Divine Wisdom?

Two women, one baby, and a king's perplexing decision in a famous biblical custody case.

This week's Torah portion, Miketz, almost always falls during the festival of Hanukkah. When that happens, the portion's usual Haftarah--the selection from the Prophets chanted following the Torah portion--is pre-empted for a Hanukkah-themed Haftarah. This year, however, Miketz falls after Hanukkah, and so this week synagogues read Miketz's rightful Haftarah--the famous story from I Kings (3:15-4:1), featuring King Solomon, two women, one child, and a sword.

In Miketz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams about cows and ears of grain to reveal that there will be seven years of plentiful harvests followed by seven years of famine. His interpretation sets into motion a plan that saves Egypt from starvation and consolidates economic power under Pharaoh. In the Haftarah, Solomon, like Joseph, uses a dream to consolidate power.

The Haftarah starts with a youthful King Solomon waking from a dream in which God offers to grant Solomon any one wish. Solomon pleases God by asking for wisdom to discern between good and evil, and God grants his wish for a wise and understanding heart. The story of Solomon's judgment, recounted in the Haftarah, supposedly illustrates that wisdom in its conclusion: "All of Israel.feared the king because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to make justice. King Solomon was king over all of Israel" (I Kings, 3:28-4:1).


It seems fair to ask, Where is the wisdom, and why call it divine?

To briefly summarize the story: Two women beseech Solomon to rule on the custody of a child, whom both women say is their son. Before ruling, Solomon asks for a sword and threatens to split the baby in half. One woman--whom the narrator identifies as the real mother--asks the king to give the baby to the other woman rather than kill him. The other woman replies that the baby should be neither hers nor the other woman's and asks that the baby be cut, as the king had advised. Solomon then declares that the child should be given to the first woman, the baby's mother, and not be killed.

There are many ways to understand the account. Some traditional commentators suggest that Solomon may have figured out the identity of the real mother from their initial presentations or from a Divine voice. But the former is not clear from the text, and the latter would demonstrate Solomon's prophetic powers, not his wisdom.

There is a problem in this case from the perspective of legal evidence: Neither woman's reaction is of any logical value in determining whether she gave birth to the baby in question.

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