One cannot be politically smart, but willfully wicked. For the leader and for the voter who would be tied to the Scriptures, “smart” is a moral term.

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.

1 Kings 3:5-12

A number of times in the past few years, various people in conversation have suggested to me that a certain North American politician (for ease of use, let’s call him “Donnie,” shall we?) isn’t a very good person, but that he is very smart. The word “brilliant” may even have been used on occasion. I confess, I’ve had a hard time agreeing for a variety of reasons, but what really interests me for my immediate purposes is the distinction between “good” and “smart.” That is to say, a distinction between one’s moral capacity and one’s intellectual capacity. This distinction does seem to have a basis in reality, but it also seems like a problematic, or unhelpful, way to talk about the capacity of a person in a position of significant political leadership. I would never want to suggest that one cannot be simultaneously morally evil and intelligent but I do want to press a little at the idea that intelligence absent moral capacity is a laudable (or even tolerable!) quality. Indeed, this week’s lectionary text drives us into the question of how we think about political leaders who want to be thought of as thoughtful.

The weekly reading I’ll focus on here is taken from the tale of Solomon’s dream at Gibeon, as recounted in 1 Kings 3:1–14. In this story Solomon, who has recently taken firm (and rather violent) control over the Kingdom of Israel, establishes a strong diplomatic relationship with Egypt, and goes to worship the Lord at an important shrine in Gibeon. There he has a dream, and in this dream, he has a brief, but important, conversation with his God. The Lord asks the young king what gift he might desire. Solomon responds first with an appropriately respectful preamble about his father David’s faithfulness and righteousness, and notes that it was God, indeed, who maintained that loving relationship and brought Solomon to sit upon his father’s throne. Solomon also abases himself before God, even referring to himself as “a little child” (which must be something of an overstatement, since he’s already done some killing and marrying by this point in the story), and confesses that he does not “know how to go out or come in” (1 Kings 3:7). This nation is so great and the people so numerous, he says, and I am so small. And then we come to the crux of the matter: the request. Solomon asks for “an understanding mind,” and the ability to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9). God is pleased, especially because Solomon didn’t ask for base things like riches or long life, and grants Solomon the wisdom and discernment, and riches and long life to boot. It is worth noting, of course, that God does well to add the caveat “if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and commandments” (1 Kings 3:14). We’ll come back to that “if.”

The terminology of Solomon’s request is interesting. Solomon does not actually ask to be wise (though the Lord uses that word), nor to be intelligent as such. He uses three words, which appear all together only here in the Old Testament: understanding, discernment, and good judgment (or, in Hebrew, שמע, שפט, בין).[1] All of these terms exist in the semantic domain of covenant terminology that saturates the Hebrew scriptures. The first, which here is translated “understanding” is the word normally translated “to hear,” made so famous in Deuteronomy 6, the Shema (which, indeed, is a transliteration of the word in question). The second, ben, refers to the basic capacity to distinguish between things; this is the closest of the triad to a basic reference to what we might call “intelligence.” The third word is shopheth, which means “to judge,” and refers to a capacity to make appropriate determinations, usually (but not always) in moral or ethical terms. Taken together, Solomon’s vocabulary here does not constitute a request for “smarts,” but for the ability to hear, understand, and make good (i.e., moral) decisions or determinations. He is asking for the capacity to be a covenantally, religiously, and morally minded ruler. In short, Solomon’s request really is a good one.

Of course, as with most things in life, what we do with our gifts is what really matters. Here it is important to note that, while the dream narrative itself has Solomon making good requests that focus on being an upright ruler, both the context of the dream and the stories that follow trouble the waters significantly. First, note that the chapter opens with Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh. Even a passing acquaintance with the HB/OT is enough to imagine why this might be a problem. Solomon has done something that is geopolitically wise, by allying his young nation with a major imperial power and vital trade partner, but he has also yoked his people to the nation responsible for their centuries-long servitude. And here we must raise the issue of Deuteronomy 17.

