Stanford scholar ponders the life, and legend, of Solomon

What can we learn from the wisest man who ever lived?

Maybe not as much as we think, according to Stanford Jewish studies scholar Steven Weitzman.

His new book, “Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom,” has been called a meditation on the “lust to know.” Yet little is known about the man at the center of the book. We don’t even know what Solomon looked like, though biblical writers note that his father and siblings were handsome.

One thing he is famous for, though: “According to Jewish tradition, he knew everything. He knew as much as God knew,” said Weitzman, a professor of Jewish culture and religion. “As a scholar, I’m attracted to knowing everything. Because I feel I don’t know anything.”

Hence, the book. “It was a lot of fun,” Weitzman said of the work he calls “an unauthorized biography.”

Solomon’s legend comes  in many forms: Some thought he could turn lead into gold, conjure demons or become invisible. Jamaicans credit him with discovering  “the Wisdom Weed,” marijuana.

Another tale: Weitzman said that Solomon is the prototype for Faust, a story that is “a crucial myth for modern times.” According to the Talmud, written in Babylon around 500 A.D., Solomon cut a deal with the devil to build the great temple of Jerusalem — with disastrous consequences.

“In order to build the temple, there were secrets he could only learn by capturing a demon. The demon gets loose and does terrible things to Solomon,” Weitzman explained.

The Faust legend, adopted by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is the quintessential modern metaphor to explain man’s helplessness before the results of his ingenuity — whether cloning or nuclear power: “All the double-edged advances that are like letting a genie out of the bottle,” said Weitzman.

The temple legend is a nice story. But is it true? “It’s true in the way poetry is true,” Weitzman said. “It’s not true in the historical sense. It’s true in its religious insights.”

The “historical sense” is on shaky ground, since we don’t know even the most rudimentary facts about Solomon. His reign is dated to between 960 and 920 BCE, but that’s only an educated guess.

Weitzman’s concern is not so much in facts as the way memory “takes place sociologically with other people” and is reshaped by new circumstances.

A powerful example of how memory shapes culture: Solomon is not only famous for wisdom, Weitzman said. “He’s also famous for being really, really wealthy.”

The lust for money, not wisdom, inspired a flotilla of adventurers who thought, “Gosh! If I knew what he did, I’d be really, really wealthy, too,” Weitzman said. The idea launched 19th-century adventure novels that, in turn, inspired the Indiana Jones movies.

It was Solomon’s supposed wealth that drove Christopher Columbus toward America. Looking for the wellspring of Solomon’s golden treasure in the biblical Tarshish and Ophir, Columbus decided to take a shortcut to the East, circumventing  the political problems in the Middle East.

Yet what is most knowable is least known. Few remember that Solomon died in divine disfavor — that part comes straight from the Book of Kings. Talmudic legend has him ending as a beggar.

What went wrong? “The Bible puts the blame on a thousand wives with other gods,” said Weitzman. A thousand women, many of them foreign, were probably something of an influence, or at least a distraction. But another tradition said that Solomon’s wisdom itself led him astray.

One talmudic tradition points to the danger of trying to outsmart God. Deuteronomy prohibits a man from too much marrying — lest “his heart will turn away” to other gods. Solomon figured that, since he knew the larger purpose, “he could skip the part about not marrying a lot of women and just focus on the end goal: avoiding idolatry,” Weitzman writes.

It didn’t work. Moral of the story: You can know too much for your own good.

According to another interpretation, “By revealing the secrets of life, wisdom removes the barriers that ordinarily confine human ambition,” Weitzman writes. Humans need limits. “If no secret or power is beyond their reach, they go too far.”

Solomon’s knowledge finally proved a spiritual cul-de-sac: “Knowing everything takes Solomon nowhere in the end, and if he reaches any kind of ultimate conclusion, it is only that his quest for wisdom and understanding was all a kind of delusion; he really understood nothing of value, life remained an impenetrable mystery, and even his desire for understanding was itself rooted in misunderstanding,” Weitzman writes.

Solomon’s sad finale implodes his kingdom. The rulers go bad and the kingdom falls into irrevocable decline. By 586 B.C., the temple has been looted and destroyed, the king and his sons executed, and the population deported. Archaeologists looking for evidence of Solomon’s kingdom have found nothing.

Corroborating evidence for the Israelite monarchy dates from the ninth century B.C., a century or so after Solomon is supposed to have lived. That’s when we find the first mention of Israeli kings in other records.

Ironically, the man who knew everything falls just short of the historical record that divides the known from the unknowable. So much so that we can’t even prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Solomon existed at all.


Steven Weitzman will speak on “Mining for Solomon’s Gold” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4 at the Addison-Penzak JCC, 14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. Cost is $5 for JCC members, $7 for
non-members. Information: [email protected].

“Solomon” by Steven Weitzman
(197 pages, Yale University Press, $25)