22 October 2010

The Legendary Wealth of Solomon-- Part I

By Timothy S. Wilkinson

                King Solomon’s fabulous wealth has become the subject of myth, legend, fiction, and film. After all, no ancient historical ruler is described with anything near his wealth—Solomon’s rule was the pinnacle of Israel’s power, politically, economically, and geographically.
                So it is perhaps not surprising that many today view the Bible’s descriptions of Solomon’s opulent reign as exaggerations—especially in light of the tendency to doubt anything that comes from the Bible. But were the Bible writers exaggerating in 1 Kings Chapters 9 and 10? Could it possibly be true that:
  • ·         Hiram regularly sent shipments of 450 talents of gold from Ophir
  • ·         The Queen of Sheba gave Solomon a gift of 120 talents of gold, plus balsam oil and jewels
  • ·         Solomon’s annual domestic revenue was 666 talents of gold
  • ·         Solomon had 200 shields each plated with 600 shekels of gold and 300 bucklers each plated with 3 minas of gold
  • ·         He sat on a throne of gold plated ivory
  • ·         All his tableware was gold
  • ·         His fleet of ships brought gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks from Tarshish every three years
  • ·         Rulers from all around brought him tribute in gold, silver, armor, balsam oil, horses, and mules
  • ·         He had 1500 chariots and 12,000 chariot horses

How much wealth is this? It is a challenge to calculate the values of ancient monetary measurements. There are basically two approaches: (1) take the weight of the measurements and calculate their value based on today’s gold and silver prices or (2) figure out the purchasing power of a certain amount of, say, gold in Bible times and find the modern amount that has that same purchasing power.
The second method has some distinct advantages. In Jesus’ day, a laborer made one Greek denarius for 12 hours of work. Washington State, where I reside, currently has a minimum wage of about $8.50 per hour. Twelve hours of work would yield a laborer about $100—a modern value for the denarius. (Of course if we did the simpler—but less accurate—conversion to the value of the weight of a gold denarius today then it is worth $164).
Next we have to convert that to Hebrew currencies. A gold shekel weighs three times as much as a gold denarius, so the shekel would be worth $300. Using that as a standard we can find the values of other Old Testament amounts: the bekah ($15), the mina ($15,000), and the talent ($900,000).
Now the record of Solomon’s income starts to come into focus. His annual domestic revenue was just under $600 million. The regular shipments from Ophir were worth just over $400 million. His gift from the Queen of Sheba was worth about $108 million. The 200 shields and 300 bucklers hanging in his palace were worth about $52 million.
Once we factor in the monies and trade goods brought to him as tribute by kings from nations all around Israel, Solomon’s annual revenue can be conservatively estimated as $1 billion. That’s $2.7 million dollars a day, or $114,000 per hour, or $1,902 per minute, or $32 per second. Twenty-four hours a day. Three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
And that’s liquid revenue—not net worth.
Of course, Solomon started out his reign with the wealth that his father, David, had put aside for the construction of the Temple of Jehovah. David had accumulated roughly $187 billion before his death; some of this went into the Temple’s construction and the remainder into Solomon’s treasury. If you started spending $187 billion at the rate of $1 per second and did that continuously, day and night, it would take you 5,929 years to spend it all.
Are these mind-boggling amounts just the fancy of Hebrew chroniclers? Are they fantastical elements of an ancient myth? Or is there reason to believe that Solomon and the nation he ruled were truly this rich? 
Tomorrow’s blog will answer that question…

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my website at www.timothywilkinson.net.

No comments: