According to a story from long ago, a big man named Solomon was empowered to decide which woman was the mother of a child they each insistently claimed. In apparent frustration, he announced he would cleave the infant in two with a sword and give half to each woman. One woman immediately relinquished her claim to the baby, saying, “Give her the living child and in no wise slay it.” Solomon awarded her the baby, declaring that only the real mother would love her child so much as to give it up in order to save its life. The story is still told (Bible: 1 Kings 3), and it is asserted that this judicial decision demonstrated Solomon’s surpassing wisdom and cemented his reputation.
Actually, the convincing testimony came from the other woman, not from the tearful plea of the first to speak, don’t you agree? Solomon’s horrifying proposal was not likely a bluff, considering the numerous bloody stories and retributions replete in the extant stories of that time and place, and considering the child of contention was not “of high birth”. It provoked a sudden outburst from one woman to let the other woman have the baby. But it is at least conceivable that the true mother might have been momentarily paralyzed by abject fear and terror, while the conflicted, guilty, frightened deceiver might have jumped instantly at the opportunity to escape the dilemma (and a consequent lifetime of guilt) that her anguish at the death of her own infant, and her jealousy of the mother whose child still lived, had fashioned for her. The deceiver may have imagined, while hatching and executing her hurried plot, that it might work and that her deception wouldn’t be uncovered. She likely never imagined, in the minute or two it took to conceive and commit herself to the crime, that it would come to this. And she now desperately needed and sought an escape from her folly. When Solomon provided her the courtroom opportunity, that escape would appear instantly attainable, by quickly renouncing her claim in order to prevent the baby-splitting.
After Solomon announced his intention and called for the sword, the first woman to speak said what any woman in such a startling circumstance (true mother or not) would likely have said. She was the first to speak aloud, but what she said was certainly not proof of maternity. It was proof of compassion and of a will to prevent a brutal infanticide. Either the true mother of the live child, or the agonized mother of the dead child, could have been the first to plead, “in no wise slay it”. That sudden plea was not enough evidence for Solomon (or any judge) to decide with any certainty of justice.
However, as the story is told, Solomon’s award of the child appears to us undoubtedly correct, as the other woman, speaking after the first, said, “Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.” Hack away, said she. It is unlikely that a sane true mother of the living child would say those words (though it is not impossible that a mother suffering from post-partum depression, or other drug or disease induced psychosis, might say such a thing. But even if that were the case, such a severely afflicted biological mother would be an inadequate, even dangerous, caretaker of a newborn infant, and Solomon’s decision, it could be argued, would have ensured the child’s welfare and even survival, and thus have been the wiser choice between the two.)
But look once again. It is also unlikely, almost unbelievable, that a deceiver would have said to Solomon (before he ruled, but after the other woman had just relinquished her claim to the baby) to (in effect) ‘go ahead, just slice the baby in half, neither mother should have the living child’. She would thus be unnecessarily relinquishing her claim and simultaneously admitting her guilt of attempted kidnapping and perjury, and in that courtroom, in those days of stoning a woman to death for the “crime” of unapproved sex, or for eating the wrong food, or wearing the wrong clothing, such a statement would have been suicidal. It is not strictly impossible, but it is highly implausible that the testimony as given, which alone made possible Solomon’s “wise” decision, could have been expected, or counted on.
While the statements of the principals in the story as it is now told make Solomon’s decision not only defensible, but almost unassailable, it is unlikely that those statements in reply to the threatened splitting of the living infant, or other statements similarly conclusive, could have been expected by a sensible person. For example, it would have been a more likely expectation prior to the hearing, that both mothers would make a similar, even simultaneous plea to Solomon to sheath the sword and spare the child. It is also not inconceivable that the kidnapper would have her wits about her when Solomon proposed the division, and would speak cleverly before the shocked real mother could reply. It is very possible that the grief-stricken mother of the infant who died had devised and executed her scheme in great haste and agonized sorrow, in the darkness of early morning, with little time or mind for reflection, and when confronted with Solomon’s drawn sword, she would desperately need, and find, a way to undo her folly. Solomon’s ruling inevitably favored the first to utter a reply, because both mothers would have most likely replied in the same way, given a moment to recover from shock and horror. A clear-thinking person could not have expected, with any certainty, or even any significant degree of probability, the courtroom testimony as reported by the story.
