The case of Two Prostitutes

The story of Solomon demonstrating unusual wisdom in the litigation of two prostitutes by means of a clever trick does not show that Solomon was wise. The story is similar to fables found in many countries. Scholars have identified 22 parallel fables in many countries.[1] The following is from my recent book “The Authentic King Solomon.”

According to the tale, two prostitutes, who lived together, came to Solomon for judgment.[2] One bore a child and three days later the other also bore a child. The mothers slept in the same bed with their child. One mother accidentally smothered her child, took the live child of the other woman and substituted the dead child. Each claimed the live child as her own. There were no witnesses to the events.

Solomon told the women that since it was impossible to determine the parentage, he would cut the child in two and give each a half. One of the women cried out that he should not do so, and said to let the other woman have the baby. The other woman said let neither of us have the child; cut it in two. Hearing this and without explaining his judgment, Solomon ruled that the woman who cried out is the true mother and should be given the child.

A Close Reading of the Tale Reveals that it is Senseless

It is possible that the woman who cried out was the one who stole the other’s child, and she did not want to see the death of a baby as a consequence of her act. She so fervently wanted a child that she stole the other woman’s child. She did not want this stolen child to die as her natural child did. It is also possible that the prostitute who said “cut the baby in two” was the true mother, she did not want to hang onto the child who would be hindering her trade, she saw that the other prostitute wanted her child to the extent that she stole her child and did not care that she was thereby hurting her. So not wanting her child and wanting to hurt the other out of revenge, she told Solomon to kill the child. This is just one of many possibilities. My point is that the described reactions of the two women is no proof of who was the mother.

Others have recognized this difficulty and have suggested that it was something else that Solomon saw that prompted him to render the ruling as he did. The Babylonian Talmud Makkot 23b states that Solomon knew the true mother because God told him. Kil in Olam Hatanakh mentions the supposition of the sage Radbaz who said Solomon knew the proper mother because he saw that the facial features of the child resembled his mother, or Solomon saw that the true mother was a calm woman who would not turn over during her sleep and smother her child, while the other woman was frenetic. In any event, all agree that the supposed wise move to threaten the two women with the murder of the child was not wise at all.

 

[1]      Olam Hatanakh. “It is very likely legendary; a stock example of judicial wisdom, Similar stories were told of other rulers of the period” (Robinson, page 54).

[2]      The Aramaic translation, the Targum, translates “innkeepers,” to make the text more delicate, as was done in Joshua 2 regarding Rahab. Gersonides and others agree they were innkeepers. We do not know the practice of the time: did people come to the king to decide even small matters, or did they approach the king only after a lower court was unable to decide the matter (Kil).

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