With this post Timothy Rafferty joins this blog as a contributing author. Tim is a good friend and a colleague at The University of Sydney in the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies. This post, together with the previous one, comes out of a joint-paper which Tim and I presented at the recent National Conference of the Fellowship for Biblical Studies: “Tell him he’s Dreamin’: The ‘wisdom’ of Solomon and the contest for priestly legitimacy”. (SC)

Luca Giordano, Dream of Solomon, c. 1694-1695, Museo del Prado, in the public domain. (For some comments about this painting see Stephanie’s post here.)

When we think of wise characters in the bible, King Solomon would be right at the top of most of our lists. But, as Steve has outlined in a previous post, Solomon’s demonstration of his wisdom through a threat to cut a prostitute’s baby in half in 1 Kings 3:16-28 is quite a strange and ambiguous way to prove that you are wise. Interestingly, the Bible also contains an equally odd account of how Solomon came to be wise in 1 Kings 3:3-15 (which occurs in the narrative immediately before this judgement scene). 

If, before reading this pericope, we had to guess how Solomon became so wise, we might use what we know of Biblical wisdom traditions, such as the book of Proverbs, to guess that Solomon’s wisdom was gained through study and experience (Proverbs 1:2-6), his fear of God (Proverbs 9:10), or perhaps his righteousness (Proverbs 10:31). However, in defiance of our expectations, and the wisdom traditions within the Hebrew Bible, Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 3 is granted via a dream:

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

How are we as readers and interpreters of the Bible to respond to this dream of wisdom? Considering it from a modern perspective, if a friend were to come and tell us they had a dream and now they were wise we would be suspicious, even more so if a political leader were to declare the same on television one day. We tend to distrust dreams as a source of revelation and reality, instead dismissing them as “just a dream.” 

A similar perspective appears to be present in the Biblical wisdom traditions. Dreams in wisdom books are overwhelmingly viewed with suspicion and dismissed as a source of knowledge or revelation. This attitude is perhaps best demonstrated in Ecclesiastes 5:7 (which is traditionally ascribed Solomonic authorship), where dreams are associated with vanity (which could also be translated as breath, futility or meaninglessness) and a multitude of (empty) words.

In contrast however, within the wider Ancient Near Eastern context of the Bible, we have several textual records of gods communicating with kings and legitimising their reigns through dreams. Perhaps the most famous of these texts can be found still standing between the front paws of the Great Sphinx in Egypt. Known as the Dream Stele, this text recounts how while asleep in the shade of the Sphinx one day, the future Pharoah of Egypt Thutmose IV had a dream in which the god Horem-Akhet-Kheperi-Ra-Atum (Horus in the horizon, the sun god in the moning, in the day, and at night) appeared to him:

One of those days it came to pass that the King’s Son Thothmes came, coursing at the time of mid-day, and he rested in the shadow of this Great God. Sleep seized him at the hour when the sun was in its zenith, and he found the Majesty of this Revered God speaking with his own mouth, as a father speaks with his son, saying: ‘Behold thou me, my son, Thothmes. I am thy father, Hor-em-akhet-Kheperi-Ra-Atum; I will give to thee my Kingdom upon earth at the head of the living. Thou shalt wear the White Crown and the Red Crown upon the Throne of Geb, the Hereditary Prince. The land shall be thine, in its length and in its breath, that which the eye of the All-Lord shines upon.’[i]

This public display of Thutmose’s dream by the Sphinx appears to have served as a type of royal propaganda, legitimising Thutmose as Pharoah and god. Knowing this context, are we then meant to understand Solomon’s dream in a similar way? Despite it being unique to the Biblical understanding of royal legitimacy, perhaps Solomon’s dream, alongside his marriage to Pharoah’s daughter in the beginning of 1 Kings 3, is meant to present him as a legitimate ‘Pharoah’ of Israel. However, if this is indeed the intention, it runs afoul of the anti-Egypt bias that runs throughout the Deuteronomistic[ii] narratives (see for example Deuteronomy 17:16).

