1 Kings 3:16-28 – The Two Mothers and Solomon’s Wise Decision


1 Kings 3:16-28


Solomon demonstrates his divinely given wisdom by ruling wisely in a court case between two mothers.


Since this story appears in various forms throughout the ancient Near East, we should not look for historical clues, as if there were any to be found in this tale devoid of details. Rather, it serves to demonstrate that all Israel acknowledged God’s gift of wisdom to Solomon. It is beautifully told, with dialogue carrying the story. The reader is drawn into the two prostitutes’ dispute over the child. One readily imagines Solomon observing the back and forth nature of their disagreement much as one would watch a tennis match. There is no evidence; only “she said…she said” reports. In ancient times, prostitutes were seen as notoriously untrustworthy in speech. By ordering that the child be sliced in two, the king proposes a brilliant stratagem designed to reveal which of the two claimants was the true mother of the child. His judgment cuts through the prostitute stereotype and reveals the true mother. This, in turn, reveals Solomon’s justice and, more important, God’s gift of wisdom in action.

Much of the impact of this story is lost in the NRSV’s ostensibly “helpful” translation of the climactic verse 27. In Hebrew, the text reads “Give to her the living boy.” The NRSV solves the ambiguity of which woman is referenced, reading, “Give the first woman the living boy.” But removing the ambiguity of the “her,” that is, the one who spoke the poignant words of verse 26a, “Please, my lord, give her the living boy,” also removes the decision the reader must make as to which claimant is the real mother of the boy.