Monday, August 26, 2013
The First Detective Story: Solomon and the Baby
One of the most famous stories in the Old Testament and certainly the most famous one among lawyers is that of Solomon and the baby. I am reflecting on this text tonight, as tomorrow I begin a class on judicial politics. Here is the passage from 1st Kings 3. 16-28.
16 Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.
17 And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house.
18 And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house.
19 And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it.
20 And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom.
21 And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear.
22 And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.
23 Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living.
24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king.
25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.
26 Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.
27 Then the king answered and said, Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.
28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.
You can see why this story is of interest to lawyers. It is a classic metaphor for “splitting the difference.” It is not, of course, about that at all. No one, let alone Solomon, thinks that splitting the baby is an acceptable compromise. Well, no one except the false claimant. The story is in fact much richer than that.
I note first of all that two harlots have standing to bring a case before the King himself. That suggests a recognition of the lowest status under the law.
The second thing I would note is that this might count as the first detective story in the history of literature. The story (18-21) is not murky. Two women deliver babies in the same house at roughly the same time. One woman’s child dies. That woman “arose at midnight” and switches her dead child with the other woman’s living child while she is asleep. This we learn from the testimony of the woman who claims her child was stolen. Bear in mind that she couldn’t really know that midnight was the hour of the crime, since she was sleeping. That “midnight” bit is poetic license, either on the part of the woman or the storyteller. The account of the crime is speculation on her part; but it is certainly a plausible theory, as the lawyers say.
Now consider the words from verse 18.
there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house
This testimony intends to eliminate any third party mischief and focus responsibility on the two women alone. This much the woman claiming the theft of her living child can testify to. Again, a good detective story.
The story is plausible both from the perspective of common sense memory and modern sociobiology. It is not unprecedented for a woman whose maternal instincts are frustrated to attempt to steal someone else’s baby. It is Solomon’s job to shift the evidence with his little grey cells in order to uncover the nuggets of truth.
This he does with his brilliant device. If both women claim the same baby, cut the baby in half. The reaction of the two women exposes the truth. The question is why it works so well. The usual interpretation is that it is simply a test of who loves the baby more. The true claimant is willing to surrender her claim if that is what is necessary to save her child. The false claimant is willing to split the difference because it isn’t really her baby.
That doesn’t wash. If the primary motive of the false claimant was frustrated maternal instinct, she would scarcely have been so satisfied with half a son. Solomon, however, being not only a wise king and judge, but also a good detective, was attentive to detail.
What exactly happened to the false claimant’s child? Verse 19 tells us:
And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it.
This is what the true claimant tells us. He rival’s child perished not of natural causes but of carelessness. It is likely that she expressed the same opinion to the other woman at the time. At any rate, the other woman guessed that she was being judged. That is what identifies the false claimant’s motive. She despised the true claimant, perhaps for recognizing her own terrible error. She took the living child as an act of revenge. That is why she is later willing to accept the King’s dreadful proposal. She won’t win a son but at least her rival will lose one. Such is the calculus of guilt and revenge.
Solomon deserves a place as the father of all sleuths. His famous stratagem probed not for genuine love but for a more sinister motive and found it. Solomon knew what he was looking for because he was wise enough to understand that human beings act simultaneously of out opposing motives and because he paid attention. Such a man is a man to be feared, at least by those of us who have something to hide. That would be all of us.