Image: Burden Bearers
This study on forced labor under Solomon is a continuation of my previous studies on the oppressive policies established by Solomon during his long reign as king of Israel and Judah. A list of previous posts dealing with social oppression during the reign of Solomon is found at the end of this post.
The popular perception of Solomon is that he was the wisest man who ever lived, the king who built God’s temple in Jerusalem, and the one who ushered in Israel’s golden age, an age of peace and prosperity in which each person in Israel and Judah “lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25).
However, a close study of the biblical text reveals the true character of Solomon. In his desire to enlarge the splendor of his kingdom, Solomon introduced policies that disrupted the lives of many people in Israel, brought untold misery to many others, and eventually caused the division of the kingdom after his death. Today I will deal with the problem of forced labor Solomon used to accomplish his building projects.
In order to accomplish the building of the temple, his palace, and the other government buildings, Solomon established twelve administrative districts throughout Israel. The purpose of these districts was to provide for the needs the royal court (4:1-19), to raise taxes, and to coordinate the labor force needed to complete the building projects of his kingdom (5:13-18).
According to 1 Kings 9:15, Solomon established a system of forced labor in Israel in order to build “the house of the LORD and his own house, the Millo and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer.” At the beginning of his building projects, forced labor was only imposed on the remnant of the Canaanite population:
“All the people left from the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (these peoples were not Israelites), that is, their descendants remaining in the land, whom the Israelites could not exterminate–these Solomon conscripted for his slave labor force, as it is to this day” (1 Kings 9:20-21).
According to Deuteronomy 20:11, when the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they were supposed to conquer the Canaanites and submit them to forced labor: “If [a Canaanite city] accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor.”
But the Israelites failed to conquer the native people of the land. Some of the tribes of Israel settled among the Canaanites and lived among them: “Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out” (Judges 1:31-32).
One tribe, the tribe of Issachar, became servants of the Canaanites in order to be able to live in their land: “Issachar . . . saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant; so he bowed his shoulder to the burden, and became a slave at forced labor” (Genesis 49:14-15).
Some tribes lived among the Canaanites until they were able to subdue them. The book of Judges says that the tribes of Manasseh (1:27), Ephraim (1:29), Zebulun (1:30), Asher (1:31), and Naphtali (1:33) were unable to conquer the Canaanites in the days of Joshua.
It was David who finally was able to defeat the Canaanites and complete the conquest of the land that had begun under Joshua. “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out” (Judges 1:28). The land left unconquered in Judges 1:27-36 was conquered by David and incorporated into his empire.
After David defeated the Canaanites and completed the conquest of the land, David subjected the Canaanites to forced labor and placed Adoram as the administrator over the forced labor: “Adoram was in charge of the forced labor” (2 Samuel 20:24). David, and eventually Solomon also, imposed forced labor upon the conquered people in order to obtain unpaid labor for their building projects.
After the death of David, his son Solomon continued many of the policies of his father. David had established a commercial venture with Hiram, king of Tyre, in which Hiram provided specialized workers and cedar of Lebanon which David used to build his palace: “King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house” (2 Samuel 5:11).
Solomon continued this venture with Hiram, but the trading venture between Hiram and Solomon was unfavorable to Solomon. While Hiram provided luxury items to Solomon, such as “cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired” (1 Kings 9:11), Solomon provided food for Hiram’s household, twenty thousand cors (100,000 bushels) of wheat and twenty cors (110,000 gallons) of fine oil. Every year Solomon made this kind of payment to Hiram (1 Kings 5:7-11).
In addition, Solomon also continued the forced labor policy that David had instituted in Israel after he defeated the Canaanites. Mendelsohn has suggested that the census carried out by David in 2 Samuel 24 was taken for the purpose of introducing a system of taxation, of establishing military conscription, and of instituting a program of forced labor (1962:33).
In order to continue David’s policy of forced labor, Solomon, like his father, took a census of Israel: “Then Solomon took a census of all the aliens who were residing in the land of Israel, after the census that his father David had taken; and there were found to be one hundred fifty-three thousand six hundred” (2 Chronicles 2:17).
Out of the one hundred fifty-three thousand six hundred non-Israelite people living in Israel, Solomon put one hundred fifty-three thousand of them to forced labor: “Solomon had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country” (1 Kings 5:15).
In Hebrew, the word translated “laborers” is nōsē’ sabbāl, an expression that means “a burden bearer.” Thus, according to 1 Kings 5:15, there were 80,000 men cutting stones in the mountains and 70,000 men carrying the stones to the building sites.
In addition, Solomon had “three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work” (1 Kings 5:16). According to Rainey, three thousand officers supervised fifty workers each and three hundred officers were in charge of the administrative duties related to the various projects (1971:200).
During the reign of Solomon, the person in charge of the forced labor was Adoniram, the son of Abda (1 Kings 4:6). Adoniram was the same person who was in charge of the forced labor under David (2 Samuel 20:24). He is also called Hadoram in 2 Chronicles 10:18. After the death of Solomon, Adoram also became responsible for the forced labor under Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.
In order to continue his building projects, Solomon needed laborers to bring cedar and cypress from Lebanon. Although 1 Kings 9:22 says that “of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves,” it is possible that Solomon, fearing that the Canaanites who were working in his projects, would escape if they were sent to Lebanon, was forced to conscript native Israelites to work in Lebanon.
“King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor” (1 Kings 5:13-14). According to Rainey, these thirty thousand men were supervised by five hundred fifty men
(1 Kings 9:23).
Those people who worked in Lebanon were called mas workers. The Hebrew word for “forced labor” is mas, the same word that appears in Exodus 1:11. The word was used to describe the way the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites and it is the same word used to describe the forced labor with which the Canaanites oppressed the tribe of Issachar. The overseers of the forced work in Egypt were ruthless and made the Israelites work hard, without mercy.
Adoram, the man who was in charge of the forced labor under David and Solomon, was also put in change of the forced labor over the Israelites. This indicates that they worked under harsh conditions. The lives of the Israelites who had to leave their land and their family to work in Lebanon were greatly disrupted, causing great inconvenience to their families and to the economic life of the tribes.
Although Solomon imposed forced labor upon the people of Israel, the practice never became popular in Israel and it was condemned by the prophets. When Jehoiakim became king of Judah, he sought to build his palace through the use of forced labor. Jeremiah severely criticized him for this abuse of power: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” (Jeremiah 22:13).
Solomon continued to use forced labor until the end of his reign. After he died, his son Rehoboam tried to continue the policies of his father, but he failed. The Northern tribes revolted and the united kingdom was broken apart.
Mendelsohn, I. “On Corvée Labor in Ancient Canaan and Israel,” BASOR 167 (1962):31-35.
Rainey, A. F. “Compulsory Labour Gangs in Ancient Israel,” IEJ 20 (1971): 191-202.
Solomon’s Oppressive Policies
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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