Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lessons from King Solomon for America

King Solomon's wisdom was legendary; so legendary that he attracted a visit from the Queen of Sheba, who had heard about his incredible wealth, fame and knowledge. To this day, Ethiopians claim their royal line descends from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There remains a lot of curiosity concerning Solomon and Sheba and their heir.

There has been considerably less curiosity about Solomon's method of governance and the rebellion which took place shortly after he died.

But Solomon's reign and that after him hold lessons for us today which are just as fascinating and perhpas consderably more important than the story of him and the Queen of Sheba.

The truth of the matter is that Solomon's profligacy, his tax and spend policies, and his dictatorial realignment of government led Israel into bankruptcy and to the eventual split of the kingdom.

Solomon, who like most Mesopotamian rulers, had a deep love of luxury and a yen for huge building projects which drained the treasury and squandered his country's wealth. His massive building program and out of control expenditures, both of which involved a symbolic and real extension of governmental control over the Israeli people, led to the abuse of the Israel citizenry and a complete reconstruction of the way things had formerly been governed.

In order to construct his vast building projects, Solomon resorted to conscripting forced labor. Som 150,000 conscripts worked on his projects. In order to procure the rarities he deemed necessary for his splendid temples and mansions, he went into debt to such countries as Phoencia. In order to pay his debts to the king of Phoenecia, he sent 30,000 Hebrews slave laborers into that country to pay off what Israel owed. Human capital was sold to build lavish palaces for himself and his vast retinue of courtiers and concubines. In some ways, he was the Hebrew equivalent of Louis XIV.

In order to pay for the cedars of Lebanon which were used for the beams of Solomon's palaces, he contracted to pay King Hiram 125,000 bushels of wheat and 1,200,000 gallons of oil per annum. When the tax he extracted from Israel's farmers proved too much for them to pay, he sold off some of Israels's real estate to foreign powers. Some 20 Israeli towns were given over to foreign dominion.

Worse, the tribal league which had served as Israel's chief means of governance was abolished. In its place twelve administrative districts were established. A centralized governmental bureaucracy replaced local governance.

Most Israelites did not complain too much about Solomon's rule, for he established a military machine and alliances which kept Israel at peace during his reign.

But when Solomon died, things fell apart, beginning with a fatal mistake by Solomon's heir Rehoboam. Rehoboam was a relatively young man who surrounded himself with other young blades who were impetuous and as full of themselves as Rehoboam. Raised in incredibly wealthy and isolated cirlces, they wound up listening to and engaging with only with one another.

Enter Jeroboam, Rehoboam's brother. Jeroboam had led a rebellion against his father Solomon and had fled to Egypt in order to escape his father's wrath. Once Solomon was dead, Jeroboam led a delgation of many thousands to Rehoboam's coronation celebration. They said to him: "Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you." (I Kings 12)

Rehoboam told his brother he'd think about it for three days, at the end of which Jeroboam was to return for an answer. Then Rehoboam conulted with Solomon's elder advisors, thoroughly seasoned statesmen, asking, "How would you advise me to answer these people?"

The elder statemen replied, "If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants."

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him. He asked them, "What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, 'Lighten the yoke your father put on us'?"

The young men who had grown up with him replied, "Tell these people who have said to you, 'Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter'--tell them, My little finger is thicker than my father's waist. My father laid a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.' "

King Rehoboam followed his friends' advice, telling it to the people word for word. The results were predictable.

When all Israel saw that King Rehoboam refused to listen to them, they answered the king:

"What share do we have with David, what part in Jesse's son? To your tents, O Israel! Look after your own house, O David.!"

"These people" shook the dust off their sandals, rejected Rehoboam's "leadership," and went home.

And when Rehoboam's lackey Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, went out to collect his slaves, the enraged Israelites stoned him to death and then went after Rehoboam, who leapt into his chariot and raced to the safety of Jerusalem. Israel, now in a state of total civil rebellion, made Jeroboam king; but he would be a king over a hopelessly divided and diminished nation which would gradually be absorbed by foreign empires.

The reader can deduce for him or herself the implications of the story of Solomon and his heirs for our present national predicament, but a few come to mind:

* National debt diminishes national power, putting a given nation in hock to other nations.

*The onerous, unpayable tax burdens lead to forced labor of citizens and the confiscation of their wealth and productivity.

*The nearly monarchical power of the present executive branch--in fact, it could be called a monarachy--and the demolition of local governing entities such as the states results in dictatorial behavior.

*Citizens under a monarchical executive branch are forced to pay for lavish expenditures of courtiers and government lackeys.

Other lessons to be noted:

*The bad policies of one administration were contined by the next, despite the realtively polite protest of the people.

*The new administration ("king") refused to listen to the people. In fact, the people are called "these people" as if they are not fellow citizens. They are despised and looked own on as interlopers.

*"These people" were initially perfectly willing to work with the powers that be as long as those powers were fair, but the reigning powers rejected them, determined to rule over them rather than to serve them.

* The elders' advice was completely ignored, regarded as a mere formality--much like the wisdom of American elders who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are ignored in favor of "new and progressive" ideas.

A final thought: The history of the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament continues to have immense value and deep wisdom for today's world, including wisdom on how to govern.

If only we would listen.

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