Friday, June 17, 2005

The Wisdom of Solomon (original, creative rewrite, explication)

A Wise Ruling

Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 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. 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.
During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 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 to her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son – and he was dead! But when I looked closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
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.
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.’”
Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword fro the king. He then gave an order: “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”
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!”
Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.”
When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw he had wisdom from God to administer justice.

The Wisdom of Solomon

(An extract from the writings of Jehoshaphat, son of Ahilud, recorder to the King)

In the fourth year of his reign, two women appeared before his Highness King Solomon, and asked for judgment.

The first approached the King and said, “Your majesty, I am a poor woman; I live in a hut near the edge of the city. Four days ago I gave birth to a boy. Last night there was a storm, and this other woman, this rich woman, who was passing by with her servants, asked for shelter for the night. That night she gave birth to a son. I let her sleep in my room, on my bed.
During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. 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 to her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son – and he was dead! But when I looked closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.”
The other woman approached his majesty and said, “Your Highness, it is true that I slept in this woman’s hut, and I went to sleep with my son by my side. This morning when I woke, this woman was mad with grief because her son had died. Then she saw my baby at my breast and started shouting that I had taken her baby. But the truth is that the living baby is mine, and the dead one is hers.”
But the other woman insisted, “No, the living one is mine, and the dead one is hers.”
They started to fight, and Ahijah, son of Shisha, who was secretary for that day, stopped the fight and separated them.

Then his majesty spoke. “Leave us. We shall consider the matter.”

The women were taken away, and the King turned to his personal adviser Zahud, son of Nathan.

“Well, Zahud?”
“The second woman, the rich one, is Abigail wife of Shimei son of Ela -”
“The district governor,” murmured the King.
“Yes, your majesty. She is famous for her kindness and generosity, and her charity to the poor. The other one is Tamar. She is… a prostitute. We are not sure who the father of her child is.”
“The reputations of these women cannot decide who is right or wrong, Zahud.”
“Yes, sire, but they are indicative of their characters, and that is relevant.”
“True. Have you spoken to the other people present that night?”
“Abigail’s people were outside the hut, in tents. The women were alone in the hut, except for Abishag, the wet nurse for Abigail’s child. She says she would have woken if Abigail had gotten up, and says that she did not.”
“Of course, she could be lying and following her mistress’ orders.”
“True, sire.”
“So there are no witnesses, except the baby, and he cannot tell us anything.”

The King rose from his throne, and started to pace the floor.
“Sire, there is one thing you must consider.”
“Yes, Zahud?” said the King.
“Shimei is governor of the district of Benjamin. As you know, this last year there have been uprisings and rebellions there, and Shimei has always done your majesty’s will and suppressed them.”
The King turned in anger and said, “And you think I should reward him with a son?”
“Not reward, sire. But if Shimei is denied a boy who may be his only son and heir, then he may not carry out your majesty’s wishes with such… devotion.”
“Such men are traitors, and I can have them executed.”
“Which would not be wise, sire, for Shimei is a popular man, and to wrong him would be to strengthen the rebellions.”
“But what of the truth, Zahud? I cannot simply ignore it. I swore I would rule my people wisely.”
“Yes, sire, think of the people. The kingdom cannot suffer the rebellion to grow. Be just to your people, your majesty.”
“What of justice to the mother? Does she not have a right to her son?”
“And what of justice to the son, your Highness? Abigail is a rich woman, and a good one. This child can grow up strong and wise under her care. Tamar is a prostitute, she is poor; with her, the child may die of hunger, or disease. She has nothing to offer this child.”
“Do not forget, Zahud, that my father’s father was but a shepherd, and yet my father David, by the grace of God, rose to be King of Israel and Judah.”
“Yes, your majesty,” said Zahud, and was silent.

“Truth, and justice. What must I–”

And suddenly the King smiled, and said, “I know how I may determine both.”

He turned in triumph, and said, “Zahud, I will have those women called before me. Then I shall say that since I cannot determine who the mother is, I will have the child cut in half, and one half given to each woman.”
“Your Highness!”
“Patience, Zahud. The mother, moved by love for her child, will surrender the baby to the other woman rather than have any harm come to it. The other woman, motivated by spite, will agree to the division, reasoning that they both would have dead sons then. The mother is thus identified, and the child may go with she who loves him most.”

