Monthly Archives: December 2022

1 Kings 5 The High Cost of Construction

Cedar of Lebanon (Cedar of God), Lebanon By © Vyacheslav Argenberg /, CC BY 4.0,

1 Kings 5

1 Now King Hiram of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, when he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father; for Hiram had always been a friend to David. 2 Solomon sent word to Hiram, saying, 3 “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the LORD his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the LORD put them under the soles of his feet. 4 But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. 5 So I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD said to my father David, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’ 6 Therefore command that cedars from the Lebanon be cut for me. My servants will join your servants, and I will give you whatever wages you set for your servants; for you know that there is no one among us who knows how to cut timber like the Sidonians.”

7 When Hiram heard the words of Solomon, he rejoiced greatly, and said, “Blessed be the LORD today, who has given to David a wise son to be over this great people.” 8 Hiram sent word to Solomon, “I have heard the message that you have sent to me; I will fulfill all your needs in the matter of cedar and cypress timber. 9 My servants shall bring it down to the sea from the Lebanon; I will make it into rafts to go by sea to the place you indicate. I will have them broken up there for you to take away. And you shall meet my needs by providing food for my household.” 10 So Hiram supplied Solomon’s every need for timber of cedar and cypress. 11 Solomon in turn gave Hiram twenty thousand cors of wheat as food for his household, and twenty cors of fine oil. Solomon gave this to Hiram year by year. 12 So the LORD gave Solomon wisdom, as he promised him. There was peace between Hiram and Solomon; and the two of them made a treaty.

13 King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. 14 He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. 15 Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, 16 besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. 17 At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. 18 So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites did the stonecutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.

The reign of Solomon sets in motion dramatic changes for Israel. The mobilization to build the temple is a massive undertaking requiring international cooperation for materials. Traditionally most interpreters of these early portions of Solomon’s reign have viewed the preparation and the construction of the temple as examples of the wisdom and faithfulness of Solomon to the LORD. However, there are multiple perspectives related to the temple and the building projects of Solomon and that are woven together in the report of 1 Kings on this massive undertaking which dramatically changes the religious landscape of the people.

The tabernacle constructed during the journey from Egypt to the promised land was to be a place where God could dwell among the people, but it was a tent designed to travel with the people. Once the people entered the land of Canaan there were several worship sites throughout the land, but the worship of the LORD often was modeled after the worship of the deities of the surrounding peoples. From a perspective of unifying the worship of the LORD in a common place and with a common practice the temple has the potential to be a unifying place where the name of the LORD can dwell, and the priest can hand on the law and its interpretation to the people. Israel had never before had a permanent place to worship the LORD or a place to become a central symbol of God’s presence among the people.

Yet, even when King David wants to build the temple of God during his reign he is met with the response of a God who is flattered but who refuses to be confined to a permanent place. While God indicates that David’s son will eventually build a house of cedar for the LORD, there is a thread of discomfort within the passage about God’s presence not being able to move among the people (2 Samuel 7: 1-17). The compromise in the construction is that temple will be a house ‘for the name of the LORD my God’ and not a place where God’s presence is limited to. God’s freedom will continue to expand beyond the temple. God will deign to show God’s presence in this place, but God will not be limited to only being present in this place among the people.

In the construction of a place of worship the expectation is that people will contribute their best to the endeavor. This was the practice in the construction of the tabernacle and Moses was reported to have more than enough for the project by a freewill offering (Exodus 35). Now the temple is the first public project of the Solomon regime, and it is done by the mechanism of taxation and forced labor. The temple may be a great public good, but the question of cost is subtly raised here in the text along with the broader question of what type of nation Israel is becoming. The negotiations between King Hiram and King Solomon may be necessary to secure the materials and good relations to ensure peace during the construction of the temple. Yet, the project comes with an extremely high price tag.

