Fred A Levy Haskell (fredcritter) wrote,
Fred A Levy Haskell

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“Ambiguity is a mother of midrash.” —Shai Cherry

In a recent post, The wisdom of Solomon, cakmpls says:
Long before I became an adoptive parent …  I hated the story of Solomon and the two women with one baby. If the second woman wanted the baby enough to take him, why would she agree to have him killed? …  I'm taken aback by the common interpretation of this story, which is that the birth mother cares in a way the other woman does not. …  I wonder if there are any possible alternative translations to “During the night this woman's son died because she lay on him” (1 Kings 3:19). What if the “lying on him” was something more deliberate?

The post received a number of interesting replies but none of suggestions were entirely satisfactory. Indeed, kalimac said:
None of my translations, including the current Reform Jewish one, shed any further light on the verse in question.

I also found it an interesting question so Hot for Words I decided to investigate.

It seemed to me that a good place to start would be The Jewish Study Bible published by Oxford University Press, which uses as its basis the revised and corrected translation commissioned and published by the Jewish Publication Society (the NJPS Tanakh, second edition, ©1985, 1999). I believe this volume does indeed provide a reasonably good response to cakmpls’s concern, although it does so by considering shades of meaning elsewhere in the story rather than by addressing her specific question.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the traditional Jewish approach to scripture, I think it is best summed up by a sentance in the Talmud: “It is not in heaven!” (Bava Metzia 59b) However, knowing what that means requires rather a lot of contextual knowledge and a fairly long explanation. “Turn it over and turn it over again, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5:25) is perhaps a little more transparent but still rather obscure. Therefore these passages from the introduction to The Jewish Study Bible are probably the most useful short explanation for our purposes:
If anything marks Jewish biblical interpretation it is the diversity of approaches employed and the multiplicity of meaning produced. …  Just as there is no one Jewish interpretation, there is no authorized Jewish translation of the Bible into English. …  For Jews, the official Bible is the Hebrew Masoretic Text; it has never been replaced by an official translation.…  For contemporary English-speaking Jews, the best and most widely read Jewish translation is [the NJPS Tanakh]. —pgs. ix–x.

Since I don’t know the exact wording of other translations and this exegesis hinges on subtleties (heh. As if there were any that don’t!) I’ll start with the NJPS’s translation of the story:

First Kings

316Later two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17The first woman said, “Please, my lord! This woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18On the third day after I was delivered, this woman also gave birth to a child. We were alone; there was no one else with us in the house, just the two of us in the house. 19During the night this woman’s child died, because she lay on it. 20She arose in the night and took my son from my side while your maid-servant was asleep, and laid him in her bosom; and she laid her dead son in my bosom. 21When I arose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, it was not the son I had borne.”

22The other woman spoke up, “No, the live one is my son, and the dead one is yours!” But the first insisted, “No, the dead boy is yours; mine is the live one!” And they went on arguing before the king.

23The king said, “One says, ‘This is my son, the live one, and the dead one is yours’; and the other says, ‘No, the dead boy is yours, mine is the live one.’” 24So the king gave the order, “Fetch me a sword.” A sword was brought before the king, 25and the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”

26But the woman whose son was the live one pleaded with the king, for she was overcome with compassion for her son. “Please, my lord,” she cried, “give her the live child; only don’t kill it!” The other insisted, “It shall be neither yours nor mine; cut it in two!” 27Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.”

28When all Israel heard the decision that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king; for they saw that he possessed divine wisdom to execute justice.


3.16–28: The case of the two prostitutes demonstrates Solomon’s judicial wisdom.

23: One says . . . the other says . . . : Solomon discerns a distinctive pattern in each woman’s speech: The more loquacious one emphasizes death first while the other emphasizes life. Solomon intuits who is the mother of the living child and announces it circumspectly.

24–26: Since justice requires a more convincing demonstration of truthfulness, Solomon stages a confrontation in which the passionate public behavior of the mother emphasizing life validates his intuition.

The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors; Michael Fishbane, consulting editor; Oxford University Press, New York, ©2004. Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation, ©1985, 1999.

Given that clue, I went back and took a closer look at verses 19 through 22. The commentary (and Solomon!) is right. The first (more loquacious) woman uses the word “died” or “dead” four times and the word “live” but once, whereas the other woman uses each “live” and “dead” but once each. Furthermore, in every construct in which the first woman mentions the state of being of both children, she always speaks of the dead child first. Finally in the two instances where each woman uses the direct words “my son” to speak of a child, the first woman speaks of the dead child and the second the live child.

You may think this to be rather thin gruel but when we reexamine the story as a whole with this observation in mind we see that, as one might reasonably expect, each woman is much more focused upon her own child—the one she has carried and fretted about for some nine months and to whom she has only recently given birth—than on the child of the other woman.

It makes sense to me. But I should caution you that I am neither a rabbi nor a sage (and the age of prophecy is long since over). So what do I know?

[Posted here because of its length and so it won’t be buried deep in the comments to the original post where only cakmpls is likely to see it.]

Tags: talmud, torah

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