Furthermore, Solomon’s consorting with Egyptians is not his only theologically suspect action within the dream pericope. 1 Kings 3:3 begins with a very Deuteronomistic condemnation of Solomon’s sacrifices and offerings at “high places”. To the Deuteronomist, who was the main redactor and editor of the text of Kings, any worship outside of the Temple in Jerusalem was blasphemous. While, as 1 Kings 3:2 notes, at this point in the narrative the Temple had not been built, the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle were none-the-less in Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 2:29 and 1 Kings 3:15), and so Solomon, according to the Deuteronomist at least, should have been worshiping there. The declaration in 1 Kings 3:4 then that “the King went to Gibeon to sacrifice there,” sits in jarring opposition with what the Deuteronomist would have expected and wanted Solomon to do.

In addition, Gibeon, aside from not being Jerusalem to the Deuteronomist, is a problematic place in the Biblical narrative. In Joshua 9, Gibeon is a Canaanite city that should have been destroyed in the conquest of the land, only for the Gibeonites to deceive Joshua into making a treaty with them (thereby defying the commands in Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and 20:10-18 to destroy the Canaanites). Gibeon is also the site where Saul’s sons are impaled to satisfy the bloodguilt of his house in 2 Samuel 21. Why then would Solomon be sacrificing ‘a thousand burnt offerings’ at Gibeon, and why would God choose this place as the location to appear to Solomon in a dream?

There are also further Deuteronomistic problems in the riches and honour that God grants to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:13. While this appears to be a generous gift from the divine, Deuteronomy 17:16-20 specifically prohibits a king from accumulating wealth and exalting himself above other members of the community. God’s gifts of riches and honour then, represent to the Deuteronomist not a legitimisation of Solomon’s kingship, but rather something that compromises it. 

All these Deuteronomistic problems with Solomon’s dream lead us back to the question of why, if the text of 1 Kings 3:3-15 is trying to prove to us Solomon’s wisdom, does it choose to do so in such a peculiar and ambiguous way? Perhaps we can find the beginnings of an answer to this question by changing tack and analysing the account of 1 Kings 3:3-15 as it presents itself, as a dream, rather than as literature. 

While there are many levels to dream analysis, if Solomon were to see an analyst, I believe a few issues and images from the dream would stand out to them. Firstly, despite being dead at this point in the narrative, the ghost of Solomon’s father David hangs heavy upon the dream. Solomon it seems does not have a direct relationship with God, but rather tries to establish one through citing God’s previous actions and love towards David (1 Kings 3:6). However, Solomon himself expresses his inadequacy as “just a little child” compared to his father (1 Kings 3:7). Indeed, when God responds to Solomon, his instruction is for Solomon to try and be like his father (1 Kings 3:15). This focus on his (absent) father reveals Solomon’s feelings of psychological inadequacy (not humility) to be a leader in his own right. Coming as it does at a point in the Kings narrative where Solomon’s legitimacy is not assured, the dream fits nicely into the psychological state Solomon may have been in at this time. In addition, the focus in the dream on the outcomes of riches and honour, which receive equal standing to the request for wisdom in the account, suggests that to Solomon these things are important. Perhaps the dream’s identification of riches and honour as gifts from God are an attempt to justify and legitimise the obscene wealth and power that Solomon would accrue for himself throughout his reign. 

The above theological and psychological problems that we have identified in Solomon’s dream of wisdom at Gibeon then suggests that all is not as straight forward with Solomon’s kingship as we would assume. Hidden within the text are issues with Solomon’s legitimacy and adequacy as king. Despite the traditions of his great wisdom and the grandness and wealth of his kingdom, the dream narrative, and the following judgment scene in 1 Kings 3, seem to undermine these traditions and as a result also question Solomon’s legacy. While it has long been argued that the Kings narrative contains a change of attitude towards Solomon and his actions from positive to negative in 1 Kings 11, perhaps what we are seeing in 1 Kings 3 are that the seeds of Solomon’s destruction and fall are sown early in the doubts around his legitimacy and wisdom present within his dream at Gibeon. 

[i] Translation from Selim Hassan, The Great Sphinx and its Secrets: Historical Studies in the Light of Recent Excavations, Government Press, Cairo, 1953, 94-95.

[ii] What does this mean? See https://stephencook.com.au/2020/04/16/academic-terms-deuteronomistic/