1 Kings 3-4: Solomon tries to cut a baby in half


The court cleared of dissent, Solomon starts working on external politics – marrying the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh. He brought her to the city of David, pending the completion of his own house (presumably here meaning “palace” rather than “dynasty”) and the wall around Jerusalem.

The Deuteronomist editor slips in a bit about how “the people were sacrificing at high place,” though this is excusable for the time being because “no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:2). We know by content that this is the Deuteronomist talking, but we know to look because it makes no sense in context. This location for the verse seems to have been chosen only because of the mention of construction preceding it, and the mention of Solomon worshipping at high places following.

In fact, the source material seems to approve quite plainly of Solomon’s worship at the high places, saying that he did it because he “loved the Lord” (1 Kgs 3:3). Solomon, we are told, was quite a fan of these high places (and of God!), and sacrificed a hyperbolic amount. In particular, he made a huge sacrifice at Gibeon, which occasioned God’s appearance in his dreams.

Like some sort of magical fish, God offers to grant one wish. Solomon chooses wisdom, and God is so pleased with the choice that he just grants riches, honour, and long life, too – so long as Solomon always obeys God, of course. Then again, the bar is set rather low, since God only requires that Solomon walk on God’s road “as your father David walked” (1 Kgs 3:14) – has he been reading the same book I’ve been reading?

Solomon is so pleased with how that dream, went (and who wouldn’t be!) that he rushes back to Jerusalem to make another offering before the ark.

Practical Wisdom

The next seems to have been included to show us an example of Solomon’s new-found wisdom in action. It takes place while he sites in judgement, apparently bridging the gap between local chieftain and king, since it seems unlikely that a king would have the time to see more than a symbolic handful of petitioners – a lesson Moses learned way back in Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 16.

Victor Matthews says that Solomon may have taken up the task for political reasons:

These shifts [introduction of monarchy and movement of population to urban centres] contributed to significant changes in legal customs and the administration of justice in ancient Israel. Naturally the Israelite kings, like their ancient Near Eastern counterparts (see the preface to Hammurabi’s code in ANET, 164), wished to exercise as much control over the law and its enforcement as possible in order to increase their own authority. This meant the king had to be identified with dispensing of justice to all segments of society, especially the weak. The ideal, perhaps best exemplified by Solomon’s judging of the two prostitutes (1 Kgs 3:16-28), was to create the perception that he was a “just king.” With this accomplished, it would be more likely that people would look to him first for justice. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.119)

The scene is very similar to David’s dealings with Ziba and Mephibosheth back in 2 Samuel 19. In that case, David had granted Mephibosheth’s lands to Ziba after the latter claims that the former failed to support David when he fled Jerusalem. When David returns, Mephibosheth claims that Ziba had lied. In this case, two prostitutes come before Solomon, claiming that they had given birth within three days of each other and, while alone in the house one night, one of them had lain on her baby, suffocating it by accidentally. Now, each are claiming that the mother of the dead child secretly switched it for the other woman’s living child.

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c,1617

The Judgement of Solomon, by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1617

When David had dealt with Ziba and Mephibosheth, he tried to resolve the argument by splitting the lands in half, so that each would get a share. Solomon claims that he will do the same here, fetching a sword to cut the baby in half so that each woman could have a share.

When the solution was given, both Mephibosheth and the (presumably) true mother gave up their claim (the other woman demanding the child’s death so that “it shall be neither mine nor yours” – 1 Kgs 3:26), preferring that the land/baby be whole and out of their possession, rather than divided/dead and only half theirs. David shrugged and accepted Mephibosheth’s relinquishing of his claim to the lands. Solomon, by contrast, declares her to be the true mother and gives her the baby, whole.

This story only really works in contrast to David’s, so that we can see Solomon’s wisdom boost in contrast to how David dealt with a similar issue. But neither story works except in contrast to the other. David dealt horribly with Ziba and Mephibosheth, rewarding a man who seems to have been opportunistic and perfectly willing to betray his master (not something a king should particularly be encouraging – though the fact that David does certainly goes a way toward explaining how his reign came to be so troubled), while screwing over a cripple whose livelihood was probably put into question by the ruling.

