Two Mothers, a Baby, a King and a Sword

At our Lenten study of Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Reframing Hope, we talked tonight about retelling the message, and the initial discussion topic was remembering a Bible story we learned early that remained important or vivid for us.

Mine is the one about the two mothers, the one baby, the wise Solomon and the sword. It’s the first Bible story I remember knowing, except for maybe baby Jesus in the manger. I remember asking my mother, “How did the mother kill her baby?” I remember trying to understand what my mother loved about the story, the way the real mother wanted the baby to live more than she wanted to have the baby herself.

I didn’t remember that the women were prostitutes. Someone left out that detail.
I did remember that Solomon was wise.
I didn’t remember any description of the real mother’s feelings, but here they are in the key verse, 1 Kings 3:26, rendered variously:

Then spake the woman whose the living child was unto the king, for her bowels yearned upon her son, and she said, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it. (KJV)

But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” (NRSV)

The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love 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!” (NIV 2011)

The real mother of the living baby was overcome with emotion for her son and said, “Oh no, master! Give her the whole baby alive; don’t kill him!”
    But the other one said, “If I can’t have him, you can’t have him—cut away!” (The Message, and Eugene Peterson, “cut away,” seriously?)

So we get the point, the one who is willing to see the baby subdivided is clearly not the real mother. The one who is willing to lose in order to save him is.

Raphael 1518-1519

I recognize that I have internalized this story as a way to move through the world. I’m not sure if that’s how my mother meant me to understand it. (I’m not sure why anyone was telling a very little child this story, either, though it’s featured on this church’s website under Children’s Corner.) But the point of the story is not how to be a better mother. The point of the story is that Solomon was smart enough to tell the difference between the real mother and the false one, and confident enough to render his judgment with authority. Oh, he is wise! He is wise. They could all see it, blessed by God with extraordinary wisdom.

I read the story to LP tonight, and she was horrified, though possibly amused by the yearning bowels of the King James Version. I didn’t feed her this story when she was young, just like I didn’t feed her beef tongue (a favorite of my mother’s) and my mother didn’t feed me beef liver (a favorite of *her* mother’s!). I asked her what story she remembers knowing for a long time, and she said Noah’s Ark, which of course is also horrifying in its own way. Just ask #1 Son, traumatized by the animals left behind to drown in Peter Spier’s picture book version. LP thought it was very mean of God to drown all those people. She remembers discussing it with me in my office at Small Church, years ago, telling me she thought it didn’t make sense.

I talked tonight at church about the way people make stories. Think of ancient people, people who knew death more matter-of-factly than we do. They hear of a flood, longer ago, and they hear it was massive, catastrophic, so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine how anyone or anything could have survived, but here they are, alive, so someone must have. And it’s a simple explanation, really, to think that God was on the team of the ones who made it, since God has all the power and the knowledge aforethought. And from these slender reeds, a story can be woven, complete with two of every creeping thing and the things with wings, and never mind the rest who drowned, the point is some survived!

We of the 21st Century live in expectation of survival, and find the deaths distressing, more distressing than the survival is satisfying.

Stories like Noah’s Ark don’t help us much, when we want to convince people our church, our faith, is worth trying, do they? They need so much explaining, even explaining away. If we’re going to retell the message, we need to figure out what really matters to us, which of our stories express something we actually want to share.

(By the way, there is some super-creepy artwork out there if you search Google images for “Solomon mothers.”)

5 thoughts on “Two Mothers, a Baby, a King and a Sword

  1. I do remember this story from fairly early in my childhood, but it's not the one that first came to mind. The story that was impressed into my memory was Jesus scolding the disciples for trying to turn the children away from him. I suspect that one really stuck because our household Bible (and later my own Bible) had a lovely illustrated plate of Jesus welcoming the children. The power of the visual.

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  2. Having been raised Catholic, it strikes me I didn't learn bible stories in quite the same way as my Protestant sistern. I remember Noah's ark, but the first thing I remember as being from the bible was the Beatitudes. And the story of the crucifixion. But more than these, I remember reading little books about the lives of the saints. I recall that Saint Agatha had her breasts ripped off. I was five when given these books.

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  3. My memory of that story is: in 1st grade my class went on a field trip to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. We were shown a huge (as I recall) painting of the scene, and the docent asked if anyone knew the story. I raised my hand and enlightened the group, and I remember saying, (in these words) that Solomon had said, "Cut the child in two, that each may have a half!" Everyone stared at me.~~Crickets~~One of those moments you never forget, when you realize that you are incomparably weird and you just told everyone so. (Maybe that's just me?) I have no idea how I knew the story (well, church was our entertainment, so I have SOME idea) or where I got those words at age 6. UGH. I love what you say about how we internalize stories. I have done that with stories of my family members…and it's not all that productive, in the long run. To put it mildly. Great writing.

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