Is Solomon’s wealth a literary fiction?

The Challenge

The Biblical account of Solomon’s wealth has been described as unrealistic, in standard critical commentaries.1 Many scholars are sceptical, 2 3 4 though some express their doubts cautiously.5 6

Ancient Uses of Gold

Ancient uses of gold for construction which are analogous to Solomon’s include the tomb of Tutankhamen,7 extensive use of gold plating on buildings in the reign of Tuthmosis III,8 massive gold use on buildings of the Egyptian New Kingdom era,9 and the same kind of gold usage in Babylonia and Assyria.10 Millard also points out that items described as ‘of gold’ were not always solid gold; often they were covered in gold plate or gold leaf.11

Solomon’s Income

The Bible identifies ‘Ophir’ as one source of Solomon’s gold.12 Although the location of Ophir is unknown, archaeological evidence identifies it as a source of gold.13 Solomon’s income of 666 talents of gold in one year14 15 is considered fictional by some commentators.16

Although this income is unique in Ancient Near East records,17 the 120 talents of gold received by Solomon from Tyre18 is matched and exceeded by gifts and tribute of gold from other Ancient Near East monarchs.19 20 21 22 23 The vast gold expenditure of pharaoh Orsokon I exceeded even Solomon’s, 24 and it is likely his wealth was the result of his father Sheshonq’s conquest of Solmon’s son Rehoboam.25 26 27 28

