Friday, October 23, 2009

Cutting the Baby in Half

I have heard the phrase "Cut the baby in half" several times this week, and this has caused me to reflect on the story that inspired this grotesque idiom. It is another one of those stories from the Bible that always bothered me when I was younger and now that I am older, I can read it without cringing, safe in the knowledge that it is nothing more than folklore.

The story is brief and well known:

1 Kings 3:16-28 (New International Version)

A Wise Ruling
16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, "My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us. 19 "During the night this woman's son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son—and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn't the son I had borne." 22 The other woman said, "No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours." But the first one insisted, "No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine." And so they argued before the king. 23 The king said, "This one says, 'My son is alive and your son is dead,' while that one says, 'No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.' " 24 Then the king said, "Bring me a sword." So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other." 26 The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!" But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!" 27 Then the king gave his ruling: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother." 28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

What bothered me is how this is set up as the example of King Solomon's excellent wisdom. This is a terrible solution to the problem! It isn't difficult to imagine a different ending where both women responded to his threat in a reasonable manner. What would the great King Solomon have done if neither woman wanted to see a three-day-old infant sliced in half in front of them? I have trouble picturing these circumstances on an episode of Law and Order, a show I, admittedly, never watch.

I am forced to regard this story as a complete fabrication. And yet there may be a shred of truth to it. It was a difficult time. No doubt the people who live 500 years from now will look back on this moment in history and say the same about us. Perhaps the Israelites (and all of the random tribes that lived in the Middle East) led such desperate, hard-scrabble lives that the death of a child wasn't that big a deal. Maybe the bereaved mother really would have preferred to see a child die that wasn't hers. But (to me) it is relevant only in the context of an outdated book of values. These women were not modern women and maybe the author of the story was correct in his estimation of the reaction of these women. Maybe the tale is even based on actual anecdotal evidence. But that is all the more reason not to use the Bible as any kind of moral guide.

I know that I can't have it both ways. I can't say that the story is false because the women wouldn't have responded in the way that they did and then turn around and use their reactions as examples of how society behaved in the bronze age. I have no idea. In the end, I have to simply let this go as a cruel little fable that has absolutely no relevance to modern life. It is also a terrible signifier of great, god-given wisdom.

1 comment:

miriamt said...

Unfortunately, we have heard enough stories recently to make us suspect that there are mothers out there who are heartless enough to be willing to see a child killed. Still it was a risk that Solomon took and, not particularly wise. Even sitting down for a beer and discussing the issue would have been preferable…it has been done….