Melakhim Alef Chapter 3
King Shelomo weds the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt, seemingly in order to establish diplomatic relations with the “superpower” of the region. All of our rabbis and commentators assume that the kings of Israel who married non-Jewish women were careful to convert them to Judaism first, even if these conversions were conducted under less than ideal circumstances.
The text informs us that there was still no national Temple constructed in the early days of Shelomo’s kingdom, so various local altars continued operating legally (only after the building of the Temple in Jerusalem did such unauthorized places of worship become forbidden). We will see later in the Book of Melakhim that there is a connection between Shelomo’s nuptials and the delayed establishment of the Holy Temple; this link is alluded to in our chapter but not yet explained.
Shelomo visits Giveon to worship Hashem with one thousand sacrifices. That night, Hashem appears to Shelomo in a dream and offers to grant him anything that he wishes for the further advancement of his regime. Shelomo responds that he is young and inexperienced and feels inadequate to the task of leading and judging the nation of Israel. He therefore asks for the wisdom necessary to guide them properly.
Hashem answers that since Shelomo did not seek the material benefits of kingship like wealth or honor, but instead desired knowledge and understanding to serve the people, he would receive both the wisdom he requested and the riches and fame that he declined to request. However, Hashem warns Shelomo, all of these promises are contingent on Shelomo’s continued observance of the laws and statutes of the Torah. The next morning, Shelomo wakes up, returns to Jerusalem and offers additional burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Ark of the Covenant, organizing a celebratory feast for all of his officers and servants.
The text then describes what is probably the best-known Biblical narrative about Shelomo. Two harlots who had lived together in the same house approached the king for judgment. Both had given birth to babies just a few days apart. One of the infants had died and the women disputed whose child it was. The mother who discovered the dead baby in her bed alleges that it was not her son; she claims that the other woman switched the children when she discovered that her own infant had passed away. The women argue their respective cases before Shelomo.
Unable to resolve the dispute, Shelomo requests that a sword be brought to the court and that the living baby be sliced in half so that it can be divided between the two claimants. One of the women is satisfied with this arrangement; however, the other woman protests, begging the king to simply give the baby to the other woman so it will survive. The king correctly rules that she is the true mother, and her child is returned to her. At this point, the entire nation reveres King Shelomo, recognizing the divine wisdom he possesses and his extraordinary ability to judge his people.
One of the fascinating questions raised about the famous case of the two harlots is what it was about his ruling that demonstrated that Shelomo was so wise. Some Midrashim and commentaries interpret his judgment as being based on intricate legal principles that are not mentioned explicitly in the text but could be inferred from “between the lines”, and that this vast knowledge of Torah was what impressed Shelomo’s subjects so much. Other commentaries, however, are dissatisfied with the suggestion that the story means to tell us that Shelomo was an expert in Jewish law, when none of the content of Jewish law or complex legal reasoning is actually mentioned in the narrative.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Hayyim Angel has convincingly argued that what stood out about Shelomo wasn’t the content of his judgment, but the “reach” of his judgment. In other words, the fact that even two prostitutes, who were the bottom of the barrel of society, could be given a fair hearing in the King’s court was what testified to his greatness as a leader. According to this approach, we should not look to the details of the case itself to evaluate Shelomo’s superiority as a judge, nor should we seek complex legal nuance or genius in his ruling. What was unique about Shelomo’s regime was his insistence that justice be applied at all levels and to all aspects of the nation, and that fairness and equity before the law not be the special privilege of the elite or even of the “middle class”. To borrow a famous quote that summarizes this view, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
At one time I was persuaded by this interpretation of the story of Shelomo. However, further study and reflection has changed my mind. From a textual standpoint, it seems to me too much of a stretch to argue that the elaborate details of the claims presented to Shelomo, and the novelty of his famous and dramatic solution, had nothing to do with the impact this judgment had on the perspective of the people. A simple reading of the story supports the conventional understanding that it was the actual ruling of Shelomo, and not the mere fact that he was willing to hear a dispute between two harlots, that impressed his subjects.
Therefore, I would like to offer an alternative interpretation that I believe fits the narrative more smoothly. Faced with an insoluble “he-said-she-said” legal case such as the one that was brought before Shelomo in our chapter, most judges would have fallen back on whatever conventional principles of jurisprudence were available to them. Perhaps they would rule that “possession is nine tenths of the law”, and that whichever mother currently held the baby would be able to keep him. Under normal circumstances, a judge would probably view this situation as beyond any real resolution, assuming that the facts of the case would never be ascertained, and that a legal ruling, while necessary, might not reflect the “real truth” of who deserved to keep the infant.
Shelomo’s greatness was that he was not willing to acquit himself with a pro forma, legalistic response. Instead, he used his profound understanding of psychology to “manipulate” the lying mother and thereby cause the actual facts of the case to come to light. Through his brilliant handling of this situation, he demonstrated his uncompromising commitment to the truth and his unwillingness to be satisfied with rulings that met legal standards but fell short of absolute justice. This explains why the nation “feared” or revered Shelomo, and acknowledged his level of wisdom as “Divine” – like Hashem Himself, Shelomo would accept no substitute for genuine, unadulterated truth when it came to implementing justice in Israel.