  1. The gilding of the furnishings, as of the altar, is reasonable, but not that of the whole interior; cf. Stade, and Nowack, Arch., 2, 29, n. I.’, Montgomery, ‘A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Kings’, p. 152 (1951). []
  2. Such extravagant description appears to be a step forward in the process of exuberant imagination, continued by the Chronicler, for whose fancy even the 120-cubit high portico was overlaid with fine gold (2 Ch. 34ff.).’, ibid., p. 152. []
  3. ‘Some have regarded this description as exaggerated.’, Hicks, ‘1 & 2 Chronicles’, College Press NIV Commentary, p. 306 (2001). []
  4. ‘Some have questioned the authenticity of this description, labeling it unabashed exaggeration.’, Long, ‘1 & 2 Kings’, College Press NIV Commentary, p. 147 (2002). []
  5. Despite all exaggerated accounts of Solomon’s wealth and commercial success, which were written to give him honor and prestige, there is an historical kernel in the reports of his wealth.’, Esler, ‘Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in its social context’, p. 105 (2006). []
  6. ‘Evidently, we can not take the figures about Solomon’s mercantile activities and revenues given in the account at face value. They must have been fabulously exaggerated. Nevertheless, in Ishida’s assessment, which I share, “We can hardly deny the substantial historicity comprised in them” (p. 109).’, Corral, ‘Ezekiel’s Oracles Against Tyre: historical reality and motivations’, p. 112 (2002). []
  7. ‘Here were many articles of furniture plated with sheets of gold, beaten and engraved, a wealth of elaborate golden jewellery, a golden dagger, the king’s gold mask, and, eclipsing all, his coffin of solid gold.7 Its weight is 110.4 kg (243 lbs). Particularly relevant for the present study are the shrines that stood in the tomb. There is a small wooden shrine (50 cms high, 26.6 cms wide, 32 cms deep, 19¾ x 10½ x 12¾ inches) made to hold a statue. Sheets of gold cover it entirely, within and without, embossed and engraved with scenes of the king’s life, magical figures, and inscriptions.’, Millard, ‘Solomon In All His Glory’, Bible and Spade (11.2-3-4.64-65), 1982. []
  8. ‘In the Temple of the Sacred Boat at Karnak stood twelve columns erected by Tuthmosis III, about 1450 BC, each about 3½ metres high, designed to represent bundles of papyrus. Each was entirely covered with gold, fastened in slits cut at suitable points in the pattern. In another hall at Karnak were fourteen columns. Their design was similar, a papyrus stem, and they, too, were plated with gold from top to bottom. These pillars were larger; an inscription states that they were 31 cubits, that is 16.25 metres high (53 feet).’, ibid., p. 67. []
  9. ‘Tuthmosis III (c. 1490–1436 BC) recorded his building of a shrine ‘plated with gold and silver’, and of a floor similarly made. Amenophis III in the next century decorated several structures in this way. Of one temple in honour of Amun at Thebes he claimed it was ‘plated with gold throughout, its floor is adorned with silver, all its portals with electrum’, while the temple at Soleb had the same treatment, except that ‘all its portals are of gold’. Ramesses II (c. 1297–1213 BC) provided his mortuary temple at Abydos with doors ‘mounted with copper and gilded with electrum’. Later in this period, Ramesses III (c. 1183–1152 BC) ornamented temples in exactly the same way. At Medinet Habu he constructed a shrine of gold with a pavement of silver, and doorposts of fine gold.’, ibid., p. 68. []
  10. ‘Esarhaddon of Assyria (680–669 BC) told how he restored the shrine of his national god, Assur, and ‘coated the walls with gold as if with plaster’. His son Ashurbanipal claimed much the same, ‘I clad its walls with gold and silver’. In Babylon a century later Nebuchadnezzar recorded his enrichment of the shrines of his gods, ‘I clad (them) in gold, and made them bright as day’, and Nabonidus (555–539 BC) followed him, ‘I clad its walls with gold and silver, and made them shine like the sun’. The tradition stemmed from much earlier times in Babylonia, for Entemena of Lagash built a temple for his god ‘and covered it with gold and silver’ about 2400 BC.16’, ibid., pp. 68-69. []
  11. While words like ‘a gold statue’ or ‘a gold bed’ in ancient documents should not be pressed to mean ‘made of solid gold throughout’ or ‘the purest gold’, they can be understood to mean ‘gold all over’, that is to say, nothing else could be seen.’, ibid., pp. 69-70. []
  12. 1 Kings 9: 28 They sailed to Ophir, took from there four hundred twenty talents of gold, and then brought them to King Solomon. []
  13. The expression “gold of Ophir” occurs not only in the Bible, but also on an eighth-century B.C. ostracon* found at Tell Qasile in Israel. That ostracon, while showing that the name was current to designate the origin or type of gold, throws no light on Ophir’s location.’, Millard, ‘Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (15.03), May/June 1989. []
  14. 1 Kings 10:14 Solomon received 666 talents of gold per year; commentators are divided as to whether this represents an annual income, or the income of one particular year. []
  15. ‘On the basis of these figures, Solomon’s gold can be computed as: 120 talents==3,960 kg==3.9 tons from Tyre, and the same from Sheba; 420 talents==13,860 kg==13.6 tons from Ophir; 666 talents==21,978 kg==21.6 tons in one year.’, Millard, ‘Solomon In All His Glory’, Bible and Spade (11.2-3-4.72), 1982. []
