Wealth, wives, weapons, and the way of the Lord
This month’s TextMessage is the last installment in a five-part series featuring the writing of seminary president Lynn Jost, as he shares some insights from his doctoral study on the book of 1 Kings.—Eds.
As we come to the end of our study of 1 Kings, we turn again to the book of Deuteronomy. Old Testament interpreters believe that Deuteronomy’s mishpat (justice regulations) can be used to evaluate Israel’s – and, in particular, Solomon’s – actions. In order to conduct this evaluation, we recognize that none of the Deuteronomic laws is more significant than the Law of the King (Deuteronomy 17:14–20).
This legislation anticipates Israel asking for a king “like all the nations around” it. The law prohibits foreign kings (he must be a “brother”); the kingdom of Israel is to resist the ways (mishpat) of the surrounding empires. The Law of the King also prohibits the accumulation of 1) large numbers of horses; 2) many wives; and 3) large amounts of silver and gold. The only positive regulation is that the king is to make a copy of the law (in Latin, a deutero nomos, hence the name of the book), to study it carefully and obey it faithfully.
Why this three-fold prohibition? First, acquiring great numbers of horses would necessitate a return to Egypt, not only geographically (1 Kings 10:28) but also politically. Maintaining horses was very expensive. Importing chariots (the ancient equivalent of tanks) also cost exorbitant sums. To accumulate horses was to move from a volunteer army empowered by Yahweh toward a professional army pursuing the mishpat of empire.
Second, taking many wives would cause the king’s heart to be led astray. Not only would foreign wives import idolatrous, anti-Yahwistic religion, but would also promote entangling political ties that would compromise the independent mishpat of Yahweh.
Third, accumulating large amounts of wealth flew in the face of the Deuteronomic ideal of an egalitarian society in which accounts were balanced on seven-year cycles. All three prohibitions were meant to keep the kingdom of Israel free of the mishpat of the empire.
How did Solomon fare in light of these laws? The king’s first move after “the kingdom was… established in [his] hands” (2:46) was a marriage alliance with Pharaoh! Then, in his inaugural dream, Solomon asked for a heart skilled to listen for justice-making (mishpat), which pleased Yahweh. Riches were to come to Solomon as a gift – wealth was not to be his ambition. Yet, the king seemed to enjoy accumulating great wealth and possessions.
The text notes additional indications that Solomon neglected the Law of the King. His insatiable appetite (4:21–28); quantification of wisdom (4:29–34); slave labour (5:13–18; 9:15–23); instructions about temple-building and law-keeping (6:12–13); and warnings from Yahweh (9:1–9) and the queen of Sheba (10:1–13) all indicate the fragility of Solomon’s faithfulness and the priority of doing Yahweh-style justice.
Many evaluate Solomon as a king who started well, but was steered off course by the polytheistic mindset of his thousand wives. A careful reading of 1 Kings 10:14–11:13 suggests a more nuanced, but accurate evaluation. Although the narrator specifically mentions foreign women and their false religion (11:1–6), Yahweh himself evaluates Solomon based on his failure to live by covenant regulations (11:11).
Though the wealth of Solomon described in 1 Kings 9:26–10:29 is often evaluated positively, using the Law of the King as a standard should revise our reading to recognize that the huge amounts of gold and the devaluation of silver (10:21) represents an indictment, not a benefit. Though God had promised to give Solomon wealth and long life (3:13), Solomon preferred to acquire and accumulate commodities (including wives) in the way of the empire. Instead of sharing with the poor, Solomon gathered for himself.
Solomon’s story is especially apropos for 21st-century Mennonite Brethren in North America. As Anabaptist-evangelicals we claim the authority of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels. We say we follow Jesus as disciples.
Yet Jesus instructs his disciples about the way of the kingdom of God as a counterpoint to the empire of this age. He pronounces “blessed” the poor and the peacemakers. He calls for a greater righteousness regarding family relationships and sexuality. He invites his followers to reject violence against other humans in favour of turning the other cheek and going the second mile. To his disciples, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:33–34).
Like Solomon, we have been blessed with the Word of God and unbelievable wealth. May we choose the way of Jesus’ kingdom of righteousness, rather than the mishpat of Solomon’s empire
King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift – articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules. Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills.