Rethinking the Search for King Solomon

Are we using the right metrics to judge the United Monarchy?
Gary Dorning/Let the Stones Speak
From the January 2022 Let the Stones Speak Magazine Issue

One of the great debates in the world of biblical archaeology is about the historicity of the biblical kingdom of kings David and Solomon. Were Israel’s two greatest kings, as the Bible records, powerful monarchs reigning over a prosperous and significant kingdom? Or were they petty tribal chieftains who governed little more than a small village community in the Judean mountains?

It wasn’t long ago that this debate centered around whether David and Solomon even existed. But this controversy effectively ended in 1993 with the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele, which explicitly mentions Judah’s royal “house of David.” Since then, the debate has shifted to focus on the size and significance of the 10th-century b.c.e. United Monarchy.

A primary metric scholars and archaeologists use to measure the size and significance of an ancient civilization is the presence of large structures. Evidence of what we term “monumental buildings,” such as Egypt’s pyramids or the giant walls of Babylon, is a sure sign of prosperity and power.

There’s no doubt that monumental ruins can be proof of a formidable civilization. But monumentalism is far from the only evidence of civilizational power and sophistication. Some believe scientists have focused too much on monumentalism, especially in the debate over the size and significance of David and Solomon.

Do we need to change the metrics of how we measure the significance of the United Monarchy?

Let the Stones Speak

Before we look more closely at this topic, it’s important to note: Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of 10th-century b.c.e. monumental structures, both in Jerusalem and across Israel. In Jerusalem, Dr. Eilat Mazar had excavated a royal complex she attributed to King Solomon (uncovering massive 10th-century walls and a large gatehouse), as well as the similarly dated Large Stone Structure in the City of David. Meanwhile, large structures from the same period have been uncovered in Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer (all cities the Bible says Solomon expanded and fortified; 1 Kings 9:15).

The Bible describes the legendary wealth of Solomon’s kingdom. Passages such as 1 Kings 3:12-13 and 1 Kings 10 state that the “riches and honour” of Solomon were unmatched by any king during his lifetime.

But how could Solomon’s kingdom be greater than that of Egypt, Assyria or Babylon? Tenth-century Israel had some monumental structures, but no pyramids, ziggurats, Forbidden City or Great Wall. Surely the archaeological record suggests that the Bible exaggerates the power of the United Monarchy.

This is the natural conclusion if we look primarily for monumentalism as proof that a civilization was significant. But what if we are looking at this too narrowly?

Rethinking Our Approach

In his book How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, historian Rodney Stark considers the nature of civilizational greatness. Stark examines some of the great empires of history and shows the large dichotomy between the wealth, power and education of the leaders and the general population.

“[M]ost people,” Stark writes, “lived lives of misery and exploitation in tyrannical empires that covered huge areas.” He then quotes anthropologist Marvin Harris, who observed that those living under powerful regimes existed “just a notch above barest subsistence … little better off than their oxen.”

It’s a noteworthy point, especially in our practice of archaeology. Many of the “great” and “significant” empires of history boasted impressive, monumental structures and physical accomplishments—but these came at the expense of their subjects, and even their entire economies and societies, which were impoverished.

“We remain fascinated by accounts of the opulent splendor of ancient imperial courts, of gigantic palaces with golden fixtures,” Stark continues. “In all the ancient empires, monumentalism was rife. Pharaohs built pyramids, huge statues such as the Sphinx, immense shrines and even whole personal cities. The rulers of Mesopotamia built enormous ziggurats …. But despite such monuments and fabulous royal wealth, the great empires were very poor” (emphasis added throughout).

Describing ancient Egypt, Egyptologist Ricardo Caminos wrote that “peasant families always wavered between abject poverty and utter destitution.”

“Too often historians have noted the immense wealth of rulers without grasping the sacrifices this imposed on the populace,” Stark continues. “The Egyptian pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and the Taj Mahal were all built as beautiful monuments to repressive rule; they were without productive value and were paid for by misery and want.”

Looking back on history, the natural tendency is to determine significance by considering the grandness of structures and the opulence of the ruling class. Often, these are the only significant remains we have of the ancient world. But as Stark and others observe, evidence of grand buildings does not define national success or significance.

Think about this in a modern context. We don’t evaluate the size and significance of nations today by primarily considering the wealth of the top 1 percent. We employ all sorts of metrics to determine a nation’s true significance, including living standards, quality of education, literacy rates, the size and wealth of the middle class, economic sustainability, and cultural sophistication.

