The Magazine

Wisdom of the Sage

The idea, and the reality, of King Solomon.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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The Bible describes what we do know. After Solomon’s rule is established, God comes to him in a dream and asks him what he desires. Instead of requesting wealth or power or the death of his enemies, Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” God, impressed by what Solomon does not ask for, grants Solomon riches, might, and wisdom beyond simply the ability to distinguish between good and bad. “There has never been anyone like you before, nor will anyone like you rise again,” God says. He gives Solomon wisdom “as vast as the sands on the seashore.” 

But we have only two examples of this: Solomon’s adjudication between the two mothers, and his deep knowledge of “beasts,” “fishes,” “trees,” and the rest of the natural world. Otherwise, there is no concrete evidence of Solomon’s great wisdom. Even the queen of Sheba, thought to be located in present-day Yemen, hears of Solomon’s wisdom and comes to “test him with hard questions”—though we are never told what these questions are, merely that Solomon could answer all of them.

Eventually, despite his unparalleled and unexplainable wisdom, and his wealth, wide territorial holdings, and architectural accomplishments, God takes away much of Solomon’s kingdom. Solomon accumulated many foreign women in his harem—700 royal wives and 300 concubines from all different nations of the known world—who “turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods.” Solomon did this despite an explicit passage in Deuteronomy which forbids the king from having “many wives, lest his heart go astray.” 

Weitzman explores why someone so wise could violate such an obvious prohibition: It is not in spite of his wisdom, but because of his wisdom, that Solomon is led astray, Weitzman suggests. Perhaps Solomon believed himself wise enough to accumulate a surfeit of wives while still avoiding temptation. “Whatever it is that Solomon understood about the world or God or the biblical text,” writes Weitzman, “might even be what got him into trouble by removing the limits that normally constrain where the mind can go.” 

This concept pervades Judaic thought. The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” Orthodox Jews do not carry money on the Sabbath, not because it is a grave sin against God but because it will prevent them from being in a position to buy something, an action associated with work, which is expressly forbidden. Solomon reasoned away the fence. Since Solomon knew the explanation for the prohibition against many wives—to avoid idolatry—he thought he could concentrate on this larger purpose rather than worry about avoiding lots of foreign women. In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. 

Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding—a biblical version of the Faustian tale. Still, we share Solomon’s desire for wisdom. This cryptic figure lures us to travel the world in search of his gold, or base a court judgment on his one known ruling despite the dearth of information on how he judged or what he knew. Perhaps it is because of our curiosity about what exactly his wisdom entailed that we search for some way to explain it. And, paradoxically, Weitzman observes, we interpret the Solomon story, and come to the conclusion that “curiosity can go wildly astray,” because of our own curiosity. 

Like Solomon, we push the boundaries of knowledge to “know the secrets of the world,” with many subsequent benefits. But, aware of the possible dangers that result from pushing these boundaries, we at once pull back. We develop nuclear weapons, yet seek to eliminate them; we sequence the genome, but are uneasy about the possibility of eugenics. Despite our ignorance about Solomon and his wisdom, we are drawn to this story of a quintessentially enigmatic human figure, with a life that “mirrors our own strivings and doubts.”

Aaron Rothstein is a student at the Wake Forest medical school.