|"Solomon the Wise" by Gustave Doré|
Scripture can be found here...
They say “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Well, actually, Solomon says it, in the book of Proverbs, which is traditionally attributed to him. Solomon talks a lot about wisdom. But it is very hard to know how to talk about Solomon.
If I were to ask you to come up with one adjective to describe this well-known King of Israel, I am willing to bet money that you would reply: “Wise.”
And the stories we have today—both parts of this chapter in 1 Kings—are designed to show just that: Solomon asked God for wisdom, and God thought that was a splendid idea, so God gave Solomon wisdom, and then some. This is one very popular, very common reading of these passages.
There are other readings, though.
We come this week to the kingship of this son of David. And while we know David was God’s dearly beloved, though flawed, child, and to this day the Hebrew Bible’s most famous and beloved king, Solomon holds a different place.
Let’s remember how Solomon got here. Solomon’s mother is Bathsheba. She is the woman at the center of last week’s passage, in which David’s flawed character so spectacularly revealed itself—side by side with his confidence in the love and forgiveness of God. But the prophet shared a word of warning for David. “Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house.” You will reap what you have sown. [2 Samuel 12:10].
That prophecy comes true in chilling ways. David’s son Amnon rapes his own half-sister, David’s daughter Tamar. David’s son Absalom, furious with his father for not punishing Amnon, takes revenge by killing his half-brother. Absalom then rebels against his father, and moves to claim the throne for himself. Absalom is killed in the resulting battle and David loses a second son.
As David lies dying, his son Adonijah is the heir-presumptive to the throne. However, Bathsheba and the prophet, Nathan, go to David on his deathbed and persuade him to name Solomon to be the next king. Adonijah does not go quietly. He devises a scheme to give himself greater legitimacy as David’s heir by claiming for himself a young woman who has been David’s companion in the time of his final illness. When Solomon hears this, he has Adonijah killed. The throne is his.
This is the background for this morning’s passage. A bloody path leads from David to Solomon. We use the word “wisdom” to describe the character of King Solomon. In Hebrew the word is “hokmah.” And hokmah has another sense, a slightly different meaning. It can mean wise. It can also mean: cunning. Wily. Crafty. Shrewd. Even, deceitful.
So, what version of hokmah is in play when the Lord visits Solomon his dream? “Ask what I should give you,” God demands. Dream-Solomon certainly has a way with words. He replies with all the flowery speech of a wide-awake politician, describing his father David, as one who “walked before [God] in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart…” Solomon praises God for giving David “a son to sit on his throne today” [1 Kings 3:6]. A fair bit of forgetfulness, if not outright whitewashing, informs that version of history.
Solomon continues: “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. … Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” [1 Kings 3:7, 9]. I am only a little child, Solomon protests. I don’t know my right hand from my left.
OK. It is possible that, in the face of this tremendous elevation in his status—won at a significant cost of blood—Solomon may well have felt out of his element, incapable of the task. Fair enough. He wouldn’t be the first public servant or the last to feel that way. It’s normal—even healthy—to feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of leadership. And if Solomon’s dream-self is having this kind of conversation—you can be sure it was on his mind.
Whatever the truth of Solomon’s motivations, conscious or subconscious, God is most pleased. Because Solomon has asked for wisdom, and not riches or honor, God’s plan is to give him the whole package—wisdom, riches, honor, and even—if he plays his cards right—a long life.
Solomon has it all. He is king. He possesses a wise and discerning mind. He will become so fabulously rich that his wealth will be proverbial, something we still refer to, to indicate unimaginable riches, three thousand years later. And in an era where the number of wives a man had was directly proportional to his wealth, Solomon had 300 wives and 700 concubines. Solomon has it all.
Now meet someone who does not have it all. Who, in fact, has nearly nothing. Immediately after the description of the dream and God’s promise to Solomon, we meet two nameless prostitutes. To be a prostitute in the biblical era is to be a woman utterly alone. In the ancient Middle East, well-being and security are possible almost exclusively through a woman’s connection to a man, ideally her husband, but perhaps another male relative—father, brother, son. Women are not able to own land. They are not able to own or run businesses. Women without a male relative are, as Blanche DuBois would say, dependent on the kindness of strangers.
