A Tale of Two Harlots


Maybe that word doesn’t mean much of anything to you, and why should it? It’s Hebrew. It’s old. And if you are anything like me, you don’t really have much of a reason to look up old Hebrew words.

But as I sat down to do my Bible study for today, I found myself reading 1 Kings 3:16-28.

I recognized the story immediately.

I can still recall Mrs. Cline, my elementary Sunday School teacher presenting this story to us. I don’t remember every single lesson she ever taught, but there are a few that really stand out. She was an elderly woman who had spent her entire adulthood teaching elementary-aged children. Not only did she have a wealth of knowledge and experience, she was also a natural-born storyteller. So when she presented the dilemma of the two mothers who came before Solomon seeking wisdom, I was riveted.

However, today it wasn’t Mrs. Cline’s teaching prowess that got my attention, but rather that word, zanah, leaped out at me.

Well, okay, not so much that word. After all, I don’t read or speak Hebrew. But the word the Common English Bible translated it into certainly jumped out at me: prostitutes.

When Mrs. Cline presented this story to a bunch of eleven-year-olds, she didn’t use that terminology to describe them. They were mothers. I remember that very clearly … Mrs. Cline told us that two mothers came to Solomon. They both had newborn babies and one of the babies had died tragically. The one whose baby had died got up in the dead of night and switched the babies so that she could have the one who was alive. And that’s what brought these women to Solomon. They both were claiming to be the mother of the living child and they wanted Solomon to resolve the issue.

But Mrs. Cline never called these women prostitutes.

I went to my computer and looked up the word that had been used.


And then I looked up the meaning, and sure enough, the word translates as harlot, or prostitute.

Apparently, this particular word is used 83 times in scripture. I didn’t take the time to look them all up, but I randomly scrolled through and found a few. After all, words sometimes have a gentler connotation if used in a certain context. The context of the word is always important when translating from ancient Hebrew into modern English.

However, what I found was one example after another is that the word had been used to describe what amounts to an insult. In Judges 2, zanah is used to describe how God’s people had been unfaithful because “they played the harlot after other gods”. In Genesis, the word was used to describe how the sexual violation of Dinah had demeaned her, and then again to describe the level to which Tamar had to stoop in order to find Judah and seek justice. Over and over again zanah was used to describe the prostitution of a woman or the unfaithfulness of God’s people. No matter the context, the meaning was clear: zanah is meant to be negative.

I can’t say I blame Mrs. Cline for leaving it out of a lesson for eleven-year-olds that day. After all, the important part was not so much the profession of the two women in question as it was the justice handed down from Solomon.

Just before this story, God had offered to give the King anything he desired. Solomon could have asked for riches, for unlimited power, for an everlasting rule … but what he asks for is wisdom and understanding. God grants Solomon this request and then, as a reward for choosing wisely, showers him with other gifts of fame and wealth.

The story of these two women was meant to highlight just how much wisdom God had imparted on the king.

In a shrewd act, Solomon offers a solution that can only produce a winning result. In an age before DNA and blood typing, Solomon calls for a sword. He would give each woman half the child. Of course, this would be an end to the child, but Solomon suspected it wouldn’t go that far. Sure enough, one cries out, “If I can’t have him, no one can!” while another pleads with the king not to kill the child, even if it means the other woman would have him all to herself.

Solomon deduced that the woman who pleaded for the child’s life was the mother and that the child should be given to her. However, even if she wasn’t the biological child, who would argue that the child wasn’t in the best possible place? One woman would sacrifice the child rather than share him, the other would sacrifice her role as mother in order to save him. The child, no matter what, was in the best hands. That was the beauty of Solomon’s wisdom. Even if he was wrong, he was still making the right call.

Maybe, I thought, the fact that these women were also harlots didn’t actually matter.

After all, other than introducing them as harlots who lived together in the same house (a brothel, perhaps?) the scripture doesn’t pay any attention to their positions.

Solomon, as king, could have denounced them, taken the child from both, and given him to an upstanding family. Solomon could have preached about moral compasses and holy behavior. He could have ordered a scarlet letter sewn onto the dresses of both women and sent them away shamed.

But he doesn’t.

The fact that they are harlots, or prostitutes, doesn’t even seem to register on Solomon’s judgment (or radar).

As I laid the Bible down, I thought that maybe Mrs. Cline didn’t address the issue because Solomon didn’t. But then I had to ask why the writer of the scripture felt it so important to note their role in society, even if Solomon didn’t seem to take it into account.

It was important to someone. Why?

Maybe the importance of the women’s profession is only understood when placed beside Solomon’s silence on it. Maybe the reason Solomon didn’t address their disgraceful livelihoods was that their flaws and imperfections, at that moment, was a moot point. They had come to Solomon, crying for wisdom so that they could each be the mother of the still-breathing child.

I have to admit, growing up in the 1980s with the voice of the silent majority speaking through a megaphone about one’s moral compass, these women’s profession would not have gone unnoticed by most of the influential people in my spiritual circle. Both would have been deemed unfit mothers. Neither would have been viewed as deserving of the child unless they made dramatic and public denouncements of their sins and a very visible change in their lives. They would have been shamed for even coming forward. After all, people who choose to live such lives should expect just this sort of dilemma. Why clog the courts with these cases? Why bother the king or distract him from more important matters?

And yet, Solomon doesn’t mention their work, their lives, their life-choices. He proposes a test which reveals the one who has the child’s best interests at heart and deems her worthy to mother the child.

I realized that it is important that these two women were “harlots” and that it was equally as important that Solomon, with all the power of God’s wisdom behind him, didn’t speak about it.

Not only did Solomon have the wisdom to figure out what was best for the child, he also had the wisdom to know that he did not have the power or the authority to judge the condition of another’s soul.

Does this mean justice won’t be met?

Not at all. It will happen on God’s terms.

Does this mean Solomon was approving of prostitution by being soft on the issue?

Not at all. The writer deliberately chose a word that would let the reader know that what they were doing with their lives was inappropriate and a violation of social morals. A word closely tied to an insult was chosen and the connotation doesn’t go soft on them. It’s not that Solomon was tacitly approving of immoral behavior when he sent the women away without punishing them for their harlotry. Solomon was simply wise enough to know what he had the authority to judge and what he did not.

Maybe, I thought, I could learn a lot by listening a bit more deeply to Solomon’s silence and not just his words. I’m not sure how Mrs. Cline could have taught that to an eleven-year-old me, so I don’t blame her for not trying. But thirty years later, it’s time I mature enough to hear more than just the raw action of a suspenseful story.

It’s time I listen to the silence, because God is often in those silences.

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