In search of Solomon
or It aint necessarily so
By WBro Roy Evans, PGS, Junior Warden
An address given on 7 February 2005
This address is a brief excursion into an interesting
period in the history of the ancient Near East. It is loosely
based on a lecture given by Professor Philip Davies from
the Department of Biblical Studies at Sheffield University
to a gathering of English Freemasons.
Since the 1970's in particular, archaeology and the work
of Biblical scholars have led to considerable re-interpretation
of the events and personalities of the period in which the
Bible tells us that David and Solomon ruled over the United
Monarchy of Israel and Judah. Although, of course, the information
available tells us only a small portion of what actually
happened in those far off times, and new discoveries are
constantly adding to our knowledge and thereby modifying
previously held views.
The first thing to be said is that the only direct source
of information about Solomon - and his temple - is from
the Bible. There is no other source independent of the Bible
that mentions either. Solomon is named nowhere by any other
ancient contemporary, and the remains of his temple cannot
be recovered. We are presented only with a story, or rather
a twice-told story, given once in the first book of Kings
and again in the second book of Chronicles. The story might
be history or legend, or a combination of both. Can we discover
the likely truth?
Thanks to work done in the last thirty five years or so,
perhaps we can get close. In 1968 four Israeli archaeologists
took advantage of Israel's occupation of the West Bank to
conduct a series of surveys of the traditional homeland
of ancient Israel, in the central highlands of what is now
called Palestine. This survey has since been followed up
by more detailed excavations of key sites, and as a result
we now know something more about the origins of the ancient
Israelites than we did before. And this knowledge tells
us in turn something about the kingdom of David and Solomon.
So let us, if we can, set aside our preconceptions of the
Old Testament stories as far as possible and instead ask
more basic questions such as "who wrote the books of
the Old Testament, when, and why did they do it?" and
about the kind of society that the Bible came from?
One very significant statistic, for instance, is that in
ancient societies like Israel and Judah something like 95%
of the population was poor and illiterate and engaged in
agriculture. Writing was confined to no more than 5% of
the population, almost entirely urban, and comprising a
distinct class. Ancient literature served an economic and
political function, and the class of scribes was always
in the pay and at the service of temple or court, and wrote
at the command of these institutions. Nearly all writing
that was not strictly functional, that is, recording taxes
as collected, spoils of war, writing reports and letters
for administration, was in a sense, propaganda. Into this
category come all inscriptions, all monuments, and all records
of royal achievements, religious liturgies and histories.
Their composition followed fairly standard rules, as we
now know from the wealth of writings recovered from the
great libraries and archives of the ancient Near East.
The Old Testament is no great exception to this description.
It too, is largely the product of scribes in the pay of
king or temple, and it is also, largely in the neutral sense
of that word, propaganda. A great deal of it is paralleled
in the legends and cultures of Mesopotamia (modern Iraq)
and Egypt. Two kinds of writing in the Bible are distinctive,
however - large collections of the sayings of the prophets,
and, long connected historical accounts.
When I say "history", I do not mean an accurate
record of facts. That sort of writing is only possible where
there are reliable sources, whether written or oral, going
back over generations. At best, the ancient historian copied
other historians, listened to whatever stories were being
told, and/or made up what was needed. The result was a mixture
of truth, half-truth and non-truth, which no reader could
easily distinguish, because there was no reliable record
of the past. Indeed, there was no interest in the past for
its own sake. The past was a time where things began, when
the origins and causes of the world happened. It had no
measurable connection with the present time, and chronology,
where reliably available, was confined to occasional lists
of rulers, with more or less reliable years of reign.
The Old Testament explains how the Jewish people came about,
justifies their occupation of the land, gives their way
of life an origin in divine revelation, traces them back
to a single ancestor and claims that their god created the
universe and rules it. The main point of this story is not
history in our sense, but more like myth, in that it gives
the essence of the present - who are we, Jews, or Israelites,
where do we come from, and how are we supposed to believe
and live? The answers may not be historical, but they provided
every reader with a clear sense of identity.
So much for who wrote the biblical books? But who read
them? Not the majority of the population, of course, who
were illiterate. The Bible's stories are primarily interested
in war, cities, kings and religious leaders. They are not
really interested in ordinary farmers. Indeed, much of the
Old Testament views agriculture with suspicion, as a source
of pagan religious ideas! Perhaps rightly! From archaeological
discoveries we learn that little female statuettes were
very popular, and we also know, from a couple of inscriptions,
that the god of Israel once had a partner called Asherah.
