The Ambivalence of Solomon

As a part of my annual Bible reading plan, reading through the Bible during the year, I've been in 1 Kings. What struck me going back through the story of Solomon once again was how deeply ambivalent a character Solomon is in the history of Israel.

Mostly, when we think of Solomon, we think of the good stuff. Namely three things. First, his humble request for wisdom in leading Israel. Second, his building the temple. And third, his leading Israel to its geo-political and economic zenith. 

For the first ten chapters of 1 Kings Solomon goes from one positive to another. And then--Bam!--a huge twist in the story comes in Chapter 11. In a few short verses we're told that as Solomon grows old his many foreign wives turn him toward idolatry. And not just any old idolatry, some pretty hard core stuff. For example:

So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.
Molech, you'll recall, is the god to whom the Israelites sacrificed their children to in the Valley of Hinnom (also called Gehenna). Molech worship, with its child sacrifices, is the worst case of idolatry recounted in the Old Testament, and its origin in Israel starts with Solomon. And because of this idolatry, at the end of Solomon's life, God declares that he will divide the nation. This divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, will pave the way to the final exile of both kingdoms. And it all traces back to Solomon. 

So, was Solomon a good king or a bad king?

The stories we tend to tell about Solomon are the ones suggesting that he was a good king. But Solomon's legacy, specifically his introduction of Molech worship into the life of Israel, seems to, at least in my eyes, wipe all that away. Solomon was a bad king, perhaps even the worst king of Israel.

What is curious to me is how 1 Kings is sort of mute about all this. Very little by way of explanation is given. The prolonged, ten chapter narrative of Solomon's rise to glory is followed by a very perfunctory and terse accounting of Solomon's fall in Chapter 11. It reads like an embarrassing coda. I'm sure the historical-critical scholars have had tons to say about all this, but I'm reading the story here canonically, listening for a word from the Lord. What's the take home message of the story of Solomon? Solomon's fall from grace into Molech worship seems so egregious as to call his entire legacy into question. And if it does, Solomon's whole story--from the request for wisdom, to the building of the temple, to his great wealth and power--has to be read as a very tragic and cautionary tale. 

Is Solomon's fall a sad ending to an otherwise glorious story, or a shadow that falls across the entire story, and even upon the legacy of the temple itself?

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