1 Kings 3:16–28 recounts that two mothers living in the same house, each the mother of an infant son, came to Solomon. One of the babies had died, and each claimed the remaining boy as her own. Calling for a sword, Solomon declared his judgment: the baby would be cut in two, each woman to receive half. One mother thought the ruling fair, but the other begged Solomon, "Give the baby to her, just don't kill him!" The king declared the second woman the true mother, as a mother would even give up her baby if that was necessary to save its life.
This judgment became known throughout all of Israel and was considered an example of profound wisdom.
The story is commonly viewed in scholarship as an instance or a reworking of a folktale. Its folkloristic nature is apparent, among other things, in the dominance of direct speech which moves the plot on and contributes to the characterization. The story is classified as Aarne-Thompson tale type 926, and many parallel stories have been found in world folklore. In Uther's edition of the Aarne-Thompson index, this tale type is classified as a novella, and belongs to a subgroup designated: "Clever Acts and Words". Eli Yassif defines the novella as "a realistic story whose time and place are determined [...] The novella emphasizes such human traits as cleverness, eroticism, loyalty, and wiliness, that drive the plot forward more than any other element".
Hugo Gressmann has found 22 similar stories in world folklore and literature, especially in India and the far east. One Indian version is a Jataka story dealing with Buddha in one of his previous incarnations as the sage Mahosadha, who arbitrates between a mother and a Yakshini who is in the shape of a woman, who kidnapped the mother's baby and claimed he was hers. The sage announced a tug war: He drew a line on the ground and asked the two to stand on opposite sides of the line, one holding his feet and the other his hands – The one who would pull the baby's whole body beyond the line would get him. The mother, seeing how the baby suffers, released him and let the Yakshini take him, weeping. When the sage saw that, he turned the baby back to the hands of the true mother, exposed the identity of the Yakshini and expelled her. In other Indian versions the two women are widows of one husband. Another version appears in the Chinese drama The Chalk Circle (in this version the judge draws a circle on the ground), which has been widespread all over the world and many versions and reworkings were made after it, among them The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play by Bertolt Brecht.
The common motif in those different parallels is that the wise judge announces an absurd procedure, which is reasonable in some perverse way: Splitting the baby, according to the principle of compromise; Or a tug war, in which one can possibly assume that the true mother will be motivated to pull harder. But this procedure is actually a concealed emotional test, designed to force each woman to decide whether her compassion to the baby overpowers her will to win.
There is indirect evidence that the story was widespread in ancient times in the western world too. A Greek papyrus fragment, dating from the beginning of the second century AD, includes a fragmented reference to an ancient legal case which is similar to the judgment of Solomon. The writer ascribes the story to Phliliskos of Miletos, living in the fourth century BC. Also, A fresco has been found in the "House of the Physician" in Pompeii, which depicts pygmies introducing a scene similar to the biblical story. It must predate the destruction of Pompeii at 79 AD. Some think that the fresco relates directly to the biblical story, while according to others it represents a parallel tradition.
Several suggestions for the genre of the biblical story have been raised, beyond its characterization as a folktale of a known type. Edward Lipinski suggests that the story is an example of "king's bench tales", a subgenre of the wisdom literature to which he finds parallels in Sumerian literature.
Scholars have pointed out that the story resembles the modern detective story genre. Both king Solomon and the reader are confronted with some kind of a juridical-detective riddle. Meir Sternberg notes that two genres merge in the story: A riddle and a test; The juridical dilemma, which is the riddle, also constitutes a test for the young king: If he will solve it he will be acknowledged to possess divine wisdom. Stuart Lasine classifies the story as a law-court riddle.
According to Raymond Westbrook, the story is essentially a hypothetical problem, introduced to the recipient as a pure intellectual challenge and not as a concrete juridical case. In such problems, any unnecessary detail is usually omitted, and this is the reason why the characters in the story have no distinctive characteristics. Also, the description of the case eliminates the possibility to obtain circumstantial evidence, thereby forcing the recipient to confront the dilemma directly and not seek for indirect ways to solve it.
Some scholars think that the original folk story underwent significant literary reworking so that in its biblical crystallization it can no longer be defined as a folktale. Jacob Liver notes the absence of any "local coloring" in the story, and concludes that the story is "not an actual folk tale but a scholarly reworking of a folk tale (apparently from a non-Israelite source) which in some way reached the court circles of Jerusalem in the times of Solomon". Similarly, Jeev Weisman characterizes it as "a wisdom anecdote which originated in the court circles".
