According to the Bible, the wisdom of Israel’s King Solomon was legendary. “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt … People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom” (1 Kings 4:30, 34). Several biblical books are attributed to him, including Proverbs (or much of it), Ecclesiastes (although he isn’t actually named as the writer), the Song of Songs, and The Wisdom of Solomon (in the Apocrypha).
However, there is one puzzling example of Solomon’s wisdom in the book of Kings – in fact, it is the only example of his wisdom in action in that book. Immediately after the story about Solomon having a dream in which he asked God for wisdom, the narrator describes a scene in which two prostitutes came to him for his judgment. They both had babies, born within days of each other; one baby died during the night, and both women claimed the living child was theirs.
The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.1 Kings 3:17-22
Solomon’s response to this dispute is then narrated as an example of his great wisdom:
Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.”1 Kings 3:23-27
There are several puzzling things about this story. First, the women are introduced as two prostitutes, without any moral judgment, but this detail doesn’t seem to be relevant to the rest of the story. So why mention it?
Second, the Hebrew text obscures the identity of the mother of the living child by confusingly referring to both women as “this woman” (הָאִשָּׁה הַזֹּאת) or simply as “this” (זֹאת) and English versions sometimes add words such as “the first one” or “the other one” in an interpretive move to make better sense of it. But have the translators gotten it right? Perhaps the Hebrew is intentionally ambiguous. As a result of this ambiguity in the Hebrew, scholarship is unable to determine which woman was the mother of the living child, with some scholars arguing that it was the first one to speak, others positing that it was the second woman, and yet others insisting that the reader never learns which of the two women is the true mother.1 As the single example in Kings of a demonstration of Solomon’s wisdom it is noteworthy that we are unable to determine with any certainty which woman was the legitimate mother.
Third, there is an equally considerable problem in the narrative in that the narrator does not explain how Solomon arrived at his decision to call for a sword: did he know which woman was the rightful mother, and, if so, how? Was it the way they spoke, or looked, their tone or demeanour? And how could he be certain that his strategy would work and reveal the true mother? Was he certain? Or was he impatient and impetuous? The text leaves us no clues. If the reader cannot be certain at the end of the story which woman was the mother of the living child, or how Solomon arrived at his verdict, how can we be confident that Solomon got it right? In fact, we don’t know that he got it right because the story simply doesn’t tell us.
It could be argued that Solomon must have gotten it right because there would be no point in telling the story if he didn’t. This is why we have to look at the context of stories like this in the Bible and try to understand what point the writer is actually making. There are links in the story to the earlier chapters of 1 Kings. The first mention of Solomon’s wisdom is in 1 Kings 2:6 when David said to Solomon “Act according to your wisdom, (כְּחָכְמָתֶךָ)” as he instructs Solomon to kill Joab. Again with regards to Shimei’s end he says, “you are a wise man (חָכָם אָתָּה) and you will know what to do” (2:9). In both cases David’s advice ends with “do not let his grey head go down to Sheol in peace” (or similar). Ironically, these first two references to Solomon’s wisdom call on him to commit murder. Lyle M. Eslinger puts it nicely: “The narrative’s presentation of one murderous character instructing his son in the ways of bloodthirsty revenge and calling that wisdom does not seem designed to promote a high view of this particular quality as venerated by David or demonstrated by his son, Solomon.”2
In an earlier post I pointed out the wordplays on Solomon’s name in the book of Kings. I noted that the writer(s) of Kings seemed to be deliberately making the point that while some people regarded Solomon as a “man of peace”, and his name even sounds like the Hebrew word for “peace” (in Hebrew his name is Shlomo which sounds like shalom ‘Peace’), he was in fact responsible for a great deal of bloodshed, especially in the earliest period of his reign, including ordering the murder of his brother Adonijah. There are, in fact, several allusions in the story of the two prostitutes to the death of Adonijah. We are informed in 1 Kings 1:51 that Adonijah was afraid of Solomon and asked for an assurance that Solomon would not kill him with the sword. Later we learn that Solomon ordered that he should be put to death (1 Kings 2:24). Similarly, in 1Kings 2:8 Solomon gave Shimei an assurance that ‘I will not put you to death with the sword’ yet later, in 1 Kings 2:46 he commanded him to be struck down and killed. In both cases, Solomon’s assurances meant nothing and the fear held by these men was justified because they died by the sword at his command. Ironically, when Solomon was called on to adjudicate in the case of the two women, he again called for a sword (1 Kings 3:24) and then we learn that “all Israel feared him.” We should note that their response was to fear Solomon (not to love, honour, or admire him). For all his wisdom, Solomon obtained and held on to power through the sword and fear of it.
Could it be that this judgment scene is a parable, or allegory, or riddle, about Solomon’s succession? If it is allegory, then the two mothers could represent Bathsheba and Haggith, the mothers of Solomon and Adonijah, and the child who died could represent Adonijah. Whether or not it is allegorical or parabolic, the issues raised by this scene question if Solomon was really ‘wise’ and therefore undermines the divine source of his so-called wisdom and therefore his legitimacy or suitability to be king.
Given that several scholars have identified satire elsewhere in Samuel-Kings, ‘satire’ might be the best categorisation, as it ridicules the king’s so-called wisdom, ironises his rule by fear and bloodshed, and targets his legitimacy to sit on God’s throne over the kingdom of God, Israel. We should also note that the book of Proverbs is emphatic that wisdom comes by learning and experience. It would be unthinkable for the writer of the Proverbs of Solomon that one could obtain wisdom simply by asking for it and being granted it as a gift, yet that is precisely how this story in Kings begins, with Solomon asking God for wisdom (in a dream) and being granted it. Against the background of Proverbs, the story in 1 Kings 3 of Solomon being miraculously granted wisdom is ironic at least. If 1 Kings 3 was written first then Proverbs seems to ignore Solomon’s own experience in being granted a short-cut to wisdom and argues that wisdom comes through studying, observing, learning, and toil. If Proverbs, however, was written first or the writer, editor or redactor of Kings was familiar with a wisdom tradition behind it, then chapter 3 is best read as parody of it, or, more likely, as satire which subverts Solomon’s wisdom and his authority. As satire, if the legitimacy of Solomon is called into question then the legitimacy of the entire Davidic dynasty may be the wider target, or the legitimacy of the king’s appointments, such as the priesthood.
Who would do this? What would motivate a narrator, editor or redactor to question Solomon’s wisdom? The answer to that question is too long for this post so it will have to wait. But, in a nutshell, there are several signs in Kings and Chronicles that these books were written by groups with different ideas about the monarchy, and with different political agenda. I’ve touched on some of the evidence for that in an earlier post. While Chronicles praises Solomon, Kings points out his failings. It seems to me that this story of Solomon’s judgment was written by someone, or a group, whose motive was to question his so-called wisdom and whether he was as good a king as others were saying, and the ‘wisdom’ of some of his political appointments or decisions.
1 For a summary of the scholarly positions see Hayyim Angel, “Cut the Baby in Half: Understanding Solomon’s Divinely-Inspired Wisdom.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2011): 189-194.
2 Lyle M. Eslinger, Into the Hands of the Living God (24; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989), 127.