The Bible and Archaeology: King Solomon's Reign - Israel's Golden Years

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What has archaeology revealed about King Solomon's reign in the 10th century B.C.? Remarkably, there is much evidence to corroborate the biblical account.

In earlier issues The Good News has discussed various archaeological finds that illuminate and verify the biblical record. In this issue, we focus on the reign of Solomon, successor of David as king of Israel.

Once David had consolidated the Israelite empire, under the guidance of God he chose his son Solomon to be his successor. The reign of this young man became truly legendary. Under Solomon's rule Israel reached the pinnacle of wealth and power. Tragically, the glory of Solomon's kingdom barely outlasted his own lifetime.

Unusual period of peace

What does the Bible say about the wider international condition during Solomon's time? God had told David: "Behold, a son shall be born to you, who shall be a man of rest; and I will give him rest from all his enemies all around . His name shall be Solomon [meaning 'peaceful'], for I will give peace and quietness to Israel in his days" (1 Chronicles:22:9, emphasis added throughout).

Was this a time of peace in Israel? What do the archaeological records show? From contemporary Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions, we find these once-powerful kingdoms afflicted by military weakness.

Assyria was occupied with constant battles against the Arameans. Internal strife over dynastic disputes further weakened the kingdom. "These Assyrian preoccupations," states Donald Wiseman, professor of Assyriology, "left David and Solomon free to extend their own territory into south Syria. The intruders from the Syrian desert impoverished Assyria under the aged Ashurnasirpal I ..." ( The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia , Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 334). Meanwhile, the Assyrians held the Babylonians in check, blocking any Chaldean intrusion into Israelite territory.

On Israel's southern flank, the Egyptians were also experiencing a general decline. Commenting on the beginning of this long period of weakness, one authority observes: "After the empire [of the previous centuries], Egypt never regained her former dominance in the eastern Mediterranean world ... In large part this foreign weakness arose from domestic weakness. Egypt kept breaking up into smaller states ... From the time of Samuel to the fall of the kingdom of Israel, Egypt was normally in a state of divided weakness" ( The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible , Abingdon, Nashville,1962, Vol. 2, p. 52).

This international backdrop is faithfully reflected in the biblical account. In fact, the weak priestly dynasty ruling Egypt made great concessions to Solomon because of his increasing power and influence.

Opinion among scholars is divided over which pharaoh was Solomon's contemporary. Eugene Merrill believes it was Siamun. "... Siamun soon realized that Solomon was to be ruler of a kingdom which would rival or even exceed his own in power and influence. He therefore decided it was to his best advantage to cultivate amicable relations with the young monarch, even to the extent of recognizing him as an equal. That this is the case is clear from his willingness to provide his own daughter as a wife for Solomon, a concession almost without parallel in Egyptian history since it was a candid admission to the world of Egypt's weakness and conciliation. Normally Egyptian kings took foreign princesses but did not give up their own daughters to foreign kings" ( Kingdom of Priests , Baker, Grand Rapids, 1987, p. 292. Compare to David Rohl, A Test of Time: The Bible-From Myth to History , Arrow Books, London, 1996, pp. 173-185).

It is clear from the history of the neighboring countries that an unusual era of peace enveloped Israel, enabling Solomon to greatly develop and enrich his nation through many profitable commercial alliances.

Prosperous alliance with Phoenicia

Not only did Solomon lack foreign enemies, he found a powerful ally in King Hiram, a faithful friend of his father, David.

"Now Hiram king of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, because he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father, for Hiram had always loved David ... So the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as He had promised him; and there was peace between Hiram and Solomon, and the two of them made a treaty together" (1 Kings:5:1, 12).

Regarding this treaty, a thousand years later the Jewish historian Josephus noted that copies of this alliance could be read in the public archives in Tyre. "The copies of these epistles," writes Josephus, "remain at this day, and are preserved not only in our books, but among the Tyrians also; insomuch that if any one would know the certainty about them, he may desire of the keepers of the public records of Tyre to shew him them, and he will find what is there set down to agree with what we have said" ( Antiquities of the Jews , Book VIII, Chapter II, Section 7).

