Hiram Abif, The Man


There is an attempt to write history that is merely a rearrangement of documents, dry or dead, and there is an attempt, born of fancy, which sails off into the air in child-like indifference to facts. Most essays on Hiram Abif have fallen between these two stools but that cannot be said of this beautiful study, which is an imaginative reconstruction based on the most careful studies of history. It is a pleasure to publish here this contribution from a friend and brother who for long has been so loyal a worker in this Society, and who, so Ye Editor is happy to report, has been a personal inspiration to those who work at headquarters. If this essay proves to be the first chapter of a book, as Bro. Williamson plans it to be, we shall be safe in predicting for it a wide reading.

WHEN King Solomon stepped over from his palace every day to watch the building of the great Temple in Jerusalem, he was met by a broad-shouldered, swarthy man, standing about five feet six inches in height, wearing his black hair in curls to his shoulders and bearing himself with the dignity that was natural in a man who, while still young, had won such fame as to be called to undertake the greatest work of construction that the Israelites had ever attempted.

That man was Hiram, called Abif. Biblical history says little about him and profane history nothing, but amid the crowd of courtiers and figures in Israel that are mentioned in the biblical descriptions of Solomon's reign, where the king, himself, his chief queen, the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Queen of Sheba, King Hiram of Tyre, Adoniram the tax collector and the officers he placed over the various districts, including his son-in-law Ahimaaz, fill so large a place in the public eye, this Hiram Abif stands out as a personage. In the feasts and entertainments with which Solomon must have made his people merry in the same way as his neighbouring princes made theirs, Hiram Abif was undoubtedly a prominent guest, for in Egypt men who built and decorated temples were honoured and, in a city where a princess of Egypt was queen, accustomed from her earliest days to rule, she would quite naturally set the fashion. Hiram, too, accustomed to the atmosphere of courts, for he the friend of King Hiram of Tyre, and as an artist designer was a man of rank and standing in Phoenician cities, as judging from the remains visible of the architecture of those regions, an architect was also an artist in all the cities around the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. In short, Hiram must have appeared to the people to be a prince. In addressing him they would call him "lord" and regard him as of only a little lower rank than the sovereign.

What raised him even higher in the eyes of the Hebrews of Jerusalem was the fact that he was an artist. In a Temple to the great Jehovah there could be no figure of man or of beast, such as was common in Phoenicia at both Tyre and Sidon, and such as the Egyptian princess knew in the land of her birth. There could, however, be images of beautiful flowers, of lilies and of palm leaves, of strange creatures with faces of men, wings of birds and feet of animals, and there could be intricate and graceful arabesques and geometrical designs. Hiram Abif's was the ability that could produce such works and a people who but a few generations previously had lived in tents must have looked at him with awe. In Phoenicia he had probably had many men working under him to whom he was absolute master, and this while he was what today would be described as scarcely more than a youth. He was the son, too, of a man evidently famous in his time.

To understand what position he held at the court of his master, Hiram, and that of King Solomon as well, it must be realized that Hiram Abif was not a brass-worker in the same sense that the word is used now, but was a master artist in the working of metals; a man who, thanks to the gifts of his royal sovereign, was among the wealthy subjects of the Tyrian monarch. Nor would he be regarded as altogether a foreigner in Jerusalem, for it was undoubtedly known to everyone at Solomon's capital that this master craftsman, this artist lord and prince, was the son of a Jewish mother. His language was the same as that of the Jewish people, except perhaps for a different sound to this or that letter, and it is even possible, owing to the fact that his mother was a Jewess, that he spoke pure Jewish without a trace of accent. To the poor of the nation and to the lower ranks he would seem to be an Israelite as much as themselves, and it may be that, by contrast with Adoniram, who, as collector of the tribute, would be hated, he was actually popular, although the people were groaning beneath the taxes and forced labour drawn from them to erect the very building of which he was the constructor.

