Tower and Document
By Joseph Chapman• 1 Kings 5:13
King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. —1 Kings 5:13
We shall bind you to the yoke of the Church and of Their Highnesses; we shall enslave your persons, wives and sons, sell you or dispose of you as the King sees fit; we shall seize your possessions and harm you as much as we can as disobedient and resisting vassals. —King Ferdinand to the Taino-Arawak Indians
Joseph Chapman’s contemplative poem examines the relational dichotomy of the powerful and those who support them, inspired by 1 Kings 5:13.
1 Kings 5:13
13 And king Solomon raised a levy out of all Israel; and the levy was thirty thousand men.
One thing I love about the Hebrew Bible is that it’s full of competing and contradictory narratives. There are two creation stories. The book of Ruth includes a Moabite in the genealogy of King David even though Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibits intermarriage between Israelites and Moabites. The book of Joshua very clearly states that the Israelites killed all the Canaanites who were in the Promised Land, but then the same Canaanites who were supposedly killed show up again later. Likewise, 1 Kings 9:15 and 20-22 assure us that Solomon only conscripted Canaanites to build his temple, but 1 Kings 5:13 tells a different story. Solomon not only conscripted his own people, he conscripted thirty thousand of his own people.
What’s fascinating to me are the reasons why a redactor might add or juxtapose a second, competing narrative. Of course, it’s all speculation but I find myself wondering what the second creation story adds; why the book of Ruth contradicts Deuteronomy 23:3; why a redactor needed to claim the utter annihilation of the Canaanites in Joshua; or why 1 Kings 9:15 and 20-22 protests that Solomon only conscripted foreign labor.
Much of the redactor’s interest might inhere in the legacy particular historical figures leave behind as characters in the text. Take Solomon, for example. The text tells us, quite often, that Solomon was a wise king and that God even favored Solomon over David, at least when it came to the construction of God’s Temple. But in 1 Kings 5:13, Solomon enslaves his own people, which is hardly the thing a just and wise king should be doing in the Hebrew Bible, given the stigma and undesirability of slavery, and the decidedly bad taste the whole Egyptian episode left in the mouths of the Israelite people. Solomon also makes a deal with the Phoenician king Hiram for building materials. At first glance, Solomon seems like a shrewd king. But once you do the numbers and look a little closer, you realize that Hiram dictates the terms of the deal. You also notice that the terms favor Hiram. Hiram tacks on cypress to Solomon’s order of cedar surely an early example of the “upgrade” gambit—and charges him 20,000 cors of wheat per year. The cost might not mean much until you do some further math and stumble upon the fact that Solomon’s royal household only takes in 33,000 cors of wheat per year in taxes and tributes. Solomon ends up devoting more than half of Israel’s income to building materials for the Temple. Debt accrues rapidly and in 9:11 Solomon decreases the deficit by selling Israelite land to Hiram. It all starts to sound a little familiar, especially for those of us in the U.S. who see an exorbitant amount of our tax dollars going to military spending and unjust wars and not to the underprivileged of our society.
In my poem, I not only wanted to call out Solomon for enslaving his own people, I also wanted to place Solomon alongside other historical kings and political leaders who oppress others through “tower and document.” I’m not sure that I was successful in my attempt to weave together these multiple narratives, however. There can be a clumsiness to juxtaposition, especially when it comes to suffering. In the famous opening of Anna Karenina Tolstoy writes: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think the same could be said of the suffering that results from oppressive regimes, and so I worry that the poem equates the enslavement of Israelites with that of Native Americans, or that it equates either of those enslavements with an unjust economic system in the U.S. That said, the tools of oppression and power, “tower and document,” often look strikingly familiar across historical epochs. And so, I hope that the reader’s attention is drawn more to those similarities instead. If nothing else, I would hope that my poem and artist’s statement opens up the reader to the richness and variety of the biblical voice(s). For every story of an oppressive Solomon, there’s another that lifts up equality and justice, like the opening of Psalm 133: “How very good and pleasant it is / when kindred live together in unity!” In our own contemporary society, poetry can serve as one of those other voices, a voice imagining an alternative to oppression and injustice.
Joseph Chapman studied English, philosophy, and creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went on to earn a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Virginia, where he was the recipient of the Henry Hoyns Fellowship and Academy of American Poets Prize. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Collagist, The Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere.
He is currently an Inquirer in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and in the first year of a Masters of Divinity program at San Francisco Theological Seminary, where he is the recipient of a Presidential Scholarship, Merit Scholarship, and Presbyterian Study Grant, as well as the Eugene C. Dinsmore Scholarship from the Omaha Presbyterian Seminary Foundation.