While the Bible favors Israel's southern kingdom, Judah, over the northern kingdom, Samaria, King Solomon's story may have its basis in the story of the Samarian King Ahab. If so, then a member Ahab's family may have played a major role in the writing of the story of King David.
For most of us, the very mention of King Solomon, son of Bathsheba, evokes images of a glamorous kingdom and a glamorous era, which the Hebrew Bible portrays as a golden age for ancient Israel. After this period, the kingdom broke up, leading to a sharp decline in social and economic conditions. We recount tales, like the visit of a beautiful, Sabean queen, the construction of a great temple, and an empire extending from Etzion Gever (modem Eilat) to the River Euphrates. Sitting upon its throne, was a wealthy monarch, boasting some 700 wives, 300 concubines, and known by the kings of neighboring lands. In spite of some disagreements with the governors and people of what the Bible calls the "northern tribes", this king guided the northerners and southerners under a single throne that -also according to the biblical text- was based in Jerusalem. Also based on a variety of biblical claims (the numbers of years that subsequent kings ruled in both the north and the south), the reign of Solomon is thought to have occured during the later half of the 10th century B.C.E.
In recent years, however, archaeologists and historians of the ancient Near East have been debating the question of whether or not an historical King Solomon actually reigned over a united kingdom of two peoples, who, according to biblical texts, divided politically, only after the ascent of Solomon's son, Prince Rehobam, to the Jerusalem throne. Also contested, in a fascinating analysis by the biblical historian, Professor Baruch Halpern, of Penn State University, is a claim made by the Bible -and which I (and perhaps many of you) questioned to the frustration of certain teachers in the Jewish school that I attended as a child- that Solomon was a son of David, the proceeding king.
Leading the argument against the existence of a united monarchy ruled from Jerusalem is Tel Aviv University's, Professor Israel Finkelstein. He is opposed by William Dever (formerly of the University of Arizona), and several others, including Halpern. For the last several decades, the debate has centered on the dating of a few archeological sites, especially the gate structures in three fortress cities whose construction the Bible credits to Solomon. None of these scholars, by the way, believes that Solomon's wealth and reach has not been exaggerated by the biblical writers and editors. The debate is about whether the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah were united in the 10th century B.C.E. under a single king who ruled from the south -meaning Judah, and namely Jerusalem.
The debate involves characteristics of pottery shards, carbon dating of wood from beams that once supported palaces, fortresses and other structures, coordination of excavated layers from different archeological sites, and other such details. The accepted reasoning in the debate goes like this: if the buildings of the oldest post-Philistine layer date to the 10th century BCE, then there was a united monarchy under Solomon as the Bible claims; if they date to the 9th century, then the structures were constructed by the Omride kings, the dynasty of King Omri and his son Ahab and grandson Yoram, who ruled not Jerusalem/Judah, but Samaria, the northern kingdom.
While both sides make strong arguments about the dating, it is important to keep in mind that the main archeological sites in question, the three cities mentioned in Kings -Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer- were part of the northern kingdom, Samaria, also known as "Israel" or "Ephraim" to distinguish it from Judah. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was only tiny village during the 10th century BCE. Only during the latter half of the 8th century BCE and the century that followed, did Jerusalem grow into place that could have been a seat of government. Thus, Finkelstein has noted that while the data do not support a 10th century united kingdom based in the south, they do allow for a united kingdom a few decades later -based in the north.
During the Iron Age, when the stories of the Israelite (Samarian) and Judahite monarchies are set, the territories associated with Israel would have boasted a population at least ten times that of Judah, until well into the 7th century BCE. Might a tiny Judahite population led by David and Solomon have dominated the larger Israelite population? Possibly; according the Bible, David and Solomon employed foreign mercenaries. These would have been well trained, professional soldiers. If paid well, they might have been loyal to Jerusalem, allowing David and Solomon to rule the north by force. And indeed, a few northern voices in the Books of Samuel, which were not suppressed entirely by later biblical editors, do suggest that David was hated in Ephraim and other lands northward of Judah. He is resented for overthrowing the House of Saul, and, according to Halpern's analysis, is suspected of being a Philistine or a Philistine agent, despite attempts by Judean scribes to depict him as the man who saved Israel and Judah from the Philistines.
If you're perplexed at this point, or perhaps as angry at me, as my teachers were for asking whether David really sired Solomon, keep in mind that like the ancient Greeks the Philistines lived in city-states which often were at war with one another. And as in ancient Greece, the alliances between city-states were changing constantly. Thus, while David's credentials as an opponent of Philistines probably has some basis in fact, the biblical story of his alliance with the Philistines of Gath, the Gittites, who at the time seem to have been at war against Saul, probably has historical kernels as well. Reading the story of the events leading to Saul's death, which includes a conversation between Philistine leaders leading to David (chief body guard for the Gittite king at this point in the story) being sent far to the south just before the battle against Saul (yet somehow is notified immediately of the news of Saul's death), can only lead one to conclude that probably David was one of the leaders of the Philistine alliance against Saul. By this analysis, if David ruled Israel, he ruled as a conqueror, not as a beloved ruler, or anything along those lines. But if he did rule, how far into Israel did his sway reach? Because of the population in the north exceeded that of the south by an order of magnitude, I suspect his hold was loose at best, and did not penetrate very deeply. Perhaps he raided southern Ephraim for a while -until, his family was overthrown.
