After Solomon became king of Israel, he went to Gibeon to make a sacrifice to God. There the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: “Ask what I should give you” (1 Kings 3:4-5). In response to God’s offer, Solomon asked God to grant him “an understanding mind to govern your people” (1 Kings 3:9). After this vision, Solomon was confronted with the case of the two prostitutes, a case which served to illustrate the fulfillment of God’s promise to him. The story of the two prostitutes is found in 2 Kings 3:16-28:
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 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. 18 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. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 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. 21 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.” 22 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. 23 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.'” 24 So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” 26 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.” 27 Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” 28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice (1 Kings 3:16-28).
The story is a legal dispute between two mothers who both claimed to be the mother of the living baby rather than the mother of the baby who had died. The events that led to this legal dispute happened at night while both women slept.
According to the woman telling the story (call her Woman A), the other woman’s (Woman B) baby died at night because she had laid on him. Then, she took the dead baby and exchanged him for the other baby, the one that was alive. When Woman A woke up to nurse her son, she noticed that the child was dead. When she looked at the dead child, she realized that he was not her son. According to Woman A, the dead baby belonged to Woman B. When Woman B did not return the living child to Woman A, the two women came before Solomon to argue their case before him.
The women in the story are said to be “prostitutes.” Prostitution was considered one of the lowliest occupations in Israel. The claim that the women were prostitutes reflects the background of the story since both women were living alone in the same residence, without a husband, and both women were pregnant at the same time. The case came before Solomon because there were no witnesses to corroborate the women’s story. The absence of witnesses to the event is stressed in verse 18. The difficulty with the stories of the two women is that their stories were different and contradictory and this posed an urgent problem for Solomon because the living baby was in danger of being placed in the custody of the wrong mother.
Solomon was challenged to issue an immediate resolution to the problem even though there was no clear way to solve the problem since each claim could not be verified by a witness. In making his decision Solomon had to use the wisdom God had given him in a vision. In that vision, God told Solomon: “I give you a wise and discerning mind” (1 Kings 3:12). In Israel, one of the duties of the king was to judge the people with fairness. In describing the king’s responsibility for maintaining justice in Israel, Isaiah said of the ideal king: “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:3-4). In this situation, Solomon could not decide the case “by what his ears hear,” since the two stories were contradictory. In solving this case, Solomon had to use the wisdom God gave him and decide who was the real mother of the living child.
Because of the social condition of the two women, they probably would not find much support within the community, thus, they had to appeal to the king since he was the person responsible for the maintenance of justice in Israel. Although this story is about two women whose lives are considered to be reprehensive by modern standards, the story shows the strong love of a mother for her son, a love so strong that the real mother of the child preferred to give her son away to another woman than to see him killed.
One important issue that Solomon had to consider was that he was listening to the words of a mother against the words of another mother. In the exchange of words between the two women, the two women were shouting at one another. The king, in making his decision, repeated the argument made by the two women (v. 23). In rendering his decision, the king ordered his servants to cut the child in two and give each woman a half of the child. Solomon’s decision placed the life of the child in jeopardy, but the threat to the child’s life helped the king identify the true mother of the child.
Once Solomon’s decision was announced, one of the women, moved by compassion, asked the king not to kill the child but give him to the other woman: “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The motherly love of one of the women for her son moved her to make an important decision: to allow her baby to live, even though he would live with the other woman.
The Hebrew word translated “compassion” is raḥamîm, a word that means “tender mercy.” This word refers to the deep love of a mother for her child. The intensity of this love is reflected by the connection of this word with the word raḥam, a word that means “womb.” So deep was the woman’s emotion for her child that some translations say that “compassion for her son burned within her” (NRSV) and “her heart yearned for her son” (ESV). It is this deep feeling for the child that revealed who the true mother of the child was.
The other woman, the one who was not the real mother of the child, interrupted the woman’s speech by saying that neither of them should have the baby and that the king should cut him in two. The heartless words of this woman made Solomon’s decision much easier. It was the mother’s compassionate love for her child that helped Solomon bring the right solution to the conflict between the two women. Solomon gave the baby to the right mother.
Some commentators believe that Solomon knew the true mother of the child even before he rendered his decision. However, the text clearly shows that such interpretation is not supported by the narrative. In addition, Solomon’s command to his servants would be meaningless if he already knew who the real mother of the child was.
But, who was the real mother of the child? Was the real mother Woman A, the first woman who said that the dead baby was not hers or was she Woman B, the woman who refused to give the living baby to Woman A?
The answer to this important question will be given in the second part of this study.
NEXT: “Solomon and the Two Prostitutes – Part II”
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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 Marvin Sweeney, I & II Kings, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 82.