The source of the folktale is uncertain. Some speculate an Indian origin, while others think that the Indian parallels stem from the biblical story. It is true that all of the parallels, among them the Indian ones, have been recorded in later periods than the biblical story, nevertheless, they might still reflect earlier traditions. Hermann Gunkel rules out the possibility that such a sophisticated motif had developed independently in different places. Some scholars are in the opinion that the source of the story is untraceable.
In the biblical version, the two women are identified as prostitutes, as opposed to some Indian versions in which they are widows of one husband. Some scholars have inferred from this difference as to the origin of the story. Gressmann makes a comparison between the Hebrew story and one of the Indian parallels and arrives at the conclusion that the Indian story is more original. He argues that in the Hebrew story the reason for the exchanging of the boys is unmotivated, while in the Indian story this is comprehensible, taking into account the Indian law which states that a childless widow does not take part in the husband inheritance. Gressmann speculates that the story had arrived to ancient Israel with the mediation of the kingdom of Sheba, which according to the Book of Kings was in contact with Israel in the time of Solomon. A similar opinion is held by Gunkel, who points out that the designation of the women as prostitutes in the biblical story decreases the story's coherence, because it is difficult to understand why a prostitute, who can barely raise her own son, would want to steal another woman's baby. On the other hand, the behavior of the women in the Indian story seems well motivated, as stated above. The Hebrew story thus seems inferior compared to the Indian one, and Gunkel concludes that it is secondary and stems from the Indian story. On the other hand, Lasine thinks that on the contrary, the Hebrew story is better motivated that the Indian one, for it is the only one in which the motivation for the behavior of both women is rooted in typical motherly feelings: Compassion for the true mother and jealousy for the impostor. Other scholars point out that such a travelling folktale might become, in its various forms, more or less coherent; The assertion that one version is more coherent than the other does not compel the conclusion that the first is more original.
The story is considered to be literary unified, without significant editorial intervention. The ending of the story, noting the wisdom of Solomon, is considered to be a Deuteronomistic addition to the text.
Many scholars consider the story an originally independent unit, integrated into its present context by an editor. Solomon's name is not mentioned in the story, and he is simply called "the king". Considered out of context, the story leaves the king anonymous just like the other characters. Some scholars think that the original tale was not necessarily about Solomon, and perhaps dealt with a typical unnamed king. A different opinion is held by Yassif, who thinks that the author of the Book of Kings did not attribute the story to Solomon on his own behalf, but the attribution to Solomon had already developed in preliterary tradition.
Scholars point out that the story is linked to the preceding account of Solomon's dream in Gibeon, by the common pattern of prophetic dream and its subsequent fulfillment. Some think this proximity of the stories results from the work of a redactor. On the other hand, according to Saul Zalewski, the two accounts are inseparable and form a literary unified unit.
In its broader context, the Judgment of Solomon forms part of the account of Solomon's reign, generally conceived as a distinct segment in the Book of Kings, compassing chapters 3–11 in 1 Kings; Some include in it also chapters 1–2, while others think that these chapters originally ended the account of David's reign in 2 Samuel. According to Liver, the source for the Judgment of Solomon story, as well as other parts of the account of Solomon's reign, is in the speculated book of the Acts of Solomon, which he proposes to be a wisdom work which originated in the court circles shortly after the split of the united monarchy.
The story may be divided to two parts similar in length, matching the trial's sequence. In the first part (verses 16–22) the case is described: The two women introduce their arguments, and at this point, no response from the king is recorded. In the second part (23–28) the decision is described: the king is the major speaker and the one who directs the plot. Apart from this clear twofold division, suggestions have been raised as to the plot structure and the literary structure of the story and its internal relations.
As stated before, most of the story is reported by direct speech of the women and Solomon, with a few sentences and utterance verbs by the narrator. The dialogues move the plot forward. The women's contradictory testimonies create the initial conflict necessary to build up the dramatic tension. The king's request to bring him a sword enhances the tension, as the reader wonders why it is needed. The story comes to its climax with the shocking royal order to cut the boy, which for a moment casts doubt on the king's judgment. But what seems to be the verdict turns out to be a clever trick which achieves its goal, and results in the recognition of the true mother and the resolution.
The major overt purpose of the account of Solomon's reign, to which the Judgment of Solomon belongs as stated above, is to glorify King Solomon, and his wisdom is one of the account's dominant themes. The exceptions are: The first two chapters (1 Kings 1–2), which according to many scholars portray a dubious image of Solomon, and as stated above, are sometimes ascribed to a separate work; And the last chapter in the account (11), which describes Solomon's sins in his old age. Nevertheless, many scholars point out to elements in the account that criticize Solomon, anticipating his downfall in chapter 11.
