Deuteronomy 17

Solomon in the Shadows

Commentaries by Diana Lipton

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Frans Francken II

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, c.1630, Oil on canvas, 57.47 x 34.88 cm, Serpukhov Art and Historical Museum, Russia; Anatoly Sapronenkov / Serpukhov Art and Historical Museum, Russia / Getty Images

A Wealth of Possibilities

Commentary by Diana Lipton

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There’s a paradox at the heart of kingship. A king requires power—often manifested in the ancient world in a great army to intimidate and defeat his enemies, and wives reflecting military and trade alliances with neighbouring countries.

He also needs great wealth to finance all this, and the magnificent buildings—palaces and temples—that are his visible presence in the world.

Yet the acquisition of power and wealth may paradoxically cause the oppression of the people it was intended to protect. Deuteronomy 17:14–20 both warns against and provides a control mechanism for such oppression: subservience to Torah law.

1 Kings 4–11 is the fulfilment of Deuteronomy’s warning.

Frans Francken II’s painting of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon’s court draws heavily on the Bible (1 Kings 10:1–13). As is common in depictions of this episode, the Queen of Sheba’s foreignness is not on display—her pale skin and fair hair are far from Ethiopian, and her attire is European. The same goes for her female attendants. Yet gender itself may be a signifier of foreignness in this painting, and in the Bible; as possible agents of seduction (whether political, religious, or moral), all women are potentially ‘foreign’.

We, the viewers, are being invited to take a position on the paradox of kingship. The figure dressed in a red cloak and ermine fur at the left of the composition—the chamberlain perhaps—has fixed us with his gaze. He’s pointing at the Queen of Sheba and the pile of gold and silver that are her tribute to the king. But other than two or three of Solomon’s courtiers, and the maidservant who’s holding the queen’s gown, no-one in the painting looks directly at the king and queen. Most of the spectators are engaged in animated debate with each other, modelling, perhaps, another way that we might respond.

As its viewers, we seem invited both to see, and to see through this scene. Do we see the power and wealth that are the foundation of Solomon’s glorious kingdom, or do we see the ‘foreign’ woman and the cache of silver and gold that herald a very bad end (cf. Deuteronomy 17:17)?

Jusepe de Ribera [attrib.]

The Judgement of Solomon, c.1609–10 or c.1620–25, Oil on canvas, 153.5 x 201.5 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome; 33, Scala / Art Resource, NY

Truth or Bluff

Commentary by Diana Lipton

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Solomon’s judgement of the two prostitutes who both claim to be the mother of one living baby was a popular subject for artists. Jusepe de Ribera’s painting departs from artistic tradition by depicting an intimate drama, not a major spectacle (cf. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s 1726–28 version of the scene in the Patriarchal Palace, Udine). Ribera’s small, dark, enclosed area, in which a few ‘props’—a pillar for a palace, a paw for a throne—stand for the whole, has the feel of a stage set.

True to the biblical account (1 Kings 3:16–28), Ribera makes it next to impossible for the viewer to know which of the women is the real mother.

The biblical narrator creates uncertainty by neither naming nor describing the two women, by the ambiguous use of personal pronouns (especially in Hebrew), and by inconsistency regarding the order of speakers. Readers cannot be sure that Solomon gave the living baby to the woman the narrator called the true mother.

Ribera has the two women dressed almost identically, their expressions and postures giving little away. Based on visual evidence, a case can be made for either.

The Bible locates this episode immediately after Solomon’s inaugural dream at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4–15); a sign that he’s qualified for the job of judge. All Israel, and all future readers, are witnesses to a demonstration of Solomon’s God-given capacity to adjudicate between right and wrong (v.9).

Ribera, however, portrays Solomon as an old man, hinting that the story’s significance lies elsewhere.