In Solomon's day, the Israelites were just beginning to clearly define their own culture. To initiate such vast projects as the temple (see G. Ernest Wright, "The Stevens' Reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple," Biblical Archaeologist , Vol. 18, 1955, pp. 41-44), fortified towns and maritime trade, Solomon could have found no more enterprising a people to help than the Phoenicians.

One author explains, "Solomon was a thoroughly progressive ruler. He had a flair for exploiting foreign brains and foreign skill and turning them to his own advantage. That was the secret, otherwise scarcely understandable, of how the [nation] ... developed by leaps and bounds into a first class economic organism. Here also was to be found the secret of his wealth which the Bible emphasises. Solomon imported smelting technicians from Phoenicia. Huram ... , a craftsman from Tyre, was entrusted with the casting of the Temple furnishings (1 Kings:7:13, 14). In Ezion-Geber Solomon founded an important enterprise for overseas trade ... The Phoenicians had behind them practical experience accumulated over many centuries. Solomon therefore sent to Tyre for specialists for his dockyards and sailors for his ships: 'And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea...' (1 Kings:9:27)" (Werner Keller, The Bible As History , Bantam, New York, 1980, pp. 211-212. On Ezion-Geber, see Gary D. Pratico, "Where Is Ezion-Geber?", Biblical Archaeology Review , September/October 1986, pp. 24-35; Alexander Flinder, "Is This Solomon's Seaport?", Biblical Archaeology Review , July/August 1989, pp. 31-42).

Archaeologists who have studied the remains of Solomon's time clearly see the Phoenician influence which the Bible, instead of hiding the facts, candidly admits. "Where the Israelites replaced Canaanite towns, the quality of housing was noticeably poorer," says The New Bible Dictionary , "though standards improved rapidly in the days of David and Solomon, partly through Phoenician influence ... The commonest-type house ... has become known generally as the four-room house, which appears to be an original Israelite concept" (Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1982, p. 490).

Great construction projects

Throughout Israel, Solomon fortified the great cities: "And this is the reason for the labor force which King Solomon raised: to build the house of the LORD, his own house, the Millo, the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer" (1 Kings:9:15).

Regarding Jerusalem, as long as the Temple Mount is disputed between Arabs and Jews, no excavations are permitted in the immediate area where Solomon's temple existed. But the Bible mentions three other cities that Solomon expanded and fortified. Does any archaeological evidence support the biblical record?

The first city mentioned is Hazor, a northern Israelite habitation that was lost in time until a century ago. The first extensive excavations were done under the direction of archaeologist Yigael Yadin in the 1950s. He writes about Hazor, "What I'm about to say may sound like something out of a detective story, but it's true. Our great guide was the Bible. As an archaeologist, I can't imagine anything more exciting than to work with the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other. This was the real secret of our discovery of the Solomonic period" ( Hazor , Random House, New York, 1975, p. 187).

Yadin found the elaborate and sturdy main gate and part of the wall, which archaeologists now call the Solomonic style of architecture. Eventually, he found the same Solomonic-type gate in all three of the cities mentioned in the Bible.

In the most recent excavation of Megiddo in 1993, archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin report, "The grandeur of Solomon's Megiddo is clearly evident in the archaeological finds at Megiddo-in large palaces, with fine, smooth-faced ashlar masonry and in elaborate decorative stonework" ("Back to Megiddo," Biblical Archaeology Review , January/February 1994, p. 36).

Archaeologist Bryant Wood sums up the discoveries: "Probably the most famous of the architectural finds related to the kingdom period are the early tenth-century 'Solomonic gates' at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer, built by David's son Solomon ..." ("Scholars Speak Out," Biblical Archaeology Review , May/June 1995, p. 34). So the biblical account accords nicely with the archaeological evidence.

Enter the queen of Sheba

One of the most colorful accounts about Solomon is relegated to myth by some scholars. It concerns the visit of the queen of Sheba.

"Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels that bore spices, very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. So Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing so difficult for the king that he could not explain it to her ...

"Then she said to the king: 'It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. However I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard. Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the LORD your God ...' Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great quantity, and precious stones. There never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon" (1 Kings:10:1-10).

This story has been the inspiration for many paintings and movies, but does it have historical backing? Where was the kingdom of Sheba? Until this century, the sands of time very probably covered up much of this great kingdom of the past.

Yet it was well known by some of the classical Greek and Roman writers. "In happy Arabia," wrote Dionysius the Greek in A.D. 90, "you can always smell the sweet perfume of marvelous spices, whether it be incense or wonderful myrrh. Its inhabitants have great flocks of sheep in the meadows, and birds fly in from distant isles bringing leaves of pure cinnamon."

Another Greek historian, Diodorus (100 B.C.), writes: "These people surpass in riches and luxuries not only their Arab neighbors, but also the rest of the world. They drink out of cups made of gold and silver ... The Sabeans enjoy this luxury because they are convinced that riches which come from the earth are the favor of the gods and should be shown to others."

The Roman Emperor Augustus actually sent an army of 10,000 men to southern Arabia to plunder this wealth. But the withering desert and frequent plagues decimated the army before they could arrive in the capital. They never fulfilled their mission.

Scholars generally agree that the kingdom of Sheba is located in the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, now called Yemen. The area is quite isolated and desolate now, but this has not always been the case. "The most prominent of the Arab states ... during the first half of the 1st millennium B.C.," comments The New Bible Dictionary , "Sheba was ruled by mukarribs, priest-kings, who supervised both the political affairs and the polytheistic worship of the sun, moon and star gods. Explorations [in 1950-1953] ... found some outstanding examples of Sabean art and architecture, especially the temple of the moon-god at Marib, the capital, which dates from the 7th century B.C. ..." (p. 1087).

Until this century, this area of Yemen was largely off-limits to archaeologists. Now, up to 4,000 inscriptions of this ancient kingdom have come to light, confirming that one of the four nations in the area was called Sheba and that the population of at least one of its cities totaled a million.

This part of the world was not always dry and barren. It once had abundant water which irrigated the precious spice crops. The two most popular spices grown were frankincense (a resin of incense) and myrrh. The fragrant perfume of frankincense was used in temples and homes of the rich to ask favors from the gods. Myrrh was an indispensable oil used as a beauty aid to keep the skin smooth and soft, and was also used to embalm the dead. The Magi gave these two valuable spices to the infant Jesus as gifts fit for a newborn king (Matthew:2:11).

The evidence of abundant water in Sheba comes from the remains of a huge dam found in the area, and explains how it could be called "Happy Arabia" by the ancients.

"A gigantic dam blocked the river Adhanat in Sheba," writes Dr. Keller, "collecting the rainfall from a wide area. The water was then led off in canals for irrigation purposes, which was what gave the land its fertility. Remains of this technical marvel in the shape of walls over 60 feet high still defy the sand-dunes of the desert. Just as Holland is in modern times the Land of Tulips, so Sheba was then the Land of Spices, one vast fairy-like scented garden of the costliest spices in the world. In the midst of it lay the capital, which was called Marib. That was until 542 B.C.-then the dam burst. The importunate desert crept over the fertile lands and destroyed them" ( The Bible As History, p. 225). This is the present state of most of the country. It has lost much of its fertility due to lack of water.

There is much to explore in this area of ancient Sheba, and it is still a dangerous place to go, but much scientific progress has been made. Investigations continue up to the present time. What the famed archaeologist W.F. Albright remarked about these excavations in 1953 still holds true: "They are in process of revolutionizing our knowledge of Southern Arabia's cultural history and chronology. Up to now the results to hand demonstrate the political and cultural primacy of Sheba in the first centuries after 1000 B.C." (Keller, p. 227).

As time goes by, more archaeological evidence continues to indicate that Solomon's reign was actually as magnificent as the Bible faithfully records. GN

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