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Solomon's Dream at Gibeon
by John Walton and Fred Mabie

Categories Old Testament Guest Posts

While people today experience dreams all the time, we don’t often give them the serious attention as in the ancient world, where they were considered to be communication from deity. Fred Mabie explains some of the aspects of this understanding, particularly as it relates to Solomon’s dream in 2 Chronicles 1 in his commentary in ZIBBCOT.

Solomon’s nocturnal experience at Gibeon shares certain commonalities with ancient Near Eastern dream accounts.1 Ancient people—like modern people—desired to know the will of their G/god(s). Various methods were used to attempt to "connect" with the divine world, including extispicy (interpretation of the entrails of a sacrificed animal), libanomancy (interpretation of smoke rising from a censer), lecanomancy (interpretation of oil dropped into water), incantation (recitation of religious formula to gain a deity’s attention), divination (interpretation of natural phenomena such as astronomical observations as well as interpretation of dreams, animal behavior, abnormal births, and so forth).2

Dreams were understood to be a potential point of contact between the divine realm and the human realm. Oppenheim notes three dimensions of dreams in ancient Near Eastern literature:

(1) revelatory dreams (may or may not need interpretation)

(2) mantic dreams (reveal future events, often symbolically)

(3) symptomatic dreams (provide insight to the spiritual or physical health of the dreamer)3

Such dreams (particularly revelatory dreams) might include an appearance of the deity (theophany4 ) as well an audible message (auditory message dream). For example, in the Sippar Cylinder of the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus (sixth century B.C.), it is reported that Marduk and Sin (the moon god) "stood together before Nabonidus" and interacted with him.5 In addition, the Egyptian god Amun-Re appeared before Pharaoh Amenhotep II to encourage him in the midst of his second Asiatic campaign.6 Similarly, the tenth century B.C. Pharaoh Merneptah had a dream wherein he saw a grand image of the god Ptah speaking to him to uplift his "troubled heart."7 In such texts it may be difficult to tell whether the person remains asleep or is awake during the course of the auditory message.

From a royal perspective, revelatory dreams often functioned as a stamp of approval on the reign of the king in areas such as military campaigns and royal projects and are frequently found in conjunction with divine promises of riches, honor, long life, and similar royal ideals. Reminiscent of God’s question to Solomon in this account ("Ask for whatever you want me to give you"), in the fourteenth-century account of Kirta (= Keret), the god Ilu descends before the king in a dream and asks him to state what he desires.8 In addition, dreams may be a way for the deity to assist a favored king. For example, the god Khnum appears before the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (ca. twenty-seventh century B.C.) to provide insight as to the reversal of seven lean years in Egypt.9

The most common way in which an individual would attempt to "provoke" or "incubate" a revelatory dream experience was to sleep in a shrine or temple. Although Solomon’s night at Gibeon could be considered consistent with a revelatory dream incubation, there is no indication that the purpose in his trip to Gibeon was to seek divine revelation.

In the context of ancient Near Eastern texts, revelatory dreams frequently intersected with temple building and refurbishing, given the importance of securing divine approval for such plans.10 The proposal for the construction of a temple might be prompted by the deity (as with Nabonidus and the rebuilding of the temple of Sin) or initiated by the ruler (as with Esarhaddon and the restoration of the temple of Shamash).11

In some cases, the revelatory dream precedes the building effort whereas in other cases the dream follows the completion of the task. Occasionally, revelatory dreams frame the temple building project (as with Solomon; cf. 2 Chron. 7:12–22). For example, the goddess Ishtar appears to the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (seventh century B.C.) via a dream and converses with the king following his efforts to bring order to the temple of Ishtar.12 Similarly, the auditory message dream of the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus (sixth century B.C.) commemorates his rebuilding of three temples, especially the temple of the moon god Sin in Harran.13

The account of Solomon’s temple building is often compared with the account of the Sumerian king Gudea of Lagash (ca. 2100 B.C., around the onset of the Third Dynasty of Ur).14 This account is a building dedication hymn that celebrates Gudea’s intent to build the Eninnu Temple for the god Ningirsu (and his consort Baba), a desire that was birthed, confirmed, and designed in a series of dreams. Reminiscent of Solomon, Gudea is described as "a man of wide wisdom" at the outset of his temple building project and "wise and knowledgeable" at its completion (cf. 2 Chron. 1:10–12; 9:22–23) and is described as establishing righteous judgment over his subjects. Additional noteworthy parallels between the temple building accounts of Gudea and Solomon are as follows:15

• affirmation of the divine choice of the ruler

• deity’s intentions to bless the ruler (e.g., long life, established reign, peace, wealth, descendants)

• divine call and approval of temple building project

• importance of building the temple in exact accordance with the deity’s plan

• commitment of the ruler to the project

• raising of materials and workers for the project

• request by the ruler for the deity to inhabit the temple

• seven-day temple dedication ceremony including public assembly, prayers, and sacrifice

