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By Roberta Kells Dorr
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2014 Roberta Kells Dorr
All rights reserved.
It was his eighteenth birthday. It should have been a day of festivity and rejoicing, but because of the famine that held the land in a deathlike grip Solomon expected no celebration. Instead, he chose to ride out and observe for himself the plight of the people.
His close-cropped dark hair outlined a strong, tanned face with eyes that were often described as deep and quiet. His mouth was full and sensuous with an inclination to smile, showing strong white teeth and a firm, well-shaped jaw. Solomon was young and handsome, as were all of David's sons.
Today there was no laughter as he rode with his younger brother Nathan down the ridge toward his father's lands at Bethlehem. He saw the devastation of three years of drought, and his expression was grim and troubled. In every village he saw men and women with large, frightened eyes, children with distended abdomens, cattle frail and emaciated. The fields of barley that were usually bright green at this time of year stood in dwarfed brown spears.
In the palace they had heard that the people were close to rioting. Solomon could see that this was true. "We've already lost the barley harvest," they complained to him. "We must have rain by Passover or we'll lose the wheat also. The king must do something."
When Solomon reached Bethlehem, he found the situation even worse. The great stretch of fertile basin that had been the pride of Boaz, then Obed and Jesse, was now a swirling dustbowl. The men of the village sat in small, dispirited groups at the city gate, their faces dark, their eyes hopeless, and their mouths twisted with bitterness. The women listlessly ran their hands over silent grindstones or rocked the whimpering babies.
"Water must be the strongest thing in the world," Solomon remarked to Nathan as they rode back to Jerusalem. "Without it a whole nation can be brought to starvation and death."
Nathan was always amused at how his brother loved to analyze everything. He himself was a student of the Law, and his lessons with the prophet Nathan didn't leave room for such fanciful speculation.
"I don't agree at all," Nathan said. "Water is necessary for things to grow, but to do that it must disappear into the ground—and then it's no longer water."
"You're right," Solomon's eyes were wide and alert as he mulled over the problem. "Then," he asked, "what is the strongest thing in the world?"
Without hesitation Nathan replied, "Why, rocks, of course. That rock over there will never go away or change. It was there when our father Abraham passed this way."
Solomon gave his brother a playful push. "It isn't fair. I spend so much time trying to understand things, and you know the answers without even thinking."
Nathan nodded. "Things are seldom fair. I'm free to do as I wish; you can't."
"You're right. Just yesterday I had a quarrel with our mother. Now she wants me to marry a princess from Rabbath-ammon."
"She wants to put you ahead of Adonijah for the throne."
Solomon made a dismissive gesture. "I've heard that the princess is plain and has a sharp tongue."
"Perhaps," said Nathan. "But she is a princess. Mother's even planned a surprise for your birthday so you can travel in style to get your bride."
Bride. Solomon stiffened as he gave his mule a brisk flick with his prod, making him lunge forward down the path.
* * *
Back in Jerusalem Bathsheba, Solomon's mother, was finishing preparations for her favorite son's birthday. She had not only prepared a celebration but had commissioned old Tobias, an Egyptian craftsman, to build a palanquin of intricate and cunning design. The celebration would be a relief, she reasoned; it would be good for them to forget for a few hours all the concern over the lack of rain.
Almost everyone in Jerusalem had been involved in planning for the special day or making the unusual birthday gift. Some of Bathsheba's maidens had carefully woven a golden canopy, while others had decorated the seat and back with fine needlework. To everyone's delight, the palanquin had been finished on time and stood waiting for Solomon's return from Bethlehem. Excitement mounted as the maidens anticipated the final unveiling, which would reveal a panel of black ebony with a needlework insert that carried their secret and daring message.
* * *
By late afternoon a group of young women had assembled in the tower room above Jerusalem's South Gate. They primped and gossiped and even laughed in a way that hadn't been heard in months. From time to time they excitedly glanced out the high, narrow window that looked down the Kidron Valley toward Bethlehem.
They were just beginning to get impatient and fretful when a young girl named Yasmit screamed, "He's coming!" She grabbed her tambourine and pushed through the shrill laughter and nervous giggles to get to the door first. Others quickly followed, while a few clambered up to look out the window so they too could see the flying banners and bright swords of the young men who rode with the prince.
Yasmit looked back and grabbed her younger sister's hand, roughly pulling her down the steps as she whispered, "Hurry! I want to get close enough to really see the prince."
"I hope you're not going to do anything foolish," her sister admonished as they moved with the young women into the open space before the gate.
