Solomon and Social Oppression – Part 4

When Solomon became king, he saw the need to modernize a country which for centuries had an agricultural basis for its economy. Saul and David were not forced upon the people as kings, but they were chosen by popular acclamation in order to deal with the oppressive situation imposed by Philistine domination. Solomon, however, came into power through palace intrigue and a struggle for power. Thus, tribal influence upon his policies was minimal.

With the establishment of the monarchy, the modernization of the machinery of the state became imperative if the nation was to survive as a political entity and if Israel was to continue to consolidate itself as a nation in the Ancient Near East. This process of modernization impelled both David and Solomon to search for models which could provide the foundation for a stable government and the basis for expansion and consolidation.

Since Israel had been an agricultural society, David and Solomon looked to those nations which had stable government and which were modern by comparison. They took from these nations the institutions which appeared to enable them to generate power. These changes did mean the destruction of old forms of government, institutions, and tribal traditions, and would be costly both in material and personal ways, but they were willing to pay the price.

Modernization is a process by which institutions adapt themselves to changing functions or pressures for expansion. This process can be at the same time creative and destructive. However, modernization provides new opportunities and prospects for transformation but at a high price in human dislocations and suffering. In the formation of states, the models adopted by leaders for modernizing a new nation, except in societies that were the first to modernize, are always derived in a considerable degree from outside of their own society.

Thus, in establishing the kingdom, Solomon took upon himself the oriental role of the absolute monarch who could do no wrong. He brought foreign patterns of government drawn from the Egyptians and the Canaanites. He depended on builders, artisans, and assorted specialists who provided a foreign model for his temple and palace. He depended on Phoenician sailors for the development of his maritime enterprises. He dealt with foreign merchants and he brought heavy taxation and a despised system of forced labor to Israel.

Beyond these policies, Solomon weakened tribal loyalty by integrating the Canaanite population into the state. Israel did not cease being a farming nation, but a commercia1 and industrial structure was imposed on the traditionally pastoral Israelite society. The many building projects established by Solomon must have drawn thousands of people from the villages into the main cities, cutting many of them away from their tribal ties and ancient traditions and reducing agricultural production. In Jerusalem, an urban culture heretofore unknown in Israel developed from which evolved a group of privileged individuals who had a higher standard of living than most other citizens. These privileged individuals were a class of non-producers. They composed the royal retinue, the nobles, the merchants and the soldiers: a class of people who were dependent mostly on the peasant population, who produced most of the goods to satisfy their needs.

It is obvious that in the process of modernizing the nation, Solomon had practically ended tribal independence, for the state, not the covenant became the guarantor and the basis of social obligations. The tribes were now under central control; they had political obligations to a government that was outside of the sphere of their influence. As a consequence of these oppressive acts by Solomon, there developed a great social unrest in Israel. The nation itself felt involved in the justice or injustice of the king; one important aspect of the king was his responsibility for the administration of justice within the realm.

Solomon’s commercial policies, his building programs, and his extravagant court life brought prosperity mostly to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and those associated one way or the other with Solomon and his projects. The noble families and the many leaders of Judah received certain privileges not afforded to others. This sense of unfairness increased the tension between Solomon and the oppressed peoples, between the northern and the southern tribes.

The absorption of the Canaanite population brought into Israelite society thousands of people of feudal background, people who had no notion of covenant law, to whom class distinction was a matter of fact. Meanwhile, the growth of a wealthy class increased the gap between rich and poor. Thus, there developed in Israel a proletariat composed of hired labor, slaves, poor and marginalized people who were seen by the aristocracy as subjects to be possessed.

In order to provide for the economic needs of his kingdom, Solomon implemented a system of taxation dividing the northern tribes into twelve districts, of which only five resembled anything like the old tribal boundaries. Solomon designed new boundaries for the districts in order to weaken tribal loyalties and to bring all the separate tribes into one nation under a central authority.

The division of the tribes into districts for the purpose of taxation was not warmly received by the people. One of the reasons for this discontent, apart from the heavy taxation imposed by Solomon, was the fact that the southern tribe of Judah was not included among the districts. Judah was considered a separate entity and it was administered independently from the other tribes, a situation which only served to increase the hostility between the northern and southern tribes.

The responsibility of each of the twelve district officials was to administer the collection of taxes to supply the needs of the court. According to 1 Kings 4:7, the twelve officers “supplied provisions for the king and the royal household. Each one had to provide supplies for one month in the year.” According to 1 Kings 4:27-28 (Hebrew: 1 Kings 5:7-8), “The district officers, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.”

The taxes provided by the districts were designed to support Solomon and the members of the royal family, his royal officials, the military establishment, for the expenses of the state, and to provide for international trade. According to 1 Kings 4:22-23 (Hebrew: 1 Kings 5:2-3), the daily provisions for Solomon’s court required much from the people: “The daily food requirements for Solomon’s palace were 150 bushels of choice flour and 300 bushels of meal; oxen from the fattening pens, 20 pasture-fed cattle, 100 sheep or goats, as well as deer, gazelles, roe deer, and choice poultry.”

Judah does not seem to have any part in this taxation system, which meant that the burden rested totally on Israel. Marvin Sweeney, in his commentary on I & II Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 89, wrote: “Solomon treated the northern tribes differently than Judah. Whereas he apparently ruled Judah directly as his home tribe, he ruled Israel through administrators much as one would rule a foreign or a subject state.”

It is also evident that in the many government reforms and in all the improvements that were implemented, Solomon gave special consideration to Judah, for even though not completely exempt from taxation and forced labor, Judah received most of the benefits from the taxation system established by Solomon.

To be continued.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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