Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week’s Torah portion is Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 3:15-4:1.
Solomon, the young new king of Israel, has a dream just before this week’s haftarah reading. God offers him not three wishes, but one wish:
At Gibeon God appeared to Solomon in a dream in the night, and God said: “Ask, what shall I give you?” (1 Kings 3:5)
Solomon, being already somewhat wise, does not ask for wealth. long life, or the defeat of his enemies (as God notices with approval). After mentioning his own inexperience as a leader, the new king says:
May You give Your servant an understanding mind to judge Your people, lehavin between good and bad. For who is able to judge this impressive multitude of Your people? (1 Kings 3:9)
lehavin (לְהָבִין) = to be able to discern, to gain insight. (From the same root as binah, בִּינָה = insight.)
God responds: Hey! I have done as you spoke. Hey! I gave you a mind [which is] wise and navon… (1 Kings 3:12)
navon (נָווֹן) = perceptive, discerning. (Also from the same root as binah.)
In the Garden of Eden, God tells Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad. (See my post Giving Directions.) The primeval humans eat the fruit anyway, giving humankind knowledge that some actions are good and some are bad. In the dream at Gibeon, God grants Solomon’s wish for the ability to discern which actions and motivations are good and which are bad.
The young king wakes up from his dream and returns to Jerusalem at the opening of this week’s haftarah. He makes sacrifices at the altar and holds a banquet.
It was then that two prostitute women came to the king and stood before him. (1 Kings 3:16)
Solomon wanted understanding and binah in order to be a good judge for the whole multitude of Israel. His first case is a dispute between two of its most despised members: prostitutes. Normally a local elder would judge this case; a king would only serve as a court of appeals or as the judge for affairs of state. Either the two prostitutes have already gone to a local judge, who was unable to decide on a ruling, or they simply barge in on the new king’s party and he decides to hear them out instead of throwing them out.
The two prostitutes are never named in this story. I will quote only their dialogue as they present their case, identifying each speaker as Woman #1 or Woman #2.
Woman #1: Please, my lord, I and this woman [#2] are living in one house, and I gave birth with her in the house. And it happened that on the third day after my giving birth, this woman [#2] also gave birth. And we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house except me. The two of us were in the house. (1 Kings 3:17-3:18)
So far, Woman #1 has explained that there were no witnesses to the event she is about to describe. But a discerning listener—and Solomon is now discerning—would notice that unlike other Israelite women, the two prostitutes do not live with any family members. They live alone in a shared house. Clients (including the unknown fathers of their infants) may come and go, but they have only one another for companionship and help.
Woman #1: Then the son of this woman [#2] died at night, when she lay down on him. And she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your servant [#1] slept. And she [#2] laid him in her bosom. And her son, the dead one, she laid in my bosom. When I got up in the morning to nurse my son, hey! He was dead! Va-etbonein him in the morning, and hey! He was not my son to whom I had given birth! (1 Kings 3:19-21)
va-etbonein (וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן) = and I looked closely at, and I paid attention to, and I was perceptive about. (From the root binah, like the words lehavin and navon in Solomon’s dream.)
Woman #2: No, for my son is the living one and your son is the dead one! Yet this one [#1] is saying: “No, for your son is the dead one and my son is the living one.” (1 Kings 3:22)
While Woman #1 tells a complete story, Woman #2 merely contradicts her on the key question: Who is the mother of the living infant? Like Woman #1, she refers to her housemate and companion only as “this one” or “this woman”. The trauma of the dead baby has alienated the two women; they are no longer friends. Now they are desperate competitors for the living baby (and eventually, if all goes well, a grown son to support them in old age).
King Solomon summarizes the dispute, then calls for his sword. His servants bring it between the king and the two women. This dramatic visual aid makes his words more believable when he says:
Cut the living boy in two, and give half to one and half to the other. (1 Kings 3:24-25)
In a fairy tale, that is what the evil monster would say, prompting the two women to unite against him. But this is a wisdom tale about an insightful judge.
The Bible does not dictate what a judge should do if two people claim ownership of the same object, and there are no witnesses or other evidence. But the Mishnah (written around 200 C.E.) in the Talmud discusses the problem using the example of a valuable garment two people are holding onto as they speak to a judge:
One of them says “I found it’ and the other says “I found it’. One of them says “it is all mine’ and the other says “It is all mine”. Then one shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and the other shall swear that his share in it is not less than half, and it shall then be divided between them. (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metzia 2a, Soncino translation)
The Mishnah it is a record of “oral law”, i.e. previously unwritten legal precedents thought to date back to the time of Moses. So the above rule may have been in use since the books of Kings were written in 6th century B.C.E., about seven centuries before the Mishnah was written.
The haftarah does not say whether both women are holding onto the baby while they stand before the king. Nevertheless, the precedent of the ruling about the disputed garment would give King Solomon an excuse for uttering the same ruling about a disputed baby .
Both women believe he means it, and are shocked into revealing more about themselves.
And the woman whose son was living said to the king—because her compassion was stirred up over her son—she said: “Please, my lord, give the living boy to her, or you will certainly kill him!” But the other one was saying: “Let him be neither mine nor hers. Cut him!” (1 Kings 3:26)
Which woman begs the king to give the living baby to her adversary—Woman #1 or Woman #2? Which woman is so fixated on winning the dispute over ownership that she no longer cares about the child? The text is not clear, though perhaps the first woman to present her case (Woman #1) is also the first woman to speak after Solomon’s shocking order.
And the king responded, and he said: “Give her the living boy, and certainly do not kill him. She is his mother! And all Israel heard the judgment that the king had judged, and they were in awe in face of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was within him to do justice. (1 Kings 3:27-28)
The bottom line is that only a woman who wants a baby to live is fit to be its mother. Anyone who would rather let a child die than lose a dispute is an unfit parent, even if she reacts that way only in a moment of temporary insanity. King Solomon proves that he can go beyond legal considerations and rule according to his God-given binah between good and bad.
I believe the compassionate mother is Woman #1, the one who told a coherent story about what happened. She is the one who said “va-etbonein him in the morning”: she paid attention to the infant, looking at him with discernment. She implied that if she had recognized the dead baby as her own, she would have accepted her loss; she knows that infants are not interchangeable.
Woman #2 speaks only to insist that she owns the living baby, without offering any explanation. I can imagine her making the midnight substitution in order to get the advantage for herself, without even considering whether her action is ethical. When Woman #1 demands her own child back, Woman #2 is reduced to saying: No, it’s mine!
If Woman #2 is also the woman who says “Cut him!” she lacks not only compassion, but also the ability to discern between good and bad.
Nobody is good all of the time. Waking up next to a dead baby might fill any woman with grief and horror. With no one to comfort her, and breasts full of milk, Woman #2 might have switched the babies in the middle of the night without thinking it through. But when Woman #1 discovered the substitution in the morning, a woman with a heart would have apologized and handed over the living baby. Who knows, perhaps then the two lonely prostitutes could have made peace and raised the boy together.
When one of the two women insisted on lying, peace and friendship became impossible. The innocent woman could not bear, and would not dare, to continue living in the same house with a predatory liar. Yet she has no family or friends to help her get away and protect her and her son. She goes all the way to the king, who turns out to have the binah to see the truth.
Unfortunately, compassion and truth do not always triumph in our world. Those who have little power can still be victimized by people who cannot discern what is good and what is bad—people who are impaired either by their genes or their upbringing, and do not understand the moral imperative of being human.
I pray that every powerless victim may either escape or find a wise judge. And I pray that everyone who is called upon to judge may be granted binah—and compassion.