Patrick Reardon finds in prosperity the seeds of decline

A singular prosperity and peace characterized the long reign of Solomon, 961–922. His father David, taking advantage of the decline of Babylon at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and the geopolitical vacuum created by the lacklustre twenty-first dynasty of Egypt at its western end, had carved out a small empire for himself, subduing the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Syrians, and making mercantile arrangements with the sea-going Phoenicians to the north. To all of this fortune Solomon fell heir when David died in 961.

Middle man

In all of history it is possible that Solomon had no equal in his ability to read both maps and ledgers. His father having incorporated the Edomites to the south, Solomon controlled the port and Gulf of Aquaba (Elath) and the Red Sea. This extensive waterway afforded access to ports along the west coast of the Arabian peninsula, the east of Africa and, through the Indian Ocean, a thousand other places. To the north Israel was bordered by the Phoenicians, whose shipping merchants were delivering and picking up cargo at ports all around the Mediterranean basin. Looking at this picture, Solomon decided to go into business, serving as the middle man between the Phoenician markets in the Mediterranean and the sundry mercantile opportunities around the Red Sea. It would prove to be a time of booming material affluence.

Iron, alphabets and gold

Besides the favourable geopolitical situation, several other recent developments aided the prosperity attendant on Solomon’s reign. First, it was the beginning of the Iron Age in that part of the world with its greatly improved axes, hoes, scythes, ploughshares and other tools and farming implements, leading to less labour and increased productivity.

Second, the greater use of calcium oxide to seal cisterns and wells, allowing for improved water conservation and, in turn, greatly increased agricultural yields. Third, the adoption of a common alphabet in the eastern Mediterranean world, permitting more efficient bookkeeping, uniform bills of lading, invoices, and other forms of written communication essential to commerce. Fourth, greater use of the camel. This animal, already important in the economy of the Fertile Crescent, served as Solomon’s chief vehicle of commerce along the overland trade routes extending north–south between the Gulf of Aquaba and the Phoenicians ports of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon’s reign was, therefore, a period of enormous prosperity, in describing which the Bible speaks repeatedly of gold.

North-South divide

Besides economic prosperity, however, Solomon’s reign was also a period of several attendant social changes that would prove significant, though not invariably beneficent, as time went on. First, the prosperity itself, especially the agricultural productivity, enhanced the people’s diet, lengthening the average life expectancy, lowering the age of puberty and menarche, and thus increasing the population. Second, the need for labour in the commercial sector drew many farmers from the land to enjoy the less onerous life of merchants, caravan drivers, and so forth. This meant fewer and larger farms, now rendered more productive by better tools and a greater water supply. At the same time, with fewer farms, fewer people were now able to control the food market – and prices. These higher prices, along with the lower wages, inevitably prompted by the swelling of the urban labour force, became subjects on which the prophets of the coming centuries ventured a remark or two, consistently negative. Fourth, the centralization of commerce under Solomon’s political control led to higher taxes and a breakdown of local tribal loyalties that had served, up to that point, to provide traditional stability to the people. Fifth, and related to the higher taxes, among the northern tribes there was a growing discontent with the south, especially the royal and priestly establishment at Jerusalem.

The better farmland and the bulk of the nation’s wealth were found in the north; yet the king and his capital were in the south, at Jerusalem. Finally, Solomon’s economic and political ties with Phoenicia would eventually lead to the deep religious and moral infidelities symbolically associated with the most famous of these Phoenicians, a lady named Jezebeel.

Indeed, the Bible indicates that a political and social crisis was already on the horizon near the end of Solomon’s reign. In Egypt Pharaoh Shishak inaugurated the twenty-second dynasty. It was he who gave asylum to Solomon’s enemy, Jeroboam, the very man who would come back and start the civil war and the secession of the northern tribes after Solomon’s death in 922. Shortly afterwards, Shishak himself would invade the Holy Land and bring it under his overall political influence.

For all his gold and glory, then, Solomon set the stage for many of the Chosen People’s future troubles. Indeed, Israel never fully recovered from all that prosperity.

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone Magazine: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Touchstone is edited and produced in the United States.