In the summer of 1995 I was fortunate enough to visit Israel and, among other things, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. This museum is filled with amazing artifacts of the region from Biblical times as well as from long before and after. And of everything on display, the one item I was most excited to see was the one proudly proclaimed the sole known relic from Solomon’s Temple.
This lavish "First Temple" was destroyed during the Babylonian invasion of 537 BC, and the al-Aqsa Mosque now sits atop its ruins. Even if the Israeli government could get permission to dig in this most-holy place for both Muslims and Jews, it would be such a desecrating act as to be unthinkable. Thus, this is all we have, and on most-careful and prominently-titled display at the Israel Museum: an “ivory pomegranate.”
As I excitedly stood in the long line to catch a glimpse at what I knew we would provide a remarkable and tangible bridge to one of the most significant chapters in the Biblical story, my imagination was afire with ideas of what I was about to behold. An ivory pomegranate. Pomegranates are a fairly sizable fruit, and to see one in pure ivory…wow! Of course, compared to some of the other items Solomon ordered for the Temple and described in early chapters of 1 Kings — bronze lions and oxen and chariots, pure golden lamp stands and incense snuffers, cherubim made of all sorts of spectacular materials (and wait till they somehow they find some of these valuables!) maybe that pomegranate wasn’t such a big deal; and then again, knowing it was probably but the tip of the iceberg made it an even bigger deal!
I’ll never forget what came over me as I finally arrived at the glass case housing the treasured treasure. I’m sure my face couldn’t help but grimace and my shoulders couldn’t help but drop, and if the museum hadn’t been so quiet I would have broken into the chorus of “Is That All There Is?”
Before me was something so small it needed to be under a magnifying glass in order to be viewed. And it wasn’t made of ivory after all, but hippopotamus bone. It was believed to have adorned the High Priest’s scepter in the Holy of Holies. That’s what its even inscription around it suggests, anyway.
Since my visit, this pomegranate has been condemned as a fraud, although many reputable experts continue to maintain its authenticity. This, of course, is a great controversy. However, I guess, if that teensy pomegrantey-looking thing (who can really tell what it is because it’s so small) is a fake, then we have no artifacts from Solomon’s Temple whatsoever. There’s nothing to prove (outside of scripture's oft-effusive descriptions of it) that this grand edifice ever existed.
This is yet another bleakly funny irony in the story and legacy of King Solomon. Most of us probably assume he is unquestionably one of the Bible's greatest heroes. After all, doesn't the Bible emphasize, and often, that he was very wise? Isn't that the reason the Book of Proverbs, among other things, is attributed to his hand and mind?
If you read 1 Kings 1-11 carefully, though, and with a comic or at least sardonic lens, you’ll discover a much different picture. Sure Solomon was blessed with and for his discerning intellect when he first took the throne. With razor sharp acumen he even saved a baby from being halved. But even then, from the first, we discover he’s marrying foreign women to ensure his political protection and power. And even though the text tells us God gives Solomon the incredibly blessed opportunity to build God’s much-desired house, Sol envisions something so fancy he must enslave the whole nation to build it and then bankrupts them, too.
Solomon’s increasingly extravagant tastes expand to his palace-building projects and then the homes he has construted for all the foreign wives he ends up marrying. Hundreds of ‘em! By 1 Kings 11 we're told the king’s gaze eventually moved from a focus on God to a focus on his wives’ idols and, well, his wives.
His apparently unceasing fornications with foreigners, both literally and figuratively, caused the nation to weaken and split; eventually, the Israelites lost their land and just about everything.
As I suggested in a previous blog (“My Darkly Funny Valentine”, 2/13/15), the wonderfully sensuous love poem in our scriptures, “The Song of Solomon” could very well have gotten its name because its namesake would have recited it (or at least needed or wanted to) on his One Thousand and One Wedding Nights. This is not a compliment. It’s a funny, bitter dig as Israel looks back on Solomon’s amorous and infamous legacy and the notion that what a nation needs to be impressive and admired is a lot of glitz and glamor in its leader, its leader's lifestyle and accouterments.
Including the house for God said leader constructs. Fancy schmancy expensive opulent is not the formula for anything the Almighty commands us to do, promote or be. It is the formula that leads to…
…an itty bitty bone in the shape of a pomegranate (and maybe not even that) as its sole evidence of existence.
Our Revised Common Lectionary is presently focusing on Solomon’s story for several weeks. The texts being read pull from the more heroic parts of Sol's biblical treatment. Therefore, we miss the irony, and the bleak cautionary comedy, of his tale (pun totally intended).
But this Sunday, the one Sunday every third year a section of “Song of Solomon” comprises our Old Testament reading (and it’s all lovey-dovey, beautiful and gooey of course), perhaps, as it’s being read or, better yet, preached on, we can imagine what the author of 1 Kings (and the Comic Lens) would like to someday see:
A long line of visitors to the Israel Museum, waiting excitedly and with imaginations ablaze to see the one bit of Solomon’s anatomy that’s so far been discovered: the King's purported purported cojones and…wouldn’t you know…they require a magnifying glass in order to be viewed.