First, for a bit of housekeeping, I’ll be preaching next Sunday, from the 1 Kings text, so next Monday, there likely won’t be a lectionary post. (I generally use what time I would have used to write here to revise the sermon on those occasions when I preach.) Lectionary posts will likely ramp up again on August 1, and the subject matter, as always, will be the lectionary text for the Sunday to come.
This is one of those standard Sunday school moments–given the opportunity to ask for what he would receive, good king Solomon asks neither for riches (Midas?) nor for power (Croesus?) but for wisdom, the ability to discern good from evil.
What the Sunday school version tends to leave out is that Solomon asks for things when he does, where he does. In the course of the narrative, Solomon has already shown himself ruthless enough to be a Palestinian king–after all, he rises to power not because he’s the firstborn son of the king (he’s neither the firstborn nor the eldest left after a series of family feuds that leave the first three sons dead or missing) but because he’s willing and able to conspire, murder, and manipulate himself into power. The rise of Solomon reads errily like the end of Godfather–as solemn ceremonies proceed, Solomon’s men are assassinating the last obstacles to his uncontested regional power. And what killing his rivals accomplishes, his first marriage (the first of several hundred, you’ll remember) solidifies as he becomes part of the royal family in Egypt, the region’s true superpower in the tenth century BC. Moreover, when God approaches him with the offer, he’s offering sacrifices at Gibeon, one of the major regional shrines (often translated “high places” in English Bibles), violating the teaching of Moses that there can be only one true place of worship but certainly following in the footsteps of the regional powers, who sacrificed to gods as the local customs called for. In other words, Solomon can pull the trigger just as well as anyone in the Bible; there’s no need for him to pray for that sort of wisdom.
Instead, Solomon asks for the ability to discern good from evil, echoing the fateful words that Genesis uses to describe the forbidden fruit. Whereas the man and the woman (who gets named Eve only after the fall) are commanded not to know such things because God’s immediate presence and verbal command should govern their full existence, Solomon asks for and is granted the ability “to come in and to go out” wisely precisely because God has become mediated and God’s commands textualized. (Go ahead, Derrida people–take me to task for that distinction.) It’s here, in the unauthorized shrine, in the wake of his assassinations and his politically-driven intermarriage into Pharaoh’s court, that Solomon asks for discernment. And here that discernment, because God offered it, stands granted.
Because I’m actually going to preach this text, I know that the setting is going to be crucial for the gospel that comes through here. Just as in so many other Bible episodes, Solomon’s supernatural gift of wisdom comes not to someone who’s somehow “earned” God’s favor (not that there are too many folks in the Bible who claim to have “earned” God’s favor) but to someone right in the middle of several sorts of sin, the kind of figure who should simply be another Machiavellian villain in the Biblical narrative who’s just as forgettable as any other. (He later becomes one, but his descent into Pharaoh-existence must stand as terrible rather than simply typical because of this gift.) By granting Solomon this gift, a discerning spirit that makes him unlike any other, God does not guarantee that Solomon thus will bring his gift to bear for the sake of a godly kingdom, but God does make intelligible the grand tragedy of Israel’s fall that will eventually result in the exile: even though Solomon is granted wisdom from God unmatched among the nations, yet for the sake of anxiety and pride and lust he forsakes that particular calling in favor of becoming just like the rest of the kings of the ancient world, only more so. This strong echo of the Exodus narrative culminates eventually in Solomon’s forced-labor programs that build up the South at the expense of the North and finds Solomon appointing taskmasters over his own sheep the way that Pharaoh had over Pharaoh’s slaves. By the time that Rehoboam’s idiocy solidifies Jeroboam’s revolt, the kingdom is already on its way out.
I appreciate that 1 Kings does not try to resolve these tensions, because they’re at the heart of being God’s chosen people, whether Israel or Church. Paul’s claims that the faithful are dead to sin must stand in tension with James’s calls to ask forgiveness of sins even as a dying believer, and 1 John’s assertion that the one who lives by agape is without sin must stand alongside the same book’s insistence that anyone who claims to be without sin does not walk in the light. Without both sides of these realities, making impossible neat systems of assertions about the Christian’s soul, much less the nature of reality, the world becomes invisible in its complexity and agony and wonder, and the Bible is too good a gift to allow such things.
May our stories be the truthful ones that the Scriptures encourage, and may we never forget the terrible and wonderful gifts God has given.