King Solomon…the two women; the baby and the sword
Last week, in synagogues around the world, a portion from the Book of Kings was read that rarely is part of the weekly reading cycle due to the way the Jewish Calendar falls.
And yet, it might be one of the most famous and widely known stories of the Biblical Canon. Starring King Solomon…the wisest man in the world….we are confronted by two women and one live baby that both claim. Both women are passionate. Both give seemingly credible testimony. And we all know the Solomonic Solution. “Cut the baby in half” he says….thus each gets to keep a piece.
And, we all know the outcome. The true mother gives up the baby, not willing to see harm come to it, while the false claimant is ready to kill the child if for no other reason than to deny her perceived rival the joy of motherhood.
As children we were taught to marvel at this brilliant solution. I’d even bet that some of our parents used Solomon’s method to “help” our sharing sensibility…”if you don’t share that toy with your sister we will break it in half and give you each a piece”…shaming us into peace and harmony. For the moment anyway.
Abraham Lincoln as Solomon?
As I followed along in synagogue, last Shabbat (Saturday), I tried to apply the thinking to our current political situation here in the US (although I could make the same argument for Israel). And I tried to imagine Abraham Lincoln as Solomon in that he faced two plaintiffs both holding their version of the Republic in their hands.
Yet the solution didn’t work. Although there were some people who believed that unity needed to be preserved, no matter the cost, the cost was the continuation of the evil of slavery and most didn’t agree….on either side of the divide. The South was ready and did cut the country in half and Lincoln spent his Presidency and gave his life to bringing it back together.
Be Careful About Who Has The Sword
Luckily the woman who was ready to share a dead baby wasn’t wielding the sword. Sadly, in politics, everyone has a sword and many are eager to wield it, no matter the consequence.
Today, that sword can be blocking an important vote, holding up a critical appointment or spreading falsehoods through social media. And, make no mistake, each halves the baby again and again….and mostly without Abraham Lincoln’s ethical and moral filter.
So much for Solomon.
However, that led me to find a narrative I could apply to our current mess and I think I have one. Hear me out.
the Oscar Moment
It’s my single favorite moment in the Bible….in my view the most powerful dramatic moment in literature…movies or theater.
The scene features Nathan the Prophet. We don’t know much about him but I imagine that he had a wild look, unkempt, out of place in a royal palace. Yet Nathan shows up three times to admonish King David…the rock star of his time and Jewish history. And each time David acquiesces.
Back to my scene. It’s his second cameo…Oscar worthy for sure as Best Supporting Actor.
David is in his palace. He has recently sent Uriah, the husband of his passion Bathsheba, to his death and now she is with him in royal splendor.
Here is how I imagine the scene. Big party. David is playing his harp, crown on his head, wrapped in his royal robes. Bathsheba is with him and all the royal courtiers who have ignored his behavior no doubt are fawning on him for his favor.
The doors open. The party lurches to a halt. Nathan is standing there his face contorted by anger and maybe even pain. David feels a stab of fear but welcomes him nevertheless.
Nathan doesn’t greet him but begins to tell a story requiring justice. I imagine him telling it softly and everyone leaning in to listen….even as they snicker at his appearance and lack of manners.
It’s a simple story. A rich man and a poor man who live in proximity. One has huge flocks, the other only one little lamb that lived in his house like a pet. A visitor came to the rich man’s house and in a show of hospitality he prepared him a lavish meal. Yet, instead of taking a lamb from his own endless flock (no Wholefoods in those days) he stole the one little lamb that belonged to the poor man and served it for dinner to his guest.
Nathan finished the telling. Maybe getting quieter and quieter as he progressed. David was livid….He jumped up in a rage. “That man deserves to die”….then maybe, just maybe beginning to sense the morality tale at play here….he continues less dramatically.…”He must pay four times the value of the lamb because he showed no pity.”
David sits…..Nathan remains quiet one more moment and explodes…
YOU ARE THE MAN
David is shaken and pleads. To no avail. Until finally, in deep anguish, he cries:
“I stand guilty. I have sinned.”
But the hammer still fell.
Sycophants and Hangers-on
As I read this over I wonder where our Nathan’s are. The trusted advisor who pushes past the sycophants and hangers-on. Not afraid to speak truth to power. Disgusted with the sword wielders and their faux Solomonic pontificating.
And I search for our David’s who have the self-awareness and inner moral strength to listen and to act on admonition. No matter how close the hammer hits.
This country. Both political parties need their David’s and their Nathan’s.
My fear is that our Nathan’s fate will be like that of the prophet in Mark Twain’s magnificent War Prayer :
“It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”
Two Bible stories. Two outcomes. Both with parallels to our times.
Who are the lunatics?