Imagine what archaeologists thousands of years in the future, with an equivalently limited number of textual references, would think while observing the “ruins” of our societies. What would they deduce?

When you consider history’s greatest, wealthiest, most powerful polities, does Communist-era Romania come to mind? Probably not. But it would to archaeologists in the future, with a bias toward monumentalism.

If they looked at large ruins, they might conclude that Romania’s last Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, was the real “Ramses” of history. After all, he commissioned the heaviest, most expensive and second-most expansive administration building in the world, the “Palace of the Parliament,” for the personality cult surrounding himself and his family. The building, completed in 1997, is believed to weigh over 4 million tons, containing 1 million cubic meters of marble, 700,000 tons of steel and bronze, 3,500 tons of crystal glass and gold-leaf ceilings. The energy cost of Ceaușescu’s palace (70 percent of which remains unused and empty) is roughly equivalent to that of a medium-sized city.

If future archaeologists looked only at personal wealth, Ceaușescu’s Romania might look like one of the most powerful and significant countries in the world! But is this really the mark of national wealth and significance? Romania has the highest poverty rate in all of Europe. An estimated 30 percent of households live in slums; many homes have four or five family members living in a single room. And this represents marked improvement since the fall of communism in Romania. What might we learn if we measure the significance of the United Monarchy using some of these other metrics?

Instead of focusing mainly on monumental buildings, what if we consider the evidence of carefully planned and developed towns and cities? What if, in addition to searching for evidence of correspondence between elites, we searched for evidence of widespread literacy? What if there was evidence in 10th-century Israel of a market-driven economy and a well-fed, well-dressed populace with a high standard of living?

Surely this would substantially impact the debate about the biblical historicity of David and Solomon’s United Kingdom—Israel’s overall wealth and significance.

In reality, these are exactly the sort of metrics we need to use when studying the United Monarchy. Why? Because Bible history shows this is how David and Solomon’s success was defined.

Biblical Monumentalism?

Although 10th-century b.c.e. Israel didn’t have pyramids or ziggurats, the Bible does describe a monumental Solomonic structure. The temple in Jerusalem certainly would have been a “wonder” of the ancient world. (For obvious reasons, this structure is impossible to “unearth”; the temple site has been attacked and leveled numerous times.)

Even still, despite its majesty, the temple was comparatively small in size. The main building was only roughly 27 meters long by 9 meters wide (1 Kings 6:2). Compare that to the dimensions of Babylon’s ziggurat temple, which had a 100m-by-100m base. The same applies to the city of Jerusalem itself, which was comparatively small during the reigns of David and Solomon (2 Samuel 5).

Certainly, grand Iron ii (biblical kingdom period) structures have been discovered in ancient Jerusalem. These include the largest Iron Age structure in all Israel, the Stepped Stone Structure; the even larger unearthed structure, Charles Warren’s Large Tower (unmatched in height by anything in Israel until the time of the Temple Mount); and the Extra Tower’s stone ashlars, bigger than any other construction stones in Israel until the time of Herod’s Temple Mount. Yet Jerusalem as a whole, compared to other kingdoms or empires, was a small city with a small population.

But this doesn’t mean Jerusalem, or Israel, was insignificant. There is a reason for Jerusalem’s physically diminutive state.

Studying biblical history, it’s clear that Jerusalem was not supposed to be a Babylon, a Ramses or a Forbidden City. That is, neither biblical Jerusalem nor its infrastructure were designed to showcase the power and wealth of a human ruler. Jerusalem was selected as the capital for its historical religious significance (i.e. Genesis 14, 22). It was also chosen for its diplomatic significance: The city was situated directly on the border of the tribal territory of Judah and Benjamin (Joshua 15:8; 18:28). King David’s establishment of his government at Jerusalem clearly served as a symbol of tribal reconciliation between the northern tribes formerly supporting the Benjamite King Saul and the new king of the tribe of Judah.

While Jerusalem—especially the temple and royal Solomonic complex—was materially significant and impressive, it was not outlandishly large or ostentatious. The city was not created to flaunt the splendor of a human king.

At first, Jerusalem was not built on the back of impoverished citizens or slaves. It was a joint international effort, one in which a friendly neighboring power sent its own experts to work side by side with skilled Israelite laborers (2 Samuel 5; 1 Kings 5).

