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Hilary Lipka





King Solomon Solves the Case of the Two Prostitutes





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Hilary Lipka





King Solomon Solves the Case of the Two Prostitutes








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King Solomon Solves the Case of the Two Prostitutes

So why aren’t we told which mother actually stole the baby?


King Solomon Solves the Case of the Two Prostitutes

The Wisdom of Solomon, James Tissot, circa 1896–1902.

Shortly after securing the throne, Solomon goes to the shrine at Gibeon to make a large sacrificial offering. There, God appears to him at night in a dream and Solomon requests that God grant him great wisdom:

מלכים א ג:ט וְנָתַתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לֵב שֹׁמֵעַ לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת עַמְּךָ לְהָבִין בֵּין טוֹב לְרָע כִּי מִי יוּכַל לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת עַמְּךָ הַכָּבֵד הַזֶּה.
1 Kgs 3:9 Grant, then, Your servant an understanding mind[1] to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad; for who can judge this vast people of Yours?”[2]

God is so pleased with Solomon’s request that He rewards him not only with what he requested, but also with riches and glory (vv. 11–13).[3] In the next account, Solomon uses his great, divinely granted wisdom and discernment to provide a just ruling in an emotionally fraught case.[4]

King Solomon and the Prostitutes

Two prostitutes come to King Solomon’s court:

מלכים א ג:טז אָז תָּבֹאנָה שְׁתַּיִם נָשִׁים זֹנוֹת אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ וַתַּעֲמֹדְנָה לְפָנָיו.
1 Kgs 3:16 Later two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.[5]

The women are described as נָשִׁים זֹנוֹת (nashim zonot; sg. אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה [ʾishah zonah]). This Qal feminine participle form of the root ז.נ.ה/י, which means “to engage in sexual relations outside of or apart from marriage,” denotes the occupation of prostitute.[6]

Recognizing a Prostitute

Though the story identifies the women as prostitutes, it does not indicate how they would be recognized as such. Dress may have been an indication, as suggested in the description of a married woman attempting to seduce a young man in Proverbs:

משׁלי ז:י וְהִנֵּה אִשָּׁה לִקְרָאתוֹ שִׁית זוֹנָה וּנְצֻרַת לֵב.
Prov 7:10 A woman comes toward him, dressed like a prostitute, with set purpose.

The comparison might indicate that sex workers had some form of distinctive dress, or it could be a colloquial expression, indicating she is scantily clad or in some other way dressed to entice. Tamar covers her face with a veil as part of her plan to trick Judah into having intercourse with her (Gen 38:14–15). Thus, her garb does not necessarily reflect the outfits customarily worn by sex workers, but Judah’s engagement with her may indicate that it was not unusual for them to be veiled, perhaps to hide their identity.[7]

The women’s occupation as prostitutes sharing a household provides the necessary circumstances for their case. The first woman to speak opens with a respectful address, בִּי אֲדֹנִי, “Please my lord!”:[8]

מלכים א ג:יז וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה הָאַחַת בִּי אֲדֹנִי אֲנִי וְהָאִשָּׁה הַזֹּאת יֹשְׁבֹת בְּבַיִת אֶחָד וָאֵלֵד עִמָּהּ בַּבָּיִת. ג:יח וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי לְלִדְתִּי וַתֵּלֶד גַּם הָאִשָּׁה הַזֹּאת וַאֲנַחְנוּ יַחְדָּו אֵין זָר אִתָּנוּ בַּבַּיִת זוּלָתִי שְׁתַּיִם אֲנַחְנוּ בַּבָּיִת.
1 Kgs 3:17 The first woman said, “Please, my lord! This woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 3:18 On the third day[9] after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were alone; there was no one else with us in the house. Just the two of us were in the house.

Since the women live on their own, there are no witnesses to the events at issue in the case, and there are also no husbands or, apparently, male kin to either defend the claims of the women or arbitrate between them.

Prostitutes’ Housing

This description of the situation is consistent with the living conditions for prostitutes described in Jeremiah, which refers to a house of a prostitute, indicating some sex workers probably had their own homes in which they served clients:

ירמיה ה:ז אֵי לָזֹאת אֶסְלַוח לָךְ בָּנַיִךְ עֲזָבוּנִי וַיִּשָּׁבְעוּ בְּלֹא אֱלֹהִים וָאַשְׂבִּעַ אוֹתָם וַיִּנְאָפוּ וּבֵית זוֹנָה יִתְגֹּדָדוּ.
Jer 5:7 Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken Me and sworn by no-gods. When I fed them their fill, they committed adultery and went trooping to the house of a prostitute.

Rahab, the zonah who assists the Israelite spies when they are scouting the land of Canaan, also has her own house (Josh 2:1).[10] She lives independently, apart from her family (vv. 18–19), and she appears to have also been an innkeeper, since the Israelite spies plan to spend the night there.

