Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Wednesday, August 31, 2011 — Week of Proper 17, Year One

Aidan and Cuthbert, Bishops of Lindisfarne, 651, 684

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 982)

Psalms 38 (morning) 119:25-48 (evening)

1 Kings 9:24 – 10:13

James 3:1-12

Mark 15:1-11

Solomon wowed the queen of Sheba. He excelled in wisdom. He displayed his great wealth in grand style. To look at Israel from the boardroom of the CEO, it was an impressive sight.

But below the surface things were not so pretty. Solomon’s great building projects were driven largely by slave labor. Although this chapter denies that he conscripted forced labor from Israelites (9:22), that is contradicted in chapters 5 and 10 as well as by the motivation for the subsequent rebellion that divided the nation. The long simmering resentments over the privileges that Judah enjoyed, and the burden of supporting Solomon’s extravagance were already sowing the seeds of rebellion even while Solomon entertained so exquisitely in court.

I can’t remember the source, but I recall some reports from archeological studies that point to a dramatic change that occurred about this time in Israel’s history. Throughout the days of the confederacy of tribes and through the early monarchy, there is little evidence of dramatic differences in economic status among the people of Israel. Wealth was fairly evenly divided and the most prosperous lived in a style that was not remarkably different from the common person.

Around the time of Solomon that changed. Archeologists see the emergence of signs of concentrated wealth and consumption among a small group of elite, alongside the presence of a slave class. There is a new division of wealth and class that did not exist in Israel’s earlier history.

As I read of Solomon’s exploits and remember the quick disillusion of his empire, two contemporary situations come to mind — the Arab spring and the new concentration of wealth in this country.

In so many ways Solomon was a typical oriental despot. He displayed his status and power extravagantly, including his harem of wives and concubines. The account of his reign is full of weights of measures of gold and other luxuries. His legendary wisdom, it seems, was an elitist wisdom, not the kind of street smarts that creates a sustainable and just nation. His dynasty did not survive. Like today in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere, the subjects of Solomon’s reign were hungry for an opportunity to topple the oppressive regime.

Lest our own nation be too complacent, we need to mark some of the signs of instability and injustice that do not make for a sustainable foundation. A profound economic gap has been growing in this nation beginning from the 1970’s. Income has been flat for average Americans for thirty years. Wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands.

Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out recently that 400 Americans own more wealth than 150 million other Americans.

In the past 30 years the wealthiest 1% increased their share of national wealth from 7% to 23%.

50% of all the children in our nation will depend on food stamps at some point in their lives. In our congressional district, the poverty rate recently rose from one-in-five to one-in-four. That happened in just over one year.

The August edition of “Mother Jones” has a series of graphs and reports that highlight how hard American workers are working — productivity has increased dramatically — while wages have dropped and jobs have disappeared. Corporate profits are strong and many companies have unprecedented cash reserves, but few companies are creating jobs to produce products for consumers who have little to spend.

It is as if all of the money has fled upstairs and just sits there among the elite. It is not the picture of a healthy, sustainable or just economy.

The irony of the purported rebellion of the Tea Party is that their goals only play into the hands of those who already have so much money and power. Tea Party policies can only accelerate the concentration of wealth.

While Solomon entertained the queen of Sheba, his kingdom crumbled beneath him. An American plutocracy of corporate wealth and power now dominates our policies while an underclass suffers and a middle class stagnates. These are not signs of stability.

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