Solomon’s Divine Wisdom: Legitimizing His Kingship
Soon after Solomon secures the throne (1 Kgs 2:46), following his father David’s death and the assassination of his many enemies, Solomon goes to the worship site in Gibeon and offers a thousand sacrifices to YHWH.
מלכים א ג:דוַיֵּ֨לֶךְ הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ גִּבְעֹ֙נָה֙ לִזְבֹּ֣חַ שָׁ֔ם כִּי־הִ֖יא הַבָּמָ֣ה הַגְּדוֹלָ֑ה אֶ֤לֶף עֹלוֹת֙ יַעֲלֶ֣ה שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה עַ֖ל הַמִּזְבֵּ֥חַ הַהֽוּא׃
1 Kgs 3:4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the largest shrine; on that altar Solomon presented a thousand burnt offerings.
That night, YHWH speaks to him in a dream:
מלכים א ג:ה בְּגִבְע֗וֹן נִרְאָ֧ה יְ־הֹוָ֛ה אֶל־שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה בַּחֲל֣וֹם הַלָּ֑יְלָה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים שְׁאַ֖ל מָ֥ה אֶתֶּן־לָֽךְ׃
1 Kgs 3:5 At Gibeon YHWH appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask, what shall I grant you?”
In his dream, Solomon responds by first detailing all the kindness God showed to his father David, and to him as David’s heir (v. 6). Then, he expresses his concern (v. 7), וְאָֽנֹכִי֙ נַ֣עַר קָטֹ֔ן לֹ֥א אֵדַ֖ע צֵ֥את וָבֹֽא, “but I am a young lad, with no experience in leadership,” which leads to Solomon’s request for wisdom:
מלכים א ג:ט וְנָתַתָּ֨ לְעַבְדְּךָ֜ לֵ֤ב שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶֽת־עַמְּךָ֔ לְהָבִ֖ין בֵּֽין־ט֣וֹב לְרָ֑ע כִּ֣י מִ֤י יוּכַל֙ לִשְׁפֹּ֔ט אֶת־עַמְּךָ֥ הַכָּבֵ֖ד הַזֶּֽה׃
1 Kgs 3:9 Grant, then, Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad; for who can judge this vast people of Yours?
Solomon’s response pleases God so much that he grants him unparalleled wisdom, far beyond his request, as well as other, more typical goals of royal aspiration:
מלכים א ג:יב הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ נָתַ֣תִּי לְךָ֗ לֵ֚ב חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֤ר כָּמ֙וֹךָ֙ לֹא־הָיָ֣ה לְפָנֶ֔יךָ וְאַחֲרֶ֖יךָ לֹא־יָק֥וּם כָּמֽוֹךָ׃ ג:יד וְגַ֨ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־שָׁאַ֙לְתָּ֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לָ֔ךְ גַּם־עֹ֖שֶׁר גַּם־כָּב֑וֹד אֲ֠שֶׁר לֹא־הָיָ֨ה כָמ֥וֹךָ אִ֛ישׁ בַּמְּלָכִ֖ים כָּל־יָמֶֽיךָ׃ ג:יד וְאִ֣ם ׀ תֵּלֵ֣ךְ בִּדְרָכַ֗י...וְהַאַרַכְתִּ֖י אֶת־יָמֶֽיךָ׃
1 Kgs 3:12 I grant you a wise and discerning mind; there has never been anyone like you before, nor will anyone like you arise again. 3:13 And I also grant you what you did not ask for—both riches and glory all your life—the like of which no king has ever had. 3:14 And if you will walk in My ways… I will further grant you long life.
Solomon then wakes up, realising that this dialogue transpired in a dream:
מלכים א ג:טו וַיִּקַ֥ץ שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה וְהִנֵּ֣ה חֲל֑וֹם
1 Kgs 3:15 Then Solomon awoke: and behold, it was a dream!
The familiar experience of waking from a dream provides a natural explanation for this second dream formula: in the first one (3:5) the narrator introduces the dream, but the second (3:15) takes the point of view of the dreamer, who grasps the nature of the incident only upon awakening. A similar framing is found in Pharaoh’s dreams in Genesis 41:5, 7. The Hebrew word והנה “and behold” is used in both cases (Gen 41:7 and 1 Kgs 3:15) to introduce the point of view of a character described initially in third person narration (“Pharaoh / Solomon awoke”).