  16. ‘Indeed, J.B. Pritchard argues that the narrative’s references to gold, pure gold and silver and its allusions to the respect which Solomon’s peers showed to him are ‘popular—even folkloristic’ elements of the history of Solomon’s age.’, Younger Jr, ‘The Figurative Aspect and the Contextual Method in the Evaluation of the Solomonic Empire: 1 Kings 1–11’, in Clines, Fowl & Porter (eds.), ‘The Bible in Three Dimensions: Essays in Celebration of Forty Years of Biblical Studies in the University of Sheffield’, p. 159 (1990). []
  17. The only ancient text that reports the annual income of a powerful king in Old Testament times is the Hebrew Bible. In 1 Kings 10:14 the figure of 666 talents of gold (almost 25 U.S. tons) is given for Solomon. This may refer to a particular year, just as the 420 talents (15.75 U.S. tons) from Ophir refers to a particular source (1 Kings 10:11). Only two figures in ancient records approach the amount of 666 talents: the total of Pharaoh Osorkon’s gift to the gods and the amounts of treasure Alexander the Great found in Persia.’, Millard, ‘Does the Bible Exaggerate King Solomon’s Golden Wealth?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (15.03), May/June 1989. []
  18. 1 Kings 9: 28 They sailed to Ophir, took from there four hundred twenty talents of gold, and then brought them to King Solomon. []
  19. ‘We learn from firsthand sources that Metten II of Tyre (ca. 730) paid a tribute of 150 talents of gold to our old acquaintance Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria, while in turn his successor Sargon II (727-705) bestowed 154 talents of gold upon the Babylonian gods – about 6 tons in each case. Going back almost eight centuries, Tuthmosis III of Egypt presented about 13.5 tons (well over 200 talents) of gold in nuggets and rings to the god Amun in Thebes, plus an unknown amount more in a splendid array of gold vessels and cult implements. Worth almost a third of Solomon’s reputed annual gold revenue, this was on just one occasion, to just one temple.’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, pp. 133-134 (2003). []
  20. ‘So a king of Assyria wrote to the Pharaoh about 1350 BC, ‘Gold is like dust in your land, one simply gathers it up.’ A contemporary king repeated this statement six times in letters to the Pharaoh! The Assyrian went on ‘Why do you think it is so valuable? I am building a new palace, send me enough gold to decorate it properly! When my ancestor wrote to Egypt, he was sent twenty talents of gold. . . . When (another king) wrote to Egypt to your father, he sent him twenty talents of gold . . . send me much gold!’ (Twenty talents by Babylonian standards was 600 kg or 11.7 cwts.).’, Millard, ‘Solomon In All His Glory’, Bible and Spade (11.2-3-4.73), 1982. []
  21. ‘When Damascus surrendered to Adadnirari III, probably in 796 BC, the Assyrian received 2,300 talents of silver (69,000 kg; 67.76 tons), 20 talents of gold (600 kg; 1,320 lbs), and much else. Some sixty years later Tiglath-pileser III subjugated Samaria, placing Hoshea on the throne as his nominee. Samaria paid 10 talents of gold (300 kg; 660 lbs) as tribute (and an unknown amount of silver). The same emperor received the submission of Tyre, and with it the large sum of 150 talents of gold (4,500 kg; 4.4 tons).’, ibid., p. 74. []
  22. ‘During the reign of Tuthmosis III the yield of the gold fields at Wawat in Nubia (the Sudan) for three years was 232.4 kg (512 lbs), 258.8 kg (570 lbs), and 286.1 kg (630 lbs). These may be exceptional figures, yet they show what sort of income was available from a single source. In the Annals of the same pharaoh, the booty taken between his twenty-second and his forty-second years amounted to over 11,500 kg (11.3 tons) of gold. His successor, Amenophis II (c. 1427–1401 BC) claimed the weight of gold vessels he took from the Levant was 6,800 deben (618.5 kg; 1,360 lbs).’, ibid., p. 75. []
  23. ‘None of these figures approach the amounts recorded for Solomon except for the booty gathered by Tuthmosis III (11,500 kg; 11.3 tons).’, ibid., p. 75. []
  24. ‘In Egypt Shishak’s successor Osorkon I gifted some 383 tons of gold and silver to the gods and temples of Egypt in the first four years of his reign, many of the detailed amounts being listed in a long inscription (now damaged) (figs. 22A, B). That sum would (in weight) be equivalent to almost seventeen years of Solomon’s annual gold revenue,’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 134 (2003). []
  25. 1 Kings 1425 In King Rehoboam’s fifth year, King Shishak [Sheshonq] of Egypt attacked Jerusalem. 26 He took away the treasures of the LORD’s temple and of the royal palace; he took everything, including all the golden shields that Solomon had made. []
  26. His reign is poorly documented, nothing hints at a far-reaching military adventure, bringing home rich booty.’, Millard, ‘Solomon In All His Glory’, Bible and Spade (11.2-3-4.76), 1982. []
  27. ‘Osorkon’s father was Sheshonq 1 (c. 945–924 BC), the Shishak who took the gold from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and from the Judaean treasury.’, ibid., p. 76. []
  28. ‘Where could Osorkon have obtained such immense wealth, to spend on such a scale after only three and a third years of his reign? Barely five years earlier, Osorkon’s father Shishak had looted the wealth of Jerusalem. It seems unlikely to be a mere coincidence that almost immediately after that event Osorkon could dispose so freely of so much gold and silver.*The vast amounts of Solomon’s golden wealth may have ended up, at least in part, as Osorkon’s gift to the gods and goddesses of Egypt.’, Kitchen, ‘Where Did Solomon’s Gold Go?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (15.03), May/June 1989. []

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