King Hiram of Tyre provided lumber and people skilled in construction when David established his household in Jerusalem after he conquered it. There is no indication of the cost David paid the King of Tyre for these resources and craftsmen, but this trade agreement marks the entry of Israel onto a much broader stage. Now in negotiations with the new king, Hiram continues to provide lumber and craftsmen in exchange for the agricultural produce of the land. In addition to supplying the needs of the household of Solomon, now the land must support the burden of the household of King Hiram of Tyre. Choon-Leong Seow names this section “Shady Deals and Oppressive Policies” (NIB III: 56) and it is likely that the deal cut between Solomon and this Phoenician king well versed in international trade is more favorable to the King of Tyre than the people of Israel. Looking closely at the amount of wheat and oil given it quickly becomes apparent that the numbers here are large. Roughly twice the amount of grain collected for Solomon’s household is given annually to the King of Tyre, and if you follow the Hebrew (unlike the NRSV which follows the Greek Septuagint in its translation) the 2,000 cors (almost 7,000 gallons) of oil is a wealth of agricultural resources traded for the cedar. The cedars of Lebanon are often associated with affluence and their use by the people of Israel comes at a high annual price tag. It is possible that Israel enjoyed many years of great harvests that may have made the construction projects bearable but knowing the stresses on the population by the end of Solomon’s reign we can see the beginning of the internal strain within the nation.

In addition to the cost in agricultural production is the cost in conscripted forced labor. As mentioned earlier, the people of Israel were the forced labor for construction in Egypt and this new project which in the text mobilizes over one hundred eighty thousand men for log cutting and transport, stone cutting and transport, and construction is another strain on the population. It is possible that Judah is excluded from this conscription (NIB III: 58) like it is possible they were excluded from the provision for Solomon’s household in the previous chapter, but this is assuming a differentiation between Israel and Judah. It also is a return to the ways of Egypt where the king enslaves the people and wealth of the nation is owned by the ruler.

The construction of the temple will be a focal point for the reign of Solomon and for the worship of the southern kingdom of Judah after his death. The temple of Solomon will stand as a central fixture of Jerusalem for centuries and will be a symbol of the faith of the people. Yet, the process of construction sounds some ominous notes as it becomes a public work that is done by the taxation and forced labor of the people. The suspicious part of my mind wonders if this is like the public work projects throughout the former Warsaw Pact countries where beautiful train stations, government buildings, and public spaces were constructed while the majority of the population lived in deprivation. Solomon’s early reign is rapidly changing the city of Jerusalem and the manner in which the population of the nation is governed. This place created for the name of God will be a source of public focus for many generations, but we are primed to wonder about the cost that this great building will exact not only on the wealth of the people but also on their identity.

1 Kings 4 A Prosperous Beginning of Solomon’s Reign

Edward Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Shebe to King Solomon (1890)

1 Kings 4: 1-19 The Administration of Solomon

1 King Solomon was king over all Israel, 2 and these were his high officials: Azariah son of Zadok was the priest; 3 Elihoreph and Ahijah sons of Shisha were secretaries; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; 4 Benaiah son of Jehoiada was in command of the army; Zadok and Abiathar were priests; 5 Azariah son of Nathan was over the officials; Zabud son of Nathan was priest and king’s friend; 6 Ahishar was in charge of the palace; and Adoniram son of Abda was in charge of the forced labor.

7 Solomon had twelve officials over all Israel, who provided food for the king and his household; each one had to make provision for one month in the year. 8 These were their names: Ben-hur, in the hill country of Ephraim; 9 Ben-deker, in Makaz, Shaalbim, Beth-shemesh, and Elon-beth-hanan; 10 Ben-hesed, in Arubboth (to him belonged Socoh and all the land of Hepher); 11 Ben-abinadab, in all Naphath-dor (he had Taphath, Solomon’s daughter, as his wife); 12 Baana son of Ahilud, in Taanach, Megiddo, and all Beth-shean, which is beside Zarethan below Jezreel, and from Beth-shean to Abel-meholah, as far as the other side of Jokmeam; 13 Ben-geber, in Ramoth-gilead (he had the villages of Jair son of Manasseh, which are in Gilead, and he had the region of Argob, which is in Bashan, sixty great cities with walls and bronze bars); 14 Ahinadab son of Iddo, in Mahanaim; 15 Ahimaaz, in Naphtali (he had taken Basemath, Solomon’s daughter, as his wife); 16 Baana son of Hushai, in Asher and Bealoth; 17 Jehoshaphat son of Paruah, in Issachar; 18 Shimei son of Ela, in Benjamin; 19 Geber son of Uri, in the land of Gilead, the country of King Sihon of the Amorites and of King Og of Bashan. And there was one official in the land of Judah.