Prince though he was and rich lord in the eyes of the people, when he was called before Solomon he fell upon his face before the great king and so remained. That was the universal custom in the courts of despotic Eastern rulers and Solomon was not different, as the biblical descriptions reveal, from other monarchs of the time. The King of Israel possessed absolute authority and was accountable to no human power. Nor did Hiram rise until he was ordered to do so. So it was with the highest subjects in Egypt and in Chaldea before their royal masters and so it was at the court of King Solomon. But there must have existed a kind of intimacy between the king and his chief artist, and it is likely that in the social life of the court Hiram Abif was one of the circle of friends with whom Solomon surrounded himself. Hence the abject signs of obedience demanded of a subject in all Oriental courts would only be required of the half-Tyrian in public, while in private he would be admitted to the close confidence of the great king. No such a principle as democracy was ever known in an Oriental country and all honours and advancement could come from but one source, the throne. It is easy to understand, therefore, that every person around Solomon must have won his employment by a certain subserviency to the master's will. However free and upstanding he might be in the building of the Temple, Hiram was a courtier when in the presence of the Israelite monarch and behaved as all the other courtiers conducted themselves. It was the manner of the times and he could never have won his way to eminence by any other course. And Solomon was no easy ruler to deal with, for he was subject to the whims of the women in his palace and the whip, judging from the comment of his son, Rehoboam, was freely used upon his people.


When the sun went down Hiram Abif would be found at his own home in the midst of the women of his household, as it is not probable that a young Tyrian lord, brought up in strict accordance with the customs of the Phoenicians and their neighbours, would remain unmarried long after reaching the age of sixteen, for child marriages were the rule in the ancient Orient from the earliest times of which there is anything known, just as they are today. The men employed upon the Temple, both those from abroad and the subjects of Solomon, were housed in a temporary village built especially for them, because there would be no, place in the city of Jerusalem. Their quarters would certainly be far from luxurious, but they were probably kept clean and the wives of the workers, who, of course, accompanied them in compliance with the customs of all Eastern peoples, lived there, too, preparing the meals, looking after small wants and raising their families. But Hiram Abif was not one of these people. Either through his father's efforts and talents, or because of his own early genius, he would long since have been placed in a higher class and these people would regard themselves as his servants. They recognized that they were apart from him. In dress, bearing and in all his surroundings he was very different from them in every respect.

It is almost possible to reconstruct the daily life of Hiram the artificer by taking what is known of the, history of Phoenicia, its people and its industries,; utilizing what modern learning has revealed to us about the Israelite monarchy and its place among the states of the times, and judging from the available facts just what position he would have held in an Eastern despotism if he were alive today. Yet the actual references to him in all ancient literature are few - six in the Bible, two or three in Menander and Dius, as quoted by Josephus, and two or three more independent references by Josephus, himself. His fame; the greatness of which in his day must have been such that his connection with the Temple at Jerusalem was deemed a notable event, was almost completely over shadowed in the course of a few centuries by the development of the legend of King Solomon's greatness. Stories formerly attributed to tribal heroes of the whole Semitic race gradually clustered around Solomon, until the king of the Bible narrative had become a superhuman being, a demigod like the Hercules of the Greeks, and the important parts played by those associated with him in the building of the Temple had been forgotten or belittled. Hiram Abif was not alone in thus losing what may be termed the center of the stage. Adoniram, the master of the tribute, under whose direction the always mutinous and turbulent Israelites were compelled to perform the, to them, new labour of cutting trees in the forests of Lebanon and hauling the logs down to the sea, deserves a greater place in the history of the work than has been given him, and it was he, too, who had to devise the means of collecting what must have been huge taxes from a people that prior to the previous reign had probably been called on to contribute little toward the support of the king. The rulers in the different districts, enumerated in the account in Kings, all had their share in the work and all had their troubles to overcome.

But, as time passed, Solomon became more and more the hero of the story and the others dropped out of it or into subordinate positions. Thus Hiram, a leader among the artists in metal work of Phoenicia, the industry for which that country had been famous for centuries in all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and even as far as Assyria toward the east, occupies in the story as it has come down to us a position much lower than that which he actually held, as shown by the accounts preserved of the building of Egyptian temples and the rank of the men who held similar positions there to that of Hiram.

