February 14th, 2009


“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 …  For Jews, the official Bible is the Hebrew Masoretic Text; it has never been replaced by an official translation.…  For contemporary English-speaking Jews, the best and most widely read Jewish translation is [the NJPS Tanakh].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. Collapse )

[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.]