2016-06-30
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.

The first woman's appeal to spare the child is a reasonable response. It is so reasonable, in fact, that even a woman bringing a fraudulent custody claim might easily decide to halt her fraud before a baby dies because of her charade. In contrast, the second woman's comments do not seem to be rational at all. She effectively wins the case with the first woman's concession and could have walked away with the baby. But instead of remaining silent or uttering something innocuous, she proclaims, "Neither mine nor hers shall he be, divide him" (I Kings 3:26).

So neither the first woman's rationality nor the second woman's irrationality makes one more likely to be the true mother than the other. If Solomon's decision actually speaks to "what is in the best interest of the child," with the conclusion that the rational woman should be the mother, we would see his wisdom beaming. But the introduction of the "best interest of the child" standard into certain types of custody disputes appears as a much later legal innovation. Solomon may have been anticipating this standard but not stating it outright, deciding instead to frame his decision in the guise of a factual discovery of the real mother. This may have been politically and judicially clever on his part; he would not be seen as actually changing the law so that a better parent can take another's child, only giving the child to the supposedly correct mother.

Alternatively, one can insist on reading the second woman's response--agreeing to have the baby split in two--as a desire to kill the baby. In this case, Solomon can be credited with the wisdom of crafting a test that elicits such a revealing response and thereby saving the baby's life. The decision itself--to award the baby to the woman who does not manifest an obvious desire to kill him--would only require common sense, not necessarily Divine wisdom.

Since Solomon's threat was an obvious bluff, we should also consider the possibility that the second woman was calling his bluff. Or perhaps she was challenging him to make a better decision by truly determining who the better mother would be, rather than using a parlor trick. If Solomon was favoring the submissive first woman rather than the assertive second one based on his own prejudices, then his supposed wisdom becomes a prime target for a feminist critique.

While Solomon evaluates the goodness of the women before him, how does the reader evaluate Solomon's wisdom? Solomon threatened to cut a baby in half and sought out a reaction from the women by having them undergo a traumatic experience. His threat to murder a profoundly innocent baby is troubling. Even if one assumes the end justifies the means, Solomon's choice of means reveals a certain willingness to get to the end by acting godlike. In other words, for a person to threaten to split a baby in half in order to make a point seems immoral. The second woman in fact may have lost the case because she dared Solomon to follow through on his threat. Yet, Solomon's threat to kill the baby does not provoke an ethical critique within the text. Is it acceptable for kings to murder innocent babies because of the sins of their mothers?

God, too, engages in threats of murder in order to test his subjects. In the story of the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), God tests Abraham by ordering him to slaughter his son. In both stories, the willingness to sacrifice life is viewed as acceptable. Abraham does not challenge God, as he does when God threatens to destroy the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham seems to think it is wrong for a just God to kill a city because it is evil when there is a community of just people residing there, but to kill his own son for no apparent reason is an act that God need not justify.

So too with Solomon; there is a tolerance on the part of his subjects (and the text) of the king's threats of extreme violence. So the attribution of a divine quality to Solomon's wisdom is more than just an assertion that no other human can achieve such intellectual heights; it defines Solomon's wisdom as a particular brand of moral reasoning that to us mere humans appears as incomprehensible--and outside morality--as disease, hurricanes, earthquakes, and mortality itself. Solomon's dream, then, becomes important not only because it attributes a source to his wisdom but also because it provides an excuse for it.

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