The Case

Having explained the background to their dispute, the first woman relates the details:

מלכים א ג:יט וַיָּמָת בֶּן הָאִשָּׁה הַזֹּאת לָיְלָה אֲשֶׁר שָׁכְבָה עָלָיו. ג:כ וַתָּקָם בְּתוֹךְ הַלַּיְלָה וַתִּקַּח אֶת בְּנִי מֵאֶצְלִי וַאֲמָתְךָ יְשֵׁנָה וַתַּשְׁכִּיבֵהוּ בְּחֵיקָהּ וְאֶת בְּנָהּ הַמֵּת הִשְׁכִּיבָה בְחֵיקִי. ג:כא וָאָקֻם בַּבֹּקֶר לְהֵינִיק אֶת בְּנִי וְהִנֵּה מֵת וָאֶתְבּוֹנֵן אֵלָיו בַּבֹּקֶר וְהִנֵּה לֹא הָיָה בְנִי אֲשֶׁר יָלָדְתִּי.
1 Kgs 3:19 This woman’s son died in the night because she lay on him. 3:20 She arose in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while your maidservant was asleep, and laid him in her bosom, and she laid her dead son in my bosom. 3:21 When 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.”

Some commentators view the testimony of this first woman (often referred to as the plaintiff) as clear, coherent, and providing a logical explanation for what happened that night. Thus, they contend that she is the true mother.[11]

Other commentators detect inconsistencies in her testimony. After all, if she was sleeping, how could she know what happened over the course of the night? Therefore, they contend that the second woman (often referred to as the defendant) is the real mother.

When she does speak, the second woman adds little information about the case:

מלכים א ג:כב וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה הָאַחֶרֶת לֹא כִי בְּנִי הַחַי וּבְנֵךְ הַמֵּת וְזֹאת אֹמֶרֶת לֹא כִי בְּנֵךְ הַמֵּת וּבְנִי הֶחָי וַתְּדַבֵּרְנָה לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ.
1 Kgs 3:22 The 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.

Perhaps she has no counter-explanation to offer or she is afraid that if she says more she will trip up and give herself away. Her focus on the living child being hers, in contrast to the first woman, who insists more firmly that the dead child is not hers, is cited as further evidence that the second woman is the true mother.[12]

Solomon’s Judgment

Both sets of arguments are compelling, which ironically provides some evidence that this case is intended to be unsolvable by traditional judicial means. Solomon himself, in summarizing each woman’s arguments, makes no distinction between them or their claims, presenting the testimony of the two women as indistinguishable:

מלכים א ג:כג וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ זֹאת אֹמֶרֶת זֶה בְּנִי הַחַי וּבְנֵךְ הַמֵּת וְזֹאת אֹמֶרֶת לֹא כִי בְּנֵךְ הַמֵּת וּבְנִי הֶחָי.
1 Kgs 3:23 The 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.’”

While some commentators contend that Solomon is able to determine who the true mother of the living child is based on the women’s testimony and the way they present themselves,[13] the ambiguous evidence just cited seems to indicate that he cannot tell which one was telling the truth. Thus, this is the perfect case to demonstrate that Solomon possesses divinely given wisdom.[14]

One other significant factor contributes to the difficulty of the case: The only testimony available is that of two prostitutes.

The Stigma of Prostitution

Biblical references to sex work reflect a society in which the practice was licit and tolerated, because women who work as prostitutes appear to be without husbands or male guardians, and thus they are not violating the rights or honor of any male by having sexual relations outside the bounds of marriage.

At the same time, there was a stigma attached to prostitution. Simeon and Levi’s retort to Jacob after they disrupt his plan to arrange an undesirable marriage for their sister Dinah makes this clear:

בראשׁית לד:לא וַיֹּאמְרוּ הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ.
Gen 34:31 But they answered, “Should our sister be treated like a prostitute?”[15]

Deuteronomy prohibits using payment from prostitution to pay off a vow (23:19).[16] Leviticus includes prostitutes among the categories of women that priests may not marry (21:7). Not surprisingly, the high priest also can not marry a prostitute (Lev 21:14).[17]

Prostitutes are also associated with deception, mercenary attitudes, shamelessness, and lack of trustworthiness. Rahab, for example, saves the Israelite spies (and her own family) through her act of deception and betrayal of her own people (Josh 2:1–21; 6:17–25). Proverbs associates prostitutes with a mercenary attitude and a dangerous allure, equating the risks involved in keeping company with prostitutes to romantic entanglement with a “strange woman” (נָכְרִיָּה), likely referring to an adulteress:

משׁלי כג:כז כִּי שׁוּחָה עֲמֻקָּה זוֹנָה וּבְאֵר צָרָה נָכְרִיָּה. כג:כח אַף הִיא כְּחֶתֶף תֶּאֱרֹב וּבוֹגְדִים בְּאָדָם תּוֹסִף.
Prov 23:27 A prostitute is a deep pit; a forbidden woman is a narrow well. 23:28 She too lies in wait as if for prey, and destroys the unfaithful among men.[18]

Phyllis Bird points out these attitudes and beliefs about prostitutes contribute to the difficulty of the case for Solomon:

Thus it is a case of one woman’s word against another and, more specifically, one harlot’s word against another, that is, the words of women whose word cannot be trusted. For the harlot is characterized in the ruling stereotype as a woman of smooth and self-serving speech. One does not expect truth from such as these. And so the case that is presented to Solomon is a case to test the wisest judge. The harlot plaintiffs assure that.”[19]

