In this chapter, we see a very different David. With death approaching, he decides to impart some kingly advice to Solomon, starting with a reminder to obey the “law of Moses” (1 Kgs 2:3), a clear Deuteronomist concern.
And that’s all well and good, but the rest of his “advice” is far more personal – or at least is spun as such. He blames Joab’s murders of Abner (in 2 Sam. 3:27) and Amasa (in 2 Sam. 20:8-10) for “putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins” (1 Kgs 2:5). As if Uriah’s murder didn’t do that quite sufficiently on its own. The crime in these murders, according to David, was that Joab was “avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war” (1 Kgs 2:5), suggesting that he would have been quite happy to see both Abner and Amasa dead so long as it had happened on a battlefield (contradicting Solomon’s later words that the crime was that Joab had killed men who were better than him – 1 Kgs 2:32).
According to Victor Matthews, David’s concern over the cleanliness of his girdle is important because:
The girdle, which was used to tie the kethoneth and simlah, also functioned as a weapons belt and a sign of rank. In 2 Sam 20:8, Joab wears a “soldier’s garment” tied with a girdle (hagor) through which he has sheathed his sword. David uses the same term in describing Joab’s crimes to Solomon in 1 Kgs 2:5. In this case, however, the hagor, and thus the authority, has been symbolically soiled with the blood of Joab’s murder victims. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.111)
David asks Solomon to execute Joab. Same for Shimei, who had cursed David in 2 Sam. 16. David’s request, here, changes the tone of Shimei’s curses, and his subsequent forgivingness (2 Sam. 19). While David was fleeing Jerusalem, he argued against rebuking Shimei, considering that he may be speaking God’s own condemnations. When he returns to Jerusalem, he prevents Abishai from killing Shimei, arguing that the man’s curses had clearly meant nothing since David was now returning. At the time, he had promised not to kill Shimei (2 Sam. 19:23). Not only do we now see that David has been harbouring his resentment all this time, but also he is willing to use Solomon as a loophole to get the revenge he had promised not to seek.
My study Bible proposes that, when Joab and Shimei had angered David, his political position was was too precarious to dare act against two men with a fair bit of status and power (when Shimei appears before David in 2 Sam. 19, he is accompanied by a thousand soldiers – the implication clearly being that anything short of official pardon would have resulted in bloodshed).
That’s all assuming, of course, that this scene played out as recorded. Having played a great deal of Crusader Kings II, I know how unstable a nation is with a new king. There’s considerable upheaval inherent in a change of leadership, and factions will frequently use the opportunity to press their interests in the hopes that the new king’s lack of experience might make him weak enough to be cowed (such has been the downfall of many of my dynasties). It wouldn’t have been unlikely for a new king – especially one as young as Solomon seems to have been, placed on the throne by the manoeuvrings of his mother while his brothers acted on their own behalf – to pre-emptively squash any possible dissent.
Joab, having supported Adonijah over Solomon, would have been an obvious candidate for the axeman’s block. Shimei, who clearly had a lot of support in Benjamin (over which the united monarchy clearly had an unstable hold) and had demonstrated how quickly he could turn against a Judahite king, would be another.
It’s plausible, then, that Solomon might have used “my pa’s last wish” as a covering rhetoric for what he had decided to do for himself.
But David’s last words to Solomon aren’t all terrible. He also asks that Solomon deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai, since they had been good to David.
The requests made, David died and was buried, and we’re told that he ruled over Israel for a total of 40 years, 7 of them in Hebron and 37 in Jerusalem. This sounds like a mathematical error, but remember that he was only king over Judah for 4 of his Hebron years. If we don’t count all the years he spent on the run from his sons or under Solomon’s regency, 40 would be the correct number.
With much trepidation and fear for his safety, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba, asking her to ask Solomon for Abishag (David’s breast-powered radiator) for a wife. He guilts her into accepting his request, saying: “You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord” (1 Kgs 2:15). His words make it clear that there was an expectation of primogeniture.
He is certain that Solomon will listen if Bathsheba is the one making the request.
Joab dying at the altar
As she promised, she brings his request to Solomon. Solomon, however, is disinclined to accept. As we’ve seen, taking the old king’s wives was a way of declaring one’s self the legitimate successor. Absalom did it in 2 Sam. 16:22, and it seems likely that David himself did this with Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Given that Adonijah is the elder, and that he has considerable support in the court, allowing him to marry one of David’s concubines would be greatly increasing the legitimacy of his claim to the crown.
