The Hebrew Bible presents Solomon as one of the wisest men of his time. When one reads the narratives about his reign, Solomon is portrayed in the Bible as the king who brought glory and splendor to Israel and the king who reigned over one of the wealthiest periods in the history of the nation. Solomon is also presented as a great builder, a brilliant businessman, a leader of his people, and as a composer of songs and proverbs.
The fame of Solomon is legendary. The stories about the “Golden Age of Solomon” have entered the realm of literature, movies, and the popular imagination. And yet, when one reads how the Old Testament presents the last years of his reign, the reader begins to wonder what happened to Solomon and all his glory. What are the facts behind the real Solomon that caused the division of the kingdom? How should one explain the contradictory pictures that the Bible presents of Solomon, whose name was Jedidiah, “Beloved of Yahweh” (2 Samuel 12:25)?
Today I am beginning a series of studies that will explore the social and economic policies of Solomon. These studies will show that Solomon’s success and his desire for glory and wealth perverted the covenant traditions of Israel and placed in jeopardy the very promise which God had given to Abraham and through him to Israel.
This series of studies will deal with the problem of social oppression during the reign of Solomon. In the process, I will describe the oppressive policies Solomon put into place in order to establish his kingdom, to build the temple and the palace, and maintain his opulent lifestyle which corrupted the very stability of his empire.
In these studies we will see how these oppressive policies brought down his kingdom, destroyed his relationship with the people of Israel, and eventually caused the United Monarchy to split into two kingdoms: Judah and Israel.
Israel was a nation that was born out of a great deliverance, from their oppressive experience in Egypt. Israel’s God was known as the God of the oppressed. For this reason, to declare that Solomon was a great oppressor is a seemingly anomaly.
The oppressive policies of Solomon produced a movement for liberation among the people of Israel. The people yearned to recover their vocation of freedom and their sense of justice, and by this struggle for liberation, to recover their past as a free people and to carry out their mission in the world as the special people of Yahweh.
This movement against the oppressive policies of Solomon was the people’s affirmation of their call to be the special people of Yahweh. Israel was a people who were liberated from the oppressive house of Pharaoh in order to serve their God as a free people in a free society.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his study of a legitimate society, said that “man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau’s statement was a declaration of the fact that many people in society do not enjoy the freedom for which they were created. Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the history of Israel at the time when Solomon reigned over the people of Judah and Israel.
According to the Deuteronomic theology, Israel was elected as the nation of Yahweh in order to declare the justice and the faithful love of God (God’s hesed) in the world. Through its liberation from Egypt, Israel became a society, which in the understanding of the Deuteronomic historian, would be an egalitarian society. In this society, each person would always remember the fact that they were slaves in Egypt, and the remembrance of that experience would influence their treatment of each other and the stranger in their midst.
However, something happened between those idyllic days portrayed in the book of Joshua and the days of Solomon, because the people who at one time were oppressed, have become themselves the oppressors, and the nation that was born to be free, is again oppressed; this time, however, not by a foreign king, but paradoxically as it may seem, by its own king.
This series of studies on the problem of social oppression in the reign of Solomon will be divided into several parts. First, I will deal briefly with the rise of the monarchy in Israel and the consolidation of power under David and Solomon.
Second, I will study the policies of Solomon that contributed to the enlargement of the kingdom. Third, I will study the sociology of oppression, dealing with Solomon as the oppressor, and the struggle for liberation as seen in the various aspects of opposition to the monarchy.
At the end of these studies, I hope you will gain a different perspective of Solomon and his reign. I hope you will read my posts and share them with other people who love studying the Bible.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary