Context: Solomon has assumed the throne of the southern kingdom of Judah, as successor to his father, David, a “man after God’s own heart,” renowned for a lot of things – but in the ideology of the Chronicler, also a man of violence, who for that reason cannot actually build God a temple in Jerusalem. This task is going to fall to Solomon. Solomon has assembled “all Israel,” an important trope in Chronicles, at Gibeon for the ceremonial inauguration of his reign, and has performed a lot of sacrificial worship.
In the narrative, the night of the ceremony, God appears to Solomon – commentators uniformly interpret this as “in a dream,” although the text doesn’t say this explicitly, because the appearance happens in the night. God asks Solomon for “what I shall give you” – implication: ask for anything. Further implication: everything you can think of is in God’s gift. Famously, Solomon asks for “wisdom and knowledge.” This is consistent with what the tradition knows about Solomon, although as Sara Japhet (The Ideology of the Book of Chronicles and its Place in Biblical Thought, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009), 377) points out, the Chronicler downplays Solomon’s originally Solomonic wisdom. The Chronicler’s Solomon is wise, but the depiction doesn’t give readers the unprecedented and unsurpassed wisdom on display in in 1 Kings.
In Hebrew, in the exchange about wisdom, the femininity of wisdom (hokhmah) is noticeable, especially in God’s response to Solomon – because this (fem.) was “with your heart” so you asked not for all these other things, but for wisdom and knowledge … It adds a nuance of something loved, and maybe is a little foreshadowing of a time when Solomon will love feminine figures other than wisdom, those pesky foreign wives. (Echoes of Proverbs & the figure of the “foreign woman,” the metaphorical opposite of Woman Wisdom.)
“Wisdom and knowledge” is repeated three times in the space of as many verses, requested by Solomon, noted by God, and given by God.
God is pleased, it seems, with Solomon’s request. The request is service-oriented; altruistic rather than for personal aggrandizement or pleasure, Solomon wants the wisdom and knowledge for the purpose of accomplishing the task of kingship – “to judge your people.” The request itself seems tinged with humility. One commentator, though, questioned whether it wouldn’t have been better for Solomon to have asked for a heart like David’s, to love God. On the other hand, wisdom is close to God … again there are echoes of Proverbs 8 in the reference to the people being more numerous than the dust of the earth, dust being one of those things that before God makes it Woman Wisdom is already in the picture (Proverbs 8). Another echo is the close association of wisdom with riches in that tradition of Biblical thought. Of course this wisdom is going to make Solomon rich as well. And the kind of knowledge Solomon asks amounts to knowledge of God – or at least knowledge of God’s instruction – what else is wisdom, in the end? So I’m not sure Solomon hasn’t asked for a heart to love God in virtue of asking for this wisdom and knowledge, even though he understands it to be asking for something he’ll need to apply in his new role as administrator of justice.
All well and good, but what’s the lesson for people today? We should all be like Solomon? We should all ask for wisdom? Or is anything else going on?