The Ominous Undertones in the Bible's Description of the Temple

Solomon builds it for the Lord, but the Lord is not so impressed.

From Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Jewish Museum.

From Solomon Dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Jewish Museum.

Feb. 11 2016
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

Last year, writing about the story of Koraḥ’s rebellion against Moses in the book of Numbers, I drew a contrast between the Bible’s treatment of the two contending figures and Shakespeare’s treatment of Bolingbroke and Richard II. In Shakespeare’s play, Bolingbroke’s merits so outweigh Richard’s that he successfully displaces the king to become Henry IV.

We take you now to a later stage in that story. Bolingbroke, dying, is trying to pass the kingdom on to his son, whom, in the person of Henry V, Shakespeare will portray as the very model of chivalric kingship. He has some good news, some bad news, and some paternal advice:

God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head:
To thee it shall descend with better quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth. . . .

*  *  *  *

Yet, though thou stand’st more sure than I could do,
Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out;
By whose fell working I was first advanc’d,
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To be again displac’d.

*  *  *  *

. . . Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.

In case you think you’ve opened the wrong link, all this is actually a prelude to this week’s haftarah from the book of I Kings (5:26 – 6:13), describing Solomon’s building of the Temple. The question is: why did not King David, the greatest military leader Israel had ever known, merit building the Temple? The answer, given in an immediately preceding passage of the same book of Kings, appears in a letter from Solomon to King Hiram of Lebanon:

But Solomon sent to Hiram saying, You knew my father David
How he could not build a house in the name of the Lord his God
Because of the war which hung about him
Until the Lord put his enemies under the soles of his feet.
But now the Lord my God has given me respite all around,
There is no enemy and no misfortune
And I am declaring I’ll build a house in the name of the Lord my God
As the Lord spoke to David my father saying, Your son whom I’ll put on your throne after you—
He will build a house in My name.

Which is all very well and good except that the book of Kings has begun with a rebellion by one of David’s older sons, Adonijah, who attempts to crown himself king as his father lies wasting away. In fact, the first four chapters of the book comprise a succession of challenges to Solomon’s rule that must be put down, first by David and then by Solomon. The transfer of power by the dying king involves so juicy a list of instructions for eliminating various enemies that the passage has been cited as a source for the famous scene in The Godfather where the dying Don Corleone instructs his heir whom to whack.

In other words, Solomon’s reign starts out much like David’s, or Bolingbroke’s. But, crucially, it is unlike David’s in that the rivalries are quickly repressed, never to resurface. When Solomon builds the Temple, there is “no enemy and no misfortune,” and unlike Henry V he does not have “giddy minds to busy with foreign quarrels.” Instead, the narrative of Kings tells us, the enemy lies within, and the building of the Temple will mark but a temporary triumph in a losing war.


Here’s the beginning of our haftarah:

And the Lord gave Solomon wisdom as He’d told him He would
And there was peace between Hiram and Solomon and they both struck a covenant.
And King Solomon conscripted a force from all Israel
And the force was thirty thousand men and he sent them to Lebanon.
Ten thousand each month by rotation, one month they’d be in Lebanon, two at home. . . .
And Solomon had seventy thousand hod carriers and eighty thousand stone masons in the mountain.
Aside from Solomon’s wardens over the work
There were three thousand three hundred subduing the people doing the work. . . .

Where else have we seen wardens supervising conscripted laborers? In Egypt, of course. The Egyptian taskmasters are even described as sarey-misim, from the same root as the word used here in the phrase “conscripted a force” (va-ya’al mas). Solomon’s workers may not exactly be slaves (as is made explicit in 9:22), but the word rodim—which I have rendered “subduing”—hardly has a benevolent connotation. Indeed, I’ve chosen the most anodyne translation of rodim over a number of perfectly acceptable alternatives: tyrannize, rob, conquer, torment. All in all, this passage is one of the first appearances of a thread that runs throughout the book of Kings and to which we’ll return: the disquieting use of language and details recalling the experience of the Israelites in Egypt.

And it was in the four hundred and eightieth year
Since the sons of Israel went out of Egypt
In the fourth year—in the radiant month, which is the second month—of Solomon’s reign over Israel
He built the house for the Lord. And the house King Solomon built for the Lord
Was sixty cubits long and twenty wide and thirty cubits high.
And the foyer before the main hall was twenty cubits long, along the breadth of the house;
Its breadth was ten cubits wide in front of the house.
And he made windows for the house
That were translucent but not see-through.

Scholars have debated for centuries what exactly those windows were like. Were they just open from the outside but narrow within to deflect incoming arrows? Or were they the opposite—designed to broadcast outward the radiance of the gold within rather than to receive light from without? One opinion—the one I’ve opted for—is that they were made of glass but not the sort you could see through. Radiance obscured is another part of that same thread of unease that runs through the description of the Temple, standing alongside, and juxtaposed to, the semi-miraculous rendition of the building process:

But the king decreed and they transported huge stones,
Rare stones for the house’s foundations, marble stones.
And Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites sculpted
And prepared the timber and stones to build the house . . .

