The Magazine

Wisdom of the Sage

The idea, and the reality, of King Solomon.

Jun 17, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 38 • By AARON ROTHSTEIN
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In the best-known court case in the Hebrew Bible, two women come to King Solomon, the wise, wealthy, and powerful king with the following quandary: One of their children died in his sleep, while the other remains alive. There are no witnesses, and each mother claims that the living child is hers. Solomon requests a sword to cut the baby in half; but the real mother, “overcome with compassion for her son,” the Bible tells us, relinquishes custody in order to save the baby’s life. This woman, Solomon concludes, is the true mother. 

‘Solomon’s Judgment’ by Franc Caucig (ca. 1817)

‘Solomon’s Judgment’ by Franc Caucig (ca. 1817)

In the 1920s, Judge Vincent Brennan, a former Republican congressman, presided over a similar case. Steven Weitzman—professor of Jewish culture and religion at Stanford, and author of multiple books on the Bible and Judaism—describes this dilemma in Solomon: Two mothers presented to Judge Brennan’s courtroom were fighting over custody of the same child; in a Solomon-like move, the judge threatened to send the child to an orphanage. He recorded both women in order to study their reactions with psychological experts, and awarded custody to the woman who, Weitzman writes, was “crying, sobbing, lips quivering—rather than to the other woman, who stood expressionless.” But the judge turned out to be wrong, and the woman who gained custody of the child was not, in fact, the real mother.

Judge Brennan’s attempt to imitate Solomon was misguided, as Weitzman points out. We now know that parents form deep bonds with their adoptive children, in some cases deeper than the biological bonds formed between the real mother and her child. The more interesting question, and the thrust of Weitzman’s book, however, is not case-based. Rather: What is it about King Solomon that moved Judge Brennan, along with many others throughout history, to attempt to replicate or understand the king’s wisdom? 

Weitzman provides other examples of how the story of Solomon has inspired scholars and explorers. Christopher Columbus petitioned Ferdinand and Isabella to search for Solomon’s gold in Ophir and Tarshish, mysterious locations in the Bible where Solomon ostensibly stored his wealth. In a letter to the Spanish king and queen, Columbus outlined his motive: to “know the secrets of the world.” In the 1870s, a German geologist named Karl Mauch went in search of Solomon’s treasure in Africa. Currently, Thomas Levy of the University of San Diego and a Jordanian archaeologist named Mohammad Najjar are excavating for Solomon’s wealth in Jordan. 

But it is not just Solomon’s mysterious wealth that we have pursued. In addition to Brennan’s derivative judgment strategy, Christian, Islamic, and Jewish stories arose out of an attempt to describe or comprehend the kind of wisdom which Solomon possessed. In one Islamic tale, for instance, Solomon, as a precocious child, is cleverer than his father, King David. In another story, King David gives a poor widow a bag of meal. On her way home, the wind takes away the bag, leaving the woman with nothing. Solomon brings her to his father. He convinces his father to give him the scepter, crown, and throne in order to gain the power of the king. Solomon calls upon the wind and asks why it took away the woman’s meal. The wind replies that it used the meal to plug a leak on a ship that was filled with passengers on their way to Mecca. Solomon pardons the wind, and David gives the poor widow another bag of meal. 

Here, Solomon not only has the wisdom and power to call upon the wind, but he even convinces his father to temporarily give up the throne in order to resolve this case, thereby demonstrating his superior powers of persuasion. (In another story, the origins of which are traced to Abyssinia, Solomon’s wisdom extends beyond worldly talents; confronted by a demon, he destroys it through his hidden knowledge of mystical prayer recitation.) 

Given this history of intellectual and geographical exploration, the subtitle of SolomonThe Lure of Wisdom—comprises more of the interesting and relevant aspects of this work than do descriptions of Solomon himself. Weitzman attempts to use different methodologies to analyze the king’s biography, such as Freudian analysis, biblical criticism, and rabbinical interpretation—which can ultimately be more disorganized and confusing than elucidating. This is because, as Weitzman writes, “after more than a century of textual and archaeological investigation, we know virtually nothing about the historical Solomon.” Thus, any biographical analysis will be almost all guesswork. Moreover, the Bible itself offers little information about this apparently integral figure’s wisdom and life. 

The Bible describes what we do know. After Solomon’s rule is established, God comes to him in a dream and asks him what he desires. Instead of requesting wealth or power or the death of his enemies, Solomon asks for “an understanding mind to judge Your people, to distinguish between good and bad.” God, impressed by what Solomon does not ask for, grants Solomon riches, might, and wisdom beyond simply the ability to distinguish between good and bad. “There has never been anyone like you before, nor will anyone like you rise again,” God says. He gives Solomon wisdom “as vast as the sands on the seashore.” 

But we have only two examples of this: Solomon’s adjudication between the two mothers, and his deep knowledge of “beasts,” “fishes,” “trees,” and the rest of the natural world. Otherwise, there is no concrete evidence of Solomon’s great wisdom. Even the queen of Sheba, thought to be located in present-day Yemen, hears of Solomon’s wisdom and comes to “test him with hard questions”—though we are never told what these questions are, merely that Solomon could answer all of them.

Eventually, despite his unparalleled and unexplainable wisdom, and his wealth, wide territorial holdings, and architectural accomplishments, God takes away much of Solomon’s kingdom. Solomon accumulated many foreign women in his harem—700 royal wives and 300 concubines from all different nations of the known world—who “turned away Solomon’s heart after other gods.” Solomon did this despite an explicit passage in Deuteronomy which forbids the king from having “many wives, lest his heart go astray.” 

Weitzman explores why someone so wise could violate such an obvious prohibition: It is not in spite of his wisdom, but because of his wisdom, that Solomon is led astray, Weitzman suggests. Perhaps Solomon believed himself wise enough to accumulate a surfeit of wives while still avoiding temptation. “Whatever it is that Solomon understood about the world or God or the biblical text,” writes Weitzman, “might even be what got him into trouble by removing the limits that normally constrain where the mind can go.” 

This concept pervades Judaic thought. The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” Orthodox Jews do not carry money on the Sabbath, not because it is a grave sin against God but because it will prevent them from being in a position to buy something, an action associated with work, which is expressly forbidden. Solomon reasoned away the fence. Since Solomon knew the explanation for the prohibition against many wives—to avoid idolatry—he thought he could concentrate on this larger purpose rather than worry about avoiding lots of foreign women. In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. 

Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding—a biblical version of the Faustian tale. Still, we share Solomon’s desire for wisdom. This cryptic figure lures us to travel the world in search of his gold, or base a court judgment on his one known ruling despite the dearth of information on how he judged or what he knew. Perhaps it is because of our curiosity about what exactly his wisdom entailed that we search for some way to explain it. And, paradoxically, Weitzman observes, we interpret the Solomon story, and come to the conclusion that “curiosity can go wildly astray,” because of our own curiosity. 

Like Solomon, we push the boundaries of knowledge to “know the secrets of the world,” with many subsequent benefits. But, aware of the possible dangers that result from pushing these boundaries, we at once pull back. We develop nuclear weapons, yet seek to eliminate them; we sequence the genome, but are uneasy about the possibility of eugenics. Despite our ignorance about Solomon and his wisdom, we are drawn to this story of a quintessentially enigmatic human figure, with a life that “mirrors our own strivings and doubts.”

Aaron Rothstein is a student at the Wake Forest medical school.