Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Kings 3:1

Was Solomon wrong to marry Pharaoh’s daughter?

The passage I am examining seems to indicate a sinful action by a king of Israel, but there may actually be some room to move here in our understanding of it. Many Christian commentators in fact think it was a proper thing to do. The verse in question says this: “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the Lord and the wall around Jerusalem.”

Given what we read in the Old Testament about Israel making alliances with pagan nations in general (see the companion article to this piece), and what Deuteronomy 7:1-4 says in particular, are we to conclude that Solomon was wrong here and acting sinfully? That latter passage says this:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

So was Solomon out of God’s will here? One might think so, but things are actually not so clear. In this chapter there is no specific condemnation by God of what he did. Instead, in the following verses we read about Solomon’s love for the Lord, and how God was pleased with him, at least in terms of his request for wisdom. And in the early chapters of 1 Kings we are told quite often how wise Solomon was (eg., 2:6, 9; 3:12, 28; 4:29-34).

Moreover, the Deuteronomy passage is specifically speaking about not making alliances with the Canaanites that Israel was displacing. And yes, we do know that later on Solomon did go way off course by marrying many wives, and that led to his downfall. As we read in 1 Kings 11:1-8:

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods.

But on this passage the experts are divided, with many commentators seeing this as an acceptable act – even one that points in a small way to a greater glorious future where all nations come to the living God. Indeed, 1 Kings 10 speaks of how the nations were impressed with, and drawn to, Israel under Solomon. Verse one says this: “Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions.”

And verses 23-25 say this: “Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of them brought his present, articles of silver and gold, garments, myrrh, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year.”

Is this a picture of what will one day happen when all the nations will come to God’s anointed, as promised earlier to Abraham? Some think so. For example, Peter Leithart comments:

The author [of 1 Kings] is hardly an uncritical admirer of Solomon, but he does not criticize the king for his marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter (3:2). Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter instead fulfills the Abrahamic promise to bless the nations. Yet, that Solomon later commits himself to multiply sinful marriages hints that the complete fulfillment of this promise awaits a new covenant, a covenant of the spirit and not of the letter. Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter points to Jesus, who, like Solomon, covenants with a bride from the nations, but who, unlike Solomon, remains faithful to his Father.

And John Woodhouse says that the narrator, “at this point in the story of Solomon was not only – or even predominantly – negative.” He too ties it in with the promises given to Abraham:

From a historical and political point of view, Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter was a sign that his kingdom had become a substantial empire, with a status at least equal to the great power of Egypt. More than that, we should see this as the beginning of a new era in which the nations are not just conquered militarily by God’s king (as was the case with David: see 2 Samuel 8), but blessed by God’s king. Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter should be understood in the light of the promise to Abraham that the nations will be blessed through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 18:18; 22;18;26:4). This international relationship is profoundly consistent with the last words of chapter 2 about the “establishment” of Solomon’s kingdom. It was a kingdom that extended its peaceful influence to the nations.

He goes on to say this: “Qualms about this foreign marriage are not shared (in my judgment) by our narrator at this point. The prohibition of Deuteronomy 7:3 applied to the peoples of the land of Canaan. Furthermore, when the foreign wives of Solomon who tempted him to idolatry are listed in 1 Kings 11, the daughter of Pharaoh is explicitly distinguished from them (11:1). This marriage was not an act of disobedience on Solomon’s part.”

Russell Dilday seeks to identify which Pharaoh is involved here, and goes on to say this: “Whoever the princess was, the marriage was politically motivated and may well have been arranged for Solomon by David, who enjoyed friendly relations with Egypt before his death. We are told in 9:16 that the wedding dowry was the city of Gezer. It may be that the marriage song of Psalm 45 was composed in commemoration of this royal wedding.”

Other commentators differ and think this was a wrong and sinful action of Solomon. Philip Graham Ryken, Donald Wiseman, and Iain Provan for example would be some of those who take this stance. So we are left with differing opinions here. But I tend to side with those who argue that at this early stage of Solomon’s reign at least, he was not being sinful and disobedient in this marriage.

Whether this episode was the thin edge of the wedge however for his later downfall as some argue is a moot point. And my companion piece on political alliances in the Old Testament is found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/04/13/scripture-politics-and-messy-thinking/

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4 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Kings 3:1”

  1. Bill, It seems to my lay understanding of this passage that the Deut reference was to specific people groups upon Israel entering and conquering lands that had been given to them by the Lord. I do not see Egyptians listed here. Also any proselytising of the wife is not indicated but it would seem to me that it is more likely that she changed her “religion”.
    However, as I said, I am just a poor lay person.

  2. Thanks Peter. I am a lay person as well! And yes, as I said in my piece: “the Deuteronomy passage is specifically speaking about not making alliances with the Canaanites that Israel was displacing.”

  3. God said from the beginning that kingship would result in wrongdoing, including with marriage. God, in His patience, allowed Israel to have kings but much of God’s blessing to Solomon was in response to His promises to David. Clearly wanting wisdom for a king is a good thing but what we see resulting from this is that man’s wisdom is next to nothing compared to God’s.

    Faithful people like Noah and Moses had only one wife but even Abraham, admittedly under difficult circumstances, did not adhere to fidelity.

    Yes Egypt is an interesting case having been used repeatedly as a sort of lifeboat. Egypt shows an interesting interaction between the spiritual and the material realms of power. God also interacted interestingly with Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome as well, I would suggest, with modern nations. I guess one day we will have a clearer understanding of why God did things the way He did but, to me, it seems largely about leading people in the correct way without revealing Himself. He lights the path but we have to take it.

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