Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

A Mother in Israel, or Washington, or Ramallah…

Judgement of Solomon, Jose de Ribero

My late husband Peter Lipton, z”l, a philosopher of science committed to gender equality, used the following hypothetical situation to demonstrate the challenges that faced women who wanted to be treated on a par with men:

A father and son are in a serious car accident. The father is killed instantly, and the son is rushed to hospital. The surgeon walks into the operating theater, takes one look at the boy and says, I can’t operate — he’s my son.

How was this possible, Peter would ask?  I can’t tell you how many times I heard highly-educated, liberal, feminist atheists propose resurrection of the dead before they gave up and begged Peter to reveal the answer. The surgeon was a woman.

Parashat Shoftim contains a different kind of puzzle. Why, in the middle of a lengthy analysis of legislative justice, does the subject of kingship arise? When you enter the land … and decide, ‘I will set a king over me, as do all the nations around me’ … (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

What has kingship got to do with rules and regulations about bribes, impartiality, the requirement for witnesses, death penalties, protection for accidental manslayers, and a get-out clause for judges unable to solve murder cases?

A possible answer emerges from parallels, long-recognized by commentators, between Shoftim’s hypothetical king and Israel’s most powerful actual king, Solomon. Think multiple wives, fantastic wealth, powerful armies, alliances with Egypt …

Solomon’s ability to dispense legal judgments, one of his greatest attributes, is exemplified in the story of the two prostitutes who come to court, each claiming to be the mother of a single baby boy.

File:Lille PdBA wicar jugement de salomon.JPG
The Judgment of Solomon, Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762 – 1834)

16Then two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no outsider with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant [she’s referring to herself] slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I studied him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.’ 22But the other woman said, ‘No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.’ The first said, ‘No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.’ So they debated before the king. 23 Then the king said, ‘One says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead”; and one says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.” ’ 24So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. 25The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to one.’ 26But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’ 27Then the king responded: ‘Give her the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ 28All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to do justice (1 Kings 3:16-28).

Almost all commentators identify the first speaker, the articulate plaintiff (v. 17), as the compassionate woman who would rather give up her baby than see him killed (v. 26). But the text, especially in Hebrew, is ambiguous. Since the women are not named or otherwise differentiated, but identified simply as ‘this one’, ‘that one’, ‘the other one’, ‘she’ and ‘her’, we can never really know who’s who.

More importantly, the text explicitly calls into question the articulate plaintiff’s reliability. She presents as fact an elaborate theory about how she came to wake up with a dead baby (vv. 18-21). Yet, as she subsequently admits, she’d slept through the whole thing, and found nothing amiss until she tried to nurse her son in the morning. Is it likely that the story’s real mother is at best a desperate fantasist, at worst a bare-faced liar?

We the readers know, because the omniscient narrator tells us, that the compassionate woman who’s willing to give up the baby is the real mother (v. 26). But we don’t know whether this was the articulate plaintiff or the quiet woman who simply makes her case. And we don’t know which of the two women gets the baby in the end — the articulate plaintiff or the quiet woman; the compassionate woman who’s willing to give up the baby to keep him alive, or the ruthless woman who’d rather see him dead than given to her rival.

Commentators are almost unanimous is assuming that the compassionate woman gets the baby, but I’m not so sure. ‘Give her the living baby’ (v. 26), Solomon said. As Hebrew sentence construction usually works, he would have been referring to the last speaker. That’s the ruthless mother. ‘Don’t kill it’, he added. It’s sometimes argued that he’s echoing the words of the compassionate mother: ‘Give her the baby; don’t kill it’. But why? If he intended to give her the baby anyway, it goes without saying that he wouldn’t cut it in half.

More plausibly, I think, Solomon is instructing his courtiers to give the baby to the ruthless woman, but without — and now his additional words are not redundant but utterly crucial — cutting it in half as she had demanded (v. 26).

But why did the ruthless woman say, ‘Cut the baby in half’? Didn’t that undermine her claim to be the real mother? I think she was gambling. Once the compassionate woman had uttered the words that revealed her as the real mother, the ruthless woman’s options were limited. I think that she decided to call Solomon’s bluff, as he had called hers when he called for a sword to cut the baby in half. Just as he had said, without meaning it, ‘Cut the baby in half’, so the ruthless mother said, without meaning it, ‘Cut the baby in half’. And it worked; Solomon gave her the baby.

But why would Solomon give the baby to the ruthless woman who called his bluff instead of to the compassionate woman he believed to be the real mother? Perhaps because he saw in the ruthless woman his own mother.

Since Solomon was not David’s firstborn son, he had no claim to the throne. But Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, persuaded David to name her son as his successor instead of the legitimate heir, one of Solomon’s half-brothers, the son of one of Bathsheba’s rivals (1 Kings 1:15-31).

Bathsheba was taking a risk — for Solomon and for herself. David’s sons had a track record of incest and fratricide; Amnon raped his sister Tamar, and Absalom killed his brother Amnon. What would keep them from assassinating Solomon once David was dead?  But that was a risk Bathsheba was willing to take, and the rest is history.

Just as Solomon became David’s ‘as if’ firstborn, the heir to the throne, because his articulate mother said he should be, so the ruthless woman became the ‘as if’ mother of the living baby because Solomon said she was. Bravado triumphed over birth order and biology.

The story of the two prostitutes ends with the report that all Israel was in awe when Solomon pronounced his judgment. To be sure, his bluff with the sword was a clever ruse, but awe-inspiring? I don’t think so. Solomon’s judgment, as usually interpreted, was the one most of us would make: the compassionate mother gets the baby.

All Israel was in awe, I think, because Solomon did the absolutely unexpected. He rewarded the ruthless woman who was willing to risk a baby’s life in order to keep him from someone else. He gave the living baby to the mother who, like his own mother, would do everything within her power to make sure that the child she identified as hers would come out on top.

Unlike his conventional subjects, Solomon was not constrained by a rigid and narrow definition of what women should be like: weak, self-sacrificing and risk-averse. He rewarded the woman who thought and acted like a man.

The story of Solomon and the two prostitutes raises many interesting questions about women and power that still concern us today, but I’ll mention just three.

A recent Haaretz article speculated about Israel’s next leader: The 14 Men and One Woman who could be Israel’s next prime minister. Almost unbelievably when you think about patriarchal Jewish tradition, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to have an elected female head of state. Now that Britain has its second female Prime-Minister and, all being well, America is on the way to getting its first female President, has the time come for another woman to lead Israel? The country’s changed a lot in the almost 50 years since Golda was elected. There could easily be more gender-based resistance to say Shelly Yacimovich than there was to Golda Meir in the 1960s. But still a precedent has been set. If the best candidate is a woman, her gender should not be an insurmountable obstacle.

Why are huge numbers of Americans saying that they can’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary even though they loathe and detest Trump and think he’s unfit for office? I’ve never heard so many people admit that they’re throwing away (my words not theirs) their vote on an unelectable third candidate. They are entitled, of course, to their legitimate concerns about Hillary, and the Press is entitled to its obsessive concerns about her health, but it’s hard to believe that gender is not a big part of this equation. Don’t let Brexit be in vain: protest votes are the primrose path to an extremely dire situation, if not an everlasting bonfire.

The Palestinians too have a leadership crisis. Is it possible to imagine a Palestinian woman at the top, and if not, why not? Those critics of Israel who never, ever look in detail at the Palestinian side of the Israel-Palestinian equation should be thinking very hard about these questions. How seriously can we treat a twenty-first century national entity — and that includes America — whose voters can’t handle the idea of a powerful woman?

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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