Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Legitimate Biblical Question # 1

Well, at least I think it's legitimate. It's a question I have of a Biblical story that I just find hard to buy, at least in what it purports to illustrate. This is the story, from I Kings Chapter 3:

16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house. 19 And this woman's son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king. 23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And 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 do justice.

This is a familiar story to most of us -- the two prostitiutes claiming the one baby before King Solomon -- and the gist of it is to explain the wisdom of Solomon. But I have a problem with the logic. While I agree that Solomon uses some common sense in the story, only a fool would have judged other than he did. And I can think of several other ways to obtain the same information than calling for a sword to cut the infant in half. I guess what I'm saying is: why is this a story to portray Solomon's wisdom? Essentially, it says more about one of the prostitutes being totally insane, sociopathic, and/or psychopathic than it does about wisdom. For all Israel to hear of this story and stand in awe... that's just hard for me to believe.

I just don't hear all the people in the Israeli barber shops, nail parlors, and over the water coolers saying, "Well, you just can't get anything past Solomon, that wise old dog. Ever since he had that dream, the guy's been nails. You heard how he got one over on that harlot, didn't you? Best take a lesson." I mean, the fact that two harlots arguing over a baby made it to the king before being settled by some appointed arbitrator of such trifles (in a relative sense) seems to display sort of a lack of wisdom, doesn't it?

Am I missing something? Am I supposed to be ferreting out the character of God here from something that seems like a basic moral choice that most men would come to (Jew or Gentile, believer or non-believer).

Now, if four ancient countries were approaching war over complex and long-standing issues that had plagued the people in the Middle East for a long period, and Solomon came up with a solution that made everyone happy and averted war... now something like that I could see all of Israel standing in awe of his decision-making and the wisdom of God being in him. Or even if he had to sort out a fight between about twenty-five of his seven hundred wives, well, you might have to have some wisdom for that. But as much as I was taught the wisdom of Solomon from this particular story as a kid, I've never gotten it. What am I missing? Would it be sacrilegious and un-Realm-like to suggest that this was maybe a Jewish folktale that got written into I Kings?

This is just one of those Old Testament stories that has always vexed me. One of you folks with more Biblical insight than me - please help. That would include just about anyone who comments: Codepoke? Ken? B? Doug? Scot? Wanda? Brett? Belinda? Harry? Jon? Jeff? Bueller? Bueller?


P&S said...

If the kids were born to prostitutes, doesn't that make this an "illegitimate" biblical question?

Seriously, I think the fact that this is one of the stories in the Bible that teachers, preachers, and the like have beat to death over the years makes it seem anecdotal. But to me this story is certainly no stranger than many of the actual cases trumpeted daily on daytime talk and night-time news shows.

The difference truly is the wisdom of the arbiter. Nowadays these same bizarre cases are heard in front of dancing Wapner knock-offs and the Florida Sup. Ct. follies.

codepoke said...

Cool question. No answers jump out at me, though.

It has always seemed a little underwhelming to me too, but I never gave it enough thought.


DugALug said...


I'm with Ken on this one.

Well said Ken!


DugALug said...

Oh, one more thing...

The wisdom in this account (not story) is not even in what Solomon did. It resides in the idea that God knows the heart of men (or women in this case). God enlightened Solomon to expose the wickedness of one of these two woman through a simple statement. It was not Solomon's wisdom but God's.

This is no different then when Jesus asked for a Roman coin in the middle of the temple grounds. If you know Jewish customs, no foriegn currency was allowed in this area (hence the money-changers at the gate). When a pharasie provided the coin, Jesus exposed their hypocrisy (sp?) in the most subtle way.

So Rich, I would say, as with many scholars and Sunday School teachers, concerning this scripture, you are missing the real point.


Rich said...


Well, I certainly don't want to and don't think I am questioning God's wisdom. Many other stories and writings in the Bible -- in fact the whole of the Bible itself -- have shown me that God knows the heart of man. HOWEVER...