In its immediate context, the story follows the account of Solomon's dream at Gibeon, in which he was promised by God to be given unprecedented wisdom. Most scholars read the story at face value, and conclude that its major purpose is to demonstrate the fulfillment of the divine promise and to illustrate Solomon's wisdom expressed in a juridical form. Yet some scholars recognize in this story too, as in other parts of the account of Solomon's reign, ironic elements which are not consistent with the story's overt purpose to glorify Solomon.
Some scholars assume, as mentioned, that the story had existed independently before it was integrated into its current context. Willem Beuken think that the original tale was not about the king's wisdom - The concluding note about Solomon's wisdom is considered secondary - but about a woman who, by listening to her motherly instinct, helped the king to break through the legal impasse. Beuken notes additional biblical stories which share the motif of the woman who influenced the king: Bathsheba, the woman of Tekoa, and Solomon's foreign wives who seduced him into idolatry. Beuken concludes that the true mother exemplifies the biblical character type of the wise woman. He proposes an analysis of the literary structure of the story, according to which the section that notes the compassion of the true mother (verse 26b) constitutes one of the two climaxes of the story, along with the section that announces Solomon's divine wisdom (verse 28b). According to this analysis, the story in its current context gives equal weight to the compassion of the true mother and to the godly wisdom that guided Solomon in the trial.
According to Marvin Sweeney, in its original context, as part of the Deuteronomistic history, the story exalted Solomon as a wise ruler and presented him as a model to Hezekiah. Later, the narrative context of the story has undergone another Deuteronomistic redaction that has undermined Solomon's figure in comparison to Josiah. In its current context, the story implicitly criticizes Solomon for violating the biblical law that set the priests and Levites on top of the judicial hierarchy (Deuteronomy 17:8–13).
Several stories in the Hebrew Bible bear similarity to the Judgment of Solomon, and scholars think they allude to it.
The most similar story is that of the two cannibal mothers in 2 Kings 6:24–33, which forms part of the Elisha cycle. The background is a famine in Samaria, caused by a siege on the city. As the king passes through the city, a woman calls him and asks him to decide in a quarrel between her and another woman: The two women had agreed to cook and eat the son of one woman, and on the other day to do the same with the son of the other woman; but after they ate the first woman's son, the other woman hid her own son. The king, shocked from the description of the case, tore up his royal cloth and revealed that he was wearing sackcloth beneath it. He blamed Elisha for the circumstances and went on to chase him.
There are some striking similarities between this story and the Judgment of Solomon. Both deal with nameless women who gave birth to a son. One of the son dies, and a quarrel erupts as to the fate of the other one. The case is brought before the king to decide. According to Lasine, the comparison between the stories emphasize the absurdity of the situation in the story of the cannibal mothers: While in the Judgment of Solomon, the king depend on his knowledge of maternal nature to decide the case, the story of the cannibal women describe a "topsy-turvy" world in which maternal nature does not work as expected, thus leaving the king helpless.
Like many other women in the Hebrew Bible, the two women in this story are anonymous. Perhaps their names have not been mentioned so that they would not overshadow Solomon's wisdom, which is the main theme of the story. The women seem to be poor. They live alone in a shared residence, without servants. As prostitutes, they lack male patronage and have to take care of themselves in a patriarchal society.
The women's designation as prostitutes is necessary as background to the plot: It clarifies why the women live alone, gave birth alone and were alone during the alleged switch of the babies; The lack of witnesses seems to create a legal impasse that only the wise king can solve. It also clarifies why the women are not represented by their husbands, as is customary in biblical society. Solomon is depicted as a king accessible to all of his subjects, even those in the margins of society. The women's designation as prostitutes links the story to the common biblical theme of God as the protector of the weak, "A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows" (Psalms 68:5). Prostitutes in biblical society are considered functional widows, for they have no male patron to represent them in court, and their sons are considered fatherless. They also bear similarity to the proselyte, who is sometimes mentioned in the Hebrew Bible with the widow and the fatherless, in that they are socially marginalized and deprived of the right to advocacy. They can only seek justice from one place: God, embodied in the story as the source of Solomon's wisdom.