The point is, while Jerusalem—especially the temple and royal Solomonic complex—was materially significant and impressive, it was not outlandishly large or ostentatious. The city was not created to flaunt the splendor of a human king.

Bible history shows that Jerusalem was created to illustrate and enhance the relationship between God and His people, and to facilitate the education, culture and prosperity of the entire kingdom and populace!

This reality is revealed early on in the Bible. In Deuteronomy 17, Moses gives instruction for Israel’s future monarchs: “When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: ‘I will set a king over me ….’ [N]either shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. … [This law] shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life …. that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren …” (verses 14-20).

The Torah contains numerous laws regulating the conduct of a king, right down to the proper treatment of servants and the forbidding of slavery. This admonition for equitable rule is applied specifically to David and Solomon, the kings responsible for conquering the city and establishing it as the capital.

2 Samuel 23, which includes the “last words of David,” demands fair and just rule. 1 Kings 2 documents King David’s advice to Solomon, where he explicitly admonishes his son to “show kindness” to certain individuals, even allowing them to “eat at thy table.” 1 Kings 3 records Solomon’s prayer following his coronation. Here, Israel’s new king prays that God would give him “an understanding heart” to rule over “Thy people which Thou hast chosen, a great people …. [F]or who is able to judge this Thy great people?” (verses 8-9).

The Bible is clear: The kingdom of Israel, especially under King David and King Solomon, was to be a different kind of empire. The driving aspiration of Israel’s leaders wasn’t personal aggrandizement or the construction of monumental buildings to showcase their power; the chief goal of the monarch was to facilitate the development of an entire population of wealthy, sophisticated, educated people to create God’s model nation.

Of course, the majority of Israelite rulers did not adhere to this ethos. But David and Solomon in large part did! Under these two kings, not only did the capital city of Jerusalem prosper and grow in wealth and stature—the whole kingdom did!

When we examine the historicity of the United Monarchy, we need to measure it by this standard.

So using these metrics, let’s consider what the archaeological record tells us about David and Solomon.

Welcome to Timna

Historical realities dictate that we should not expect to find evidence of a wealthy populace by uncovering an abundance of gold, silver and other signs of material riches. The land of Israel has been invaded, pillaged and destroyed dozens of times throughout history, so such discoveries are a rarity.

But there is plenty of other evidence available for us to study, even 3,000 years on. For a case study, let’s travel to the far south of Israel and examine a desert mining community.

Timna is an ancient desert copper-mining site located in the far south of modern-day Israel, just north of the Gulf of Aqaba. (See map, pg. 14) The site lies in the ancient geographical region of Edom. The Bible records that this region was conquered by King David at the start of the 10th century: “And he [David] put garrisons in Edom; and all the Edomites became servants to David” (1 Chronicles 18:13).

Timna Valley
Eliran t Via Wikimedia Commons

The Timna mining region is dotted with massive slag heaps, some more than 6 meters high, and is peppered with 10,000 mine shafts, some more than 40 meters deep. These mines have been operational on and off over the course of several millenniums.

When these mines were first excavated in the 20th century, they were sensationally reported to be mines of King Solomon. Famous archaeologist Nelson Glueck posited that they were the very mines from which Solomon extracted copper to manufacture the vast amount of bronze contained in the temple. By the end of the 20th century, this assertion had been overturned, with archaeologists pointing instead to a 12th-century b.c.e. Egyptian shrine and other Egyptian remains in the area, showing the Egyptians could only have been responsible for what was a prodigious output of copper at this time in history.

As it turns out, more recent excavations and testing have shown that the earliest excavators were right: The mines do in fact belong in the same period as King Solomon. In 2013, new carbon dating and slag analysis revealed that copper production actually dropped off at the time of Egyptian control and only began picking up after they left the region. Then, two centuries later, the mines surged to their greatest productive quantity in history, specifically during the 10th century b.c.e.—the very time of kings David and Solomon. (Interestingly, overall productivity dropped off again during the ninth century b.c.e., after the United Monarchy broke apart.)

Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University is one of Timna’s primary excavators. Over the past couple of years, he has highlighted what he considers an “architectural bias” in archaeology (especially as it applies to Timna). He believes there is a tendency to overemphasize the presence of stone structures and related “monumentalism” as “proof” of the existence of powerful ruling kingdoms. He highlights how this architectural bias led to the misassociation of Timna’s prodigious output with Egyptian dominance.