With these noted, it is important not to overstate the parallels.16 Thus, unlike Solomon’s dream at Gibeon, Gudea’s initial dream required the services of a dream interpreter and Gudea’s second and third revelatory dreams needed to be incubated by spending days and nights in a temple, by establishing peace among his subjects, and by offerings. Moreover, the Gudea Cylinders present the temple construction process as laden with step-by-step ritual, with Gudea needing to nearly pry specifics from Ningirsu.17 It should also be noted that the Gudea Cylinders lack the overarching literary context (and related theology) found within Solomon’s temple building texts (i.e., 1 Kings 5–9; 2 Chron. 1–8).18 Lastly, it should be noted that in the case of Solomon, the plans for the temple were not given to him by God in his dream but rather by his father David, who notes that the temple plans were put in his mind by the Spirit of God (1 Chron. 28:11–12) and "in writing from the hand of the LORD" (1 Chron. 28:19).

Solomon’s request for wisdom and knowledge connects with the ancient Near Eastern motif of "the king as sage." Ancient Near Eastern kings were commonly portrayed as wise sages who received their wisdom as an act of favor by their respective deity. Such descriptions frequently include an assessment that the king’s wisdom surpasses that of all others (cf. 2 Chron. 9:22). For example, Hammurabi refers to the "breadth of vision" given to him by the god Ea and declares, "My words are precious, my wisdom is unrivaled." Likewise, in the eighth century Phoenician Karatepe Stele Azatiwata (Azitawadda) boasts that "every king made me father to himself because of my wisdom and my goodness."19

In the ancient Near East wisdom was not as much abstract as it was functional. Thus, from the perspective of the king, wisdom had functionality in important areas such as practical knowledge, decision making, and temple building. In the realm of knowledge, wisdom was characterized by mastery of areas such as botany, zoology, music, law, diplomacy, flora, fauna, literature, and other elements of the cultured life (cf. 1 Kings 4:32–33).20 With respect to decision making, note that Solomon’s request for wisdom is connected to his ability to judge (govern) God’s people and facilitate an ordered society. In like manner, ancient Near Eastern kings are commonly portrayed as champions of justice and protectors of the disenfranchised. For example, the Babylonian king Hammurabi (eighteenth century B.C.) noted that the gods Anu and Bel called him to cause justice, enlightenment, and welfare to prevail in the land.21

With respect to royal building, particularly temples, divinely-gifted wisdom is stressed in a number of ancient Near Eastern texts. For example, in the temple building account of Gudea, the notion of royal wisdom is interwoven through the text. Likewise, the prologue to the legal code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (eighteenth century B.C.) refers to his wisdom in the context of rebuilding the religious shrines of several deities.22 Similarly, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (sixth century B.C.) is described as a "wise expert who is attentive to the ways of the gods" in conjunction with his refurbishing work on the shrines of Marduk and Nabu.

Later, the Babylonian king Nabonidus records in the Sippar Cylinder that during an auspicious day he was instilled with wisdom by the gods Shamash and Adad in conjunction with his work on the temple of the moon god Sin.23

This information helps us to see that Solomon’s experiences would have fit very well into the concepts in the ancient world that draw together the issues of dreams. Request for wisdom, enthronement and temple building.

ZIBBCOT John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament; Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context; Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan; The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament; and A Survey of the Old Testament.


[1] That Solomon’s nocturnal experience was a “dream” is noted in the parallel passage in 1 Kings 3.

[2] See A. K. Guinan, “Divination,” COS, 1.421–22.

[3] A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, with a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1956), 184. Also see J.-M. Husser, Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999); S. A. L. Butler, Mesopotamian Conceptions of Dreams and Dream Rituals (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1998).

[4] In the case of Solomon, the statement that God “appeared” to him implies a theophany.

[5] COS, 2.123A.

[6] COS, 2.3.

[7] Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, 192.

[8] COS, 1.102. Kirta says that he does not want wealth, gold, silver, horses, chariots, etc., but rather sons. In the dream Ilu provides the insight to remedy the situation via sacrifices and rituals.

[9] ANET, 31.

[10] See the discussion of dreams and temple building in V. Hurowitz, I Have Built You an Exalted House: Temple Building in the Bible in Light of Mesopotamian and Northwest Semitic Writings (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), esp. 143–49.

[11] See COS, 2.155 n. 8.

[12] COS, 1.145.

[13] COS, 2.123A.

[14] COS, 2.155.

[15] These observations are adopted from R. Averbeck, “Sumer, The Bible, and Comparative Method,” in Mesopotamia and the Bible, ed. M. W. Chavalas and K. L. Younger Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 119–21.

[16] Averbeck (ibid., 115) laments the many examples of inappropriate and even erroneous parallels drawn with texts such as Gudea and biblical accounts.

[17] Ibid., 95–96, 118.

[18] Ibid., 115–16.

[19] COS, 2.21.

[20] A. L. Oppenheim, “The Position of the Intellectual in Mesopotamian Society,” Daedalus 104 (1975): 37–46.

[21] ANET, 163.

[22] Ibid.

[23] COS, 2.123A.

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