There was the usual fanfare of trumpets as the gates opened and Solomon came riding through, looking rather dusty but still regal and handsome. At first, seeing the young women, his face registered surprise. Then he pulled the reins taut and broke into a merry laugh. Quickly he urged his mule on and rode before the maidens up the narrow streets to the open courtyard before the palace.
The women sang as they beat a steady rhythm on their tambourines and kept time with their slapping feet on the cold stones of the cobbled court. "He is strong and handsome; his eyes are tender and warm." One voice, the voice of Yasmit, rang out higher and more strident than all the rest. Boldly she reached for the bridle of Solomon's mule and led him to the place where Tobias stood with some of the palace guards beside a large covered object.
Laughing boyishly, Solomon dismounted and greeted Tobias with a warm handclasp. "What's this?" he bantered, pointing to the bulky form.
"My lord—" Tobias didn't finish his sentence, for at that moment there was a stir off to one side as a tall figure, richly dressed, rode into the midst of the courtyard. He forced his mule through the shrieking women and dismounted.
It was Adonijah, the crown prince and oldest son of David by his wife Haggith. He ignored Solomon as he faced Tobias with cold contempt. "Old man, by what right do you make such a commotion in the king's courtyard?"
Tobias cringed, but Solomon stepped forward boldly. "It's not the king who is disturbed, but you, my brother. Our father loves festivals and encourages surprises."
"A festival?" Adonijah looked at the women crowded around the strange covered object. "A surprise? What surprise can there be that I know nothing of?"
"I'm eighteen today," Solomon said, smiling at Adonijah's obvious discomfort, "and my friends have made something for me. There seems to be some mystery about it. Come," he ordered the old man with mock sternness, "let's see your workmanship."
With a nod Tobias motioned for the maidens to remove the covering and reveal the new palanquin. Solomon was speechless. He bent down and examined its silver posts and golden canopy. He ran his hand over the warm cedarwood and traced the etching done on the silver casings. Then he noticed the seat of fine woven purple, embroidered with his own seal.
The young women and their parents grew silent as Solomon inspected the finely wrought ebony back and to read the words embroidered on the royal purple fitted into the center. At first he read them silently, then he smiled and read them aloud for all to hear: "With love from the maidens of Jerusalem."
He glanced around. His eyes were twinkling and his mouth curved into the half-smile that all of them found so irresistible. "Thank you, thank you," he said, as the tambourines again began to shake and the dance became hurried and insistent.
Suddenly, amidst the joyful noise and general uproar, Yasmit pushed her way to the front and brazenly looked into the prince's face. "Do you wish for love?"
"I've never been in love, so I don't really know." Solomon's eyes crinkled with amusement. He was obviously not moved to return her ardor, though he was flattered as always by the unsought attention he drew from women wherever he went.
"I've been in love often and have found it to be the most pleasant of experiences," Adonijah said, looking at Yasmit and giving her a bold challenge with his eyes. For a moment she looked from Solomon to his older brother; then, most deliberately, she turned from Solomon. "Let him have the love of the maidens of Jerusalem," she snapped. "I'm looking for something more warm and personal." The last words were said with a tilt of her head and a sly, suggestive timbre to her voice.
Abruptly the merrymaking stopped as everyone waited to see what would happen next. They weren't disappointed. Yasmit sidled over to Adonijah and let him put his arm around her. Then, pulling back, she glanced at Solomon to see if he had noticed the smug, victorious look Adonijah had flashed in his direction. Satisfied that he had, she turned and elbowed her way through the crowd until she was lost from sight.
There was a stunned, awkward silence and then the festivities started again, but things were somehow spoiled for Solomon. Secretly he cursed his brother's interference. It had taken the edge off the celebration, just as Adonijah had intended it should.
To everyone else, however, the festivities were a wonderful success. For one brief afternoon they were able to forget the empty feed bins, starving cattle, and their own gnawing hunger. For one brief hour they danced and sang, pretending that their lives were free of worry and care and that tomorrow some miracle would rescue them.
Solomon lingered in the courtyard until it was time to change his dusty clothes and meet with his father and friends for evening prayers. He hurried through the arched gateway past the guard station and was about to pass the cramped quarters of the scribes when he was accosted by Adonijah, who stood blocking the way. "My brother," he said, "I've been waiting for you."
Solomon was cautious. He had always dreaded meeting Adonijah alone. When they were children, the older brother would grab Solomon's arm and twist it behind his back, or trip him in the courtyard as he whispered, "Your mother is an adulteress!" Such antagonism never failed to send Solomon into a towering rage.
Adonijah led a reluctant Solomon away from the men at the gate into the shadowed entryway to the throne room. "Don't look so suspicious." he chided. "It's only some business that concerns our father."