The reign of Solomon and the beginning of his administration of the people and resources of Israel is the culmination of two generations of rapid change. Prior to the anointing of King Saul, Israel was a collection of tribal and familial allegiances governing towns and small territories. The tribes of Israel would occasionally work together, but there was probably very little formal authority beyond the family and tribal roles. Under Saul and David, the tribes were united for military purposes and both these kings were primarily warrior leaders, but under Solomon we see a consolidation of power and the beginning of a bureaucratic administration and the infrastructure for a system of taxation for the people.  The organization of the country under Solomon would have been a dramatic change from what the people had known previously. In Walter Brueggemann’s assessment, “The regime must have been enormously successful and deeply impressive to Israelites who were only two generations removed from hill-country subsistence.” (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 57)

Any honest evaluation of the administration of Solomon brings in both the perspective of 1 Kings (and the Deuteronomic history in general) and the perspective the author commenting upon it. We have already seen hints that 1 Kings’ evaluation of Solomon may not be entirely positive, although this chapter is primarily cast in a positive light. Through much of history the view of Solomon’s reign was viewed as a model for a wise monarch, but more recent scholarship tends to have an anti-monarchical or anti-imperial attitude. As an author I stand between both the standard and more modern scholastic view. The bureaucratic ordering of a modern society which can leverage the combined resources of a nation can be a source of great good and stability, and I tend to have a more positive view of government and authority than many other people my age or younger. Yet, a bureaucracy which enables the acquisition of material goods by those in power while neglecting the broader good of the society and world can cause great harm. The evaluation of the efficacy of Solomon’s administration will need to be viewed within the context of the actions of his reign as it is reported by 1 Kings rather than by a simple evaluation of its structure. Nevertheless, a close reading of the structure may give us some clues to examine when placed within the broader reporting of Solomon’s reign.

A sensible place to begin would be to compare Solomon’s administration to his father David’s. David’s officers are listed in both 2 Samuel 8: 16-18, and with some small changes in 2 Samuel 20: 23-26. One significant difference is due to the character of Solomon’s reign in comparison with David. David was a king governing a nation continually engaged in conflict and the position of the military leaders take first precedence in the lists of David’s administrators, while they come later in Solomon’s peaceful reign. Many of the administrators are either sons of people from David’s regime or members of David’s regime. Zadok, Nathan, and Benaiah are rewarded for their loyalty with either positions for themselves or for their sons (or both). Solomon’s regime also has more people filling the role of secretaries or recorders and it is likely this reflects a government where written records and accounting are used to facilitate the administration of the territory. Zabud son of Nathan is listed as both priest and king’s friend. Zabud may have been a trusted advisor to the king, but an accurate description of his position is impossible based on the lack of additional information of Zabud in the narrative. There is a strong priestly presence in Solomon’s administration, and this may be critical in the construction of the temple and in an idealized king the presence of the priests would help the king adhere to the law of God. Finally in the initial list is the presence of Adoniram who is in charge of forced labor. King David had an official over forced labor in 2 Samuel 20, and the use of forced labor will factor in the construction of the temple and the house of King Solomon. However, the people of Israel were forced to participate in forced labor in Egypt and this may point to an ominous return to the ways of Egypt. The organization of Solomon’s high officials doubtless reflects the courts of the other nations around Israel, and while it may be wise to examine the workings of other governments this also would need to be examined under the covenant relationship of the law of God. How these priests and officers execute the administration of Israel will ultimately determine whether they model the kingdom after God’s vision or whether they imitate Egypt and the neighboring kingdoms.

Solomon’s officials over the land of Israel responsible for gathering the resources for the centralized government replaces the tribal systems of administration. It is possible that the redistricting beyond the tribal boundaries enabled a fairer collection of resources based upon population and it also collects from areas beyond the traditional borders of Israel. Yet, it may also be a significant move away from the traditional power structure of tribes, clans, and families. It is unclear whether the administrators are from Solomon’s tribe of Judah (as some commentaries believe) or whether Solomon uses local leaders to administer the provinces. The alliance by marriage of two of the twelve administrators is not surprising since this was a way of ensuring economic cooperation in the ancient world. However, it is worth noting that, in contrast to the NRSV’s translation, there is no provision for the tribe of Judah in the Hebrew, and some believe that Judah may have been exempted from the requirements of taxation that the rest of the kingdom bore. By the end of Solomon’s reign, the areas outside of Judah will view the burden of supporting the projects of Solomon and his administration as a heavy burden which leads to the eventual breaking of the kingdom under his son. Yet, the initial report of the administration of Solomon related in the second half of the chapter is predominantly positive.

