How Solomon Won the Throne
King David’s old age was not a happy time. As his authority declined, his sons and ministers began fighting over who his successor would be. Several revolts threatened the throne; the most dangerous, and most tragic, was the one headed by Absalom, David’s favorite son. Fearing that he would not be appointed heir to the throne, Absalom killed his brother Amnon and raised the banner of revolt. His insurrection was crushed, but the struggle continued.
Now the principal claimants were David’s two other sons: Adonijah, son of Haggith, and Solomon, son of Bath‑Sheba. Adonijah, supported by the old establishment–the army commander, Joab son of Zeruiah, and the priest Abiathar–tried to have himself anointed in his father’s lifetime. However, Bath‑Sheba frustrated the attempt with the aid of the prophet Nathan and several army officers headed by Benaiah son of Jehoiadah, and she persuaded David to proclaim Solomon his rightful heir.
After David’s death (c. 967 B.C.E) Solomon began to strike out at his opponents. Some were executed (Adonijah, Joab); others were banished from Jerusalem (Abiathar). The key positions in the kingdom were handed to his loyal servants–Benaiah was made commander of the army, and Zadok was installed as high priest to the Lord (and destined to become the forefather of an illustrious line of high priests).
Solomon’s Brilliant Reign
Solomon’s iron hand soon convinced potential rebels that there was no hope of undermining his absolute rule over all the tribes. Indeed, the internal stability attained by Solomon ensured his dynasty four centuries of rule in Jerusalem. The brilliance of his reign gave birth to the mythic tradition that the House of David ruled by divine will, a tradition which became an integral part of Jewish messianic expectations (and of Christianity as well, since Jesus was accorded a Davidic pedigree). The transition from the portable Tabernacle, associated with the wanderings of Israel in the desert, to the splendid Temple built by Solomon in Jerusalem, enhanced the sanctity of the city and made it the undisputed capital of the monarchy.
The construction of the Temple was only one of Solomon’s great building enterprises. He built fortified towns –Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, Beth‑Horon — as well as store‑cities and garrison‑towns for his cavalry, together with impressive water conduits which allowed the cities to withstand sieges. In fact, it was Solomon rather than David who built a kingdom that conformed with the international standards of those days — a truly centralized and organized monarchy.
The realm was divided into twelve districts, each regularly paying tribute. The tribe of Judah was apparently exempted from this tax, thus allowing Solomon to strengthen his hold over his own tribe. However, this also deepened the tension between Judah and the other tribes, a tension which would erupt after Solomon’s death, during the reign of his son Rehoboam.
King Solomon’s reign also enjoyed the fruits of his commercial and political ties with neighboring lands. He entered into an alliance with Hiram, King of Tyre, who provided him with cedar wood for building the Temple, and with the Egyptian pharaoh (presumably Siamun of the 21st dynasty), who gave his daughter as wife to Solomon, and the town of Gezer as part of her dowry. Matrimonial alliances with foreign royal families, together with political treaties and commercial relations bestowed on Jerusalem an international importance, evidenced by the famous visit of the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings, 10). The king also acquired a reputation of sound judgment and great wisdom. It is therefore not surprising that later generations attributed the biblical wisdom books (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) to Solomon the Wise.
After centuries of endless warring, the people of Israel finally found peace: “Judah and Israel continued at peace, every man under his own vine and fig-tree” (1 Kings, 5:7). But Israelite society paid dearly for this peace. Solomon’s enormous projects imposed a heavy yoke on his subjects. In addition to taxes paid in cash and in kind, tens of thousands of men were recruited into forced labor.
Towards the end of Solomon’s reign, internal tensions intensified. At the same time the international standing of the kingdom began to decline. Edom tried to revolt in the east; and Egypt — Solomon’s former ally — began to give shelter to his enemies. As long as the king lived, unity was maintained; but the seeds of the kingdom division were already sown in the days of Solomon — the greatest king of ancient Israel.
Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.