When I was young, my brother and I would fight over a ball one of us had found. "It's mine!" cried I. "Not so," my brother argued. "It's mine!" So my parents took the ball away so neither of us could have it until one of us told the truth. Other kids saw such fights.

According to this story, the rest of the neighborhood should have been astounded by my parents' wisdom. "Whoa! Did you hear what Ma and Pa Pearce did? Can you believe that? They took away the ball! Have you ever heard of such a thing? Why didn't I think of that for my kids? Wow. I should have had a V-8!"

Of course that's not what happens because it's just a simple common sense thing that people know.

Furthermore, as Ken points out, here in the old US of A (and I'll readily admit we don't do everything right here but I think we do get this one right) we have little municipal courts or Punch and Judge Judy types that monitor these types of decisions. Can you imagine this going to the Office of the President? The whole nation would be saying, "We have war in Iraq, a national debt we'll probably never repay, we were bombed on 9-11 and are still hunting Bin Laden, an election coming up, nuclear arms in North Korea and Iran, but hey, I'm sure glad Bush broke up that fight between the two call girls."

On the other hand, I get the wisdom in your example with Jesus. The Pharisees and Saducees, pressure groups of the time, had concluded Jesus wasn't on their agenda - but he had gained a following and the words he was spreading ran totally subversive to their own plans. Almost every time they saw him, they were out to get him in one way or another. Jesus using a turn of the phrase or a simple illustration to show them their folly, hey, I'll buy that as wisdom every time.

I don't see the same thing in the Solomon account. I suppose I'm just a point-misser.

DugALug said...


Solomon's wisdom was in exposing the two women's true heart. Not in what he said. What the Jews marvelled in was that he would propose such a ridiculous solution to resolve their dispute and expose their true intents. I believe that Solomon had no intentions of harming the child in any way. But he knew, through God's wisdom that this would bring out the true scoundrel.

Incedently none of this would work today. Oprah and Jimmy Carter would have to come in and 'protect' the rights of the woman who lost her child. The press would have a field day with Solomon's comments and would fillet him like a nice piece of salmon for them. Today, rulers just can't arbitrarily decide to kill someone without some public backlash. As King, Solomon could pretty much do what he wanted.

Welcome to the 21st century.


Rich said...

I get what your saying, Doug. I guess what I'm saying is that I wouldn't have marveled -- and never have at the wisdom in this story. I agree - Solomon would never have hurt the child.

But I also think what I wrote about the main thing this story shows is that one of the prostitutes was a lunatic rings true for me. Yes, it was a ridiculous solution. The fact that one of them fell for it speaks to idiocy of that person, not wisdom from the king. Maybe I've been bombarded with too much film noir. Seems to me, though, any scoundrel worth her/his salt would have pretended to act just as Prostitute # 1 did, taking Solomon to Step # 2, whatever that would have been.

And none of this answers for me what the King of Israel was doing settling a dispute between two prostitutes. I understand that the king has absolute power over everything in the land, but Solomon, for crying out loud, get an advisor or two.

DugALug said...


Under the old law handed down from Moses, the head (which was Moses)was the supreme court and final say-so in all disputes. Moses ended up getting the help of Aaron to aid in these matters, but on some of the harder decisions, the Bible says that they still came to Moses.

This was one of the reasons for the writings in Leviticus. Possibly this did come to lower advisors and they decided that there was no reasonable solution to the problem.

Solomon's authority mandated that he resolve this, but God's wisdom was evident in his clever solution.

Matters of the heart are rarely practical, or sensible. When it comes to grieving, some people strike out to hurt others as they have been hurt. I think this is what Solomon recognized and this is why Solomon's out-of-the box resolution pointed out what was really important to both of them. Such an odd case would have made a great Doprah show.

As an asside, this also warns us to being careful about the roommates that we pick.


Rich said...


Upon Jethro's advice (see Exodus 18), Moses was teachable enough to delegate responsibility.