1 Kings 4: 20-28

20 Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy. 21 Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt; they brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.

22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of choice flour, and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, one hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl. 24 For he had dominion over all the region west of the Euphrates from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings west of the Euphrates; and he had peace on all sides. 25 During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees. 26 Solomon also had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen. 27 Those officials supplied provisions for King Solomon and for all who came to King Solomon’s table, each one in his month; they let nothing be lacking. 28 They also brought to the required place barley and straw for the horses and swift steeds, each according to his charge.

The initial reports in 1 Kings of Solomon’s reign are idyllic. The population reflects the fulfillment of the  promise of God to Abraham about his descendants (Genesis 15:3). After generations during the time of Judges where the population decreased due to conflicts with neighboring kingdoms, the people of Israel seem to be flourishing in this peaceful and well administered time. The wealth of the surrounding nations is now flowing into Israel instead of being extracted by raids or given in tribute to surrounding nations.

Yet, within this prosperity creeps the initial warning of the danger of this affluence. The provision of Solomon’s administration is a phenomenal amount of grain and meat, but even more sinister is the accumulation of military power reflected in the building of a large chariot force. As Deuteronomy states, “16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.”  (Deuteronomy 17: 16). The immense resources poured into the acquisition, feeding, and housing forty-thousands horses and twelve thousand chariot drivers may make sense from a military perspective, but the law wants Israel to understand their reliance upon God rather than their military might. This becomes another indication that Israel, under Solomon, may be pursuing a path that will make them an imitator of Egypt rather than God’s desire.  Granted that the descriptions of the wealth and power of Israel under Solomon may be hyperbole, yet the concentration of the resources of the nation to provide for Solomon will prove to be a drain in the future.

1 Kings 4: 29-34

29 God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone else, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, children of Mahol; his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations. 32 He composed three thousand proverbs, and his songs numbered a thousand and five. 33 He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.

Solomon is portrayed as a renaissance man, studying broadly and surpassing the wisdom of the wise men of his time. He is compared to both Egypt, as a center of learning, and the east and becomes famous internationally for his speaking on the natural world. Writing songs, having wise sayings and reflecting upon the world all are viewed as integral parts to the gift of wisdom Solomon has to share with the world. Solomon would be attributed as the author of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs due to this view of his wisdom which excelled all the renowned wise men of his days. Yet, the coming chapters will move away from this renaissance man approach to wisdom and focus the wisdom of Solomon on urban matters of construction, imperial matters of administration, and ultimately on the acquisition of greater wealth and power for the kingdom. Solomon idyllic start and gifted knowledge will now enter into the temptations of the wealth and power that are present as he administers this kingdom at the height of its prosperity and influence.

1 Kings 3 The Wisdom of Solomon

Luca Giordano, Dream of Solomon, (1694-1695)

1 Kings 3: 1-2 A Powerful But Troubling Alliance

1 Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David, until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem. 2 The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the LORD.

The marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt is viewed very differently based upon the perspective one uses. In the world of power politics this is an audacious beginning to the reign of Solomon. The Pharoahs of Egypt very rarely made alliances by marrying off their daughters, they often viewed other kings as unworthy of such a prize. Solomon’s alliance with Egypt would have been an alliance with the most powerful empire of the day and have instantly made Solomon’s kingdom more secure from a political/military perspective. Yet, it is interesting that the acknowledgment of Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharoah is narrated before the granting of wisdom to Solomon. From a worldly or historical perspective this is an act of great political shrewdness, but the book of Kings is not primarily written from this perspective and kings will not be valued for their political or military prowess but by their faithfulness to their calling under the law.

The picture of Solomon is more complicated than the wise king who has great wealth and whose reign is one of peace and prosperity when presented in 1 Kings. The marriage of Solomon to the daughter of Pharoah at the beginning of his reign is mirrored by the evaluation of the ending of his reign when “King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh…and his wives turned away his heart.”  As mentioned earlier, this book of 1st Kings is a part of a collection of works in the bible often called the Deuteronomic history by scholars since it evaluates things through a theological lens similar to the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy has specific guidance for what a king of Israel is to be:

16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” 17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. 18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests. 19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, 20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. Deuteronomy 17: 16-20

Deuteronomy envisions the king being a model of a different way than Egypt. They are not to return to Egypt for military might, to acquire many wives for themselves, or great wealth. In many ways Solomon is the opposite of the ideal king when his overall reign is evaluated. This small note before the upcoming scenes strikes an ominous note for a reader used to hearing the perspective of the law as reflected in Deuteronomy.

