The intercessory theme of the Books of Samuel carries over into I Kings in a surprising place: Solomon and the harlot’s infant.
The famous tale of Solomon determining the identity of the baby’s true mother occurs immediately after his dream encounter with God in I Kings 3. In the dream, reminiscent of Abraham’s dusky covenant encounter with God in Genesis 15, Solomon prays for the divine wisdom necessary to govern the people–and serve as covenant mediator–just as God would. His actions with the two harlots are meant to demonstrate the God-like wisdom he has acquired.
The standard explanation of his plan is, I think, known to all. Solomon puts on a show that he intends to kill the child. The true mother reveals herself by her willingness to give up the child in order that the child might live. Once Solomon sees this, he knows to award the child to her and to send the other harlot away empty.
I’ve always found this explanation to be a little too simple. There’s something dissatisfying about the other harlot’s response; her willingness to have the child split in half just doesn’t ring with verisimilitude. Interpretations have to do weird gymnastics to explain the resignation of the other harlot so that it is clear that she gets something out of the deal. This has led me to ponder often the possibility that this is merely meant as a parable, a signature story to underline the divine gift Solomon has just received. But I don’t like giving up on the literal/historical sense too quickly and it’s not so obvious to me that this is “divine” wisdom. Seems more like clever parenting, right?
It seems to me there is a way to save the story so that it is either historically accurate or at least narratively reasonable. We too easily take for granted, I think, the benevolence of Solomon in this scene. If we lived 3000 years ago, or perhaps just in a different culture today, we may well be shocked by the true mother’s action.
She doesn’t just resign herself to the loss of her son. She defies the order of the king.
The King of Israel just took time out of his God-wise duties ruling a budding empire to settle this dispute in a court of law. It’s not Mom trying to figure out who broke the cookie jar or who “really” owns the Pikachu doll. The death of the child is an accomplished act of judicial finding by the supreme legislator of the land. To defy his decree is to court death of the swiftest kind. What is there between me and thee, woman?
Sure, the true mother is willing to see the child live with another so long as it lives. But more dramatically, she’s willing to die to bring that about. That takes this short little story to a new level beyond the typical Sunday school stuff. It also helps explain the resignation of the second harlot. She’s cowed by that very fear of death. Sure, she wants the kid…but not that much. Not enough to die for. Greater love hath no woman than this…
This interpretation also re-raises my hobby horse from the Books of Samuel: intercession. Now the mother fits perfectly with the great intercessory tales of the last two books. She’s not alone, either: Bathsheba has just finished playing this role two chapters previously to make sure that Solomon is not killed by his older half-brother Adonijah. Like another mother, Abigail, these women come between the beloved and the destroyer, take the curse of death upon themselves, and as a result dissolve it. For this priesthood, there is neither male nor female.
But wait, there’s more! Solomon is no mere presiding figurehead in this story. His older brother died in infancy through the actions of the king because there was no one to intercede for him. Did we forget? That’s the first son that Bathsheba bore David, the one who inspired David to his many acts of escalating wickedness. After David’s repentance, that child bore the curse of death still lingering over the house of David.
Solomon’s brother once lay on a table of judgment, but his slow-hearted father failed to see the power of intercession. Rather than take the curse of death upon himself—who else was supposed to do so?!—David allowed his son to die. David learned his lesson years later and by it saved Israel…which people his younger son by Bathsheba now rules with wisdom, with justice, and with mercy.
What did Solomon, Jedidiah, consolation to his parents after the death of his brother, ponder in his heart with his divine wisdom as he brought this sad tale to its redemptive conclusion?
Read more Old Testament.