“[Later] research in Timna intentionally avoided using the Old Testament as a background to archaeological interpretations—in accord with the increasing awareness of biblical criticism in these decades,” wrote Ben-Yosef. “[B]etween 1970 and 2012 this paradigm was so dominant that contradicting evidence was suppressed and overlooked …. [T]he Hathor Shrine and the inscriptions bearing the names of 19th and 20th Dynasties pharaohs, which indeed testify to an Egyptian imperial involvement in the Late Bronze Age, overshadowed any contrasting evidence available at the time” (“The Architectural Bias in Current Biblical Archaeology,” 2019).

We’ll get to some of the intriguing individual discoveries in a moment. But first, consider this overview of the Timna mines and their prodigious 10th-century peak-production with a similar example examined by Stark in How the West Won.

Industrial Enterprise

In the same chapter dealing with monumentalism and the tyrannical poverty of ancient empires, Stark cites a case in point of mining many centuries later in China. The application to Timna here is noteworthy.

Late in the 10th century c.e., a powerful iron industry developed in northern China. By 1018, Chinese industrialists—private citizens—were producing about 35,000 tons of iron per year. They were making a lot of money, much of which they reinvested in their mines, which led to even greater production, technological development (and general prosperity). Importantly, Stark emphasizes that China’s thriving iron industry was “not a government operation.”

By the 11th century, the thriving iron industry was dead. What had happened? Stark explains how the Chinese imperial court—when it discovered the growing wealth of the industrialists and the high wages they were paying their peasant workers—swept in and secured the mines in a state monopoly. Unsurprisingly, the output of the mines slowed and finally stopped.

When “the elite seizes all production above the minimum needed for survival, people have no motivation to produce more,” Stark writes. “The economic system of ancient empires and of all despotic states has come to be known as the command economy, since the state commands and coerces markets and labor ….”

Let the Stones Speak

Powerful authoritarian governments tend to monopolize private industry. Enlightened, sophisticated and advanced governments refrain from doing so.

The two sides of this coin can be seen at Timna.

Evidence at the site shows that under Egypt’s despots in the 13th to 12th centuries, the mining operation was relatively sluggish, only starting to pick up once the Egyptians left the region. Conversely, the mine reached its highest level of production in the 10th century b.c.e. Not only that, as Ben-Yosef discovered, evidence shows that this is when new smelting technologies were being developed, causing the mine to increase production and efficiency.

Clearly, the central government controlling the region at this time served to encourage Timna’s copper production. Only a deferential and benevolent government would have allowed for the general populace, including this distant mining town, to become successful and enriched—a system opposite a “command economy.”

This sort of central administration could not only be classified as significant and advanced, it’s also entirely consistent with the Bible’s description of Solomon’s administration.

But it’s notable not just what and how the 10th-century Timna miners were producing—it’s also what they were wearing and eating while doing it.

Well-Dressed Miners?

“In despotic states where rulers concentrate on exacting the maximum amount from those they control, subjects become notably avaricious too,” Stark writes. “They consume, hoard and hide the fruits of their labor, and they fail to produce nearly as much as they might. … The result is a standard of living far below the society’s potential productive capacities.”

This was certainly not the case at 10th-century Timna. As Haaretz’s Ariel David reported in 2019: “[E]xcavations at Timna have shown that around the year 1000 b.c.e. … fortifications were built around the site and remains were found showing that the local workers were clothed with expensive textiles and enjoyed food imported from afar.” These “fortifications” align with 1 Chronicles 18:13, which says David built “garrisons” in the area.

The evidence of rich food and clothing surprised scientists. For decades, Timna was assumed to be a dirty, grungy mining town where slaves lived a base existence (with Glueck naming part of the site “Slave Hill”). But several snippets of clothing unearthed from the Timna dumps in 2019 tell a very different story.

First, the clothing of this period was not the plain, minimalist style worn by Egyptian workmen. It was more along the lines of Joseph’s “coat of many colors.” Several beautiful, colorful fragments of woven wool fabric were found, some variously striped with orange, black, blue and red weaves. (The Bible often describes the use of such blue and red dyes, and even mentions a personal request by King Solomon for a skilled man who can work in “crimson and blue yarn”—2 Chronicles 2:7; New International Version.) Analysis of the samples revealed that these fabric colors were achieved with a rather complex dyeing practice using certain faraway Mediterranean plants.