1 Kings 3: 3-15 A Dream and a Desire for Wisdom

3 Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. 4 The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. 5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14 If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.

Solomon travels to Gibeon to offer sacrifices. As mentioned in the previous verse, this is a time before the temple is built and the worship of the LORD becomes centered in Jerusalem and Solomon’s travel to this place of offering would be viewed as an act of devotion. Solomon here is viewed positively as one who loves the LORD.[1] Many scholars also believe that this act is to seek a visionary experience, entreating the God of Israel for guidance or inducing a prophetic experience. Dreams were viewed as a place where God would communicate with God’s chosen one, but also could be viewed by some prophets as something less than a direct revelation of God. Regardless, the dream of Solomon where the LORD appears to the new king is viewed in a positive manner as is Solomon’s request for an understanding mind[2] to govern the people. Many have followed the words of the text to understand Solomon as a young boy, but this is probably not the case. Solomon’s reference to himself as a little child probably refers to his inexperience as a leader of the people.

Solomon’s choice of an understanding mind rather than revenge for enemies, long life or wealth is, in the view of 1 Kings, the wise and faithful one and Solomon will be remembered as a king who possessed wisdom. several psalms, much of the book of Proverbs as well as Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes will be attributed to him. It is unlikely that Solomon is the author of Song of Song and Ecclesiastes. Yet God grants in the narrative grants Solomon unconditional wealth and honor and conditional long life if Solomon remains faithful in addition to wisdom. The question that the narrative will have to examine is how Solomon uses this wisdom and how it benefits the people. It is also important to evaluate Solomon’s use of wisdom both in the world’s judgment but also in the judgment of the law of God. If Solomon uses this wisdom for the acquisition of wealth, power, and political standing it may be viewed positively by the world, but it may not fit the vision of God for what Solomon’s reign is hoped to be.

1 Kings 3: 16-28 A Strange Case for the King

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.

This well know story of Solomon and the two prostitutes has a folksy feel to it. Many commentators believe this is a story of wisdom that becomes a part of the Solomon story to demonstrate Solomon’s wisdom, but it is a strange story for several reasons. The first thing to notice about this story is the complaint of two prostitutes merits the time and judgment of the king of Israel. There is no moral judgment placed upon these two women for their vocation, or the reality that the fathers are not engaged in the life of their sons. The assumption is that prostitution is a normal part of the life of the people and that there is nothing unusual about these two women living in a household and making a living in this manner. What the story finds unique is the lack of other witnesses to demonstrate who the true mother of the living child is.

Solomon’s judgment to threaten the life of the child to discern who the true mother is may be emotionally effective in this case since one woman would rather give up her child than see him killed, but the story depends upon the lack of empathy of the other woman. What would have happened if both women wanted to give away the child. As Brueggemann can state, “This is a strange wisdom that governs by violence.” Many commentators from the Rabbis to modern evaluators have been suspicious of the wisdom of this threat attributed to Solomon. Perhaps there are other paths a judge may have taken, examining the household or the dead baby for example, but we still need to remember that the case of two prostitutes is brought before the king of Israel. Solomon judges who the mother is by their emotional attachment to the child and the story never tells us if this is the true birth mother. We, and Solomon, make this assumption and the bonds of compassion may be stronger than the bond of blood at times.

The point of this narrative is that Solomon has a heart that listens and that in the absence of other evidence he hears the actions of the heart towards the threatened child. Israel, in 1 Kings, views the judgment as fair and wise as Solomon was able to discern a solution where others perhaps had not. We can debate the ethics of threatening a child’s life to see the mother’s reaction, but this is a story from a different world with different ethics. In that world, Solomon demonstrates God’s wisdom to execute justice.

[1][1] ‘Love’ in the scriptures does not refer to the idea of romantic attachment but sole and obedient loyalty. (Brueggemann, 2000, p. 46)

[2] Literally “a heart that listens”. In Hebrew physiology the heart is the organ of comprehension so the translation of a listening heart as an understanding mind makes sense when you understand how they would place wisdom in the body. (Cogan, 2001, p. 187)