Zahud bowed deeply before the King, and said, “Truly, the Lord our God has made you wise, your majesty. But if I may ask, what if both women, moved by love for the child, ask, that he…”
“Be spared. If both women honestly believe that the boy is their son, then it is likely that Abigail’s son did die that night. The wet nurse, Abishag, seeing the baby lie dead, was afraid of losing her position, or perhaps wished only that her mistress be happy, and so changed the babies.”
Once again, Zahud bowed before the King. “Your are wise, sire. But, forgive my foolishness, permit me one more question, your majesty.”
“If that is indeed the case, that both women believe the boy to be truly theirs, and that the wet nurse changed the babies, what will you rule, sire?”


In detective fiction, the detective is the investigative agent. His/her aim is to determine the truth. In most detective fiction, the detective is also the moral centre of the narrative, and it is his moral framework that the reader uses to determine what is just or unjust. While the detective may not be called upon to dispense judgment and justice, the reader uses the implied moral structure of the text to pass mental judgment on the characters and their actions.

In the original ‘A Wise Ruling’, the truth and the action it dictates coincide with justice. Solomon, subjects the women to a simple test, observes their reactions and determines the truth, and thus the necessary justice. The characters are simplified and one dimensional: there are two prostitutes, one is a caring mother, the other a spiteful and jealous woman. The king is wise and just, and accessible to his people. The good people and the bad are clearly delineated.

It was this simplicity that attracted me to this story, which may be considered as one of the earliest detective stories. Real life, as well as latter day detective fiction, is rarely that straightforward, in terms of solution, or in terms of moral frameworks.

In my rewrite ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I complicate the text by introducing several possibilities and questions. What is the purpose of the detective? Is it to simply determine the truth, or to determine justice as well? Solomon’s position is of course complicated by the fact that he is not only a detective: he is also the judge. He must not only determine what is just – he must execute the appropriate action.

Even if we allow that the detective must concern himself with justice, at least to some extent, then the question is raised: what is justice? Is it justice to the individual or to society (the people of the kingdom)? After all justice is all about recognizing the consequences of your actions, and addressing them, so Solomon cannot afford to neglect how his actions may affect the kingdom. And even if justice means justice to the individual, which individual is that? The mother, or the son? And does justice to the son mean sending him with his birth mother, or with the woman who might do him the most good? Implicit in this of course are class judgments of the women involved. In ‘A Wise Ruling’ the women were both prostitutes, neither women had anything special to offer, and the consequences of the case were limited to the baby and the two women. In ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I had the women come from different social strata, in order to bring out prejudices that arise in almost every trial, formal or informal. A person’s background influences our perception of them; though in this story, like the original, Solomon himself remains kind and fair. Zahud, however, sees Abigail as more trustworthy woman, and a woman deserving of a judgment in her favour. Solomon, ever mindful of his own humble roots, is able to see past appearances.

The rewritten text also introduces a point which in the original had often bothered me – what if both women cared enough for the child to give it up? What would the King have done then? In my text I allow the King a way out – a third person is present in the hut, who may be the criminal. But that still leaves the King with a choice to make – should he announce the truth, or should he conceal it in the best interests of his people, and possibly in the best interests of the baby boy?

In the rewrite, except for Solomon himself, the characters are shown in shades of grey. Zahud seems prejudiced against the prostitute, but has the health of the state in mind. Abigail, the rich woman, may have stolen the baby, but she is famous for her charity and kindness. Tamar, the prostitute, may be a caring mother. And Abishag, who may have stolen the baby, may have been motivated either out of fear of losing her job, or out of love for her mistress. Just as the ‘right’ course of action is left uncertain, our moral judgments of the characters is problematic. Only Solomon is shown without flaws, though he has the burden of making a decision.

The rewrite has been presented as an excerpt from the writings of the King’s recorder, a man who would be nearly invisible, but constantly at his side. However, given his sensitive position, he would himself be ‘sensitive’ as to how the king was portrayed. To show the king as unfair to the poor, or inaccessible to them (note that it is the poor woman who is shown as bringing forward the case), would be bad – for the king’s image, and thus for him. This attribution accounts for the text delving into to the inner workings of the King’s court, as well as the uniformly positive portrayal of King Solomon. It also invites the reader to take everything narrated with a pinch of salt, though we are not shown any reason to doubt the veracity of the account.

I have renamed the account, for in this case, the moral framework having been complicated, the ruling that the King must make is not clear, and his final decision is not narrated, but is left to the reader’s imagination and judgment. The name ‘the Wisdom of Solomon’ was chosen because that is what Solomon was famous for, and that is what is being tested by this case – what is the wisest or best ruling?

Thus in ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, I raise several questions which I leave unanswered, and try to make the situation more real by complicating the case, and the characters involved. I leave it to the reader to impose his own moral framework on the text, and come up with the ‘wisest’ ruling.


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