Solomon Becomes Superhumanly Wise
The dream story functions to introduce Solomon’s amazing feats of wisdom, such as his solution in the case of the two prostitutes who each claim the same baby, which Solomon suggests dividing in half so as to reveal the true mother (1 Kgs 3:16–28). That story concludes:
מלכים א ג:כח וַיִּשְׁמְע֣וּ כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּט֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁפַ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיִּֽרְא֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ כִּ֣י רָא֔וּ כִּֽי־חׇכְמַ֧ת אֱלֹהִ֛ים בְּקִרְבּ֖וֹ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת מִשְׁפָּֽט:
1 Kgs 3:28 When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.
Later, in chapter 5, we are told that Solomon was wiser than all the sages throughout the known world:
מלכים א ה:ט וַיִּתֵּן֩ אֱלֹהִ֨ים חׇכְמָ֧ה לִשְׁלֹמֹ֛ה וּתְבוּנָ֖ה הַרְבֵּ֣ה מְאֹ֑ד וְרֹ֣חַב לֵ֔ב כַּח֕וֹל אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־שְׂפַ֥ת הַיָּֽם׃ ה:י וַתֵּ֙רֶב֙ חׇכְמַ֣ת שְׁלֹמֹ֔ה מֵחׇכְמַ֖ת כׇּל־בְּנֵי־קֶ֑דֶם וּמִכֹּ֖ל חׇכְמַ֥ת מִצְרָֽיִם׃ ה:יא וַיֶּחְכַּם֮ מִכׇּל־הָאָדָם֒ מֵאֵיתָ֣ן הָאֶזְרָחִ֗י וְהֵימָ֧ן וְכַלְכֹּ֛ל וְדַרְדַּ֖ע בְּנֵ֣י מָח֑וֹל וַיְהִֽי־שְׁמ֥וֹ בְכׇֽל־הַגּוֹיִ֖ם סָבִֽיב׃
1 Kgs 5:9 YHWH endowed Solomon with wisdom and discernment in great measure, with understanding as vast as the sands on the seashore. 5:10 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the Kedemites and than all the wisdom of the Egyptians. 5:11 He was the wisest of all men: wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Chalkol, and Darda the sons of Mahol. His fame spread among all the surrounding nations.
The spectacular wisdom, wealth and splendor, mythical qualities of king Solomon according to 1 Kings 3–10, all emanate from the divine response to the king’s choice of wisdom when God offered to grant him a wish.
A Promise with a Personal Touch
God’s bestowing of wealth and wisdom upon Solomon, and even the offer of a free wish, are rooted in a royal ideology well-known in the Bible and the ancient Near East. For example:
תהלים ב:ח שְׁאַ֤ל מִמֶּ֗נִּי וְאֶתְּנָ֣ה ג֭וֹיִם נַחֲלָתֶ֑ךָ וַ֝אֲחֻזָּתְךָ֗ אַפְסֵי־אָֽרֶץ׃
Ps 2:8 Ask it of Me, and I will make the nations your domain; your estate, the limits of the earth.
But such texts usually portray divine patronage in general, including the crushing of enemies, dominion “from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8), and eternal dynasty. We find such general promises to Solomon regarding his dynasty, the nation, and the temple in (Deuteronomistic) direct speeches in 9:2–9 and 11:11–13.
In contrast, God’s promises to Solomon in his dream focus on the individual aspect of material success and wisdom, in what is an individual, personal, experience; even the promise of longevity (3:14) concerns the king and not his dynasty.
The choice of the dream medium seems compatible with this personalized royal ideology. And yet, in the historical books of the Bible, YHWH generally conveys messages to kings through prophets, not through dreams. What inspired the choice of this rare and controversial medium for this account?
Solomon’s Dream — A Vestige of an Incubation Story
A. Leo Oppenheim, in his 1956 groundbreaking work on dreams in the Bible and the ancient Near East, notes that the story begins by Solomon going to the holy place in Gibeon and offering sacrifices, and thus, reads it as a description of dream incubation. In this ritual—found in ancient Greece, Hellenistic Egypt, as well as the ancient Near East—a person would go to a deity’s temple, offer sacrifices, make a petition, and then sleep there hoping to receive a response from the deity in a dream.
Such a setting would explain the opening of the dialogue as YHWH’s response to the king’s gesture: “Ask, what shall I grant you?” (1 Kgs 3:5); YHWH is responding as a deity would in an incubation process. Certainly, Solomon’s “thousand burnt offerings” is enough to gain the deity’s attention.
However, the text does not connect Solomon’s sacrifices directly to his dream. Instead of the dream formula following the report of the sacrifice in the Bible’s usual narrative style: וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו שָׁם י־הוה בַּחֲלוֹם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא... – “so YHWH appeared to him there in a dream that night,” it reads awkwardly: בְּגִבְע֗וֹן נִרְאָ֧ה יְ־הֹוָ֛ה אֶל־שְׁלֹמֹ֖ה בַּחֲל֣וֹם הַלָּ֑יְלָה “At Gibeon, YHWH appeared to Solomon in a dream by night,” as though it is another event that happened to take place at Gibeon, whether on the same night or even on some other night. Thus, even if in an early form of the story, Solomon’s dream was the outcome of an incubation ritual, its presentation in Kings makes it a divine initiative.
