Michael Kinnucan

Solomon and Equity


ISSUE 16 | STUPIDITY | MAY 2012

King Solomon, at the beginning of his reign, went up to a high place and offered a great sacrifice to the Lord. The Lord came to him in a dream and offered to grant him anything he might ask.

6 And Solomon said, Thou hast shewed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee; and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day.

7 And now, O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.

8 And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude.

9 Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?

Solomon’s profession of ignorance, his plea for wisdom, itself reveals great wisdom. He understands the impossible position of the king, raised up out of the numberless multitude to sit in judgment over them; he understands that no man is worthy of such a position on his own authority. He knows why God has made this offer to him among all men: not because he is exalted over the people but because he is God’s servant among the people. Finally, he knows that an offer is always also a temptation. The thousand other things he could have asked for—wealth, power, victory, immortality—would have condemned him. God, pleased with his answer, explains this:

11 And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment;

12 Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.

13 And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days.

14 And if thou wilt walk in my ways, to keep my statutes and my commandments, as thy father David did walk, then I will lengthen thy days.

Solomon receives both what he asked and what he refrained from asking, because he refrained from asking it. In offering anything, God tempted Solomon almost as profoundly as he had tempted Abraham when he demanded everything in the form of Isaac. Solomon, just because he understood himself to be “but a little child,” passed the test.

Section 2: Solomon’s Joke

Solomon immediately shows how wise he has become:

15 And Solomon awoke; and, behold, it was a dream. And he came to Jerusalem, and stood before the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and offered up burnt offerings, and offered peace offerings, and made a feast to all his servants.

16 Then came there two women, that were harlots, unto the king, and stood before him.

17 And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house.

18 And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also: and we were together; there was no stranger with us in the house, save we two in the house.

19 And this woman’s child died in the night; because she overlaid it.

20 And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me, while thine handmaid slept, and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom.

21 And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear.

22 And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and the living is my son. Thus they spake before the king.

23 Then said the king, The one saith, This is my son that liveth, and thy son is the dead: and the other saith, Nay; but thy son is the dead, and my son is the living.

24 And the king said, Bring me a sword. And they brought a sword before the king.

25 And the king said, Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

26 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.

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

28 And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.

Solomon is faced with an impossible judgment on a matter of the greatest weight: a living child. To understand the depth of his wisdom in this crisis, I think we must keep in mind that he extricates himself from it by telling a joke.

A joke, first of all, about the nature of justice. “Hey, you each have equal claim—so I’ll just give each of you her fair share and call it a day!” We might say: “To act justly is to treat everyone equally. Justice is impartiality.” This is true, but it begs the question. Suppose Solomon had suggested that the women flip a coin to determine who got the child. In one way, this method would have treated them equally: each would have had precisely a fifty/fifty chance. In another way, it would have been the height of iniquity: one woman would have risked the greatest possible misfortune, the loss of her own child, and the other would have risked almost nothing, someone else’s child. To treat the women “equally” when they are in fact as unequal as possible—when one is the mother and the other is not—would be a farce.

On one level, then, Solomon is telling a version of Anatole France’s famous joke: “The law in its infinite majesty forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” The equality of the rule, applied to the real difference of concrete cases, ceases to be equality. France’s joke is usually told in the service of the political left, of course: bourgeois formal equality as alibi for the systematic inequality of individual wealth under capitalism. But the problem runs deeper than the particular injustices produced by particular rules, and is not restricted to the political realm: justice cannot mean acting according to a rule, always acting the same way in the same circumstances, because the circumstances are never the same. 1 A decision made according to a general rule is always a cop-out, a retreat from the demand for justice. Justice cannot be blind. The imperative to treat everyone equally becomes something like its opposite: it requires that we give to each what is proper to him (and only to him).

But this seems impossible—who knows the hearts and minds of men well enough to know what is proper? This of course is the second aspect of Solomon’s joke. The “impossibility” of justice does not prevent the act of judgment from taking place; the world constantly demands judgment, urgently in each case. The decision, premature, crude and approximate though it may be, will be made, and it is the king’s responsibility to make it.

Hence Solomon’s joke is also about the nature of kingship. The people come to the king demanding justice—but justice is impossible, the king’s too stupid. What, then, can they expect from him? A great deal. He may not be able to resolve the conflict, but he most certainly can end it. The king’s word may or may not be just; what it always is is final. Solomon offers to cut the Gordian knot, one might say—only here the Gordian knot is a child’s body. When he executes his judgment there will be nothing left to dispute, just blood on the floor and wailing. A king decides conflicts not in the manner of God but in the manner of fate; he possesses the overwhelming force to create order in the absence of justice. We are all equal before the king the way we are all equal before death, because the king wields death and none of us can escape it. But to pretend that the order produced by this equality is justice would be to make a desert and call it peace. Solomon’s judgment, in its hyberbolic violence, makes this difference clear.

A just judgment would give to each what is proper; Solomon mocks his own inability to deliver such a judgment by exaggerating his own stupidity. A royal judgment would be called just because it is grounded in violence; Solomon mocks such a pretense by rendering a judgment whose crude violence is patently unjust. Solomon’s offer is a dark joke about the possibility of human justice: law will never approximate justice because law cannot be justice any more than the king can be God.

