Solomon’s wisdom

1 Kings 4:29 reports that God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight. Yet his wisdom was secular and not spiritual.

His father, David, for all his flaws, had spiritual wisdom. He understood the nature of a relationship with Yahweh, who demanded ethical behaviour. David also understood the need for forgiveness when he did things that were grossly wrong. Solomon demonstrated none of this wisdom.

Solomon began his reign by striking down those who posed a threat to his reign. He then imposed forced labour on the people in order to ensure that his building projects were completed most cheaply. He broke asunder the tribal arrangements, and made his own division of the nation into twelve administrative groups, with each administrator answerable to him through one of Solomon’s subordinates. He made an arrangement with the King of Tyre to supply timber for building his palace and a temple for Yahweh, for which he was prepared to give up some of his own territory.

Solomon married many times, choosing princesses from foreign countries. The resulting diplomatic arrangements gave him wonderful opportunities to gain insights into the ways of thinking in these other places. Solomon would have inherited something of David’s hopes for Yahweh’s reign extended over the whole world, capturing the vision of the creation hymn of Genesis 1:

Psalm 24: The earth is Yahweh’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.

Solomon believed that acquiring wisdom would advance the interests of his kingdom. Indeed, there was no other period in Israel’s history where the intelligentsia were better placed to be exposed to the wisdom of the nations, and also to be open to learn from it.

The works that can be dated to this time are:

  1. Proverbs
  2. Ecclesiastes
  3. Song of Songs (Latin – Canticles)
  4. Job

Proverbs

Parallels to Proverbs have been observed in the writings of both the Babylonians and the Egyptians [Barton, 407-412]. Yet rather than dwelling on these parallels, it is better to say that the Biblical writer’s work was enriched by drawing on the wisdom of the more advanced societies around him, rather than being slavishly dependent upon these works. It is likely that Proverbs was the collective work of several scholars of Solomon’s time.

Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is a composite work, with the basic structure being written in the time of Solomon, probably by Solomon himself, with a quite positive outlook on life. However, this is not the perspective we find when we read the work as it has come down to us, since it was updated in the Persian period to reflect more closely the difficulties for the Israelites during that time.

At least in “Solomon’s Ecclesiastes” we see echoes of the traditional Babylonian wisdom literature such as is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh [Barton, 412]. Here Gilgamesh is encouraged to make the most of life:

O Gilgamesh, indeed fill your belly; be joyful day and night; ordain gladness each day; rage and make merry each day.

Let your garments be bright; and purify your head, washing it with water.

Desire the children that are in your hand, and in your bosom enjoy your wife.

While “Solomon’s Ecclesiastes” acknowledges the joys that follow from the ordinary pursuits of life, it also reflects upon the futility of a life of pleasure and ease. One cannot escape the impression that the work is a reflection on the futility of the life of King Solomon himself.

In addition, Ecclesiastes also incorporates an acknowledgment of the Egyptian idea of eternal life and of a final judgment. This was new idea, particularly for those like King David who had been brought up on the J Source creation account, in which eternal life had been taken out of prospect when the first couple were denied access to the Tree of Life.

Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is the expression of love between a woman and man. While it is sometimes read as a rich source of allegorical interpretations, that is a secondary reading. As written, it is an expression of the anticipation of sexual passion, reflecting the imagery that was a part of the Babylonian cult of the goddess of sex and war, Ishtar.

The Biblical Song of Songs is primarily written from the perspective of the woman who desires the king, her lover. She talks about the many different feelings she has. She wants to share these feelings with her friends. While he talks to her about her, he cares nothing for what others think.

In the Ishtar myth, the goddess Ishtar tricked her lover, Damuzi, into taking her place in the underworld, but she has to descend to the underworld each year in order to bring Damuzi back to life. This is an annual ritual, designed to revive vegetation, and culminating in their sexual union.

A single catalog of Ishtar hymns (translated by Meek in 1924 – only the catalog has survived), brings out the idea of the goddess desiring Damuzi and being available to him for sexual congress.

I beheld my man. Shine out like a star in the sky!
I sing a dirge over his death.
My desire rejoices my heart. Your words are my life!
I long for the bountiful one.
My lord embraces me. Come take me, I am yours!
I am pressed to your breast. We spend the night together.
Vegetation is revived.

There is little doubt that Babylonian Ishtar hymns inspired the writer of this work. Even so, the Song of Songs has nothing of the cultic elements of those hymns. In fact, it could have been an attempt to channel the “open sex” of the Ishtar cult into the accepted channels of a marriage relationship.

The Ishtar cult was a living reality for Canaanite society, and it continued to draw Israelites into its web right through the period of the kings. Yet here was a story of human love, in which no cultic overtones were present.

She says:

My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.

His head is purest gold, his hair is wavy and black as a raven.

His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed with milk, mounted like jewels …

This is my lover, this my friend, O daughter of Jerusalem.

He responds:

You are beautiful, my darling, as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, majestic as troops with banners.

Turn your eyes from me; they overwhelm me. …

Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique, the only daughter of her mother, the favourite of the one who bore her.

The Song of Songs, written with a woman’s voice, reflects her desire for time with her husband (leading to sexual union).

An alternative view of the relationship of a man and woman is found in Proverbs 31. While the model of the ideal woman of Proverbs 31 may not appeal to everyone, at least it presents a picture of a true partnership in marriage, giving the woman an independent role as a part of that partnership.

Despite its limitations as a representation of human sexual relationships, perhaps the Song of Songs survived in the Hebrew canon because it represents a recognition of the importance of the sexual relationship between a man and his wife. More importantly, it did this it in a way that did not require the perpetuation of the imagery of the Ishtar cult when considering that relationship.

Job

The Biblical book of Job is a literary marvel for its time. The author cast the work in the far distant past, using the name of God used by the Patriarchs, El Shaddai. To do so, he must have been aware of the Akkadian Source material that has come down to us in Genesis. This rather sets him apart from other writers of that time, with only one psalm from David’s time drawing on that source’s creation hymn – Psalm 24.

This work faces up to the dilemma of all theologians: how can one discern the purpose of suffering? A Babylonian hymn discusses this problem [Barton, 392-397]:

What in one’s heart is contemptible, to one’s god is good! Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven? The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand? Where may human beings learn the ways of god?

He who lives at evening is dead in the morning. Quickly he is troubled; all at once he is oppressed. At one moment he sings and plays; in the twinkling of an eye he howls like a funeral-mourner.

Like sunshine and cloud their thoughts change; they are hungry and like a corpse. They are filled and rival their god! In prosperity they speak of climbing to heaven. Trouble overtakes them and they speak of going down to Sheol.

These issues are also considered by the writer of Job. In both works the one who suffered one eventually gains relief, but in Job’s case he maintained his faith in God, despite his difficulties.

The answer to the problem of suffering in the Biblical book of Job is not primarily found in the cure of Job’s troubles (as it is the parallel Babylonian account), but in Elihu’s response, which encourages the sufferer to trust in the ultimate goodness of God.

In the Persian period, Elihu’s answer was not thought to be adequate, with this leading to a response being put into God’s mouth, asserting that the recognition that some things are too deep for us to understand.

Bibliography

George A. Barton, Archeology and the Bible (American Sunday School: Philadephia, 1937).

Theophile James Meek, “Babylonian Parallales to the Song of Songs,” JBL, Vol. 43 (1924), 245-252.

 

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