KING SOLOMAN WAS A PRODUCT of the scandalous liaison between King David and Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. It was not an auspicious beginning. He was then brought up in that hotbed of intrigue and ostentation that was his father's court, and that was less than conducive to the development of sound moral character. He also spent his formative years under the thumb of his beautiful but conniving mother, who had browbeaten David on his deathbed into giving him the throne in the first place. It is a wonder he turned out as well as he did.

He was the first of the big-time spenders, and the menu that he and his retinue consumed per diem reads like the inventory of General Foods: a thousand measures of flour and meal plus ten oxen, twenty steers, and one hundred sheep, not to mention a garnishing of harts, gazelles, roebucks, and butterball chickens for when their jaded palates were in need of reupholstering. He had forty thousand horses with twelve thousand horsemen to keep them in shape, and recent excavations of his stables indicate that these figures aren't as far out of line as they might seem. His building program isn't to be overlooked either.

He put up a temple in Jerusalem that had to be seen to be believed. It stood three stories high, and you entered it through a soaring porch of Egyptian design that was flanked by two thirty-foot free-standing bronze columns with carved lilies on top. It had cedar ceilings, cypress floors, and olive-wood doors, and the amount of gold they used to trim it inside and out would have bankrupted Fort Knox. Seven years was what it took him to finish this job for God, and he then proceeded to build a palace for himself, which took thirteen. It was composed of the House of the Forest of Lebanon, the Hall of Pillars, the Hall of the Throne, and the Hall of Judgment. These were for show. He also had them knock together a nice little place for his personal use and another for his wife, the daughter of Pharaoh.

The daughter of Pharaoh was not his only wife. Perhaps the reason they preferred separate bedrooms was that he had six hundred and ninety-nine more. Just in case they all happened to be busy at the same time some evening, he also had three hundred other ladies who were ready to drop everything for him at a moment's notice. Some of these were Moabites or Ammonites, some were Edomites or Sidonians, and there were five or six dozen Hittites thrown in to round things out. It was a regular smorgasbord.

Somehow he found time to run the country too, and in some ways he didn't make too bad a job of it. His reign lasted forty years, and Israel was at peace the whole time. He made advantageous treaties with both Egypt and Tyre, and in partnership with Hiram, king of Tyre, maintained a fleet of oceangoing ships that did a brisk export-import business with a number of Mediterranean ports, dealing in things like gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. He also made a killing as a horse trader.

Unfortunately the price for all this ran pretty high, and it was his subjects who had to pick up the tab. In order to finance his building program he had to bleed them white with tolls and taxes. In order to get people to run the bulldozers and bench saws, he had to press them into forced labor gangs. You don't keep seven hundred wives and three hundred lady friends happy on peanuts either, and it was the people who had to foot that bill too. When some of them revolted in the north under the leadership of Jeroboam, he managed to quash it successfully, but instead of solving the problem, that just postponed it.

Furthermore, his taste for foreign ladies got him into more kinds of trouble than just financial. They worshiped a whole carnival of fancy foreign gods, and in his old age Solomon decided to play it safe by seeing to it that not one of them went neglected. He put up expensive altars to Ashtoreth of the Sidonians, Milcom of the Ammonites, and Chemoth of the Moabites, to name just a few, and Yahweh was so furious he said it was only for the sake of his father, David, that he didn't settle Israel's hash right then and there. As it was, he said he'd wait a few years.

In spite of everything, Solomon was famous for his great wisdom. There wasn't a riddle he couldn't crack with one hand tied behind him, and he tossed off so many bon mots in the course of a day that it reached the point where people figured that if anything clever was said anywhere, it must have been Solomon who originally said it, and the whole book of Proverbs was ascribed to his hand. His judgments in court were also praised to the skies, the most famous of them involving a couple of women each of whom claimed to be the mother of the same child, to which Solomon proposed the simple solution of slicing the child down the middle and giving each one half. When the first girl said that was fine by her and the second girl said she'd rather lose the case, Solomon awarded the child to the second girl, and it was all over Jerusalem within the hour.

But wisdom is more than riddles and wisecracks and courtroom coups, and in most things that mattered King Solomon was among the wisest fools who ever wore a crown. He didn't even have the wit to say "Apres moi, le deluge" in Hebrew and was hardly cold in his grave when revolution split the country in two. From there on out the history of Israel was an almost unbroken series of disasters.

1 Kings 3-11

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words 

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