Section 3: Solomon’s Feint

Obviously, Solomon’s parody of justice is merely a feint. By pretending to offer to kill the child, and with the help of a rather trivial psychological insight concerning motherhood, Solomon manages to render a manifestly just decision: to give the child to the right woman. This “success” is, I think, generally taken to be the “point” of the story and the essence of the wisdom it demonstrates: Solomon demonstrates that an intelligent ruler can discover what belongs to whom even in a tough case like this one, if he tries. On this reading, the critique of human justice implied in Solomon’s joke is erased in what follows: the terrifying moment when a child’s life hangs in the balance is itself erased by a happy ending. I would like to suggest that Solomon’s wisdom is a bit wiser than this reading implies, and its lesson for us proportionally more significant.

Consider that the crime of the false mother took the form of an exchange: a dead child for a living one, her own for another’s. Different children are, for her, exchangeable, hence in principle comparable; they are of the order of property. They are valuable but not invaluable. And the equality of the law can be meaningful in questions of property as it cannot in judgments on souls: in a similar dispute over a piece of land, dividing the land equally between the two parties or drawing lots to decide who gets it might seem a fair compromise.

Solomon’s feint treats the child as property to be divided and allotted, and in accepting it the false mother reveals herself to be precisely what she was when she committed her crime. Of course, the child differs from a piece of land not only because he is invaluable but because he is indivisible: a split child is no child at all, just a corpse. But the false mother’s spiteful willingness to accept this (“Let it be neither mine nor thine”) remains within the logic of property: Property can change hands, it attains its value just because it is one’s own and not another’s, hence it can be the object of envy. The false mother could not bear that another should have a child while she had none; she would rather that no one at all have a child, since then at least they would be equal. The injustice of Solomon’s feint corresponds intimately to the iniquity of the crime he must judge. 2

The true mother is different: for her the child is beyond value. She does not merely love the child “more” than the false mother, but in an opposite way; she would rather the child live as another’s possession than die as her own. Her heart’s desire is the child himself—that he should survive and flourish—while the other woman’s desire is for her own possession of the child. She would die for him, while the other would not. A dead child and one who is not your possession seem almost the same to the false mother, but the true mother would lose her child in order to save him. For the true mother her child is more proper than any property; she proves this precisely in giving him up.

Solomon’s feint applies the logic of equality to a case in which equality would be the opposite of justice. His decision is acceptable to one woman just because she is not a mother and unacceptable to the other just because she is. Solomon’s parody of justice is proper to each of them, in the sense that it creates a moment in which each of them shows herself to be who she is. He judges them not by establishing the prior facts of the case but by making present the difference to be judged. A sign of this: Solomon’s judgment would remain just even if the woman to whom he gave the child was not the biological mother, even if DNA testing were to refute him . In a moment of crisis, one woman spoke as a mother and the other did not; the child is proper to the one who spoke properly. In Solomon’s court the women passed judgment upon themselves.

Section 4: Solomon and God

If Solomon has learned wisdom from God, he has evidently learned by example. Depending on one’s theology, one might imagine that God could have judged Solomon’s worthiness for royalty and wealth through His omniscience, simply by looking into the depths of Solomon’s heart. But this is not how God chose to judge. Instead, He made him an open offer and thus solicited a decision through which Solomon himself was required to ask what it meant to be God’s chosen king. Solomon answered as follows: To be king is not, first of all, to be powerful or victorious, but to be the one who judges well, who delivers God’s justice here on earth. And such a task is almost impossible. The king may well possess and distribute wealth, power, and goods, but justice is above all these, and justice is not in his gift.

The judgment of Solomon reflects both the insight with which he asked God for wisdom—his knowledge that it is beyond his power to execute justice, that he must seek God’s help to be king—and the insight he gained from God’s example. God judged him by letting him judge himself; Solomon offers the same opportunity to those he judges. It is this that his people saw when “they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment.”


1 It is well known that certain early law codes took no account of intention: murdering someone and killing him accidentally were equally criminal and were punished in the same way. This strikes us as an injustice. In a sense, though, it demonstrates a clearer recognition of the nature of law than our own legal system, with its obtuse and awkward methods of determining what was in the soul of the killer. (Murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, negligence, manslaughter, temporary insanity, clemency toward criminals who were abused as children…) Such distinctions respond to the demand for justice but cannot deliver it; a code of law must apply equally, but no two murderers are alike.

2 The function of Solomon’s feint parallels the function of esotericism in certain works of political philosophy. (I’m thinking of Plato, Spinoza, and Nietzsche.) What, after all, is the purpose of a text which hides its message? The standard interpretations are either embarrassing (the philosopher is pleased to separate the stupid from the smart in his audience) or contingent (the philosopher feared persecution for heterodoxy and therefore hid his real thought from the censors—an explanation which at any rate fails for Nietzsche, who need have feared no political reprisal.) But I think esotericism is neither a dry exercise in elitism nor a circumstantial necessity of the work. In the Phaedrus, Plato addresses a problem intrinsic to writing: a written work speaks the same words to whoever happens to read it, which is patently ridiculous, since people are different. In our terms: writing is essentially unjust. Plato’s dialogues represent a solution to this problem, since they speak differently to different readers. More specifically: they speak in one way to those who believe that they are open to all equally, and another way to those who are willing to take the risk of the esoteric reading, who refuse to read according to what most reasonable readers would most reasonably think. In this sense they are both analyses and enactments of justice.