The “Royal Novella” and the Dreams of Temple Builders
The German Bible scholar Siegfried Hermann (1926–1999) suggested that the roots of Solomon’s dream are in the “Royal Novella” (Königsnovelle). Stories from this ancient literary genre, which probably originated in royal courts, told of how a given king was visited by a deity, usually in a dream, and given instructions, often to repair the deity’s temple, thus glorifying the monarch and acclaiming his building projects.
The Sphinx (Egypt) and Ningirsu (Sumer)
For example, the Royal Novella of Thutmose IV (d. ca. 1391 B.C.E.) tells how, when he was the crown prince, he fell asleep at midday in the shadow of the Sphinx at Giza. In his dream, inscribed on the Sphinx Stela, the prince “found the Majesty of this venerable God speaking… as a father speaks to his son,” reassuring him of his personal care, promising him “the land in its length and breadth,” and asking that the prince remove the desert sand that faces him (= the Sphinx).
Beyond the ancient Egyptian and Israelite domain of Hermann’s “Royal Novella,” dreams were a current and acceptable medium also elsewhere in the ancient Near East for divine requests concerning the building of temples and other matters of the cult.
Perhaps the most famous example in Mesopotamia comes from 21st century B.C.E. Sumerian city of Lagash. Gudea, the ruler of Lagash, had a dream in which the god Ningirsu commissioned him to build his temple, Enninu. The encounter, repeatedly named “a dream” (ma-mú), is enigmatic for Gudea and requires interpretation (Gudea Cylinder A i:17 – vi:14). It is later followed by another dream and a vision, both incubated at the site of the future temple (A ix:5 – xii:11; xx:5-12).
The Cylinders of Gudea seem to present a graded rise from an enigmatic dream to incubated vision, which can be linked to the growing closeness – both in personal and in spatial relation – between Gudea, the prospective temple builder, and his god.
YHWH Doesn’t Ask Solomon to Build a Temple
Solomon too is a temple builder, and the dream story is placed before his temple building. In this sense, the story fits the model of Gudea and Thutmose IV, and yet, unlike these ANE examples, the story of Solomon’s dream is devoted to Solomon’s wisdom and says nothing about building a temple or renovating a cult center.
Nevertheless, Arvid S. Kapelrud (1912–1994) of the University of Oslo, argued that the original dream story featured the divine commission of Solomon to build the temple, which was later driven aside by the wisdom theme. Similarly, Moshe Weinfeld (1925–2009) of the Hebrew University posited a Deuteronomistic transformation of what was originally temple-building wisdom into judicial wisdom. But there is no literary or textual evidence for such an original story, and instructive as they may be, the parallels with the Gudea text should not be forced into identity.
Instead, we should see the unusual content of the story, as explaining Solomon’s all-embracing divine gift of wisdom with the legendary wealth and glory that came with it, as the key to understanding the function of this royal novella in the Solomon complex.
A Necessary Part of the Story
According to the book of Kings, Solomon was a younger son of David, and took the throne when still a youth. As part of this process, he had his older brother killed, as well as his father’s chief general Joab, and a scion of Saul’s family (Shimei ben Gerah) to boot. He also removed Abiathar, one of the high priests, from the Temple. Such a tumultuous beginning could easily be described as an internal coup.
Following on the heels of Solomon’s tumultuous beginning, and looking forward to his new but controversial style of kingship, the dream account provides him with divine approval and support. Solomon is not an illegitimate usurper, but the king favored by YHWH.
His unprecedented building projects that took such a heavy toll from the people, as well as his great diplomatic and literary achievements, all emanate from the divine gift of wisdom, which he requested in response to YHWH’s offer of a free wish. His response was not self-aggrandizing, but motivated by the best cause imaginable: to better serve his people.
The message here was likely aimed at the northern Israelites as well, as the Davidic dynasty saw itself as the legitimate ruler of both north and south. The royal act of worship in Gibeon, and God’s appearance to him there, would establish a connection between Solomon and this worship to his north. Even the choice of a dream account may have been motivated by the wish to connect with north Israelite ethos, where dreams appear to have been more respected as sources of revelation than they were in the south. The story ends with worship and celebration in Jerusalem, thus appealing to the various populaces.
The dream at the beginning of chapter 3, situated between Solomon’s many executions and the description of his reign, serves to vindicate Solomon’s accession and reign by linking it all to his divine gift of superhuman wisdom, a main theme of an early account of Solomon.
