Legendary Riches: Commercial Gains, Trade and Tragedy During the Reign of King Solomon

 
 

Legendary Riches: Commercial Gains, Trade and Tragedy During the Reign of King Solomon

During the reign of King Solomon, it is said Israel for the first time was at peace with most of its neighbors, according to the Bible. Moreover, peace allowed the United Kingdom of Israel to flourish in commercial activity as well as exploration. This was attributed to Solomon’s nature. Unlike his father King David, who was a man of war, Solomon was believed to be the exact opposite; Solomon was a man of rest or peace, at least when it came to foreign policy. (I Chr 22:7-9)

He was all about building and enterprise, as well as building trustworthy relationships with those around him, such as with his father’s friend King Hiram of Tyre. (I Kings 5.1) King Hiram of Tyre was a Phoenician; the name ‘Phoenician’ was a term the Greeks would use to indicate the people dwelling in what is today the country of Lebanon. During the reigns of David and Solomon, the Phoenicians were known for their trade and the establishment of colonies throughout the Mediterranean Sea and possibly beyond.

Phoenician ship Carved on the face of a sarcophagus. 2nd century AD.

Phoenician ship Carved on the face of a sarcophagus. 2nd century AD. (Elie plus/CC BY SA 3.0)

The United Kingdom of Israel and the city-states of Phoenicia were not only allies but also joint allies in the realm of economics, from here on out and in greater magnitude than before.

Wealthy Lands Unknown

This relationship between the two peoples began after David captured Jerusalem, Hiram “sent envoys to David, along with cedar logs and carpenters and stonemasons, and they built a palace for David.”(2 Sam 5:11) This indicates that before David captured Jerusalem, he was already in a political and economic alliance with Hiram. From this moment, Israel and Phoenicia very much invested into each other.

Painting illustrating David, King of Israel.

Painting illustrating David, King of Israel. (Public Domain)

The Israelites, along with the Phoenicians had already established trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea; Solomon wanted to expand the routes by building a naval port on the Red Sea at a place called Ezion-geber in the land of Edom. It was here at Ezion-geber that Hiram sent his shipbuilders to construct a merchant fleet for King Solomon, which would be manned by Phoenician sailors and most likely Hebrew ones as well.

The Via Maris (purple), King's Highway (red), and other ancient Levantine trade routes, c. 1300 BCE.

The Via Maris (purple), King's Highway (red), and other ancient Levantine trade routes, c. 1300 BCE. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Once established, they set off from Ezion-geber towards faraway lands looking to establish new trade routes and to procure new items of commercial interest from the locals. Among such faraway lands mentioned is a place called Ophir (the true location of which has never been determined). Once the ships returned from Ophir, items like gold, valuable almug trees, and precious stones were unloaded off the ships. (I Kings 9:26-28; 10:11) Another land mentioned in the Bible is a place called Tarshish.

Tarshish is of great interest, for it is said to have taken three years to go to and to come back from in total. The ships that went to Tarshish, were made at Ezion-geber, and most likely were launched from there, and made their way back to Ezion-geber or even to one of the cities along the coast of Israel or Phoenicia.

Once they came from Tarshish, such stock and items as gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks were delivered. As to where Tarshish is truly located, it is unknown, but the name is of interest, for the name, ‘Tarshish’ is also the name of a patriarch in the tribe of Benjamin. It could be possible that Tarshish is named after that clan, and it could be possible that portions of the clan were in charge of Tarshish hence the name. (I Kings 10:22; I Ch 7:10)

Rich Arabia

Trade with Arabia was said to be another moneymaker for Solomon. This trade route focused primarily to the south of Israel. However, it seems that the route may have been established before, but may have not been of great importance until the arrival of Queen Sheba.

The Bible makes it clear in the book of I Kings that Sheba wanted to meet this wise man named Solomon. So she sweetened the deal and arrived with a camel trade full of spices, gold, precious stones, and all that was in her heart. Because of this connection, many stories about the two have been speculated upon for generations, but have ultimately remained a mystery. But the meeting, according to the Bible, indicates another economical connection for Solomon’s kingdom.

Not only did Sheba bring in a new trade route to Solomon’s coffers, the word of the event most likely went out beyond the borders of Israel, for then the merchants of Arabia brought spices and even the kings of Arabia all beckoned for trade and wisdom. (I Kings 10:1-10, 13, 15) Moreover, it may well be possible that a connection with the Indian subcontinent was established.

The Copper King

The copper mines were another commodity that were used for building and trade as well. During the time of Solomon, copper was in great abundance, but no evidence of copper mines in use during the 10th century BCE have ever been found through archeological research. However, there may be an answer to this question as to why Solomon is sometimes referred to as the “copper king.”

Solomon was possessed of wealth and wisdom, according to the Bible.

Solomon was possessed of wealth and wisdom, according to the Bible. (Public Domain)

Solomon’s father, King David was said by biblical records to have hoarded vast amounts of copper through his conquest and possible trade with the Phoenicians. (I Ch 18:8; 22: 3, 14) The Phoenicians during the time of the reigns of David and Solomon mined vast amounts of various metals from their colonies during this period, particularly from the British Isles. So, to say Solomon had no mines is true to a certain extent, but the Bible and historical chronicles suggest that Solomon got his copper from the vast amount collected by David and from the trade with the Phoenicians and their various colonies throughout. Thus, it is partially correct in referring to Solomon as a “copper king”, but must be understood from what you have just read that such a title was due to the vast amounts that were used, especially and presumably for the building of a temple in Jerusalem among other things.

Horses and Chariots

Solomon is also said to have had a fancy for buying horses and chariots with all the wealth he had gained. Solomon bought an abundance of horses from a place called Cilicia as well as chariots from Egypt. (I King 10:28-29) The description from the verse suggests that Israel was not in the manufacturing business of chariots, and thus depended on others to build them for them at a hefty price.

In addition, the reason why Solomon spent money on horses from Cilicia is that they are considered the finest of the region. The same goes for Egypt when it came to the chariot. Why not have the best of both worlds, when you have the money to afford it—especially Solomon who had a vast amount of money, due to trade and commerce.

With such a massive amount of wealth built up, Solomon needed a fighting force that was well equipped, with only the best money could afford in order to protect all that he had gained, whether it was threatened by a foreign or domestic threat. 

Because of the lucrative deals and military practicality of the chariot, Solomon continued to buy, and in doing so fortified Israel, for “He built up Lower Beth Horon, Baalath, and Tadmor in the desert, within his land, as well as all his store cities and the towns for his chariots and for his horses—whatever he desired to build in Jerusalem, in Lebanon and throughout all the territory he ruled.” (1 Kings 9:17-19).

Egyptian horses and chariots: Ramses II fighting in a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh with two archers, one with the reins tied around his waist to free both hands. Relief from Abu Simbel.

Egyptian horses and chariots: Ramses II fighting in a chariot at the Battle of Kadesh with two archers, one with the reins tied around his waist to free both hands. Relief from Abu Simbel. (Public Domain)

Solomon, who established Israel’s first charioteer corps, according to I Kings 9:22, greatly expanded it to include 1,400 chariots along with 12,000 horses, which were housed in 4,000 stalls stationed in chariot cities. (1 Kings 10:26).

While the Bible provides historians and scholars with information about how many chariots were under Solomon, it says little of the manufacturer. Many point to I Kings 10:29, which mentions Egypt as the manufacturer of Solomon’s war chariots. While this is true, it might also be considered somewhat false. Yes, Solomon did purchase chariots from Egypt for 600 shekels of silver, but they were not war chariots.

When reading the verse, the Hebrew term used for chariot is merkaba. The merkaba was a luxury display chariot equipped with costly steeds, built for kings, princes, and nobility. The Bible also mentions Absalom and Adonijah as possessing this fine vehicle. (2 Sam 8:11; 1 Kings 1:5). So why was Solomon buying these luxury chariots? The answer is he was making money. What Solomon was probably doing was buying fabulous chariots from Egypt and selling them to the Hittite and Aramean elites.

Legendary Riches

With wealth acquired from foreign trade and good relations with their neighbors, so was created a standing fighting force that could protect the peace of Israel and its majesty. Not only was it believed that Solomon prospered, but also so did the people of Israel.

According to biblical accounts, Solomon had set up a large system of administration in order to execute his plan of action for the nation of Israel. Many heads were selected to look over trade and commerce as well as the spiritual side of things. One would need a large business body to make sure every shekel was accounted for, and to be given to those who labor, and a fraction taken from those who trade. (I Kings 4: 1-19)

In addition, many military men were selected to look over the military operations in order to secure the borders of Israel, and with the advancement in prosperity, the army only got bigger. (I Kings 9:22-23) It is said even the common person felt good about the situation, and once again, in the book of I Kings, we notice that the Israelites as a whole were eating and drinking and being merry as one, with no problems or concerns. (I Kings 4:20, 25)

As time goes on, one notices later on the book of I Kings that Israel seemed to become even richer, with a greater magnitude on material goods and feasting. (I Kings 10:21, 27). Along with this prosperity, to the people of Israel came a population boom as well. Some suggest that maybe Israel doubled in size to about 800,000 people from the time of Saul due to the economic wealth showered unto them. With such wealth came more births due to increased income. Even foreigners may have contributed to the overall population boom of Israel during the time of Solomon. With so much money in hand and with a growing population one would think that security was needed during these times of economic expansion throughout the Holy Land.

