What King Solomon Got Wrong About Love, We Get Wrong About Jerusalem

We all know the story well. It has come to represent the very epitome of wisdom and justice.

Two new mothers described in 1 Kings 3:16-28 as harlots, implying that the children they had recently given birth to were born out of wedlock, perhaps in a brothel, petition the sagacious King Solomon to settle their dispute arising from the claim that each has over a child they assert as their own. The king, renown for his prodigious wisdom, offers what seems to be a scrupulously pragmatic solution; an appeal to moderation. He calls for his sword so that the living child might be cut in half, and so that both women might each have an equitable share.

Of course, we also know what happens next. The true motivations of the women are revealed by the abhorrent “solution” offered by the king. The story concludes:

“Then spoke the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her heart yearned upon her son, and she said: ‘Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it.’ But the other said: ‘It shall be neither mine nor thine; divide it.’

Then the king answered and said: ‘Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it: she is the mother thereof.'”

And beyond that, the text is silent. All seem satisfied with the justice that has been done. But has justice been really done?

This is the point in the story where the contemporary reader might exercise their moral imagination by considering what happened that night when the two women returned home together with the single living child.

It is easy to criticize the woman who so callously calls for the death of the child before the king, as well as her original deception, but we might also ask, where is the justice for this woman? Where is the compassion for a mother who was still mourning the death of her newborn?  How might we consider her loss and grief as a factor in deciding what is just? How might we better understand her motivations for acting as she did?

And what of the best interest of the child? Being a single mom in the 10th century BCE could not have been any easier then than it is today. It takes a village to raise a child. No one does it alone. So, one might imagine that after some time had passed, the women reconciled with each other, and both took part in raising the child together. In this way, perhaps, both women were given the opportunity to love and nurture the child, and for the woman who lost her child, a chance to heal, too.

It is with this story in mind that I turn to the discussions in recent days about the sovereignty of Jerusalem. I think of that ancient city where the wise King Solomon built his temple, and that in later centuries, hosted Jesus and Muhammad. As I observe and reflect, I cannot help but concede the tragic limitations of the zero-sum thinking which frames so much of the discourse.

The problem with the “wise” solution offered by that wisest of men is that it assumes that love is a zero-sum game. It assumes that love is about ownership. It assumes that the gain for one must necessarily come at the expense of the other. But love is not a zero-sum game. Love for a child, as for a community or a city, is not a limited resource that is depleted as it is expended. To the contrary, it increases the more it is given.

This speculative addendum to the story of King Solomon is meant to remind us that zero-sum games are rarely our wisest or most just choice. Perhaps we might consider that our paradigms of justice are just insufficient. Maybe we need to develop new concepts of justice that seek win/wins, and eschew win/loses, as we cultivate a belief in the mutability of constraints. Perhaps, it is only by seeing these situations through a wider lens that we might gain the wisdom to empathize with all stakeholders. Anything less should not be confused with justice.

It is my hope and prayer that Jerusalem, like the child, might grow to be nurtured by the love of all who wish to offer it. I hope and pray that the city itself might provide the occasion to transform conflict, violence, and injustice into a beacon of learning, sanctity, and peace.

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