Note: This post is a continuation of my previous post, “Solomon and the Two Prostitutes.” It is important that you read the first post in order to follow the discussion in the present post. Click on the link above and read Part I of this study.
If is unfortunate that most biblical translations mistranslate the biblical text and in the process identify the wrong mother of the living child. Take, for instance the translation of the NRSV: “Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother’” (1 Kings 3:27). The same translation is followed by the ESV, NIV, and several other translations. However, the word “first” is not in the Hebrew text.
The Hebrew text simply says “give to her” (Hebrew tenû-lah). This translation is followed by the KJV: “Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.” The same translation is followed by the Jewish Publication Society (TNK): “Then the king spoke up. ‘Give the live child to her,’ he said, and do not put it to death; she is its mother.’” Thus, when the translation of the King James is followed, one concludes that the mother of the child is not the first woman, as the NRSV, the ESV, and the NIV say. S. Lasine, in his article “The Riddle of Solomon’s Judgment and the Riddle of Human Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” said: “the story also becomes a riddle for the reader, who is challenged to identify the mothers solely on the basis of their quoted words.” Ellen van Wolde has taken a similar approach. She wrote: “The readers do not yet know whether the first or the second woman is [his] mother, and they will never will.”
Although the biblical text does not say who the real mother of the child was, most readers of this story identify Woman A, the first woman who spoke to Solomon, as the real mother of the living child. The reason for this mistaken identity is because most readers do not realize that the word “first,” as it appears in the NRSV, the RSV, the ESV, and the NIV, is not in the Hebrew text.
There are a few reasons for not believing the story of Woman A. According to Cogan, “how could she be believed, when she has slept so soundly through the claimed switch of infants.” According to the narrator, Woman A slept so soundly that she did not even realize that her son was taken from her during the night. Thus, it is difficult to determine the truth of her story because her statement of what happened during the night is only her side of the story. Van Wolde makes a similar observation. She wrote: “The king and the readers learn about this event only through the eyes and the mouth of this woman, and they may ask themselves how it is possible that the one woman is so sure that the other woman lay on her son in the night, while she herself was firmly asleep.”
Hayim Angel has presented another reason to doubt the story of the first woman. He said that the first woman mentioned the dead child first while the other woman mentioned the living child before the dead one, what the true mother of the living child would do. Angel concludes, “A mother attempting to demonstrate that her child was alive would mention him first since that is foremost on her mind.”
Ellen van Wolde offers another reason to doubt the word of the first woman. She said: “The second woman is considerably briefer than the first; she does not give her view of the events in the form of a story but confines herself to stating that her son is the living one. Because she is so brief, or because the narrator represents her words so briefly, it is not so easy for the readers to sympathize with her. Therefore, most readers are inclined to follow the view of the first woman: readers have been able to share her arguments and her language, and particularly her observation and awareness.” Although the argument presented by van Wolde supports the view that Woman B was the mother of the living child, van Wolde believes that Woman A was the mother of the living child.
When the narrative is divided according to the speakers, one notices that the women alternate their words in presenting their case. When the text is separated among the speakers, it becomes clear that the second woman is the mother of the living child.
In addition to the alternative reading of the speakers, Gary Rendsburg has shown the way the narrator introduces the speech of the two women also provides a clue for their identity. According to Rendsburg, the narrator is consistent in introducing the two women. Woman B is introduced as “this one says” and Women A is introduced as “and this one says.” In presenting the words of the women below, I will follow the Hebrew text and introduce the speech of the women as they appear in the Hebrew text.
Narrator: Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said,
Woman A: 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.
Narrator: But the other woman said,
Woman B: No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.
Narrator: And this one says,
Woman A: No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.
Narrator: So they argued before the king.
The King: Then the king said,
(Quoting Woman B): This one say this is my son that is alive, and your son is dead
The King: and this one says,
(Quoting Woman A): Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.
Narrator: So the king said,
The King:“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.”
Narrator: 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!”
Narrator: And this one says,
Woman A: It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.
The King: Then the king responded: “Give to her the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.”
The narrative before the king’s decision is very revealing. When the narrator said “And this one says, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it,’” he was introducing the speech of Woman A, who was then the mother of the dead child. Although a superficial reading of the text may not reveal who the mother of the living child was, a careful analysis of the dialogue and a rhetorical study of the text reveals that the second woman, the one we called Woman B, was the real mother of the living child.
It was the tender love of a mother who allowed the king to decide who the true mother of the infant was. Were not for her compassionate motherly love, the king would have a difficult time solving this unsolvable situation. Because of the “wise and discerning mind” God gave Solomon, he was able to solve a very difficult issue between two of his subjects. However, it was the true compassionate love of a mother who made a difference in this critical situation and made Solomon’s decision much easier. Motherly love made a difference in the decision of a king and helped decide whether a child lived of died.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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. S. Lasine, “The Riddle of Solomon’s Judgment and the Riddle of Human Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” JSOT 45 (1989): 61.
. Ellen van Wolde, “Who Guides Whom? Embeddedness as Perspective in Biblical Hebrew and in 1 Kings 3:16-28,” JBL 114 (1995): 638.
. Mordechai Cogan, I Kings, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 195.
. Van Wolde, “Who Guides Whom?, 629-30.
. ayyim Angel, “Cut the Baby in Half: Understanding Solomon’s Divinely-Inspired Wisdom,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 39 (2011): 191.
. Gary A. Rendsburg, “The Guilty Party in 1 Kings iii 16-28,” VT 48 (1998): 538.
. Ibid, 536-37.