ReginaldODonog1 on Solomon as “Master of the Birds”

Back in July, blogger @ReginaldODonog1 wrote a short piece on the biblical king Solomon and his relationship to the fowl of the air entitled “Solomon, Master of the Birds.” In it, he discusses the possible sources of the Quranic passage wherein Solomon is said to have mastery over “hosts of jinn and men and birds” (Surah 2:17).[1] In his note on the text, Caner Dagli writes that 

the inclusion of jinn as part of Solomon’s host indicates not only that it was of a miraculous and wondrous nature, but also that Solomon had the stature and power to control and make use of the jinn, beings ordinarily considered uncontrollable by human beings and most often mischievous.[2]

The focus of @ReginaldODonog1’s piece, however, is primarily on the birds and he goes on to explain that the Qur’an may have been inspired by 1 Kings 4:29-33 or Ecclesiastes 10:20, the latter being one he believes “is even closer to these later traditions.” He writes that the text of Ecclesiastes “seems to speak of Solomon having some form of communication with the birds.” This is such an interesting possibility and one I have never considered, largely due to my ignorance of the Qur’an. (I’ve read the Qur’an three times over the course of the last twenty years, the last time being over a decade ago. I suppose it is time to read it again!) @ReginaldODonog1 also points to other ancient texts which suggest birds comprised part of Solomon’s entourage (e.g. 2nd Targum of Esther). 

On a related note, the image of Jesus as exorcist is thought by some to comport with a tradition of Solomon as exorcist.[3] For example, Josephus wrote about Solomon that 

God enabled him to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day (Jewish Antiquities 8.45-46).[4]

Similarly, in the Testament of Solomon the Israelite king confronts many demons (e.g. Ornias, ch. 2; Beelzeboul, ch. 3; etc.). In fact, there are significant parallels with these texts and the Gospel of Mark. In Mark 5:9, Jesus asks the demons possessing a man in Gerasa, “What is your name?” In the Testament of Solomon, Solomon asks the demon Ornias, “Who are you? What is your name?” (Testament of Solomon 2:1)[5] Joel Marcus notes that “[i]n magical contexts, knowing the name of a god or demon grants power over it.”[6] The difficulty, of course, with the Testament of Solomon is that it likely dates to after the period of the writing of the Gospels. Nevertheless, it is perhaps based on a tradition shared by Josephus in which Solomon was known to be an exorcist. Consequently, it is likely that this motif is embedded into the Gospel stories of Jesus as well. 

In any event, this fascinating post by @ReginaldODonog1 put me on a bit of a rabbit trail and I learned quite a bit from it. It’s also stirred me to want to reread the Qur’an and not remain so ignorant about it. 

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Quranic passages are from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (New York: HarperOne, 2015).

[2] Caner K. Dagli, “27, The Ants, al-Naml,” in The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 931. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (The Qur’an: Text, Translation, and Commentary [New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 1934], 982) suggests that besides the “literal” meaning there are two “symbolic meanings.” First, that Solomon kept in order people of varying “grades of intelligence, taste, and civilization.” Second, that Solomon used his various gifts to marshal, as it were, “a well disciplined army” wherewith he wisely ruled his kingdom.

[3] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 83-84.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Josephus are from The New Complete Works of Josephus, William Whiston, translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999). 

[5] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of the Testament of Solomon are from Testament of Solomon, D.C. Duling, translator, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 – Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, James H. Charlesworth, editor (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983).

[6] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 344.

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