Dreamt Wisdom as a Game Changer
YHWH’s promise to Solomon turns him into the embodiment of wisdom values, such as are found in Proverbs. His receiving wisdom together with wealth, glory, and long life expresses a belief inherent in this tradition, that the former leads to the latter:
משלי ג:יג אַשְׁרֵ֣י אָ֭דָם מָצָ֣א חׇכְמָ֑ה וְ֝אָדָ֗ם יָפִ֥יק תְּבוּנָֽה… ג:טז אֹ֣רֶךְ יָ֭מִים בִּֽימִינָ֑הּ בִּ֝שְׂמֹאולָ֗הּ עֹ֣שֶׁר וְכָבֽוֹד׃ ג:יז דְּרָכֶ֥יהָ דַרְכֵי־נֹ֑עַם וְֽכׇל־נְתִ֖יבוֹתֶ֣יהָ שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Prov 3:13 Happy is the man who finds wisdom, the man who attains understanding… 3:16 In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honor. 3:17 Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths, peaceful.
By asking for wisdom, and thereby receiving wealth and glory, Solomon shows that he is already a student of wisdom’s teachings. Thus, dream and reality interact in the Solomon narrative to form continuity: the wisdom hierarchy of values current in the teaching of sages to their disciples “by day,” is reflected in the actions and decisions taken by Solomon in the “dream by night”, and, these, in turn, have direct impact on subsequent events in his daytime reality.
Solomon’s request for wisdom comes, curiously, after he is already described as wise in the previous chapters. When David entrusts him with the elimination of Shimei son of Gera, he says:
מלכים א ב:ט וְעַתָּה֙ אַל־תְּנַקֵּ֔הוּ כִּ֛י אִ֥ישׁ חָכָ֖ם אָ֑תָּה וְיָֽדַעְתָּ֙ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשֶׂה־לּ֔וֹ...
1 Kgs 2:9 So do not let him go unpunished; for you are a wise man and you will know how to deal with him…
Admittedly, the wisdom of government differs from the wisdom of eliminating personal enemies. Alternatively, the curiosity can be accounted for by the difference between human wisdom, which Solomon possessed before the dream, and the divine wisdom, which he has thereafter. Another, inspiring explanation could be drawn from R. Yochanan’s dictum (b. Ber 55a) that God “only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom,” in line with a literal interpretation of Dan 2:21 יָהֵ֤ב חָכְמְתָא֙ לְחַכִּימִ֔ין “He gives the wise their wisdom.”
While Solomon may have been wise from the beginning, after the dream, and God’s fulfilment of Solomon’s request, his wisdom grows in leaps and bounds, and is described in detailed, hyperbolic praise:
מלכים א ה:יב וַיְדַבֵּ֕ר שְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת אֲלָפִ֖ים מָשָׁ֑ל וַיְהִ֥י שִׁיר֖וֹ חֲמִשָּׁ֥ה וָאָֽלֶף׃ ה:יג וַיְדַבֵּר֮ עַל־הָעֵצִים֒ מִן־הָאֶ֙רֶז֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּלְּבָנ֔וֹן וְעַד֙ הָאֵז֔וֹב אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹצֵ֖א בַּקִּ֑יר וַיְדַבֵּר֙ עַל־הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה וְעַל־הָע֔וֹף וְעַל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַל־הַדָּגִֽים׃ ה:יד וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִכׇּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים לִשְׁמֹ֕עַ אֵ֖ת חׇכְמַ֣ת שְׁלֹמֹ֑ה מֵאֵת֙ כׇּל־מַלְכֵ֣י הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָֽׁמְע֖וּ אֶת־חׇכְמָתֽוֹ׃
1 Kgs 5:12 He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered one thousand and five. 5:13 He discoursed about trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; and he discoursed about beasts, birds, creeping things, and fishes. 5:14 Men of all peoples came to hear Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
Such wisdom could only come from divine intervention, at least that is what the book of Kings is trying to convey by describing Solomon in these glowing terms, and by introducing the narrative about his reign with the story of the dream in Gibeon.
The use of an intimate auditory dream account as an apologia for Solomon and a sympathetic prelude to his reign, was a tour de force of public relations. If the dream had never occurred, some master of wisdom in the Judahite court would have had to invent it.
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Dr. Ruth Fidler is a senior lecturer in the department of Biblical Studies at Gordon Academic College of Education, Haifa. She holds an M.A. from the University of Manchester, UK and a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem; co-author (with Prof. Ze’ev Weisman) and academic developer in the Open University course מבוא למקרא [Introduction to the Bible]; author of ‘Dreams Speak Falsely’? Dream Theophanies in the Bible: Their Place in Ancient Israelite Faith and Traditions (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005) [Hebrew].
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