Jethro told him, "The thing you do is not good."

Not because Moses was unfit, didn't care, thought he should have had a better job, or that the people wanted somebody else -- it was just a job that was too big for Moses. The people came and brought their disputes before him and stood in line from morning until night waiting for answers and then came back the next day.

So Moses, listening to some good advice, picked out some wise leaders and put them in charge of thousands, hundreds, and tens.

To me, the dispute Solomon settled would never have gotten above the leaders of the tens.

(And I think eventually we're probably going to have to agree to disagree, as I don't find that the solution was that clever. Only common-sensical. But don't worry because I admit I'm not very wise. You have the upper ground, Obi Wan. Try not to cut off my legs and leave me drowning in lava, will ya?)

DugALug said...


Me thinks you profess your lack of wisdom too loudly. Thanks for putting up with my miscellenous ramblings. I just love talking about this stuff. Keep up the interesting assides.

Your Friend

P&S said...

Guys, my point centered around an idea similar to one made by N.T. Wright in a book a friend loaned me.

Some of the lack of marvelling on your part is I believe due to the fact that you are so familiar with not only the story itself, but many other instances where the story is invoked as being applicable to a situation. It has become passe'. Like the story of the "Boy who cried wolf" or some of Aesop's fables.

But to the non-jaded non-twenty-first century mind, it was probably cutting edge. No one marvels at the light bulb anymore either, but when Edison was toiling to make it work, it was still pretty remarkable.

We can still learn from this story of Solomon, the fables, and even the light bulb today, but the impact just isn't the same unless you can put yourself in the mind of the people living in the time in which it was spoken.

And at the same time, this account is an accurate description of their reaction, not a call for us to feel the same way.

Rich said...


Thanks for chiming in once more. As with Doug, I hear what you're saying -- very clever to insert N.T. Wright into the conversation as well -- and... I still can't buy it.

I realize Solomon was only Israel's third king, but Israel had been through Moses' leadership and learned, Joshua's, the Judges, and now three kings. They had to be farther along than bringing two prostitutes in front of the king for a problem no one else could solve.

Let me ask it this way: if this was a story that was in some other book besides the Bible (let's say it was aprophyrcal called, hmm, "The Wisdom Solomon Received from God") would you still feel the same way?

Because, I could still get the major meaning of OT stories like Cain and Abel, the Plagues of Egypt, David and Goliath, etc, if they were in other books. In this particular story, I don't really get it. I mean, I get that it says Solomon was wise and everyone oooohed and aaaahed, but I don't see if for myself. I see common sense, not wisdom -- and yes, sometimes they can be the same thing, but the first doesn't necessarily prove the latter, and for me, that's the case here.

But I feel like I'm sounding hard-headed (or worse, hard-hearted on the issue), so maybe I'll drop it. (Which also means maybe I won't :)

Rich said...

Boy, did I botch the word "Apochyphal."

Sorry 'bout that.

Rich said...

Oops, had done it again. This time, I'm not even gonna try.

DugALug said...


I can't let this lay. People have this idea that God works in grand ways. I tend to believe that God is the master of the practical and elegant.

It comes down to what is laid out in Exodus and Leviticus: what we loosely refer to as the law. Was the law made to separate jews from goias? I don't think so. I don't believe that the law is a set of rules that should be used to grovel before God either.

The law was created to tell mankind how to peacefully coexist with each other. It taught us how to treat neighbors, settle disputes, even how to eat heathily. This law wasn't a burden, it was a labor of love, showing people how to live better. At the end of the day, the law was far more practical than revolutionary. It was actually quite brilliant in its simplicity.

God's wisdom doesn't 'wow' you? Good! Maybe that's not the intent. It comes down to cause and effect. Did his words expose the liar?! Once again, brilliant in its simplicity.

Using a modern example: It is similar to Eric Clapton: not at all my favorite. He is always slow in his delivery, yet he is flawless. He never seems to be in a rush, yet he is always at the right note at the right time. Clapton doesn't wow with his finger speed, he wows on his elegance.


