16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.
23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. 25 The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” 26 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.” 27 Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” 28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. 1 Kings 3:16-28 (NRSV)
The Text in Its Context
The wisdom of Solomon was renowned in Israel and this passage focuses on the celebrated “judgement of Solomon” as a specimen of his wisdom. The passage tells the story of two prostitutes, both recent mothers living together, who come before the king in a quest for him to determine the “real” mother of the surviving child when one of the babies dies.
In Israel and Judah, kings were believed to serve as God’s agents to rule the nation with righteousness and justice. They were seen as an extension of God’s rule on earth and therefore part of religious leadership.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, a prostitute was an accepted though deprecated member of the Israelite society (Gen. 38:14; Josh. 2:1ff.; I Kings 3:16–27). The Bible refers to the professional harlotry of Rahab without passing any moral judgment. Nevertheless, harlotry was a shameful profession. Treating an Israelite woman like a prostitute was considered a grave offence (Gen. 34:31) and Israelites were warned against prostituting their daughters (Lev. 19:29).
The two women, referred to as harlots/prostitutes where probably unmarried as there is no mention of their husbands who would have been the ones mandated to fight for their wives. There is also the fact that they are said to live together in one house.
King Solomon is faced with a very difficult case and he tries to gauge which of the women loved the child best by appealing to the two women’s maternal instincts. Some writers opine that the women were possibly innkeepers who may have prostituted themselves on the side because prostitutes would not have been tolerated by Solomon. Nor, they suggest, were prostitutes expected to bear children and when they did, they were not known to care about or display any form of affection for their children as displayed by these two.
Eastern monarchs, as with the Mosaic elders, often sat at the gate of the city to give judgement and so were accessible to all applicants. So the leaders at the time generally administered justice in person, at least in cases considered difficult and “often would appeal to the principles of human nature when there are at a loss otherwise to find a clue to the truth or see clearly their way through a mass of conflicting testimony.”
It is possible that the two women, already deemed to be of lower status by virtue of their professions, had presented their cases to inferior courts who could not make a judgement and they brought their case to the king as the supreme court, famous for his wisdom.
The Text in Our Context
As in Israel, in our context, religious leaders are believed to serve at the pleasure of God as God’s servants. In fact, many, who are male, tend to be referred to as “men of God.” In Israel, Kings like Solomon were believed to be chosen by God to serve God’s mandate.
As in Israel, prostitution is considered shameful and also illegal in South Africa even though processes are underway to decriminalise sex work. Prostitution/sex work is stigmatised and illegal and yet widely practised. Prostitutes are a particularly marginalised section of the population. In patriarchal contexts, such as that of South Africa, any woman who refuses to toe the “cultural line,” or “religious line,” or conform to “acceptable norms” may be called a prostitute. In a recent case in South Africa, a single woman who had her second baby by a man different from the father of her first child was “dragged” on social media by the “morality police” and labelled “loose” and a prostitute. All this, in a country where many men have babies with several different women but this is never regarded as male prostitution.
Poverty, inequality, and prostitution/sex work are inextricably linked, with most sellers of sex being female and poor.. For many centuries women in South Africa and beyond were the face of poverty. This also means that they are the prevalent gender when it comes to sex work. Many people in Johannesburg, a metropolitan city with a high population of immigrants seeking to eke out a living in what is commonly known as ‘Egoli’, the City of Gold, find out to their distress, that all that glitters is definitely not gold. They find themselves unemployed and destitute. In desperation, many women are drawn into prostitution by exploitative pimps and some by the basic need to put food on the table.
Not only are prostitutes marginalised, but they also tend to be treated as immoral outcasts, a blight to society.
This passage, however, presents us with the paradox of prostitutes before a king. It paints a most unorthodox picture that at first reading, may cause one to recoil from the narrative. At second glance we check ourselves for judging a book by its cover. Here we have two women labelled prostitutes. One, the text presents seemingly more caring for the welfare of the baby than the other ‘doubly wicked’ one who is presented as ‘a lying, cruel prostitute’. We are not told why they were prostitutes; in fact we are not told their stories. They are presented as women, nameless women for that matter; women who will go to any lengths to keep their baby (at least one of them!). Might the second prostitute have opted for the division of the living son, only to dare Solomon, knowing (hoping) that he would not kill the baby? Could she have been going through post-natal depression?
