Ethiopian Christianity also includes the story that they conceived a child who came to the throne in Ethiopia, founding a branch of the house of David in Africa.
The story draws both on Solomon’s reputation as a lover of many women and his renown as the wisest ruler of his day. His royal harem may not have been as extravagant as the 700 wives and 300 concubines claimed by the Bible, but it was substantial.
Many of the marriages were made for diplomatic reasons and his wives included Hittites, Moabites, Edomites, Sidonians and Ammonites. The marriages did sometimes cause problems in his own kingdom, mainly because the foreign wives brought their own customs and religions, in contravention of many of the strict regulations governing ritual matters in Israel.
A new kind of king
Solomon changed the definition of kingship in ancient Israel. Unlike his warrior father, he offered sacrifices and blessed his people, taking over certain priestly functions. Rather than rely on prophets for divine messages, he communicated directly with God.
Determined to weaken tribal society and affirm central control, he established a new bureaucracy that was dependent on his influence, while priests and village elders were also integrated into the government.
He was exceptionally tolerant of pagan religions; elements of style and ritual from other cults were introduced into services at the temple and there was an increase in marriage with foreigners among his people. It has been argued that Solomon’s toleration of other religions led to the collapse of the kingdom after his death.
When he died and the throne passed to his son Rehoboam, the kingdom split in two. Eventually, both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah fell to foreign invaders.
A reputation for wisdom
Shortly after he became king, God said to Solomon in a dream, ‘Ask what I shall give you.’ He requested an ‘understanding mind to govern the people, that I may discern between good and evil’. The reply reflects a particular aspect of his reputation, his ability to give judicious decisions.
A famous example is the story of two harlots who gave birth to male children at the same time. When one child died, each woman claimed the living child as her own. Having heard their stories, Solomon asked for a sword. ‘Divide the living child in two,’ he said, ‘and give half to the one and half to the other.’ One woman agreed, but the other offered to give up the baby rather than see it killed. It was she who was the real mother as she had showed a mother’s compassion.
He is also celebrated for his use of proverbs, which drew on the lore of civilisations including Mesopotamia, Egypt and Canaan. He often used examples from the natural world and both in legend and in the Koran, Solomon was shown as having the ability to converse with birds and beasts. He was also a talented solver of riddles – a gift that entranced the Queen of Sheba.
Despite his power and reputation, Solomon continually sought to broaden his mind, seeking insights from all fields of knowledge and studying assiduously. He is said to have written the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Apocrypha.
Solomon created an organised, wealthy and visually magnificent nation-state and was prepared to be ruthless to attain his aims. But it is not his political and architectural achievements that have ultimately endured; it is his reputation as a judge and thinker that has continued in perpetuity.
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