In Solomon’s case, there was really only one way to resolve the issue, and it depended entirely on one woman (and only the one) relinquishing her claim. Any other outcome would have required Solomon to either reveal his bluff or murder a baby – neither which, I imagine, would have particularly endeared him to his people.

The second woman had recently lost her baby and resorted to kidnapping a replacement. While it’s certainly possible that she might have been so bitter that she would rather see a second baby die rather than live in a house with a healthy baby who wasn’t her own, that seems far from the only way she could have responded. So unless Solomon’s wisdom included clairvoyance, I think his gambit was far more of a long shot than the narrative implies – unless, of course, he really was perfectly willing to murder the baby.

Incidentally, Tim Bulkeley points out that neither woman is called “mother” by the narrative, only by Solomon and only at the very end when he renders his judgement. He also mentions that when the one who is determined to be the true mother is moved by “compassion” (1 Kgs 3:26) to relinquish her claim, the word used is etymologically related to the word for “womb.”

Solomon’s Administration

Chapter 4 begins with Solomon’s cabinet. From the very first, there’s some confusion as we are told that Azariah, the son of Zadok was the priest, while a few verses later has both Zadok and Abiathar as priests (Abiathar, of course, having been deposed earlier). Explaining Abiathar’s presence requires that we assume that some time-hopping is going on, but Azariah is more complicated. I can only guess, but it’s possible that Azariah’s role is as a family priest, perhaps tending exclusively to Solomon and his household, while Zadok and Abiathar are meant to be the co-high priests, in charge of all the other priests. Sort of like the difference between a family chaplain and a pope.

We also get another Azariah, this time the son of Nathan, who is in charge of the officers. Zabud, also the son of Nathan, is another priest and king’s friend. My first thought was that both of these Nathans were Nathan the Prophet, though it seems more probable given the lack of honorific that he was David’s son, mentioned in 2 Sam. 5:14.

  • Elihoreph and Ahijah, the sons of Shisha, served as secretaries;
  • Jehoshaphat, son of Ahilud, was recorder;
  • Benaiah, son of Jehoiada, was commander of the army;
  • Ahishar was in charge of the palace;
  • Adoniram, son of Abda, was in charge of the forced labor.

We’re also told that Solomon appointed twelve officers, overseers of the various territories in the nation. Interestingly, these territories do not “conform to the old tribal boundaries,” as my study Bible puts it. These officers seem to be in charge of collecting taxes, providing food for the king and his household (apparently each being responsible for one month of the court’s needs per year). These officers were:

  1. Ben-hur over the hill country of Ephraim
  2. Ben-decker over Makaz, Shaal’bim, Bethshemesh, and Elonbeth-hanan
  3. Ben-hesed over Arubboth
  4. Ben-abinadab over Naphathdor (and he was married to Taphath, Solomon’s daughter)
  5. Baana, son of Ahilud, over Taanach, Megiddo, and Bethshean
  6. Ben-geber over Ramoth-gilead
  7. Ahinadab, son of Iddo, over Mahanaim
  8. Ahimaaz over Naphtali (and he was married to Basemath, Solomon’s daughter)
  9. Baana, son of Hushai, over Asher and Bealoth
  10. Jehoshaphat, son of Paruah, over Issachar
  11. Shimei, son of Ela, over Benjamin
  12. Geber, son of Uri, over Gilead
  13. An unknown officer over Judah

The count is more than twelve, perhaps indicating that the unknown officer over Judah was separate from the others, perhaps meaning that Judah was exempt from the taxes Solomon required of the other regions. If so, this looks more like a primary tribe collecting tribute from vassal tribes than a real unified nation.

I also find it interesting that Solomon has married two of his daughters to these regional leaders, particularly when he’s clearly dabbling in external politics. There’s probably nothing to it, but it makes me wonder if perhaps Solomon was still working to settle a turbulent court. He either executed or exiled all the major threats, and I wonder if this is evidence of him trying to secure internal allies through marriage. (Though Crusader Kings II has taught me that these internal unions can be quite a double-edged sword, since they give the descendants of those courtiers hereditary claims to the crown that may cause problems for your successors.)