Scot said...

Maybe you just have never experienced raging hormonal Jewish women fighting over a baby after each woke up with a dead baby in their arms. The fact that he could hear himself think and get a word in edgewise oohs and ahhs me.

Rich said...

I guess the problem with what you're saying for me is that God's wisdom does wow me.

I see it in the Cross. I see it in the small towns Jesus frequented, the purpose in where He traveled. I see it in the parables. I see it in the Virgin Birth. I see it in Creation. I see it in the Acts of the Apostles. I see it in the way the Church functions (when it functions correctly). I see it in Job's story. I see it in Jonah's. I see it with Moses. What's more, I see it in Proverbs and Ecclesiates, both of which Solomon is said to have written at least parts of. Even when it's subtle, it can floor me when I really think about it.

Where I don't see it is in this story - well, I mean I see a little common sense one might stretch into calling it wisdom but nothing in which I can say, "WOW!" and that's what the Israeli people said after Solomon's decision. If it's not meant to wow me, then why did it wow them? Ken brings up a point worth fighting for in that maybe I'm seeing it filtered from centuries of hearing it and from a 20th/21st century Western mindframe, but like I stated, I don't think the case can be rested on that evidence.

And for the record I believe God works in grand ways. Scripture shows that. He also works in practical ways. And subtle ways. And painful ways. And eloquent ways. And in more ways I can name. He's God, and me saying He's great doesn't begin to describe Him. We really can't, which I guess is why He told Moses to tell the Israelites the "I AM" sent him.

I'm just wondering about a story that doesn't seem to do His wisdom justice. It's there in the Bible, so I know there's a reason. You see it. I don't. Or can't.

Think it's scales?

Rich said...


You came in between my response to Douggie. That was funny. Good job.

P&S said...

I realize Solomon was only Israel's third king, but Israel had been through Moses' leadership and learned, Joshua's, the Judges, and now three kings. They had to be farther along than bringing two prostitutes in front of the king for a problem no one else could solve.

But they weren't.

This isn't a story that somebody made up to expound on a truism or a parable that God told someone to write down. I Kings (and most of the Bible) is a narrative account of actual events as they happened.

Solomon was a real man, the prostitutes were real women, the baby was a real needs-its-diaper-changed baby, and the reaction of Israel was a real reaction by real people as well. And the task of wondering why they "stood in awe" isn't left to us to speculate on. The writer tells us.
"...because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.

Maybe I'm the one missing the point of your angst about this, but let me use an example:

If your story of you and your brother fighting over a ball and your parents reaction is true, I can learn something from it. Maybe even apply something to my own parenting. But I don't have to question whether your actions, your brother's or your parents' actions seemed legitimate based on my own life experience or worldview or the rest of your lives leading up to that moment. It really happened, it was what it was. You can turn to a date on the calendar at a time on the clock, and there it was. And I must take it at face value.

Continuing my example, if the story about the ball was patently false or just indicative of something that could have happened, but didn't really, then you've constructed a false premise for no other reason than to make a point. And now I must compare your story to my own experience or empirical evidence, or I lose interest, because the story is no longer meaningful or useful to me. It is just an hypothesis to argue.

It seems to me that you find yourself stuck in this second case with I Kings 3, and after comparison with other data or what seems likely, you are found wanting.

I think this is why we're missing each other. For I'm firmly planted in the camp of "it really happened". And the reaction of the reader is really irrelevant. There is no causal effect.

It is for this same reason that I think Christ called us to be witnesses and to testify. We are to share with others the real, true, actual encounters and experiences we had with God in our own lives. Things we saw, touched, heard, smelt, felt... just like an eyewitness in a trial. How can anyone bring this into question if they are honest, especially if we remain above reproach?