Deuteronomy 17:14–20 provides a short, but rather specific, series of requirements for a covenantally faithful king over the land of Israel. Such a king may not be a foreigner (i.e., can only be an Israelite), may not acquire many horses or require the people to return to Egypt to acquire horses, must not acquire many wives, and may not acquire enormous wealth in silver and gold. He is required to learn and regularly meditate upon his own personal copy of the Torah, and to submit himself to its requirements in exactly the same way as every other citizen. We don’t need to go far with Solomon to find tensions with this description of the requirements for kingship. Solomon’s treaty with Egypt, sealed through his marriage, is a serious problem. He takes many wives and concubines, imports many horses and chariots from Egypt, and accumulates massive wealth in gold, silver, and other commodities. In fact, much of 1 Kings 10–11 appears to be alluding specifically to Solomon’s total violation of Deuteronomy 17. But he is still called wise and great.

Indeed, he was, in a certain and particular way, wise and great. He did in fact, help to develop Israel into a regional power. He also created a system of slavery for non-Israelites in order to build all that he wished to build (1 Kings 9:15–22). The problem at hand is that, in the portion of the Scriptures we sometimes call the Deuteronomistic History (i.e., Joshua–2 Kings), greatness has a specific definition, and this definition stands in tension with the prevailing wisdom of that time and place. As Brueggemann (460) puts it, “[the] demanding ‘if’ of covenantal, Torah tradition in fact curbs the very modes of power and government that produce a great state.” This is the “if” that stands at the close of Solomon’s nighttime exchange with God in 1 Kings 3: “If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life” (v. 14). The “if” is rather important here. The “if,” as Brueggemann notes, makes some fairly serious demands, and implies some fairly serious limitations.

Solomon’s request of God for covenantally shaped understanding and discernment is a good one. His request acknowledges that will and intelligence alone, while perhaps sufficient for political success, cannot form a sufficient basis for good leadership. Which brings us back to “Donnie.” While I remain unconvinced that this particular politician is actually particularly intelligent (though I might concede to the term “conniving”), let’s concede that point, for the sake of the argument. Donnie is smart now. The problem, however, is that Donnie, so far as I can tell from a distance, is also cruel, capricious, sexist, racist, corrupt, and dishonest. What makes this especially troubling, is that disassociating Donnie’s immorality from his intelligence allows some to make the case that intelligence is all that is really required to be a good politician, or a good elected official. In some frames of reference, perhaps this is a case that one could make, but not within any meaningfully biblical frame of reference. Any biblical frame of reference for success requires of us that nagging, obnoxious, frustrating conditional particle: “if.”

Political intelligence, if it is to be tied to the witness of Scripture, must be bound by the moral and ethical ifs and buts of covenantal relationship with the Lord. According to these terms, one cannot be politically smart, but willfully wicked. For the leader and for the voter who would be tied to the Scriptures, “smart” is a moral term. Does this complicate participation in the public sphere? Yes, it absolutely does. Does it limit access to power for such people? Almost certainly. Does immorality like misogyny and racism disqualify a candidate from such a person’s support? Beyond the shadow of a doubt, yes.

Our leaders do need to be thoughtful people. The world we inhabit is complex and often confusing, and what’s more, there is no point in pretending that there is a morality as simple and straightforward as what I have casually suggested above. But that moral complexity cannot be met with moral stupidity, it must be met with moral intelligence—with an attentive cultivation of the connection between one’s inner and outer lives. That’s the kind of brilliance to which we should aspire in the public sphere.

Since the first draft of this article was written, at least two political and cultural leaders who exemplify this necessary moral intelligence have entered into their rest. Representative John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian were both men of deep and abiding faith, and people whose morality functioned as a centering and guiding force for their service and leadership. In their passing we lose leaders of courage and clear vision, and in their memory each of us in our own way is called to stand up, and take our place at the plow.


[1] While this is the only verse where these three words occur in close proximity, shemah and shopheth co-occur 15 times in the OT, in passages like Deut 1:16, Judg 2:17, and 2 Chr 6:23. The words shemah and ben co-occur 25 times in passages like Isa 6, and generally indicate the close conceptual relationship between perception (listening) and understanding in the task of proper evaluation.

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