Despite the mention of taxes and forced labour, we’re assured that everyone in Judah and Israel was happy, and that Solomon’s kingdom was very large. We’re given a list of the provisions he went through in one day, which I assume indicates the size of his court rather than the size of his belly. It seems a bit much even if it’s for his entire family.

We get some gushing about the awesome number of horses, chariots, and horsemen, not to mention the stables required to house such numbers. This detail – clearly presented here in a positive light – obviously comes from a different source than Deut. 17:16.

The boundaries of Solomon’s kingdom are rather unlikely. The fact that they fit with the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 15 suggests that they are likely a romanticized fantasy of the nations “glory days,” rather than an accurate description of a small, new nation just beginning to emerge from its origins as a tribal confederacy.

Solomon’s Wisdom

To close off the chapter, we get another reminder that Solomon was so terribly wise. In fact, he was so wise that he “surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kgs 4:30) – though the only demonstration we’ve seen so far leaves me rather unconvinced. Unless he is meant to only seem wise by comparison.

Solomon is mentioned to be wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, as well as the sons of Mahol: Heman, Calcol, and Darda. Clearly, this is a reference the reader is supposed to get.

We’re told that he composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs, and that he seems to have had a fair bit of knowledge of the natural sciences (or liked nature themes in his songs and proverbs, I suppose). People came from “all the kings of the earth” to seek out his wisdom, clearly implying that – at least as far as threatening to cut babies in half was concerned – Solomon was better than any other king.

Deuteronomy 1-3: Recapping with a slightly faulty memory

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Deuteronomy picks up the story from the end of Numbers. The Israelites are hanging out in Moab, on the wrong side of the Jordan, getting some last minute instructions from Moses. Before getting into the ordinances, however, Moses decides to make sure that everyone is up to speed on what’s happened so far.

Moses recalls feeling rather overwhelmed with the duties of being the leader, and he tells the story of selecting tribal leaders (and sub-leaders) to help him. He does not mention the involvement of his father-in-law (then called Jethro) – as told in Exodus 18 – where he notices that Moses seems a little tightly-wound and recommends that he do some delegating. We also don’t get the details from Numbers 11, with the prophesying and the involvement of Joshua.

But where this narrative does flesh things out a bit is with the instructions that Moses gave to his new judges during the delegation. In particular, he instructs them to judge “righteously,” whether between two Israelites or an Israelite and a non, whether when judging a “small” man or a “great” one, etc. They are also not to “be afraid of the face of man, for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17), which I take to mean that they shouldn’t allow fear repercussions (social, political, physical, etc) to influence the judgement rendered. Overall, these are great ideas in principle, though, of course, nearly impossible to enforce.

He also tells them that they are to come to him if the cases are too hard, and Moses will consult with God on their behalf. It’s not specified whether that means that they are to come to Moses specifically, or whether they are to come to whomever happens to be the leader or prophet at the time. The implications of either interpretation are rather important.

The Scouts

When Moses retells the story of the scouts, he gets a rather important detail wrong, and then it cascades from there.

He tells the Israelites about how “all of you came near me, and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us'” (Deut. 1:22). But if you’ll remember, back in Numbers 13, it was God who told Moses to send the scouts, saying: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2).

Why the difference?

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

Stained glass found in the Mt. Nebo Presbyterian Church

One clue may be in Moses’ response. In Deuteronomy, he agreed to send the scouts, for “the thing seemed good to me” (Deut. 1:23).

The sin that condemns all the people to spend 40 years in the wilderness is still that they were scared by the scout’s report. In Numbers 13, we read about the “evil report” that the scouts brought back, but I noted then that it was unclear whether the “evil” part of the report was that it was untrue or whether it was just bad news.

The two books agree that Canaan is wonderful and has some nice fruit, but the Israelites say: “The people are greater and taller than we; the cities are great and fortified up to heaven; and moreover we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deut. 1:28).