Read in the light of Deuteronomy 17:8–13, and in the company of Ribera’s painting, the episode can seem to say that, in baffling legal disputes such as this one, the judge’s decision, right or wrong, just or unjust, must stand. The formulation that occurs in both 1 Kings 3:28 and Deuteronomy 17:13—‘all Israel heard … and feared’—may hint that the king awarded the baby to the ‘wrong’ mother. Not the compassionate one, but the one who, like Solomon himself, compensated for the absence of birthright (Solomon was not David’s firstborn) and bluffed fearlessly to keep the whole baby (read ‘kingdom’).

Sébastien Bourdon

Solomon Making a Sacrifice to the Idols, c.1646–47, Oil on canvas, 156 x 145 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris; INV. 2800, Stéphane Maréchalle © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

In Flagrante

Commentary by Diana Lipton

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The implied reader of Deuteronomy 17:2–7 is not the perpetrator of the crime in question—the worship of other gods—but the person who hears of or sees the prohibited crime. Turning a deaf ear or a blind eye is out of the question. Whoever has reason to suspect is legally obliged to investigate, and witnesses are bound to cast the first stone.

Viewed through this lens, Sébastien Bourdon’s Solomon Worshipping Idols depicts a nightmare. He makes you, the viewer, into an unwilling, terrified witness of a capital crime involving the king.

You come upon a clearing in the Jerusalem hills. A column, a massive urn, and two statues—one male and dark and one white and female—are permanent fixtures, but they can’t be dismissed as the decaying remains of an earlier civilization. An expanse of fabric has been draped around the tree and the urn, creating the sense of an enclosure, and there’s a red carpet trimmed with gold on the steps. The statues are festooned with garlands of fresh flowers. There’s music—you see a small flute and cymbals, and snatches of song emerge from the open mouths of a couple of the women. Pungent smoke drifts up from a golden incense altar, and a libation offering with a silver chalice and platter is in process. Can these be the very vessels designated for use in the holy Temple (1 Kings 7:48–51)?

King Solomon is gazing up at the statues, as directed by a woman in white at centre stage. His hands are on his chest. She’s literally turning his heart towards other gods (Deuteronomy 17:17). There’s no way out of this: you’re a witness to royal idol worship. Your hand will throw the first stone of a public stoning that will end with the king’s death (v.7). You and you alone will be responsible for regicide.

But wait. You and you alone. You’re the only witness, and ‘a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness’ (v.6). Without making a sound, you turn on your heels and tiptoe away.

Frans Francken II :

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, c.1630 , Oil on canvas

Jusepe de Ribera [attrib.] :

The Judgement of Solomon, c.1609–10 or c.1620–25 , Oil on canvas

Sébastien Bourdon :

Solomon Making a Sacrifice to the Idols, c.1646–47 , Oil on canvas

Solomon as Subtext

Comparative commentary by Diana Lipton

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Deuteronomy 17 contains four seemingly unrelated legal units: (i) a prohibition against sacrificing blemished animals (v.1); (ii) the death penalty prescribed for worshipping other gods (vv.2–7); (iii) procedures for dealing with ‘baffling’ legal disputes (vv.8–13); and (iv) guidelines for appointing a king (vv.14–20). Setting aside verse 1, which in any case reads better as a conclusion to chapter 16 than the beginning of this one, I shall try to show that the remaining three units are intricately connected.

For this purpose, I spotlight a figure I see lurking in the shadows of Deuteronomy 17. Faced with terse biblical verses, we often ‘read between the lines’, uncovering ‘hidden’ text that elucidates the visible text we find challenging. Instead of supplementing words with more words, I’ll supplement words with an image: King Solomon.

