24 October 2010

The Legendary Wealth of Solomon--Part II

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

My earlier post described the extent of King Solomon’s wealth in modern terms, and raised the question of whether or not the Bible’s descriptions of such wealth were believable. Golden dishes, golden furniture, golden shields and a temple plated with gold—are these fanciful exaggerations of later chroniclers intent on inflating Solomon’s reputation?

                Archaeology says they are not. Let’s address each of those specific examples in turn.

“All King Solomon’s goblets were gold…” (1 Kings 10:21)
                Obviously many kings throughout the centuries have used golden tableware—it is used today in some royal houses. The same was true in ancient times. When Sir Leonard Wooley excavated the Royal Cemetary in Ur from the 3rd millennium B.C., he found many golden cups and dishes there. Railway workers building near Bubastis once discovered a cache of Egyptian treasure from c.1279-1213 B.C., and included was a cup of solid gold. At the famous excavations at Ugarit a number of beautifully embossed golden plates were found, and gold jugs and dishes from Persian sites can be seen in museums all around the world.

Furniture of Gold
                The Pharaohs of Egypt plated their furniture with gold. Buried with Tutankhamen in 1331 were two carved wooden chairs plated with gold. A thousand years earlier Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Cheops (the builder of the Great Pyramid) was buried with a bed, a chair, and a canopy all plated with gold. The El-Amarna letters from the 14th century B.C. list gifts exchanged between the royalty of Egypt and their relatives in Canaan: golden bowls, toiletries and furniture and chariots plated with gold.
                Solomon’s throne is described as being plated in ivory, then in gold. Gold-plated ivory artifacts have been uncovered in the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud.

Shields of Gold
                The gold shields and bucklers that hung in Solomon’s palace were clearly ceremonial armaments meant as a sign of wealth. Their existence is supported by other similarly symbolic gold armaments from nearby empires. Sir Wooley found a gold helmet (engraved to look like a wig) in Ur’s Royal Cemetery, along with gold daggers and battle axes. A gold axe head was also uncovered at Byblos from c. 1800 B.C. King Sargon II of Assyria wrote a letter detailing the booty taken in his campaign of 714 B.C: the list included six shields of gold weighing a total of 700 pounds.

Temples of Gold
                It is one thing to have objects of gold—after all, everyone is familiar with the gold splendors of King Tut’s tombs and it is possible to purchase gold plated objects today in every shape and size. But a temple plated with gold?
                Sometime between 680 and 669 B.C. King Esarhaddon of Assyria plated the doors and walls of the shrine of Ashur with gold “as if with plaster” (Rykle Borger, Die Inschriften Asarhaddons (Graz, Austria: E. W. Weidner, 1956), p. 87.) Nabonidus of Babylon (555-539 BC) wrote of renovating the temple of Sin at Harran, saying that he clad the walls with gold. Amenophis III (c. 1386-1349 BC) built a temple to Amun at Thebes entirely plated with gold, silver, and electrum. The shrine of Ramesses III (1185-1154 BC) at Medinet Habu was paved with silver, and the walls and pillars were all gold-plated. In a remarkable display of extravagance, Ramesses built a cedar barge 200 ft long overlaid with gold to the waterline.
                We cannot discount the realism of the Bible’s description of Solomon’s wealth when we have so many similar contemporary examples. Truly, Solomon was one of the wealthiest rulers of all time—certainly the wealthiest of any king in Asia in the early Iron Age. In addition to supporting the accuracy of Biblical history, this record gives us a picture of the incredible opulence of Israel at its greatest heights.

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

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