The women are not explicitly condemned for their occupation, and some think that the narrator does not intend to discredit them for being prostitutes, and their conduct should be judged against universal human standards. On the other hand, Phyllis Bird thinks that the story presupposes the stereotypical biblical image of the prostitute as a selfish liar. The true mother is revealed when her motherly essence - which is also stereotypical - surpasses her selfish essence. Athalya Brenner notes that both women's maternal instinct is intact: For the true mother it is manifested, as mentioned, in the compassion and devotion that she shows for her son; And for the impostor it is manifested in her desire for a son, which makes her steal the other mother's son when her own son dies. According to Brenner, one of the lessons of the story is that "true maternal feelings [...] may exist even in the bosom of the lowliest woman".
The women are designated in the Hebrew text as "zonot", which is the plural form of the adjective "zona", prostitute. However, some propose a different meaning for this word in the context of the story, such as "tavern owner" or "innkeeper". These proposals are usually dismissed as apologetic. Jerome T. Walsh combines the two meanings, and suggests that in ancient Near East, some prostitutes also provided lodging services (cf. the story of Rahab).
As mentioned before, many scholars have compared the story to the modern genre of detective story. A striking feature in the biblical story, untypical to its parallels, is that it does not begin with a credible report of the omniscient narrator about the events that took place before the trial; It immediately opens with the women's testimonies. Thus, the reader is unable to determine whether the account given by the plaintiff is true or false, and he confronts, along with Solomon, a juridical-detective riddle. According to Sternberg, the basic convention shared by the Judgment of Solomon and the detective story genre is the "fair-play rule", which states that both the reader and the detective figure are exposed to the same relevant data.
Lasine, dealing with the story from a sociological perspective, points out that like the detective story, the Judgment of Solomon story deals with human "epistemological anxiety" deriving from the fact that man, as opposed to God, is generally unable to know what is in the mind of other men. The detective story, as well as this biblical story, provides a comfort to this anxiety with the figure of the detective, or Solomon in this case: A master of human nature, a man who can see into the depths of one's soul and extract the truth from within it. This capability is conceived as a superhuman quality, inasmuch as Solomon's wisdom in judgment is described as a gift from God. There is an ambiguity concerning the question whether such a capability may serve as a model for others, or it is unavailable to ordinary men.
By the end of the story, Solomon reveals the identity of the true mother. But according to the Hebrew text, while the king solves the riddle, the reader is not exposed to the solution; Literally translated from the Hebrew text, Solomon command reads: "Give her the living child...". One cannot infer from this wording whether the word "her" refers to the plaintiff or to the defendant, as the narrator remains silent on the matter.
According to the Midrash, the two women were mother- and daughter-in-laws, both of whom had borne sons and whose husbands had died. The lying daughter-in-law was obligated by the laws of Yibbum to marry her brother-in-law unless released from the arrangement through a formal ceremony. As her brother-in-law was the living child, she was required to marry him when he came of age or wait the same amount of time to be released and remarry. When Solomon suggested splitting the infant in half, the lying woman, wishing to escape the constraints of Yibbum in the eyes of God, agreed. Thus was Solomon able to know who the real mother was.
If the above-mentioned Pompean fresco indeed depicts the Judgment of Solomon, it is the first known painting of a biblical story (presently moved to the Museo Nazionale in Naples).
This theme has long been a popular subject for artists and is often chosen for the decoration of courthouses. In the Netherlands, many 17th century courthouses (Vierschaar rooms) contain a painting or relief of this scene. Elsewhere in Europe, celebrated examples include:Fresco by Raphael
The Judgement of Solomon by William Blake
Etching by Gustave Doré
Woodcut by the school of Michael Wolgemut in the Nuremberg Chronicle
Paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Poussin and Franz Caucig
Relief sculpture on the Doge's Palace in Venice by an unknown artist (near the exit into St. Mark's Square)
Stained glass window by Jean Chastellain in St-Gervais-et-St-Protais church of Paris
The scene has been the subject of television episodes of Dinosaurs, Recess, The Simpsons (where a pie was substituted for the baby), the Netflix animated series, All Hail King Julien, where a pineapple is cut in two to settle a dispute, the Seinfeld episode The Seven, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It has influenced other artistic disciplines, e.g. Bertolt Brecht's play The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Ronnie snatching Kat's baby in EastEnders.
The HIM song "Shatter Me With Hope" includes the line "We'll tear this baby apart, wise like Solomon".
A surgical technique that involves dividing the placenta with a laser as a treatment for Twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome is named 'Solomon technique'.
The expressions "splitting the baby" or "cutting the baby in half" are sometimes used in the legal profession for a form of simple compromise: solutions which "split the difference" in terms of damage awards or other remedies (e.g. a judge dividing fault between the two parties in a comparative negligence case).