The way that Solomon conducted his court on that day was, therefore, inhumane, impatient, and unwise, and might well have resulted in an unjust and incorrect, or arbitrary decision, had he been presented with testimony other than the surprising, self-implicating statement of the second woman to speak after the sword was drawn. Solomon was very lucky that day to get the testimony that allowed him to make the decision that succeeding generations have supported. Being lucky isn’t being wise.
While Solomon may have been the wisest man who ever lived, he certainly lapsed on that day, when he painted his judgment and his reputation into a corner with either a bluff, or a lethal threat to kill an innocent child, that he and everyone were very fortunate to escape. Solomon’s courtroom tactic was akin to the medieval “trial by fire”, waterboarding, or the tortures of the Inquisition. It was more a way to demonstrate power than a sound way to get at the truth. Solomon wasn’t necessarily even the wisest person in the courtroom that day. The wisest person in the courtroom – indeed the wisest person who ever lived – may have been a woman. Most mothers know that a quick, glib, and emotional response is not the best indicator of veracity. A wise and knowledgeable woman, in Solomon’s place, would have adjudicated with more certainty, deftness, and sensitivity, and without employing undue haste and a threat to murder a little baby.
Possessing neither infallible judgment, convincing evidence, eye-witness testimony, nor DNA testing, Solomon got the evidence he felt was sufficient with a terrorizing threat. But why did he not seek expert testimony from an experienced mid-wife to determine whether the living child was born that day or three days earlier, as testimony in the story indicated? If that was not feasible, did these two women not have friends and relations in the city who had seen and spent time with either of the children, and could pick the child out of a “baby line-up”?
How well do you know this old story? I have a question (or two) for you, kind reader, if you can spare a moment:
(1) Which woman was the real mother of the live baby? Was it the woman (call her Alice) who woke up in the morning with the dead infant in her bed, and who accused the other woman (call her Beth) of having stolen her baby in the night, and who brought the case to Solomon’s judgment? Or was it Beth, who merely denied Alice’s allegations in her testimony?
(2) If you have the time or inclination to reflect, and to share your answer, what means might a wise woman Judge have used to adjudicate this contested case?
Please send your answers in a comment at the end of this essay.
Voters in Ozaukee County and in Wisconsin have our own decisions to make regarding our 21st century judicial system on Tuesday, April 7, in the Spring General Election for non-partisan elected offices.
We won’t be deciding which is the wisest man to be the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, we’ll be deciding which is the wisest person to hold this position. The incumbent, seeking re-election, is the first woman ever in history to be a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice. Read and download the Voter Guide questionnaire and candidate responses for the Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice election between Shirley Abrahamson and Randy Koschnick. http://www.lwvwi.org . The Voter Guide, linked to on the home page of this League of Women Voters of Wisconsin website, also conveniently contains the questionnaire and responses from the two candidates for the office of Wisconsin state Superintendent of Public Instruction. You can intelligently decide who you are going to vote for in the two statewide elections, in just a couple minutes, based on these candidate responses.
And we definitely will not be just rubber-stamping (as usual) the latest man appointed to be our next Ozaukee Circuit Court Judge. For the first time since the Circuit Court system was established, the first time in thirty years, voters in Ozaukee County will actually have the opportunity to select a Judge of the Ozaukee County Circuit Court in a contested election. Compare the actual qualifications of candidates Darcy McManus and Sandy Williams, each running to be the first woman Judge ever on the Ozaukee Circuit Court. See and hear both McManus and Williams at the Candidates Forum in the Mequon Weyenberg Library on April 1 at 7 PM. Read the reasons I endorse Darcy McManus for Judge.