, settling disputes with the help of “judges.” There was no centralized government during this time, until about 1030 BC, when Israel’s King Saul established the first monarchy over all the tribes. The Jews themselves were unhappy with the lack of a formal government: their loose confederacy leaves them feeling weak compared to surrounding nations.
Although God expresses regret with the Jews’ inability to manage themselves without a king standing over them, He provides a ruler. (Interesting that in this ancient time God wants a very progressive sort of government for His people, a system where each person knows God’s ways and follows justice so voluntarily they don’t need much government. Many modern people express the hope that citizens could have enough self direction and integrity that minimal government would be needed.) So begins the reign of Saul and after him David. Both of these kings spend most of their careers as warriors, leading armies against the enemies of Israel, and also fighting a series of internal conflicts.
Solomon Reaps the Benefits
By the time Solomon inherits the throne, the decades of military struggle have paid off. David, famous from his youth for both personal valor and excellent battlefield strategy, has enlarged and secured borders for Israel all the way to the edge of Egypt. A quick look at a map shows just what an advantage this is: Israel controls the territory that everyone needs to pass through on trade routes. When the Jews were a group of tribes, and when they were distracted with constant border attacks, they didn’t have the power to leverage their position. Now Solomon controls what the whole world needs, and his wealth grows exponentially. Everyone wants to be on his good side; other sovereigns do him favors like allowing him to harvest valuable lumber from their territory without charge, or simply gifting him with expensive materials for his many building projects.
Solomon’s 700 Wives and 300 Concubines
Solomon amasses a harem of 1,000 women, including 700 princesses, meaning that a very large number of kings sought alliance by marriage. Solomon even marries “Pharaoh’s Daughter,” a telling detail. Marrying off daughters for the sake of political alliances was a universal custom, with the exception of Egypt. Pharaohs were powerful enough to be less in need of marriage alliances, and Egyptian custom kept royal daughters within the family. They often married their brothers, their half brothers, even their own fathers. (When Ramses II’s beloved queen Nefertari died, rather than promote another of his wives he married Meritamen, his own daughter by Nefertari, and gave her the position of Great Royal Wife.) Allowing Solomon a daughter of Pharaoh underscores Pharaoh’s unusual need for Solomon’s goodwill, perhaps because Solomon’s border is now right up against Pharaoh’s own. Egypt can't access the important Arabian cities without going through Israel's territory. By contrast, the only daughters of Solomon recorded in the Bible are given in marriage to Jewish officials, showing that though many foreign kings seek alliance with Solomon, he does not need to reciprocate.
Solomon fights no wars, and instead focuses on the splendor of his kingdom. He builds the famous temple, and in addition to moving the irreplaceable Ark into it, he lines the walls of the Holy of Holies with gold, and casts golden 12 foot statues of cherubim to stand beside the Ark. He also builds a palace for himself, a separate palace for Pharaoh’s daughter, and “storage cities.” To maintain control of his territory, Solomon raises an army with a great number of horses and chariots, and casts shields of solid gold.
But Solomon is most famous for wisdom. “And God gave Solomon wisdom and exceedingly great understanding, and largeness of heart like the sand on the seashore….For he was wiser than all men….And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” (I Kings 4: 29-34)
Among those monarchs attracted by reports of amazing wisdom was the Queen of Sheba.
In the Kebra Nagast, her visit would set in motion a sequence of events that shaped Ethiopia down to the present day.
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graceomalley (author) on April 14, 2011:
wingedcentaur-you bring up an important gap here- I didn't explain what the Ark of the Covenant is. The indiana jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark was about this artifact, though the movie doesn't really explain what it is, only that we can't let the Nazis get it.
The Ark of the Covenant was built shortly after Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. God himself gave Moses directions for the dimensions of the Ark, and the told him which materials to use. It was a rectangular wooden chest a couple of feet long, plated inside and out with gold. Two gold statuettes of angels were mounted on its lid, and it had rings so that it could be carried on poles.
The Ark was the most important object in Jewish worship in the history of that worship. God was associated very strongly with the Ark: He was believed to sometimes appear on top of the lid in the form of a cloud. The Old Testament records the Ark killing priests who offer it the wrong type of incense, knocking down city walls, decapitating a pagan statue and causing plagues.
The last mention of the Ark in the Old testament is during Solomon's reign. After that it seems to be gone, though there is no record of what happened to it.
Ethiopia claims to have the Ark in a small church in Axum. (No one is allowed to see it but the monk who takes care of it.) The original Ark would be about 3,500 years old these days. I have my own thoughts about Ethiopia's Ark, which I hope to write up into a hub someday.
William Thomas from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things! on April 12, 2011:
What was the Ark of the Covenant, by the way? Is it meant to be some kind of throw back to Noah's Ark? I like the way you practicalize (I just invented the word 'practicalize') the Biblical narrative. The takeaway here: the Near Eastern kings need Solomon more than he needs any of them!
Off to part three.