It seems that this is where the detail about David not having sex with Abishag (1 Kgs 1:4) comes into play. Her status as a concubine may have been subject to interpretation. It’s possible, then, that Adonijah was counting on Solomon not considering Abishag to have been one of David’s official female retinue, so that he might unthinkingly accept the proposal. Abishag in the bag, Adonijah would then be free to argue her case and, in so doing, argue his own. It seems to me that this is meant to be a story about Solomon sussing out Adonijah’s scheme – particularly since it seems unthinkable that Bathsheba would have relayed the request in such a straightforward manner if she had known what Adonijah was up to.
Speaking of Bathsheba, it’s interesting to me how diminished her role is. In the last chapter, the scheme to get Solomon on the throne is made out to be all Nathan’s doing, even thought Bathsheba is the principle actor. Here, she seems to fall for Adonijah’s trick. Yet despite all this, it seems that she had a reputation as an advisor to Solomon (given Adonijah’s assumption that the request would be accepted if it came from her). On top of that, when she enters Solomon’s presence, he bows to her and she takes a seat at his right hand. It could be that she was a woman who adroitly navigated the intrigue of the court, and that her role in the events of Solomon’s succession were minimized due to sexism (not exactly an uncommon thing through history). Or it could just all be an attempt to show that Solomon is young (and therefore assumed to still be under the influence of his mother) and that he is respectful of his parents.
Complicating the issue further is how the text is presented in translations. According to Joel M. Hoffman over at God Didn’t Say That, there’s some discussion over whether Solomon should sit on a chair or a throne. In the Hebrew, the word is the same for both Solomon and Bathsheba’s seats. However, several translators have chosen to give Solomon a throne, but Bathsheba merely receives a seat. As Hoffman puts it: “The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.”
It’s possible that Solomon had hoped that his brother, once beaten, would accept Solomon’s reign. Once it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, Solomon quickly has Adonijah. In his defence, keeping an aggressive competitor with stronger claims to the crown around would have almost certainly been a terrible idea. After all, in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
Another possibility is that Solomon may have hesitated to kill his brother, displaying the same reticence as David in similar situations. So Bathsheba, knowing that the son she put on the throne wouldn’t keep it long with Adonijah poking about, made up the request to prod Solomon into action. Given that no one is said to have witnessed Adonijah’s request save for Bathsheba, it’s as good an explanation as any, and it has oodles of narrative potential.
Next, David turns his eye toward the men who supported Adonijah’s bid for power: Joab and Abiathar. Because Abiathar was a priest and had carried the ark of the covenant, he was too sacred to simply execute. Instead, Solomon gets rid of him by exiling him from court. This, we are told, completes the prophecy that had been made about the house of Eli (by “a man of God” in 1 Sam. 2:31-24, and by Samuel in 1 Sam. 3:13-14).
Having heard what happened to Adonijah and Abiathar, Joab figured that he was next. He tries the same trick as Abiathar in 1 Kgs 1, running to the tent of God and grabbing hold of the altar thorns, and Solomon sends Benaiah after him. When Benaiah tries to get Joab to come out of the tent and face his fate, Joab refuses, saying: “No, I will die here” (1 Kgs 2:30). Benaiah returns to Solomon, who tells him to grant Joab’s “request.” In so doing, Solomon says that Benaiah will “take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood which Joab shed without cause.”
So Benaiah goes back to the tent of God and slays Joab at the alter – which, it would seem to me, would be a major ritual no-no and likely to bring a great deal more guilt down on Solomon than Joab’s actions ever did (especially since at no time prior to this chapter are Joab’s murders said to curse David’s house, whereas David’s own actions toward Uriah and Bathsheba are said by Nathan to mark the start of their troubles).
With that Solomon gets rid of everyone in court who opposed his succession. To fill the vacuum he’s created, he appoints Benaiah as commander of the army, and has Zadok take Abiathar’s place as high priest.
The last person on Solomon’s First Days’ Hit List is Shimei, who had cursed David during his escape from Jerusalem in 2 Sam. 16. In one tradition, at least, cursing a ruler warranted the death penalty (Exodus 22:28), though it’s unclear whether it would have applied in this case since, by David’s own admission, Absalom was the king at that time. This could be why Solomon decides not to execute Shimei.
Or it could be a nod to David’s promise not to harm Shimei, plus the fact that Shimei had never moved against Solomon himself – making a capital retaliation rather difficult to defend. Whatever the reason, he opts instead to make Shimei build a house in Jerusalem (where he can be close enough to keep an eye on) and places him under house arrest.
After three years, however, Shimei leaves his house to reclaim two escaped slaves. Perhaps he thought it was no big deal, since he returns as soon as he’s done. Solomon, however, is quite happy to use the excuse to have Benaiah execute him.
In his rebuke to Shimei, Solomon says: “King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord for ever” (1 Kgs 2:45), which seems to be a direct reference to Shimei’s curse in 2 Sam. 16:7-8.