Lifting the folk tale feel from Solomon’s chopping the child in two

Recently the Bible study I’m teaching moved through the story of Solomon’s wisdom, which is told in 1 Kings 3. Solomon asks for wisdom from God–wisdom to rule God’s people, Israel–rather than riches or honor, and God is pleased to lavish wisdom, riches and honor upon him. To provide evidence of this gift of wisdom, the text turns to the famous dispute between two women who each claim to be the mother of a single baby (the other baby having died during the night and, one woman claiming the other switched the children).

Teaching this story in a Bible study was a bit new for me. I review it every year in American literature, because Mark Twain includes it in a scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–Jim tries to explain to Huck that Solomon is a fool for trying to resolve a conflict about a whole child with half a child, and Huck insists that Jim gets the story all wrong. When I teach the story in class, I have two basic aims. One is to clear up confusion, because many students have never read the Bible and have no clue what Jim is referring to. Combined with Jim’s challenging dialect, some students can’t make heads or tails of it (Jim says “chile” for child, and one young lady couldn’t understand what the big deal was about chopping a chili in two.) The second aim is to understand the set up for what is coming. In that particular chapter, I am convinced Twain is setting up his readers. He gets readers laughing at Jim’s simplicity and lack of understanding, and then he switches the ground beneath them. When Jim continues not to understand how a Frenchman and an Englishman can speak different languages, and Huck continues to flail at making Jim comprehend, readers are liable to miss how Jim–the slave so often treated as something less than human–grasps how a man is a man is a man, be it a Frenchman or an Englishman or, by extension, a black man.

the story of sollermun

So my purpose with Solomon and the women’s dispute in class is to clarify background. It makes no difference to that lesson whether students believe the Bible to be true or a simple collection of great stories.

But that context has lent me an interesting perspective. I can see through Jim’s sense of the story, and my students’, the folk-taleness of it. Jim’s contention (“de man dat think he kin settle a ’spute ’bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain”) is an interesting challenge to the story. If I view the story as a folk tale, Jim’s challenge casts it as silliness. Two women come to the King to resolve their dispute, and he simply threatens to chop the child in half so that one woman falls apart in tears and says the other woman can have him. Her reaction is the proof Solomon was after, but the folk tale sense of the story leaves one wondering why that worked so well. It feels convenient, like a blind old witch thinking a chicken bone was a young boy’s finger, so the boy wasn’t ready to be eaten. Really? Did anyone really think Solomon was going to chop a child in half? This slightly echoes Jim’s sense–was he really going to solve a problem about a whole child with half a child?

So while my experience with the story in class has helped me to see how people might commonly view the story, looking at the story in the context of a Bible study has then helped me see how the telling of the story outside the context of its time and place removes the reader from a sense of that world.

In the context of 1 Kings, I am reminded that this world Solomon and the two women inhabit is a cold world. It is not a fairy tale land of anyplace and anywhere. This is a place where enemies raid the land and steal the crops people grew to live on, where such raiders kill men and women and steal their daughters for brides or slaves. Where a king kills his brothers to secure the throne. Where this particular king, Solomon, has just ordered the death of the strongest soldier in all Israel, Joab son of Zeruiah, for wrongs done to his father; he’s also just executed his own brother, Adonijah, because he had maneuvered to usurp the throne.

Further, as these two women approached this King, they would have been aware of their social standing. They were prostitutes. They had no protector, no advocate. They lived on the fringes of society, engaging in activity no one talked about, even when they knew about it. And when they argued before the King and the King saw he had no witnesses or corroborating evidence to help him make a judgment on the case, it would make sense that he would find the entire situation exasperating, a waste of his time. He has better things to be doing, more important matters to care for, than to resolve the dispute of two prostitutes who can’t seem to keep their own children alive.

To offer to chop the child in two, then, is not to resolve the conflict of a whole child with a half a child. And neither is it a silly folk-tale solution, like a wolf dressed up in a grandmother’s clothing somehow deceiving a little girl. From the women’s perspective, Solomon’s suggestion that he chop the child in two is to reject their dispute entirely. It’s to penalize them for wasting a king’s time. It is to say something eerily similar to what a parent says when two children are arguing over a toy: “Fine. Neither of you get it.”

And in the world of these two women, such a solution was, unfortunately, completely believable.

Which is of course why Solomon’s trick worked and which reveals why Israel was moved to fear when they heard what he did. Here was a sovereign king who, when presented with case between two ‘nobodies’ where no evidence existed, did not cast them from his presence but devised a way to produce evidence, enabling him to resolve the dispute with compassion and justice.

The story of Solomon and the two women is famous, but when I remember it alone, apart from the world in which it happened, I miss something crucial. I miss that edge that is its reality. And in missing that edge, I miss why the story is rightly famous. Solomon was wise to judge his nation rightly. And he was also surprisingly compassionate.

No wonder the people of Israel were convinced his wisdom was from God.