Commentators have long noted parallels between the flawed future king projected by Deuteronomy 17:14–20 and King Solomon. Solomon himself was not a foreigner (see Deuteronomy 17:14), but foreigners and foreignness were never far away. His mother, Bathsheba, was formerly married to a Hittite (2 Samuel 12:11), and his father, David, was descended from Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 4:17). Solomon built his kingdom with wealth and materials acquired from abroad, thanks to alliances with foreign kings, taxes collected from foreign nations (1 Kings 4–5), and the voyages of his own navy (1 Kings 9:26–28). He kept many horses (1 Kings 5:6), some of which came from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28, cf. Deuteronomy 17:16), and his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3) eventually lead him astray (1 Kings 11:1–8; cf. Deuteronomy 17:17). Solomon amassed vast quantities of silver and gold (1 Kings 10:10–22; cf. Deuteronomy 17:17); apparently, he could have been one of the richest men who ever lived.

It’s Solomon the wealthy cosmopolitan who takes the stage in Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Frans Francken II. The king is at the height of his powers. Though not a young man, his beard is not yet grey, and he’s dressed to impress in exquisite robes and a majestic turban. The Queen of Sheba belongs to an exclusive club of women Solomon didn’t marry, but in popular imagination she exemplifies the foreign woman who showcased both the king’s strength (he attracted) and his weakness (he was attracted). The cache of gold in the centre of the lower register is her ‘tribute’ to the king, and foreignness is evoked by such details as the parrots and the ape at the far right of the middle register (1 Kings 10:22).

Francken’s Solomon is on display—to his court (the figures immediately around him), his citizens (the men behind the balustrade), and the world (the queen and her maidservants).

A painting previously attributed to ‘The Master of the Judgement of Solomon’, but thought now to be executed by Jusepe de Ribera in 1609–10, shows, by contrast, the ‘private’ Solomon.

In Ribera’s The Judgement of Solomon, the king is seated in what looks like an inner chamber. His clothes are dowdy and his beard unkempt, and his crown is less a mark of majesty than a somewhat painful-looking accent for his bald pate and lined forehead. The few other figures in the scene are not awed spectators but interested parties—with all that entails. Solomon’s power is not measured by material wealth (as should be hoped in a court of justice, there’s no gold in sight), but in the absolute finality of his verdict: public or private, correct or incorrect, it must be obeyed (1 Kings 3:28; cf. Deuteronomy 17:11–13).

Like the work attributed to Ribera, Sébastien Bourdon portrays Solomon out of the public eye, but not because he’s presiding over a sensitive legal dispute. In Solomon Worshipping the Idols, the king’s foreign wives are tempting him to worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1–8), an activity punishable by death (Deuteronomy 17:5). Bourdon’s Solomon, like Ribera’s, is old and grey, this time in accordance with the biblical narrative (1 Kings 11:4). Silver and gold are prominent in the form of the chalice and platter being used for libation offerings, and the incense altar. Here too the wealth is linked to foreign women.

This is a king in tragic decline, fulfilling to the letter the corruption of royalty foreseen in Deuteronomy 17.



Milicua, José and Javier Portus. 2011. El joven Ribera (Madrid: Museo del Prado)


Next exhibition: Joshua 2

Deuteronomy 17

Revised Standard Version

17 “You shall not sacrifice to the Lord your God an ox or a sheep in which is a blemish, any defect whatever; for that is an abomination to the Lord your God.

2 “If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, 3and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, 4and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, 5then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. 6On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from the midst of you.

8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns which is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God will choose, 9and coming to the Levitical priests, and to the judge who is in office in those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. 10Then you shall do according to what they declare to you from that place which the Lord will choose; and you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you; 11according to the instructions which they give you, and according to the decision which they pronounce to you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the verdict which they declare to you, either to the right hand or to the left. 12The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13And all the people shall hear, and fear, and not act presumptuously again.

14 “When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and you possess it and dwell in it, and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me’; 15you may indeed set as king over you him whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. 16Only he must not multiply horses for himself, or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to multiply horses, since the Lord has said to you, ‘You shall never return that way again.’ 17And he shall not multiply wives for himself, lest his heart turn away; nor shall he greatly multiply for himself silver and gold.

18 “And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in charge of the Levitical priests; 19and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them; 20that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left; so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.