Aside from what seems to have been written to alibi David from blame for the death of Saul, another strange story in the books of Samuel is that of the affair between David and Bathsheba (Bat Sheva). It is a very weird story in which, after sleeping with Bathsheba and learning of her pregnancy, David calls for her husband, Uriah, to be sent back from the war against the Ammonites. When Uriah arrives, David orders him to go home to sleep with his wife; thus Bathsheba's pregnancy would be attributed to her husband; no harm done. But what does Uriah do? He refuses, insisting that that it would be unfair for him, a mid-level army officer- to have such pleasure, while men under his command are facing death as they prepare to confront the Ammonites. Pretty strange attitude for a soldier whose home on short live, no?
Even stranger, prior to David's rendezvous with Uriah's wife, the writer makes sure to mention that Bathsheba has just finished with her menstrual cycle. That's the bath that she is taking when David observes her form the balcony, the ritual cleansing bath, following menstruation. Thus, when she informs David of her pregnancy, he knows that the child cannot be Uriah's, because he'd seen her in the mikvah prior to taking her. Finally, just in case anyone still has doubts that David is Solomon's father, the child of the adulterous affair dies. Only after Bathsheba becomes pregnant a second time, when Uriah is long dead (as the result of an unlikely plot wherein Uriah carries to General Yoav David's orders to have him killed and -like noble Bellerophon carrying orders from King Proetus- does not bother to take a peek before handing them loyally to the general, is Solomon born. So basically, the author of this story goes out of his way (or her way -more about this later) to address any suspicions that Solomon might not be David's son.
Why the author do this? Later, when David is old, and just after his death, the opening chapter of Kings recounts a civil war of sorts that takes place between Solomon's supporters and the supporters of David's son, Adoniya. The evidence offered to support Solomon's claim to the throne is a discussion that supposedly takes place between David, the prophet Nathan (one of Solomon's few supporters in the war), and Solomon's mother, Bathsheba, just prior to David's death. No other witnesses, however. Now add the fact that during the period of the two monarchies, supposedly after the north seceded from Jerusalem, there are some mentions of marriage alliances between the Samarian and Judahite dynasties. The most memorable one involves a Samarian princess called Atalya, daughter of King Ahab son of Omri. The actual story, written by Judahite priests, does not remember Atalya in positive light. It blamed her for introducing the cult of Baal to Jerusalem, but this is as ridiculous as the story that blames Atalya's father, King Ahab, for introducing Baal in Samaria. Like her brother, King Yoram of Samaria, Princess Atalya was named for Yahweh (YHWH), the god of Israel and of Judah.
That said, the fact that Atalya is noted to have become Judah's only queen of the pre-exilic era speaks volumes, suggesting that during the Omride period, the arrangement between north and south was exactly the opposite of the way it is portrayed in the days of Solomon. That is to say, Samaria dominated, while Jerusalem was merely the seat of a minor province. Given the demographics of the period as elucidated by archaeology, perhaps this is the true basis of the stories of the kingdom of Solomon. It happens that Atalya's father Ahab, and her grandfather, Omri, were known by, and interacted with, the rulers of other kingdoms and peoples. Described in the writings of the court of Shalmenesser III of Assyria is an account of the Battle of Qarqar, in wherein an Assyrian campaign was halted by a coalition of kingdoms opposed to Assyrian expansion. Of this coalition, Aram-Damascus contributed the largest number of foot soldiers, but the largest number of chariots (2000), the heavy armor of those days, was supplied by King Ahab of Samaria. Interestingly, excavations of the Megiddo site, suggest that may have specialized in the breeding and training of war horses. Also, interestingly, the coalition that included King Ahab's army also included camel riders from southern Arabia, the place thought to be the home of the mysterious "Queen of Sheba".
Since Solomon is not mentioned in the writings of adjacent lands in the period when he is said to have ruled, I suspect that a lot of his story has its basis in Ahab's story. But if this is the case, how did the story get projected onto Solomon? Finkelstein has proposed that this had to do with events during the 7th century while King Manasseh ruled in Judah. I have a different idea. I think it has to do with Ahab's daughter, Atalya. It happens that Atalya's reign in Judah corresponds to the time when Jerusalem was just beginning to emerge as something more than a tiny village (though it had existed previously during the Bronze Age, layers below the Iron Age, as a city) a place that could have supported a royal citadel of sorts. I think that Atalya, effectively, created Judah. To do this, she also would have had to rework and organize the story of the most famous Judahite, David. In short, I suspect that she is the one whom scholars call "court historian", the author who wrote David's story as we know it today. She was in the right time and place to do it and, being in such a time and place, she would have had to contend with local traditions focused on David, Saul, and Solomon, and perhaps of David's son, Adoniya too, and make all the tales fit together into a story that encouraged unity of southern peoples.
Additionally, Atalya's female gender might account for various feminine aspects of the story of David's rise that a male scribe might be less likely to mention. I'm thinking, of course, about the allusion to the post-menstrual mikvah in the Bathsheba affair, but also about the rape of David's daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, Amnon, and how she is left crying outside the door that Amnon has ordered to be closed behind her. Then there is the mention of Jonathan's love exceeding the love of women for David in the lament that is attributed to him following Saul's death. Being the scribess who cleaned up David's history, Atalya would have been eager to portray alliances between David and the House of Saul. Yet, as a northerner, she would not have hesitated to portray some aspect of David's negative behavior. His treatment of Saul's daughter, Michal, may be an attempt at this, along with the story of how his wife, Abigail's first husband seems to have dropped dead at a rather convenient time for David to take her for himself. Finally, as a unifier of peoples, Atalya would have been motivated to downplay any hard feelings that the Judahite dynasty (into which she was married) might not be the heir to its supposed founder. This in turn would motivate her to write very carefully and precisely about King Solomon's origins.