By Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, Past Deputy Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales & the Australian Capital Territory.
Hiram Abif plays a central role in the Third Degree ritual, with its detailed account of his life and death. Yet he is almost completely passed over in Biblical literature, which hardly even hints at the events which Masonic tradition takes so seriously. So striking is this paradox that some Masonic writers think the story is just a myth.
The Leicester Research Lodge published in 1903 a study by Rev Morris Rosenbaum, Past Provincial Grand Chaplain for Northumberland. Rosenbaum looks at the Biblical Books of Kings and Chronicles, which describe the building of the Temple and the role played by Hiram… according to Rosenbaum, two Hirams. One is Hiram, king of Tyre, King David’s friend, to whom Solomon sent a message that he intended to build a Temple to God. In I Kings chapter 5, Solomon asks for building materials. In II Chronicles 2:6 he also asks for “a man skilful to work in gold, silver, brass, iron, purple, crimson and blue, and with skill to grave all manner of gratings”.
From Tyre now comes a leading artisan whose name, like the king’s, is Hiram. According to I Kings 7:13: “King Solomon sent and fetched Tiram from Tyre. He was the son of a widow of the tribe of Naphtali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a worker in brass: and he was filled with wisdom, understanding and skill, to work all works in brass”. In II Chronicles 2:12-13, King Hiram announces that he is sending “a skilful man, endued with understanding, Hiram my master craftsman, the son of a woman of the daughters of Dan, and his father was a man of Tyre, skilful to work in gold, silver, brass, iron, stone, timber, purple, blue, fine linen and crimson, also to grave any manner of graving and to devise any device, to do whatever may be set before him”.
Rosenbaum sees in these passages two distinct artisans. In one source, Hiram (sometimes the name is Huram and sometimes Hirom) is basically a worker in brass: in the other he is a versatile craftsman and designer. The idea that there were two Hirams, an architect-craftsman and a mere artisan, is apparently strengthened when we see that the Hiram of Kings was the son of “a widow of the tribe of Naphtali” and the Hiram of Chronicles is the son of “a woman of the daughters of Dan”. Rosenbaum also sees that in Chronicles, Hiram (i.e. one of the Hirams) seems to have come to Solomon before work on the Temple began; the Hiram of Kings arrived when the project was under way.
One Hiram was the son of a widow. Who was his father? Chronicles mentions Hiram aviv (in the craft ritual, Abif), which is literally “his father”. Father and son, both called Hiram, were involved in the work, one as an experienced architect-craftsman, and his son as a more junior artisan.
Since one Hiram is called the son of a widow, he must have come on the scene after his father’s death. Masonic tradition says that Hiram (for Rosenbaum, Hiram the father) was murdered, and there is a rabbinic legend that there was a Hiram who died in a strange way. The text that says Solomon “sent and fetched” Hiram (the son) implies that an escort was sent to bring the son back and to protect him in case anyone had designs on his life. An attractive theory? It appears so, but I believe Rosenbaum has read too much into the Biblical account, that there were not two Hirams, and that the Bible neither confirms nor denies that Hiram was murdered in the course of his work. Chronicles cannot automatically be assumed to be objective history, especially when the Chronicler told the Israelite story differently to Kings and Samuel.
The idea that there was a Hiram whose mother was from Dan and another whose mother was from Naphtali does not hold water. The one clear reference to Hiram’s mother says she was from Dan; the mention of Naphtali applies to the son, not the mother: i.e. he was a widow’s son of the tribe of Naphtali, which means that whilst his mother was from Dan, his father came from Naphtali. There was only one Hiram. What about the apparently conflicting descriptions of Hiram’s capabilities? One source tells us more and one tells us less, but they both describe the same man.
We should also not get too excited about the words, “Hiram his father”. All it denotes is that (the one) Hiram was an expert at his trade. Av usually means father; it can also be master, ruler or chief. In Genesis 4:20-21 it means the originator of those who dwelt in tents and kept cattle, and the originator of those who played the harp and pipe. II Kings 5:13, Naaman, army captain of the king of Aram, is called “my father” – “my captain” – by his servants. Hiram “his father” means Hiram “his master craftsman”. There is also a theory that Av may be part of Hiram’s personal name, the full version of which might have been Hiramavi or something similar (compare the ancient royal name Hammurabi).
Do the Biblical stories confirm the Masonic legend that Hiram was killed? Not precisely, though a rabbinic legend which Rosenbaum mentions says that nine people did not die in the usual way but entered Paradise alive. These included Elijah and Enoch – and Hiram, king of Tyre (Derech Eretz Zuta 1:9, Yalkut Gen. 42 and Ezek. 367). Not all commentators agree that Hiram was entitled to figure in the list, but it is possible that if a Hiram was meant it was the craftsman, not the king. A further rabbinic exposition says that when the Temple was completed all the workmen died, to prevent idolatrous rulers utilising the skills that had been honed and applied to the service of the Almighty. Hiram the master craftsman himself was amongst them, but had the distinction of going straight to Paradise and never tasting real death (cf, Louis Ginzberg, “Legends of the Jews”, vol. 4, p. 155 and notes). Like many legends, these tales may have been embellished, and from a suggestion that the other workmen died whilst Hiram went straight to heaven, it was thought that it was Hiram who died and some of the other workmen caused his death.
All this leaves us none the wiser about why the Third Degree ritual needed Hiram Abif. It is generally accepted that there were originally only two degrees and the Third Degree, and Hiram Abif, came later. In the same year as Rosenbaum’s paper, another lecture at the Leicester Lodge of Research offered an explanation. The author, W Bro WB Hextall of Derbyshire, argued that the Hiramic story was created deliberately, enlisting old legends, as an allegory of the political events of the time. The story, enacted in Masonic Lodges in the presence of Masons who got the hint, alluded to the death of Charles I and the revival of the monarchy under Charles II. The story thus illustrates Masonic involvement in the politics of the period.
Later generations, unaware of this background, thought the story was – merely! – an allegory of man’s ability to rise above doubt and difficulty, even death – or, to the Christian, an indication of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As with so much of craft history, we cannot be certain. The debate is bound to continue.
For more articles on Freemasonic issues by Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO RFD, visit his Freemasonry webpage.
Rt. Wor. Bro. Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book on the history, symbolism and teachings of Freemasonry, enlivened with personal reminiscences and humour.