The oldest notice of Hiram Abif is in First Kings, VII:13, 14: "And King Solomon sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre. He was a widow's son of the tribe of Naphtali and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in brass; and he was filled with wisdom and understanding and cunning to work all kinds of brass. And he came to King Solomon and wrought all his work." The account in Chronicles is in the Second Book, II:13, 14, where King Hiram of Tyre is represented as saying: "And now I have sent a cunning man, endued with understanding, Huram my father's, the son of a woman of the daughters of Dan, and his father was a man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold and in silver, in brass, in iron, in stone and in timber, in purple and blue and fine linen, and in crimson, and to find out every device which shall be put to him, with thy cunning men and with the cunning men of David, thy father."


King Hiram, of Tyre, reigned from 969 to 936 B.C., and the building of the Temple at Jerusalem was begun by Solomon in the eleventh year of his Tyrian contemporary's rule, or in 958. The two books of which Kings is composed were not all written at the same time and the authors, or editors, themselves refer to two of their sources of information as "The Acts of Solomon" and "The Book of Jashar," but it is the general belief of biblical scholars that, according to the method of Hebrew writers, the actual text of the older narratives has been preserved, though the book itself did not assume the form in which we have it before 535 B.C. It is not thought that the description of the building of the Temple is of contemporary date, for instance, but was probably written long afterwards, yet the late William Robertson Smith and Prof. E. Kautsch, of Halle, have written that it is probable the original author had access to exact particulars as to dates, the "artist Hiram and so forth, which may have been contained in the Temple records." At any rate, of several accounts of Solomon's reign and the building of the Temple, the only one we possess is Kings that is at all near the date of the event cords. The account in Chronicles is now generally assumed by scholars to be founded upon the earlier canonical books of the Bible with the exception of a lost volume called "The Book of the Kings of Israel," referred to in Chronicles itself. The editor of Chronicles has introduced material peculiar to himself, the value of which is not accepted without question, and the book was compiled some time after 300 B.C., nearly seven centuries after the time of Solomon and the building of the Temple.

Among the alterations made by the Chronicler, unfortunately, are those which cause the account of Hiram Abif to differ in Chronicles from that in Kings. Indeed, it is in Chronicles that the addition of "abif" to the name of Hiram occurs, or rather, as it is in the Hebrew, "abi" in one place, meaning "my father," and abiw" in the other place, meaning "his father." The "w" in the latter word is an attempt to transliterate the Hebrew letter that was formerly called "vav" into, English. It is still pronounced "v" among the Jewish-speaking people of Southern Russia and Rumania and at the time Luther translated the Bible into German, it was so sounded by the scholars of Western Europe, whence in translating the Hebrew into English, Miles Coverdale, who followed Luther's views, made the word "Abif" or "Abiv." It is from this source that we obtain the name Hiram Abif.

It is to the Chronicler, too, that we owe the statement that Hiram Abif, besides being a worker in brass, was "skillful to work in iron, in stone, and in timber, in purple and fine linen" and all the rest of that description, which, as Tyre was not different from other lands of the age, is very unlikely. As the metal workers of the lands of antiquity were called upon to devise art work of the greatest technical ingenuity and artistist taste, it is not improbable that Hiram Abif was able to work gold and silver and copper as well as brass, and he may even have known how to treat iron, as the Chronicler says. That he would have been a worker in stone and timber, however, is contrary to all tradition in the Orient, and it is out of the question to imagine him turning his hand to "purple and blue a linen," which, although it was one of the most important industries of Tyre, was entirely foreign to metal working.

And neither the Chronicler nor the author of Kings gives us any inkling of what finally became of Hiram Abif. "So Huram made an end of doing the work that he wrought for King Solomon in the house of God," says the Chronicler, just as the author of the description in Kings had written at least three centuries before him: "So Hiram made an end of doing all the work that he wrought for King Solomon in the house of Jehovah."