1 Kings 3:16-28
16 Now two women who were harlots [or possibly innkeepers] came to the king, and stood before him. 17 And one woman said, “O my lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then it happened, the third day after I had given birth, that this woman also gave birth. And we were together; no one was with us in the house [or inn], except the two of us in the house.
So this was one woman’s word against another’s – no other evidence was available.
19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 So she arose in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your maidservant slept, and laid him in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. 21 And when I rose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead. But when I had examined him in the morning, indeed, he was not my son whom I had borne.”
The immediate shock of what appeared to be the death of her child might have kept her from carefully examining the baby, but later, more sober, in the morning light of day, she would notice the absence of those subtleties of appearance or manner which a mother might know.
22 Then the other woman said, “No! But the living one is my son, and the dead one is your son.” And the first woman said, “No! But the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.” Thus they spoke before the king.
Either the story is true – and the circumstance of the two women being alone makes it the only possible explanation of how the woman could have the wrong baby and the baby was dead – or the story is a clever fabrication to get the other woman’s baby away from her.
If the first woman’s story is true, then the second woman has no genuine empathy or conscience, but did have envy toward the first woman for the second woman was careless in the care of her own child, and she cared not for the anguish she induced in the first woman, but was moved with envy and not conscience when she took her child. If the second woman’s story is true, then for the same reasons the first woman has no genuine empathy or conscience, but is motivated by envy. So the question is: which woman has empathy, and which woman has no empathy or conscience but is envious.
23 And the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son, who lives, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! But your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’”
There is nothing in the stories themselves from which Solomon could render a verdict. A test was required.
24 Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other.”
The word of the king is obeyed in fetching the sword. It is expected that the word will be obeyed to cut the child. There is no time to consider whether the king could be pulling a trick. The immediacy of the moment tests the character of the two women.
The woman with empathy would care most for the child’s life and would rather surrender the child though it is hers than cause the division which would kill her child. The envy of the woman with no empathy or conscience would be satisfied with the death of the child – what she least wants is for the other woman to have a child when she does not.
26 Then the woman whose son was living spoke to the king, for she yearned with compassion for her son; and she said, “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him!” But the other said, “Let him be neither mine nor yours, but divide him.”
By the way they behave in this test, the women testify as to their own character, which reveals to Solomon what really happened. The empathy of the one woman is displayed, and the envy and lack of conscience is displayed in the other woman. The real mother might rather be considered a liar than that her child should be killed. The woman who lied might have a sense of sweet vengeance against the woman who took her to suit over the child and who would thereby expose her as a kidnapper and a liar.
Solomon’s wisdom was in knowing what to look for and how to devise a test which would give telling results.
27 So the king answered and said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.”
The verdict is certain, for it was a true test of character.
28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.
People fear such discernment, wise judgment, and exact justice. The case was impossible to resolve without this test, but it was impossible to deny once the test was performed. Nobody wants to cross the wisdom of Solomon.
Solomon’s test presented a division which then revealed the true division. In human affairs, we must know how to divide and where to divide — which is the true meaning of judgment.