The Brilliant Wisdom of King Solomon
by Baruch C. Cohen
The Book of Kings [Melachim 1 3:12] states that Israel’s great King Solomon was twelve years old when God promised him that he would be granted great wisdom. He turned out to be the wisest man ever to live. As an illustration of the fulfillment of this blessing of wisdom, the Book of Kings reports the following account of a case that was brought before King Solomon’s court in Jerusalem.
Two women came to King Solomon and stood before him. One woman (#1) said: “My Lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while with her in the house. On the third day after I gave birth, she also gave birth. We live together; there is no outsider with us in the house; only the two of us were there. The son of this woman died during the night because she lay upon him. She arose during the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep, and lay him in her bosom, and her dead son she laid in my bosom. when I got up in the morning to nurse my son, behold, he was dead! But when I observed him (later on) in the morning, I realized that he was not my son to whom I had given birth!”
The other woman (#2) replied: “It is not so! My son is the live one and your son is the dead one!”
The first woman (#1) responded: “It is not so! Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”
They argued before King Solomon.
King Solomon said: “this woman (#2) claims ‘My son is the live one and your son is the dead one, ‘and this woman (#1) claims ‘Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”‘
King Solomon said, “Bring me a sword!” So they brought a sword before the King. The King said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other”
The woman (#2) turned to the King, because her compassion was aroused for her son, and said: “Please my Lord, give her the living child and do not kill it!”
But the other woman (#1) said: “Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut!”
The King spoke up and said: “Give her (#2) the living child, and do not kill it, for she is his mother!” All of Israel heard the judgment that the King had judged. They had great awe for the King, for they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice. [I Melachim 3:16 – 27]. The woman was rightfully awarded custody of her son.
It should be noted, that King Solomon’s was the first major recorded and published decision in the history of legal jurisprudence, and I believe that with the help of the commentaries, one can begin to appreciate the magnificent depth of his wisdom.
Some say that King Solomon truly knew who was the real mother as soon as he saw the two women. This was the nature of the special divine wisdom that God gave him. As King Solomon was able to understand the speech of the animals and the birds, so he could see the truth in someone’s face. His knowledge was of Divine origin. It was infallible.
According to the Abarbanel and Metzudas David, King Solomon studied the countenance of each woman as they presented their claims and counter-claims, and by means of his penetrating and heavenly wisdom, understood which of the two women was telling the truth.
Still, to prove this to the people, he had to demonstrate it in a way that everyone would acknowledge. Perhaps that is why he pretended not to know who said what, and repeated their arguments in reverse order, by repeating Woman #2’s argument first, and Woman #1’s argument second.
He even pretended to apply the well-known law of dividing disputed property. If two people come to court holding on to the ends of a piece of clothing, and each claims it to be his, the court divides it and gives each one half. King Solomon seemed to pretend to be ignorant of the many complicated details of this law, and to think that it applied to babies as well, which would have been ridiculously simpleminded. No judge would ever make such a foolish mistake. Yet, he succeeded in convincing the two women that he was serious.
Nonetheless, he was careful not to let the trick go too far. He specifically commanded his servants to bring the sword to him, not to give it to one of the guards. They too, were no doubt fooled and he did not want them to divide the baby before he had a chance to stop them. In fact, the King’s ministers said “Woe to you Oh Land, whose king is but a boy!” They thought “what has God done to us to give us such a king? How long will we have to suffer with such foolish judgments?” But afterwards, when they saw the women’s reactions they knew that he had recently received Divine inspiration and rejoiced saying “Happy are you, oh Land, whose king is a free man!” – i.e., one who studies Torah (Koheles – Ecclesiastes 10:16-17).
King Solomon’s trick succeeded. The imposter revealed herself by her heartless cruelty. After all, no mother would have let her own child be killed just to spite another woman.
But how could King Solomon have been sure the other woman would not also have mercy on the child? Wouldn’t most people break down in such a situation and relinquish their claims? What sort of person would want to be responsible for the death of an innocent child, even if it were not her own?
Perhaps this was an aspect of the depth of King Solomon’s insight – he knew that no normal mother lies on her own child and crushes him in her sleep. Babies always sleep with their mothers and fathers, yet this never happens, for perhaps God implants within a human being an innate sensitivity that prevents her from doing such a thing. A woman who lies on her child must be lacking basic human feeling, and such a person would certainly have no mercy on the child of another. According to the Abarbanel, perhaps such a woman developed a blood lust and possessed a cruel desire to see another life snuffed out.
And what of the compassionate one? Was it not possible that she was acting cunningly to impress the King with a false sense of motherly commiseration?
WHO HAD THE BETTER ARGUMENT?
Notwithstanding the outcome, many believe that Woman #1 still made a convincing and persuasive argument. She made it clear that there were no witnesses because they lived alone. Perhaps she suspected that Solomon would be able to tell how old the baby was and identify the mother. According to the Radak and the Metsudas David, her argument was bolstered by the claim that no one else knew the identities of the babies, nor had one been sick, that the neighbors might remember whose baby it was. When she first got up, it was still dark. She could not recognize the baby, so she did not suspect that it was not hers. All she knew was that it was dead. But when it got light, she saw it and realized what had happened. She asserted that her baby boy was born three days earlier, and therefore there was some reliable distinction available.
Woman #2 had only a brief presentation and did not claim to have any proof. She simply said that the child was hers. All she did was state her case.
Based on the first round of oral arguments, it would appear that Woman #1 had the better claim, and that she was the real mother.
It is noteworthy, that the women did not bring the corpse of the dead child for further identification. Perhaps the child was buried already, or its features were already changed making recognition difficult.
SUBTLE TRUTHS BEGIN TO UNRAVEL
Yet, as the women’s dispute continued, their respective positions seemed to change ever so slightly. There was something disturbing and disingenuous about the way in which Woman #1 continued arguing her case, in that she subsequently seemed less concerned with having a live child and focused more on the other having the dead one. The fact that she mentioned the dead child first, in itself, was an indication of this (“It is not so! Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”).
Woman #2, by contrast, always spoke of her own son first (“No. my son is the living one and your son is the dead one”). It seemed as if her heart was with her son. She spoke out of love and was apparently heartbroken at the thought of potentially losing her child.
According to the Devorim Rabah, King Solomon then repeated the arguments of both women, verbatim, without adding anything, making sure that he properly understood the arguments of both sides, listening carefully, and if there was anything that he misunderstood, the women had an opportunity to correct him.
ODD DEVELOPMENTS IN THE STORY
King Solomon’s wisdom surely gave him the insight to foresee that the real mother (#2) would recoil in terror when she heard of his intention to kill the infant, nevertheless, could his wisdom have possibly predicted the liar (#1)’s response – to comply with this grotesque compromise?
Second, the woman who was lying (#1) was initially interested in taking the living child for herself, otherwise she never would have asserted such a bold and aggressive claim.
As soon as the real mother offered to let the liar keep the child in order to spare its life, the liar should have accepted the real mother offer’s and kept the child. She could have played up her victory by saying: “Aha! She admits that the baby was truly mine all along! She is a kidnapper but not a murderer. The baby is mine.” Instead, she did something totally unpredictable. She refused saying “Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut.”