Granted, they could simply be repeating what the lying scouts told them, but it seems to me now as it seemed to me in Numbers – that the scouts are punished for telling the truth because doing so makes the people falter. By warning them of what’s to come, they are guilty of introducing doubt where there should only be blind faith in God’s ability to win any war he pleases. So it matters whether it was the Israelites who had sent the scouts or God (because if God sent the scouts and then punished them for doing as instructed, it’d create a really tough situation for his PR team).

What’s really interesting here, though, is how the passage seems to be a continuation of Numbers 14. I had noticed then that when God lists the people who will be spared, he only lists Caleb and Joshua. He doesn’t mention either Moses or Aaron who, at that point in the narrative, were still goodies in God’s books.

We had to wait until much later, Numbers 20, for Moses to commit the sin that is explicit said to be the reason why he will be barred from entering Canaan. Yet here, Moses agrees with the Numbers 14 narrative that he is not an exception to the punishment:

The Lord was angry with me also on your account, and said, ‘You also shall not go in there’ (Deut. 1:37)

Moses plays the Blame Game in Deut. 3:26, as well:

But the Lord was angry with me on your account, and would not hearken to me.

Though, of course, it was entirely his own actions that damned him in Numbers 20.

I also find it interesting that, as in Numbers 14, Caleb’s exception to the punishment is mentioned first, and Joshua’s comes later, almost as an afterthought. In every instance where Joshua has appeared so far (except, tellingly, in Numbers 13 where he is listed as being among the scouts but his name is spelled quite differently), he feels added in – like a later editor had the book of Joshua and wanted to legitimize his leadership by giving him a history of associations with Moses. (I discuss this at greater lengths in this post about Joshua.)

Whom to kill, whom to spare

Moses retells the story of why the Israelites had to go around – rather than through – Edom. In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites sent messengers to Edom asking for passage. When Edom refused, they were forced to go around. In Deuteronomy 2:4-5, God was worried that the Israelites might spook Edom, and asked them to go around as a courtesy.

There’s a speech in there about how the Israelites are related to the Edomites (Jacob, patriarch of the Israelites, and Esau, grandsire of the Edomites, were brothers), so they should not harm them. Likewise, the Moabites and Ammonites are descended from Lot and should also be left alone.

In both cases, we are also told that they are living in lands that God has given them, so those lands are rightfully theirs.

David Plotz sees this as an explanation for why the Moabites were not punished – but the Midianites were – in Numbers 25, though women of both groups were caught trying to tempt the Israelites into the worship of other gods.

But not to worry, there were plenty of people that the Israelites were allowed to harass.

We get a repeat of the story from Numbers 20:14-21, where the Israelites are refused passage by the Edomites. Except that in Deuteronomy 2:26-31, the one doing the refusing is Sihon, king of the Amorites in Heshbon. This makes them fair game for harassment (and is presumably the reason why the Edomite refusal is conveniently unmentioned).

Of course, the reason given for King Sihon’s refusal is that God made him refuse:

But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as at this day. (Deut. 2:30)

So it’s not really Sihon’s refusal that dooms his people, but rather all part of God’s original plan. But, I guess not to appear the jerk, he orchestrates things so that it looks like Sihon deserved his fate. Or, more likely, God is like a cat that just tripped – he wants to make sure that everything knows that he totally meant to do that.

The Israelites also fight with King Of of Bashan. His and Sihon’s lands are divided between the Reubenites, Gadites, and half of Manasseh.

The multitudes

When addressing the Israelites, Moses says: “The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude” (Deut. 1:10). Does that mean that the multitudes part of the promise to Abraham has been fulfilled?

The reference certainly seems to suggest it, yet Moses is not yet satisfied:

May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as he has promised you. (Deut. 1:11)

Closing business

Commenter Abbie from The King and I went through much of these chapters and found which parts of what stories were selected for retelling – and, most importantly, which sources those passages came from. Her analysis deals with the Documentary Hypothesis, which you can read more about on Wikipedia.

Her whole comment is quite interesting, so do go have a read. But in summary, she found that material is derived strictly from Exodus and Numbers, and that it seems to be “mostly drawn from chapters that have a mix of JE and P, but only containing JE references… except in ONE case… which is basically fossil rabbits in the precambrian.”

Deuteronomy 3 ends with the appointing of Joshua as Moses’ successor.