Our job as writers seems inestimably more difficult, because we have to create a fiction (either events, characters, or both) that is ultimately plausible and rings true with the readers. In this case, their reaction is everything. And if the story doesn't pass the sniff test, the it must change until it does.

If I've still missed it, sorry. I don't think I have any other words or explanation. But perhaps, something I've said will be edifying to someone.

Rich said...

Bottom line: I think the story is true (but rather wish it was some kind of allegory/fable), but I find it EXTREMELY wanting (or else why post on it and call it a legitimate question?). Of wisdom. Because that's what it purports to illustrate, and I don't find it. Once again, like I said to Doug. You do. And that's fine. Go and prosper, Kenneth.

And the task of wondering why they "stood in awe" isn't left to us to speculate on. The writer tells us.
"...because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.

It absolutely is left for us to speculate on because it's been written precisely as a narrative and because we were made in the image of God as living, thinking people. We're supposed to take this book and make sense of it, especially in light of Christ.

When we're perplexed about something in God's Word, just taking it at face value isn't good enough. Believing that it's true, which I do, doesn't make it easier to accept any of the actions. It only makes me question them more, and ask myself, isn't there something else here? There has to be.

The Bible isn't a history book (although it contains a good deal of history within, which you alluded to). It's God's Word, and I want to seek Him here. I'm looking.

So to your point, it's not that we're missing each other on whether it really happened. It's that you think that the story is irrelevant to the reader, and I think the story is relevant to the reader. And then, yes, I think we have a TOTALLY different view on reading the Bible. Because I think the whole Bible is relevant to the reader. It's just like any other book in that way.

I think I'm going to leave this lie. I'm not angst-ridden over this at all. I have spent zero nights of my life in insomnia over this story. But I have questions on it. I think it's okay to ask them. Sooner or later, I'm betting I get an answer that makes it work.

DugALug said...


I see your point but I still think the 'wow' is in the elegance. Simplicity is under appreciated in today's culture.


Rich said...

Thanks for seeing my point, Doug. I'm glad someone did.

I agree, simplicity is under-valued here in the 21st century.

codepoke said...

22 comments later, and I am still scratching my head with Rich.

I asked the same question in the quiet of my own head, but never had the nerve to voice it. So, I looked it up in some commentaries. A lot of this just a rehash, but I think they caught the key point.

They believe that the case only made it to Solomon after going through the lower courts. The case was unresolvable, because there was no evidence, and there could not be any. It came down to the testimony of a liar and an honest woman, but nobody knew which was which. There were not even husbands or strangers to add their thoughts to the discussion.

Anyway, this kind of case was a huge measure of wisdom in these cultures. The man who could pierce through the clouds of deceit was greatly feared. Solomon not only pierced the clouds, but he came up with a clever way to make the guilty woman expose herself - uh, her poor case.

All stuff I didn't know. Great legitimate bible question.

Rich said...

Well, I will say it helps that it actually went through lower courts. That actually brings a smile. Maybe I should read a commentary or two, so long as I'm chastising Solomon to get an advisor or two.

That somebody else along the way in those courts couldn't come up with a way to "pierce the clouds of deceit" when the one woman was so easily deceived by Solomon (I mean, doesn't the story just beg the question of why the one woman, especially if she had fooled people along the way, all of a sudden become idiotic in front of Solomon?) -- well, to combine that with Ken telling me that the fact was that she did become idiotic in front of Solomon and the people oohed and aahed because of the wisdom displayed -- basically leads me to believe that we're all descended from lizards and cave men, and that's about where we were when this story took place.

Oooookay, no it doesn't. Sorry, little harsh (and probably a little stupid of me to say, but if you didn't know by now, I'm not above that). It still leaves me with some questions is what I meant to say. Sort of.

DugALug said...

Hey Rich!

Just because God, himself is brilliant, it doesn't mean his people are.

This parable is from the same group of folks who took 40 years to make a 2-Week journey. (I know God was making a point, but boy-o-boy!)

Judge Wopner... the defense rests.