GOVERNEMNT 25 - Solomon's Judgment

Solomon's wisdom in judgment
1 Kin 3:16-28 describes the famous story of a court case brought to Solomon and his godly wisdom in judging it. It is the story of two prostitutes who both have newborn sons. The child of one mother dies and both claim the the living child is theirs.
Context of the story

The passage of the judgment between the two women appears right after the famous dream of Solomon at Gibeon, where he requests of God “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kin 3:9). The story of the women is meant to be an illustration of exactly that godly wisdom Solomon had, a great example among many other cases and judgments.
Solomon’s attitude in the dream, and probably afterwards in reflecting on it is one of humility, responsibility and dependence of God. It also shows that he and the author of the book of Kings clearly understand just judgment to be the primary function of the government, as also exposed in Exo 18 and Deu 1.
Maybe an appeal was made and this case was referred up to Solomon as the highest court from the local court because the judges didn’t know how to deal with it (system of appeal, see Exo 18:22, Deu 1:17).
It can be assumed that there were many more stories like this told among the people, illustrating Solomon’s wisdom in judgment. But this story – because of the lack of witnesses and lack of ability to ascertain facts – must have been considered the crowning piece.

The case                                                                    1 Kin 3:16-22

“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.”

It is what we would in modern language call a ‘child custody case’, who will have the authority and responsibility to look after the living child?
The case is straight forward: There are no witnesses other than the two mothers. And both mothers have a clear stake in the outcome, so are biased witnesses.
There is no forensic evidence: Today this case would be solved by a gene test, ascertaining who the biological mother is. But at that time this was not an option. Also the very small difference in age, one son being born three days after the other (1 Kin 3:18), is not enough evidence to decide beyond doubt which child is older. Similarity of features also is not enough evidence to decide beyond doubt which child is whose.
The fact that the first woman (1 Kin 3:16) who takes this to court also doesn’t help, she is the one that ended up with the dead child at her side, so unless she “does something about it”, she will be childless.
There are no husbands or fathers involved, neither as witnesses nor as claimants of child custody, presumably because both women are prostitutes (1 Kin 3:16).

Solomon’s judgment                                                1 Kin 3:23-27

“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 kin – because compassion for her son burned within her – “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “Is 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.”

Solomon shortly describes the absence of evidence and the mutually exclusive claims of the only witnesses in the case (1 Kin 3:23). He stresses the symmetry of their words.
He then devises a way to gather more evidence: the motivation of the two women and the deeper attitude both have toward the child and toward each other. He sets them up by pretending to go ahead with a very crude but evidently fair sort of arrangement: Split the child in half. The fairness is in that both get the same. The provocation is that both get nothing, really, for now both children are dead.
So Solomon really tests for the women’s compassion for the child over against “claiming their right”.
He ascertains which woman has the best interest of the child in mind, and that is how he decides a child custody case.
Is Solomon totally sure that the compassionate woman is the mother? He seems to say so: “Give the first woman the living boy … she is the mother.” But maybe he isn’t sure on a biological level, but he is sure on a functional level: He has chosen the woman with the child’s best interest at heart and it is reasonable to call her “mother” for that is the functions she performs: protecting the child’s life and sacrificing her own interest to the highest of the child.

Some other things to consider

Besides the obvious it is good to not overlook a few things:
Solomon, by properly and professionally attending to this case shows that all human beings are entitled

  • to receive just judgment
  • to proper procedure and
  • to being treated with dignity in court.

They have the same rights under the law, whether they are moral or immoral (the women) or whether they are born in or out of wedlock (the child). Distinction made or disdain shown based on moral conduct or on circumstances of birth are not acceptable.
Both women value having a son, nurse their son and go to great lengths not to lose a son (one: exchanging the child at night, the other: taking this to court). They are no monsters, but normal humans and mothers.
Even though both women are prostitutes, Solomon does not deny them custody over their child on that basis. A mother, even if a prostitute, is in average and over all the best guardian of a child. A father equally so, but there are no men in the picture in this case.
We would argue that these women are prostitutes, that the house they both live in is basically a brothel and that no child should grow up in such circumstances. We would probably argue that the government should step in, withdraw child custody from both, and either put the child in an orphanage or better: find a Christian family to adopt him.
Solomon doesn’t do any of that, and he is the example upheld for godly wisdom! “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.”
He upholds the right of the parent as the primary authority and caretaker of a child. Though this doesn’t always go well, to authorize the government (or another institution) to step in too easily and take children out of families causes overall and in average more problems for children.
Family is God’s first choice of authority over children. When and under what conditions another institution has to step in, is difficult to decide and administer.

Case of a handover of parental authority to the government                      > see FAM 08

Deu 21:18-21                 A difficult passage about when parents authority breaks down

Some scriptures affirming parental authority                                                 > see FAM 07

Deu 5:16, Ex 20:12        Honor your father and mother
Deu 27:16                       Cursed is who dishonors father and mother
Lev 20:9                          Death penalty on cursing parents
Eph 6:1-4, Col 3:20-21  Children: obey parents. Fathers: don’t provoke children
Luk 11:13                       Affirmation of parents knowing to give good gifts to children
Luk 7:2-10                      Being under authority is essential to having authority
Luk 2:51                         Jesus accepts authority of his parents (though puts limits later)


Some scriptures limiting parental authority                                                    > see FAM 07

Deu 13:6-11                         Higher loyalty to God than to family, resist family if need be
Deu 5:17                               Parents have no right over the life of children
Deu 18:10, Lev 18:21          Parents have no right to sacrifice children or use them in religious practices
Deu 23:17-18                       Parents have no right to sell children into prostitution
Lev 18:6-23                          Parents have no right to the sexuality of their child
Deu 13:6-11, Mt 10:37        Do not love parents or children more than God
Mt 10:34-36, Lk 12:49-53  Jesus brings division in families, persecution can happen
Gen 2:24                               When marrying the immediate family needs to get priority over the old one or over extended family