The life circumstances of these women are such that they may not know the men who fathered the children. But then, who are the potential fathers? Every man! Political leaders, religious leaders, the police, doctors, teachers etc.
Nevertheless, knowing that they were socially unacceptable, these two women still put themselves out there to seek justice for themselves and the surviving baby.
Solomon treats them with dignity and taps into their emotions and maternal instincts whilst disregarding their status as prostitutes, to give them a fair hearing. As a leader, Solomon goes deeper than meets the eye; looking beyond what is deemed socially unpalatable to the people before him. Wisdom is found when one goes deeper than the superficial.
A picture is painted here of leadership that gives audience to those considered the scum of society; takes time to listen to their issue and give judgement. We need leadership today that will be present with the marginalised, treat them with dignity, bring them from the periphery to the centre and give them fair treatment. We also need women like these two prostitutes who will fight to have their rights and the rights of their loved ones recognised and upheld.
The intersecting issues of being single, poor, female and a prostitute are prevalent in our society today and decriminalising sex work is but the first step towards acknowledging sex workers and affording them the human dignity they deserve.
Prostitutes before a king, paint a most unconventional picture. These were women, of somewhat unsavoury reputation, who courageously sought the intervention of the monarchy to resolve their dispute.
- Why do you think the two women were so determined to get a resolution to their case to the point of going before the king?
- What made these women, considered to be of questionable character because of their stated profession, think they would receive justice?
- Why were they so determined to get a resolution that they went as far as the Supreme Court, to use today’s language?
- What was the basis for their resilience and resoluteness?
- This story presents us with ‘fertile, productive prostitutes.’ How is this fact perceived by women without children or who cannot have children in your context?
- Do you have experiences in your context that are similar to those of these two prostitutes?
- Are there examples from your context where women fight to be heard, regardless of how society views them?
- Would women in your context have access to the highest office in the land like the presidents, the prime ministers, the governor for help with the resolution of conflicts?
- How do we make sex work safer, remove stigma, and support sex workers to have healthier environments?
Prostitutes are treated shamefully, especially by the legal justice system and the police. Many do not have the courage of the two prostitutes in the passage to fight for justice and their rights.
- Using examples from your context, discuss how prostitutes are treated and how you as an individual or group can help to advocate for their rights as well as amplify their voices when they do speak out.
- How are people who are on the margins (the poor, the homeless etc.) treated in your context?
- New Revised Standard Version
- Ellicott, Charles John. Ellicott's Bible Commentary for English Readers
- Benson, Joseph. Benson Commentary on the Old and New Testaments
- Barnes Notes on the Bible
- Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary
- Matthew Pooles Commentary
Our loving and gracious God – we thank you because you made us all in your image and when you were done you said “This is very good!” Teach us how to be more loving and embracing of one other. Give us the courage to stand up for justice, to choose mercy and kindness as we take each other’s hand on this journey called life. Open our eyes to see those at the periphery; our ears to hear them when they cry out, and nimble feet that run to act on all injustices. In Jesus' name. Amen.
About the author
Bongie Moyo-Bango is the communications director for the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (MCSA) which spans six countries including Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland. She is also a consultant and safe spaces facilitator and trainer in among other issues, SRHR, Gender programming, ASRHR, HIV and Aids programming, leadership and strategic communications.
She has written several Contextual Bible Studies on transformative masculinity and young people published by the Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (WCC-EHAIA); a chapter on The Connected Church Using New Media to Communicate Sexuality Issues with Young People, found in “Abundant Life: The Churches and Sexuality” edited by E Chitando and N. Njoroge; and researched and written a Save the Children handbook with Prof. Ezra Chitando titled Religion & Sexuality: A Report in Faith Based Responses to Children's Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Information etc.
She holds a master’s degree in peace and governance and is currently registered at the University of Johannesburg as a doctoral candidate focusing on gender and leadership.
 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/prostitution-2 Accessed on 16/11/2021
 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
 Jamieson- Fausset- Brown Bible Commentary