When Wisdom Was Honored

Credit: BiblePlaces.com, Israel Museum

Continuing on a theme, scholars debate if events and figures in the Bible are depicted accurately, or if they are later inventions. Stories written later are considered less reliable than stories written closer in time to the events and the characters described. However, when conditions change over time, it makes it more likely that a story that reflects earlier conditions no longer in effect was actually written earlier.

In Deuteronomy 6, Moses tells Israel “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” Proverbs 1 begins “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel: for gaining wisdom and instruction…The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

The Bible attributes the book of Proverbs to Solomon, and in the Bible, Solomon is the paragon of wisdom. In 1 Kings 3, Solomon asks for and receives wisdom. “So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.”

Baruch Halpern of the University of Georgia has pointed out that the focus on wisdom reflects an 11th and 10th century reality. He notes that records of 11th and 10th century Assyrian kings highlight their knowledge of the natural world. In the High Chronology, which argues for an Iron IIA period including the 10th century BCE, King Solomon would have ruled in the 10th century BCE, and thus the focus on Solomon’s wisdom could reflect the trend of the time.

David Carr, Professor of Old Testament, draws a parallel between the Song of Songs, which the Bible calls “Solomon’s Song of Songs,” and 2nd millennium BCE Egyptian and Ugaritic poetry. Additionally, Carr also highlights Kohelet, which in the Bible’s words is the “words of the Teacher, a son of David, king in Jerusalem,” a reference to Solomon, and he points to its motifs being similar to the Old Babylonian form of the Gilgamesh epic found at 2nd millennium Hatti, Emar and Megiddo.

Beyond these contemporary early examples of wisdom literature, there is a source external to the Bible that highlights Solomon’s wisdom. Josephus, in his book Against Apion, quotes Menander the Ephesian, writing about the Tyrian king Hirom, “Under this King there was a younger son of Abdemon, who mastered the problems which Solomon King of Jerusalem had recommended to be solved.”

Thus, while there is as of yet no overt 10th or 9th century reference to a King Solomon, there are elements of biblical account which garner consideration from contemporary trends and late mentions outside of biblical or Jewish sources.

The image above is of a fragment of the Epic of Gilgamesh from Megiddo, on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.