Commentary on 1 Kings 3:5-12
Solomon moves center stage in 1 Kings 3-11.
The piety of Solomon shines in 1 Kings 3 and 8. 1 Kings 3 has three elements: the introduction (verses 1-4), the dream (verses 5-15), and the wisdom tale of the two women (verses 16-28). The tale of the two women and the one child remains the most famous section from the chapter. Often a reader will rush to the more famous passage of the two women. When one slows down to explore the structure of 1 Kings 3:5-15, many details start to emerge.
Divine question: test 5b
Solomon’s speech: 6-9
- Description of advocate/intercessor: 6-7a
- Self-description: 7b-8
- Request: 9
Divine speech: 10-11a
- Rationale for affirmation: 11b
- Behold speech: 12b
- Statement of incomparability: 12c
- I give: 13a
- So that: 13b
- Contingency statement: 14
The Bible includes locations for a purpose. It is easy to blow past the preposition phrase in Gibeon and hurry on to what we think of as the core of the passage. The weakness of such an interpretive move overlooks the way that writers and editors often send signals when they disclose the location of a theophany. So, we must ask why “in Gibeon”? Solomon went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice to God. Solomon had a night dream. Gibeon stands in Benjamite territory. The Hivite people of Gibeon tricked Joshua into a covenant (Joshua 9:3-10:15). Saul of Benjamin made Gibeon a major cult center. Saul also broke the covenant from Joshua (2 Samuel 21:1). Gibeon held David’s emissary, Joab, who defeated Saul’s warriors at the “pool of Gibeon” (2 Samuel 2:12-17; 3:30).
The careful reader/listener knows that Jerusalem is the place of the Temple. When the writer/editor locates this theophany at Gibeon, it gestures an ominous tone. Jacob’s night dream at Bethel authorizes the sanctuary at Bethel, but Solomon’s night dream in Gibeon foretells his reign that the reader/listener will lead to the disqualification of the Gibeon cultic center in favor of the Jerusalem one. In other words, Solomon goes to Gibeon to make a sacrifice which God interrupts.
God appeared to Solomon (verse 5). The verb “appeared” is a form that accents the divine initiative. The Bible has multiple references to dreams in narratives (See Genesis 17:1-12; 18:1-33; 26:2-5 Exodus 3:2-12; Judges 13:3-17; Matthew 2:19-20). The use of night dreams occurs in Zechariah and Daniel as well. The use of the dream as a communication from God happens across cultures from Israel to Africa and the Pacific.
The divine question seems so simple, “What do you want?” The story of Aladdin and the magic lamp turns on the question: What are your three wishes? The function of the story highlights the character of Aladdin. The question dominates the consumerist cultures of modernity. “What do you want? What do you really want?” frames issues of vocation and identity. Solomon’s response to the question invited contemporary hearers. Nonetheless, sometimes this is a test with a right and wrong answer. 1 Kings 3 examines the religious and moral character of Solomon.
Solomon’s answer fits the biblical world but seems out of place in the less formal world of religious language today. The three-point response (thanksgiving for his father David, thanksgiving for God’s grace to give him the throne, and finally the request) fits into a formality of an earlier age that may challenge readers today.
The language of walking is a metaphor for behavior. The behavior emerged from David’s trifold virtues, set with preposition in: faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart. God’s devotion of great loyalty often translated as steadfast love. This is the intense loyalty as a mother bear for her young cub. The expression of that loyalty includes a son to sit on the throne.
Then there is a transition. The language of David now gives way to Solomon’s request. Solomon uses self-deprecating language. The servant language leads to “I am but a little child.” Characteristic of childhood, the speaker describes himself as a not-knowing child.
As a wisdom tale, the writer invites ethical reflection. There are certain things you can pray for in good conscience and others that are too self-indulgent: a good parking space or that your team will win the big game. The passage gives a rationale that makes clear what set Solomon’s request apart with the phrase, “because you asked for this, and not …” The passage wants to instruct the reader in proper petition. The wrong answer or petition becomes a vice. These improper petitions include a request for extrinsic things, longer life, wealth, and power based on the harm to enemies. In other words, what you don’t ask for can be as important as what you do request.
Behold I do to you according to the words/things you requested. Behold I give to you a heart of wisdom and discernment. The Hebrew “to understand” means the ability to tell the difference between things. For good measure, the divine speech describes Solomon’s gift in superlative terms. God gave Solomon what he asked for because he requested the right thing. Then God gave Solomon more. Solomon will receive, from God’s hand, wealth and honor. Once again, the divine speech uses superlative terms.
Despite the promise to David (2 Samuel 7) that a member of the Davidic house would always rule in Judah, verse 14 begins with a contingency statement: “if you walk in my path to cherish and keep my statutes and commandments as your father David did then I will lengthen/arrange your days.”
The last verse often gets overlooked, but it makes an important transition. Solomon went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice. He never did make that sacrifice according to this narrative. Instead, after the theophany, he goes to Jerusalem and makes a sacrifice there. The cultic center has now effectively shifted from Gibeon to Jerusalem.
Now that the night dream is completed and Solomon has made a sacrifice, what remains is the demonstration of his wisdom in 3:16-28.