It is argued that the religion of the Bible is not a religion
that people actually believed at the time, but what their
intellectuals thought they should believe. The majority
of Israelites and Judeans lived in villages from which they
probably moved only rarely. Were they much interested in
the temple at Jerusalem? Probably not: at least not in the
time of the kings. They had their local altars and perhaps
their local deities too. The vast majority neither saw nor
cared for any such building.
Until the 1970s a standard History of Ancient Israel, could
begin with Abraham, survey a patriarchal age dated somewhere
between 1900 and 1500BC, try and follow the route of the
Exodus from Egypt, discover where the real Mt Sinai might
have been, and note how the Israelites, if not so completely
as the book of Joshua describes it, nevertheless overcame
the Canaanites and took over the land. After some years
of being ruled by Judges, the twelve tribes of Israel chose
a king, Saul, who was succeeded by David. David chose Jerusalem
as his capital and ruled his empire from there.
A decisive step in our understanding of the origins of
Israel came after the 1967 war between Israel and its neighbours.
Israeli archaeologists conducted a survey of ancient settlements
in the West Bank, ancient Israel's homeland, and as a result
were able to conclude that they had identified the beginnings
of Israel in a small network of villages beginning in the
12th century BC in the northern part of the highlands -
around modern Nablus and Ramallah. According to the archaeological
findings, the Israelites came from local stock; they were
actually Canaanites who gradually became Israelites in a
socio-economic process. The settlement processes in the
land that became Israel were circular; that is to say, in
times of crisis, the tribes became nomadic shepherds, and
in periods of abundance they had permanent settlements.
The same survey, however, showed that the northern highlands
were settled earlier than the southern ones. The occupation
of Judah came about more gradually. At the time when David
is supposed to have ruled over his great empire there were
only a few villages in Judah. What of Jerusalem? Well, although
there are remains of the city in the time before David,
and also for the time after him, there is nothing of any
significance from his time. If there was a settlement there,
it was but a village.
If we accept this explanation, the stories of the patriarchs,
of Abraham's family trekking from Ur via Harran to Hebron
are, then, apparently not history; the Exodus and wandering
in the desert is also no part of the experience of all or
most ancient Israelites. The exploits of Joshua are fiction.
All this had actually been anticipated by a group of German
academics on the basis of analysis of the Bible itself and
of the archaeological evidence. Now it is the accepted orthodoxy,
except among certain evangelical scholars who defend the
historicity of the Bible on grounds of principle.
But what matters here are the further implications of this
new orthodoxy for the existence of Solomon. If Israel began
as a network of highland villages in the 12th century, and
not as a ready made nation with a long history, when did
they occupy the cities of Palestine and become a territorial
state? And when did the more recent farming settlements
in Judah form their own kingdom? When did Jerusalem become
a city that might be the capital of a kingdom? These questions
are forcing archaeologists to write new histories, quite
different from the biblical story.
As yet only one book-length publication has emerged, from
the Tel Aviv based archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. In
his history the emergence of Israel in Palestine followed
the collapse of the economic and political system in the
13th century, after Egyptian control of Palestine ended.
This collapse led to war between these cities over a century
or two, resulting in the destructions that had been attributed
It was at this time of economic crisis that the relatively
less fertile highlands became attractive, because they could
sustain a population that the rest of the country now could
not. Over time, through collaboration and intermarriage,
these villages formed a new society which perhaps took the
name "Israel", either alone or in combination
with other groups.
Before Israel formed itself into a political state, however,
the old Canaanite cities began to revive. Some of the building,
such as at Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor, once attributed to
Solomon, is due to this revival. But then around 950BC an
Egyptian king Sheshonq (mentioned in the Bible as Shishak)
campaigned against the major cities of Palestine and destroyed
many of them. The power vacuum thus left enabled the now
strong and extensive rural society of the highlands, left
alone by Sheshonq, to form a territorial state in the northern
part of Palestine.
According to Israel Finkelstein, the first king was Omri.
In the Bible he comes after several earlier kings. The kingdom
of Judah emerged a century or so later, though it was never
fully independent of its northern neighbour.