How Solomon Solves the Case

Since prostitutes could not be trusted, Solomon does not bother with cross-examining the first woman, even though her account of what happened should have raised questions about how she could know the circumstances of the first child’s death if she was herself asleep. He also does not bother looking for character witnesses or anyone who might possibly be able to shed light on the case. Bird correctly contends:

[The story] does not reveal a generally accepting attitude towards harlots…but depends, rather, on their marginal status and their reputation for lying and self-interest. It is these commonly shared presuppositions about the harlot that make this case an ideal test, one by which extraordinary wisdom might be demonstrated.[20]

Absent credible witnesses, Solomon must instead rely on a dangerous ruse—threatening the child’s life—to determine which of the women is the child’s mother:

מלכים א ג:כד וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ קְחוּ לִי חָרֶב וַיָּבִאוּ הַחֶרֶב לִפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ. ג:כג וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ גִּזְרוּ אֶת הַיֶּלֶד הַחַי לִשְׁנָיִם וּתְנוּ אֶת הַחֲצִי לְאַחַת וְאֶת הַחֲצִי לְאֶחָת.
1 Kgs 3:24 So the king said, “Fetch me a sword,” and they brought the sword before the king, 3:25 And the king said, “Cut the live child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”

Seeing her child threatened, one of the women relinquishes her claim on the boy, while the other woman is content with Solomon’s plan:

מלכים א ג:כו וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר בְּנָהּ הַחַי אֶל הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמֶיהָ עַל בְּנָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי תְּנוּ לָהּ אֶת הַיָּלוּד הַחַי וְהָמֵת אַל תְּמִיתֻהוּ וְזֹאת אֹמֶרֶת גַּם לִי גַם לָךְ לֹא יִהְיֶה גְּזֹרוּ.
1 Kgs 3:26 But 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!”

Notably, the text does not indicate whether the woman who concedes is the first or the second woman. Her speech pattern, however, is similar to the first woman’s (appealing to the king with a polite, respectful בִּי אֲדֹנִי ‘‘Please, my lord”; cf. v. 17), which some take as further evidence that the first woman is the real mother.[21]

Solomon’s wisdom is in discerning that the real mother of the living child will reveal herself if she believes that her baby’s life is in immediate danger, since he knows that her maternal instincts will cause her to do whatever is necessary to save her child. Thus, he is able to make his judgment in the case:

מלכים א ג:כז וַיַּעַן הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיֹּאמֶר תְּנוּ לָהּ אֶת הַיָּלוּד הַחַי וְהָמֵת לֹא תְמִיתֻהוּ הִיא אִמּוֹ.
1 Kgs 3:27 Then the king spoke up. “Give the live child to her,” he said, “and do not put it to death; she is its mother.”

Bird notes:

[T]he audience is meant to see only two prostitutes, but Solomon in his wisdom sees what is hidden by that stereotype, namely, a mother. In this case two counter-images operate, which are normally distinct but are here combined in a single figure. The case is built on the one and resolved on the other.[22]

Bird observes that this resolution is typical of biblical narratives in which prostitutes are briefly “lifted” from their marginalized status and are then returned to their place at the margins of society.[23]

Why Is the True Mother Not Identified?

Prostitutes in biblical texts are often liminal figures: Both their physical and social location is on the outskirts of society. Rahab’s house is on the edge of the city, adjacent to the city wall (Josh 2:15). Tamar sits at a crossroads outside of town (Gen 38:14–15). Many of the other prostitutes who appear in biblical texts are not fully developed characters: They are nameless and speechless, qualities often correlated with low status, marginalization, and lack of agency.[24]

In this story, the prostitutes only matter insofar as their case provides an opportunity to demonstrate Solomon’s great wisdom and discernment, and that regardless of status and social class, everyone had access to justice and a fair hearing from the king.[25] Once they have served that narrative purpose, the two prostitutes are not given another thought.

It would have been easy for the author to indicate which woman was the mother of the living child, but the identity of the “real” mother is not revealed.[26] For purposes of this episode, identifying for the audience the real mother of the live child does not matter. The point is to show that God’s promise of great wisdom to Solomon was fulfilled. Thus, the episode concludes with a statement about Solomon’s wisdom:

מלכים א ג:כח וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ כָל יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר שָׁפַט הַמֶּלֶךְ וַיִּרְאוּ מִפְּנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ כִּי רָאוּ כִּי חָכְמַת אֱלֹהִים בְּקִרְבּוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט.
1 Kgs 3:28 When 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.

The next verse states that “Solomon was king over all of Israel” (14:1), linking Solomon’s display of great wisdom and discernment with his ability to rule.[27] The narrative that follows (chs. 4–10) shows how God’s other promises to Solomon of riches, glory, and long life are also fulfilled, reflecting God’s support of Solomon as king.


December 21, 2023


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Hilary Lipka is an instructor in the Religious Studies Program at the University of New Mexico, main campus. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield Phoenix Press) and co-editor (with F. Rachel Magdalene and Bruce Wells) of the forthcoming Sexuality and Law in the Torah (Bloomsbury T & T Clark).