Solomon’s Temple

Due to the expansion and trade with foreign relations that Solomon and his father beforehand had set up, the money that was accrued is believed to have led to the creation of the first Temple in Jerusalem. According to biblical accounts, this is the greatest creation Solomon had built during his reign.

The Hebrew Bible says that the First Temple was built in 957 BCE by King Solomon, but destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE. The above is Herod's Temple (or the second temple said to be built atop the first) as imagined in the Holyland Model of Jerusalem.

The Hebrew Bible says that the First Temple was built in 957 BCE by King Solomon, but destroyed by Babylonians in 586 BCE. The above is Herod's Temple (or the second temple said to be built atop the first) as imagined in the Holyland Model of Jerusalem. (Public Domain)

In an artistic representation, King Solomon dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem (painting by James Tissot or follower, c. 1896–1902)

In an artistic representation, King Solomon dedicates the Temple at Jerusalem (painting by James Tissot or follower, c. 1896–1902) (Public Domain)

However, there was other public works created as well. The cities of Hazor, Jerusalem, Megiddo, and Gezer, were said to be all revised and updated. In addition, there were a number of new cities built throughout Israel, which functioned as military posts for both horse and chariot. Overall, Solomon had bought and built Israel up into an economic powerhouse.

Heavy Taxes, Slavery and the fall of Solomon and Israel

However, even Solomon with all his wealth and power was reputed to be burdened by money problems. The income gained could not keep up with the cost, and Solomon had to do something; that something was called heavy taxation.

Twelve districts were set up for taxation by oversight including the Canaanite city-states. (I Kings 4:7-19) Nevertheless, things got even worse, for now forced labor was upon the people—but not the Israelites, it was focused on non-Israelites (Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites), and these became corvée workers, conscripts and slaves.

Now due to amount of money owed to others by Solomon, he had to do something that would cut the costs, and forced labor was a sure way to get your men to work for only food. (I Kings 9:2-22) The next biggest blow to Solomon was the need for money so badly that he was forced to sell some of his own territory to make ends meet. Solomon sold a number of towns along the coast to the King of Tyre. It must have been the lowest point for Solomon.

Old and meditative king Solomon.

Old and meditative king Solomon. (Public Domain)

In conclusion, it is believed that Solomon was born in a debt free family and society that his father created beforehand. Moreover, if there was any debt it seemingly did not burden the people. Solomon’s reputed wisdom brought traffic of great wealth and great adventure for his nation and those around him. His vast networks of trade, whether by sea-lanes that crisscross the Mediterranean or along the Via Maris and King’s Highway trade routes leading to Mesopotamia, allowed many building projects to commence and expansion of the military due to the influx of wealth.

However, due to the massive building projects and unpopular policies he is said to have undertaken came the burdening of debt and despair. Solomon, with all his wisdom, was not wise enough to stop his own self, once he started.

Solomon’s early reign may have been as described in 1 Kings 4:20-21:

The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy. And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life.

Once centralization began to kick in so did the needs of the state, such as taxes in monetary form or in the form of corvée labor or slavery to pay for the military and public works. This burden is indicated in 1 Kings 12:11 by Solomon’s son King Rehoboam when he stated, “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”

These continued unpopular policies caused Israel to go from prosperity to debt. If the civilian population suffered greatly and was placed in debt, it is without a doubt that corruption and abuse from the bureaucratic officials also added to the fire and weakness of the Solomonic state, which naturally would filter down to the military ranks.

Because of this, internal conflicts led to the fracturing of Israel’s sphere of influence and Israel itself, for when Solomon died, tribes revolted and the Kingdom of Israel split into two, with the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. While this split seems beneficial in curtailing the powers that be, it did not. Instead, both Israelite kingdoms would continue the same old sins that caused the once united kingdom to fracture.

While it would be easy to blame the rise and fall of Israel wealth and power on Solomon, it would not be completely fair. If anyone might be also responsible for the fall of Israel, it was the Israelite chieftains seeking an authority to prosper from as Samuel had warned against, and as mentioned in 1 Samuel 8:10-18.

Featured image: The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon (Public Domain)

References

Albright, William. The Biblical period from Abraham to Ezra. New York: Harper & Row , 1963.

Beitzel, Barry J. Biblica: The Bible Atlas - A Social and Historical Journey Through the Lands of the Bible. London: New Holland Publishers Ltd , 2007.

Collins, Steven M. Israel's Lost Empires. Royal Oaks, MI: Bible Blessings, 2002.

—. The Origins and Empire of Ancient Israel. Royal Oaks, MI: Bible Blessings, 2002.

Keller, Werner. The Bible As History. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Version, King James. Holy Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1997.