Now this reconstruction leaves no room for David or Solomon,
no room for what we call the "United Monarchy",
the time when Israel and Judah were ruled by a single king,
and no place for Jerusalem as capital city.
It was only 150 years after Israel's destruction by the
Assyrians in 720BC, during the reign of King Josiah, that
Judah rose up to greatness, developing the monotheistic
approach - one state, one God, one capital, one temple,
one king. At that time, the Assyrian empire collapsed, the
kingdom of Israel no longer existed, so Josiah's officials
decided to put into practice their religious and territorial
The United Monarchy was conceived because they sought to
seize control of the territories of the kingdom of Israel,
saying "Many years ago one of our kings, David, ruled
in Jerusalem over both Judah and Israel, so we have a claim
The legends of earlier periods were devised for the same
purpose. The people of Judah began to market the story of
Joshua's conquest of the land in order to give moral justification
to their territorial ambitions, and to the conquest of the
territories of Israel. These were folktales that were handed
down from generation to generation, local traditions and
legends, and these were the basis for the creation of the
Biblical narrative. The scribes of the period of Josiah
collected these materials and forged them into a coherent
Archaeology appears to shows that the conquest has no historical
basis. Many of the sites that are mentioned in the story
of the conquest were not even inhabited in the relevant
period, so there was nothing to conquer. Jericho was not
fortified and had no walls, and it is doubtful even if there
was a settlement there at the time.
Calculating backward from the point at which we have historical
documentation, such as the Assyrian writings about the monarchy
of Ahab in the Ninth Century, it is estimated that the story
of the Biblical conquest would have occurred at the end
of the Thirteenth Century. At that time, the Egyptians were
in control, and ruled with an iron hand.
In the Fourteenth Century there are stories about local
kings who ask Pharaoh for help against one another, for
instance, asking him to send fifty soldiers to restore order-
in other words, that was the number that was considered
sufficient to impose order there.
As for the existence of Joshua: perhaps there were memories
of some great commander or general. However, the biblical
text describes something that happened in the Thirteenth
Century and was written in the Seventh - 600 years later
- by people who did not have access to written archives,
for at the time of the events described there was no written
What of the United Monarchy? There is a stream of research
that says that David and Solomon were not historical figures.
However, there is an inscription from Tel Dan from the Ninth
Century that mentions the southern kingdom by the name of
the "House of David." So it stands to reason that
they existed, but all the evidence appears to be against
whether they ruled a large empire.
In the Bible, there is a large difference between the David
stories and the Solomon stories. The whole character of
Solomon is that of an Assyrian king; rich, resplendent,
wise, having many wives, and a great trader with neighbouring
nations. While David is none of these things, because he
is given a complex description, and there are unpleasant
stories about him that give him a human dimension. And according
to archaeology, there is no hint of magnificence or pomp
in Tenth Century Jerusalem (when Solomon is claimed to have
been king). Until the end of the Eighth Century, until the
Assyrian period, and after the destruction of Israel, when
refugees from the north began streaming into the city, it
was a small remote, unfortified village.
As for the United Monarchy - the villages in the north in
the Tenth Century were Canaanite villages. David and Solomon
ruled in Jerusalem and probably the southern hill region,
and maybe part of the northern hill region. They did not
rule in the northern valleys or in Galilee, and therefore
there was no split in the monarchy. From the beginning,
there were two entities, northern and southern - but the
Bible story is meant to justify Joshua's conquest when the
stories were written in the Seventh Century.
The stories of the patriarchs are seen as folklore about
forefathers that the authors of the Bible in the Seventh
Century salvaged from the mists of history in order to reinforce
their hold on the cultural heritage. They were ancient forebears,
and the goal was to create a myth saying that Judah is the
centre of the world, of the Israelite way of life, against
the background of the reality of the later kingdom.
There are, and no doubt will continue to be, protests against
this reconstruction. But it is hard to find either the David
or Solomon of the Bible in the archaeological remains. It
is perhaps significant that by comparison with the apparently
exact figures and formulas on the reigns of later kings,
for David and Solomon we do not. Yet we can all expect that
these conclusions, however well based they are on the evidence
currently available, will continue to be challenged. The
rest of us will continue the debate from our various perspectives.
In conclusion, as far as the temple is concerned, my own
view is that if we forget about the historical circumstances
of the first Jerusalem temple, and focus instead on the
remarkable symbolism that developed around it, we may better
understand what it is that we are really being told.