"If it concerns our father, what business is it of ours?" asked Solomon. He didn't like the smooth, practiced way that Adonijah was talking.
"Our father is getting old." Now Adonijah's voice was low. He looked around as though making sure their conversation couldn't be overheard. "When a king no longer takes an interest in his harem, he's too old to rule."
"But my mother—" Solomon started to object.
"I don't know about your mother, but mine hasn't been called in years."
"The king is busy with his plans for the temple." Solomon turned to leave but was stopped by the harsh grip of Adonijah's right hand.
"There have been no children born in the harem for over a year—and no royal bastards." Adonijah's eyes glinted with malice.
Solomon was always surprised that Adonijah could transform himself, as he was now doing, from a laughing, relaxed prince to a tense, vindictive plotter. No wonder David and even his own mother, Bathsheba, had never suspected a darker side to this prince.
"It's the king's business, not ours," Solomon said as their eyes met and held in silent hostility. To his satisfaction, it was Adonijah who turned away first.
"It may not be our business, but there are people who plan to make it theirs. This is the third year that both the barley and the wheat crops have failed. People are blaming the king."
"It's only the worshipers of Baal who believe a king must be fertile for the rain to fall and the seeds to come to life. What do such beliefs have to do with the king of Israel?" Solomon had often heard such superstitions mentioned among the servants and common laborers, but that was because many of them were Canaanites, Jebusites, or Gibeonites, and they didn't worship the God of Israel.
"You're so simple," Adonijah mocked beneath his breath. "There are many who have lost faith in Israel's God. They're ready to put the king to the test to see if he's really too old to rule."
"And if they find that he is too old?"
"Why, if the king is too old to be attracted to a pretty young girl—everything will be settled logically. The crown will be given to one of his sons."
"And I suppose you plan to be that son?"
"No, no, not so fast. First there must be a test."
"Yes, a harmless test to see if our father is still a real man. We'll urge the king to search out a young maid to warm him in his bed. We must word it all very carefully, of course. He'd have nothing to do with a heathen superstition."
"I don't understand," Solomon said.
"It's very simple: if he can resist the most beautiful young girl in Israel, then the people will decide that he's too old to rule." Seeing that he had succeeded in disturbing Solomon, he smiled with satisfaction. Then, adjusting his robe over his left shoulder and fingering the deep fringe at its edge, he turned and hurried out through the guard room into the courtyard.
Solomon glanced down at his own firm, brown arm and flexed the muscles where Adonijah's fingers had held him. He was almost as tall as his brother, and stronger, so he no longer feared physical harassment. Now it was something else—something harder to get at and more difficult to understand.
Solomon had been aware of the increasing pressure of the people on the king to find the cause of the famine. At first they had thought some major sin had been committed, but this idea had lost favor because in spite of their many sacrifices and long prayers, the famine had continued unabated.
Now it was evident that a growing number were beginning to believe in the old Canaanite superstitions. "The Canaanites were on the land centuries before we came," they reasoned. "It may be that some of their old earth gods really do have some control over the rains."
It sounded so reasonable, so very logical, that nature would follow the example of the king. Or was it the other way around: that the king fell prey to the same blight that fell on the land? Whichever way it was, they speculated, if one problem could be solved, the other would follow automatically.
Solomon knew that no one would dare speak openly to the king of such a pagan superstition. Instead, they would use some ploy to bring a beautiful young girl and test the king's virility. Solomon didn't like it at all. With Adonijah involved, certainly nothing good could come of it.
Solomon pulled back the heavy curtain that separated the throne room from his father's private quarters. He noticed with relief that his father looked quite calm and controlled as he stood before his men, leading them in their evening prayers. The men faced north toward the tabernacle at Gibeon to pray. They had done this ever since King Saul had taken Gibeon and placed the tabernacle of the Lord over the old High Place of the Canaanites.
He watched his father's face with growing concern. It was obvious that the unrest and accusations weighed heavily upon him. Lately Solomon had noticed the king's deepening facial lines, the increasing pain from his old battle wounds, and the way he rubbed his knees "to get the knots out." This bothered the young man.
Solomon moved farther into the shadows. He loved to hear the deep, resonant tones of his father's voice calling upon God. David always prayed as though he were standing directly before the heavenly throne, pleading the cause of his people.
Solomon turned his eyes from the men who stood praying and looked over the familiar room with its immense cedar beams and cold stone floors. It was just three steps up from the throne room, and yet it seemed to be another world.
Excerpted from Solomon's Song by Roberta Kells Dorr. Copyright © 2014 Roberta Kells Dorr. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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