And the house as it was built was built out of transported whole stones.
And mallets and axes and any metal tool could not be heard in the house as it was being built.
And the word of the Lord to Solomon said: this house you are building
Should you follow My statutes and expedite My laws
And keep all My commandments to follow them
Then I will fulfill what I said to you, as I said to David your father
And I will reside among the children of Israel and not abandon My people Israel. (5:31-6:13)

This is the nub. The Lord visits Solomon and offers him his wish. Solomon asks for wisdom and is granted it. He uses that wisdom to judge exceedingly well. His fame goes forth, and he chooses to build a Temple—but the Lord is not impressed and says, essentially, the Temple is just a version of the land of Israel: the terms of the lease are onerous, and if the tenants do not keep to them, the Lord, who is also the landlord, can revoke the lease at any time.

After reading the elaborate description of the Temple in all its glory, we move on in chapter 7 to the building of Solomon’s royal palace. In the midst of this architectural rhapsody, a ticking time-bomb appears at the heart of Jerusalem:

And the hall of the throne where he gave judgment, the hall of justice,
He made and lined with cedar, wall to wall.
And his house where he lived had an additional courtyard to the hall, made the same.
And he made a house like that hall for Pharaoh’s daughter, whom Solomon had taken to wife. (7:7-8)

Here the prior allusions to Egypt are followed by something more explicit: Solomon’s first wife of the many to come, and the only whom he is described as loving, is Pharaoh’s daughter. Egypt will play a great part in the fortunes of this kingdom and this Temple.

But the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time as he appeared to him in Givon
And the Lord told him, I heard your prayer and the plea you pleaded before me
I’ll set aside this house you built to set My name on for all time
And My eyes and heart will be there every day.
But now if you walk before Me as your father David walked
With a simple and straightforward heart to do all I’ve commanded you,
Keep My statutes and laws, then I will fulfill your kingdom over Israel
Forever as I told David your father, saying:
No man of yours will be cut down from the throne of Israel. . . .
But if you turn a turn, you and your children, from following Me and don’t keep My commandments,
My laws which I’ve put before you, and go worship others gods and bow to them
Then I’ll cut Israel from the face of the earth I gave them
And the house I’ve set aside in My name I’ll send from before Me
And Israel will be an example to and the talk of all the nations. . . .
And they’ll say, Wherefore did the Lord do so
To this land and this house? And they’ll say,
Because they left behind the Lord their God
who took their fathers out of the land of Egypt
And they kept other gods and bowed to them and worshipped them
That’s why the Lord brought all this evil on them. (9:2-10)

The upshot of all that tension about the origins of the work force and the location of Pharaoh’s daughter in a house just adjacent to the hall of justice and in a palace exactly as grand, suggesting that Solomon’s nature was split between his official function as judge over all Israel and his private function as the lover of a foreign bride, is this:

But King Solomon loved many foreign women as well as Pharaoh’s daughter:
Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, Hittites
From the nations that the Lord told the Jews,
Don’t come among them and they should not come among you,
Indeed they’ll turn your hearts after their gods—
That’s whom Solomon cleaved to in love.
And he had seven hundred wives at court and three hundred concubines
And his wives turned his heart.
And it was when Solomon aged that his wives turned his heart toward other gods
As his heart wasn’t wholly with the Lord like the heart of David his father. . . .
And the Lord said to Solomon, Since this law was with you and you didn’t keep My covenant
And My laws that I commanded upon you,
I’ll tear a tear of this kingdom from about you and give it to your servant. (11:1-11)

Like the American adage of rags to riches to rags again in three generations, Solomon has managed to lose the greatest kingdom the Middle East had ever seen. And his loss is greater than Saul’s. The Lord told Saul He would tear the kingdom from him and give it to his fellow who is better than he. He can’t say that to Solomon because Solomon is so great. What He says to Solomon is worse: He’ll tear the kingdom asunder and give part of it to his servant.

That servant, Jeroboam, is anointed by a prophet but flees to—wait for it—Egypt. Then Rehoboam, Solomon’s son by an Ammonite wife, takes the throne, while Jeroboam, for his part, proceeds to lead a rebellion that wrests away most of the kingdom. And then the remainder is invaded by Egypt, forcing Rehoboam to pay all of the treasures of the Temple in tribute.

That’s why Egypt and foreigners are such an integral part of the building of the Temple: because the Temple is in the end nothing more than a golden box, and the minute the Jews or their leaders indulge in idol worship, the Lord will leave it.

Shakespeare ends his story of Henry V with a strategic marriage to a foreign wife in France, which produces a young son incapable of holding the kingdom together and in whose reign the Wars of the Roses erupt. Like David, Bolingbroke does not merit to see his son, let alone a grandson, reigning in peace on his throne. Unlike Henry V, Solomon did build a somewhat stable center for his people—a house that would outlast Solomon’s riches, if not the people’s incurable itch for idol worship.

More about: Bible, First Temple, King David, King Solomon, Religion & Holidays, Shakespeare