And just last year, a scrap of 10th-century royal purple (argaman) fabric was discovered at the mines. To emphasize just how significant this is, consider: This fabric dye, at various points throughout history, was traded for as much as 10-20 times its weight in gold. This precious shellfish-derived dye is mentioned several times in the Bible, particularly in relation to the temple—yet this discovery constitutes the first time it has been discovered in Iron Age Israel, predating existing specimens by 1,000 years. And it was found in an ancient refuse dump in the middle of the desert, in a 10th-century mining location.

For decades, Timna was assumed to be a dirty, grungy mining town where slaves lived a base existence. But several snippets of clothing unearthed from the Timna dumps in 2019 tell a very different story.
Clara Amit/Israel Antiquities Authority, Dafna Gazit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority

Besides the clothing adorning Timna’s residents, archaeologists uncovered a bounty of other remains that point to the richness, productivity and wealth of this desert mining community. The remains were remarkably well preserved, thanks to the intense, dry heat. These included dozens of other textile fragments, as well as rich Mediterranean-sourced foods that could not have readily been grown in the area. Scientists found evidence of figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, wheat and almonds—and even fish not sourced from the nearby Gulf of Aqaba, but from the north, from the distant Mediterranean. All roads led northinto Israel’s heartland. Even analysis of donkey manure revealed a diet of crop that had originally come from the Jerusalem region.

What kind of wealthy, well-funded, well-dressed, well-fed people were on the scene at this time? And what kind of central government existed to allow for such a high standard of living? Bible history provides the answers.

As noted, Dr. Ben-Yosef highlights the problem of “architectural bias” among those who dismiss the significance of this 10th-century period in antiquity based on a lack of monumentalism or stone structures, even when there is substantial evidence of advanced civilization.

In his 2019 article, Ben-Yosef wrote: “This [archaeological] flaw … is essentially the overemphasis given to stone-built features in the identification of social complexity, geopolitical power and historical role of biblical-era societies. Inadvertently, the debate and the focus on the chronological placement of architectural remains have deepened the reliance on stone as the key for assessing the strength, size, geopolitical impact and even mere existence of biblical-era kingdoms, and in turn for ‘solving’ questions related to the historicity of the biblical accounts.

“[T]he total reliance on stone-built archaeological features to assess social complexity [has] a fundamental impact on the attempts to assess the historicity of biblical accounts based on the archaeological record, evidently by generating a tendency towards minimalism. This is especially relevant to the constant efforts to understand the genesis of ancient Israel and its neighboring kingdoms.”

What Is Real Wealth?

If we are looking primarily for signs of “monumentalism” among 10th-century Israelite ruins, it isn’t hard to dismiss those that do exist (as is often done by the skeptics) and conclude that David and Solomon were little more than tribal chieftains ruling over a gaggle of loosely aligned villages. But if we expand the metrics we use to measure the significance of the United Monarchy, the debate quickly changes. The example of Timna, an isolated mining town with a thriving economy and wealthy citizens, is compelling—and it is not an isolated example. Are there other “Timna’s” out there?

In Jerusalem and all across Israel, evidence exists suggesting the biblical record is accurate when it describes the United Monarchy as prosperous, expansive and significant—not just for its rulers, but also its general population.

What kind of wealthy, well-funded, well-dressed, well-fed people were on the scene at this time? And what kind of central government existed to allow for such a high standard of living? Bible history provides the answers.

How, then, should the real “wealth” of a kingdom be measured? By its impressive structures? The 13th-century b.c.e. Ramses is considered one of the richest, most powerful and wealthy pharaohs of all time, with all the associated “monumental” structures. But what would the contemporary workers at Egyptian-controlled Timna mines say? How would they evaluate their own prosperity? How would they evaluate the pharaoh? How would they compare their situation with that of their 10th-century Timna counterparts? How would they evaluate our civilization, which looks back on that Egyptian empire with wonder?

How should real national wealth be measured? By the ruler? Or by the ruled?

In evaluating the evidence of David’s and Solomon’s significance, we should not expect to find an ostentatious royal family dripping in hoarded riches and honored with cult-like monumentalism at the expense of their citizens. Instead, we should look for evidence of an overall populace of educated, cultured, wealthy people living and participating in a vibrant economy. That is the superior national wealth spoken of in the Bible.

And that is the wealth being uncovered by archaeology.