The laws of Leviticus and elsewhere make it clear that such women are to be cared for and protected by the community—they are to be given opportunities to glean. They are to be given food and shelter. The presence of prostitutes in this story tells us something important: it tells us that these laws are not being widely obeyed. The “haves” are not sharing their abundance with the “have-nots.” Prostitution is a last ditch attempt to survive.
These women, who live together in one house, have given birth, and each of them has borne a son. Which means, that, at last, they each have something of value. Of course, true help is years and years away—the sons have to grow up, and make their own way in the world before they can actually care for their mothers. Still. Each woman has a male child, in a world in which maleness is the ticket to survival. The birth of these children must have been experienced as an incredible blessing, a sign that perhaps, God is looking out for the women after all.
And here this reading becomes painful, for so many women, and so many men, who know this kind of searing loss.
One of the babies dies. And then, the mother of that child switches the babies, a tiny cold body exchanged for a tiny warm one.
And now they are before the king. Wise Solomon. Cunning Solomon. Solomon, whose way to the throne was paved by the use of the sword.
Should it surprise and shock us that Solomon’s impulse is to bring a sword to this case? And are we to believe that, if one of the women had not cried out, had not taken on the part of an angel to stay Solomon’s hand, that he would not have, in fact, done exactly what he proposed to do? Treat a living child as an inert piece of property, as if this were a dispute over the last piece of pie?
But a woman does cry out. A woman with nothing, who has had a few hours of joy as a mother, cries out to say, No. Let the child live. Let her have it. I will leave here with nothing, except the knowledge that I gave life to this baby and didn’t let it be taken away.
She did this because, the text tells us, “Her compassion burned within her.” We’ve talked about this before, but you know me. I never get tired of bringing up Hebrew when it makes a difference to our understanding of a story. The Hebrew word translated “compassion” here is “rachamim.” The word is a plural for “womb,” so the sense is something like, “because womb-love for her son burned within her.” The implication—the strong implication—is that the real mother, the true mother, is the mother whose womb burned with love for her child.
That word, compassion, is most often used of God in scripture. Generally speaking, as far as the bible is concerned, it’s God whose womb burns with love for us.
But I’d like, at this point, to put in a word on behalf of those whose wombs were not involved in the process of becoming parents. Like, for instance, fathers. And adoptive parents, people like my mom and dad. God, fathers, teachers, foster parents, scout leaders, coaches, people who adopt—all these, I truly believe, can have that deep compassion and love for children, regardless of whether they share DNA or have the same nose. Which leads me to believe, something else is going on here.
It’s happened again. Scripture has, once more, given us a glimpse of the love of God shining through just about the least likely person in the story. And it’s not Solomon. Solomon may be wise, or cunning, or just plain impatient with these bickering women who are taking up his time. He is not the one who shows us what the love of God looks like. That would be the mother who is ready to give up her child rather than see him harmed. She is the one who shows us the kind of love that relinquishes its own claims—to ownership, or to being the one in the right. Hers is the kind of love that gives up her hopes of gain, so that the one she loves might have life, even if it is life without her. This nameless prostitute might well be the patron saint of birth mothers.
Solomon is wise. Solomon is cunning. And he will continue to wow and impress people with his wisdom, in all kinds of situations. All the people will stand in awe of him.
No one will stand in awe of the prostitute as she gathers her baby up in her arms and takes him home. People will stand aside as she walks by, so as to not be associated with her. But within her, this woman who isn’t even on the fringes of polite society, burns with the love of God.
Maybe the wisdom of God burns within her too. Proverbs tells us,
Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks… [Proverbs 1:20-21]
In the presence of wise King Solomon, this woman spoke. And the words she spoke clued us in, not only to the nature of love of God, but the nature of God’s wisdom, revealed time and again where we least expect to see it. Thanks be to God. Amen.