Do you know what King Solomon said to the two mothers?” I imagine a Sunday school teacher posing this question to a room full of fourth- or fifth-graders who have, up to this moment, shown no interest in the Bible whatsoever. “‘Cut the baby in half!’” (1 Kings 3:25)
Now the children lean in and gulp audibly. They were once babies, after all—and not so long ago. I suspect the same was true of me the first time I heard these words.
In this story from 1 Kings 3, two women give birth to baby boys in the same house. One child dies. The mother of the dead infant swaps her son for the living one while his mother sleeps. The mother awakens to find the deceased baby beside her. Upon examining him, she realizes he’s not her son.
With one woman determined to keep the stolen child and the other to reclaim her son, they bring their dispute before King Solomon. His solution? He asks his attendants for a sword and says, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other” (1 Kings 3:25). Solomon’s ruling sounds satisfactory to the woman who stole the baby but forces the real mother to reveal herself: She would rather surrender her son to the woman who stole him than see him perish.
In discussing this passage, my own Sunday school teachers always talked about Solomon as if he were some spiritual superhero, with wisdom his superpower. They never mention the kryptonite that ultimately conquers this king.
Sometime in my teenage years, I learned that although Solomon possessed a surplus of wisdom, he didn’t always use it. Sadly, he succumbed to the influence of his many foreign wives and worshipped their gods—even Milcom, whose followers sacrificed children by fire. Ultimately, Solomon left Yahweh by the wayside.
As punishment for Solomon’s unfaithfulness, God divided Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. In doing so, he cut his own beloved nation in two.
In 1 Kings 11:11-13, God reveals the penalty for Solomon’s sin: He will take the kingdom away from Solomon’s offspring. “However, I will not tear away all the kingdom,” God adds, “but I will give one tribe to your son for the sake of My servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem which I have chosen.’”
Prior to reading the Bible, I understood that Solomon worshiped foreign gods but had no knowledge of God dividing Israel into two kingdoms. Over the years, I heard and saw references to Judah in church and Scripture—even to Jesus as “the Lion of Judah”—but never understood that it existed apart from Israel.
Taking in a verse here and a chapter there is like finding one puzzle piece after another without ever really seeing how they fit together.
I blame years of reading the Bible piecemeal for this oversight. Taking in a verse here and a chapter there, year after year, is like finding one puzzle piece after another without ever really seeing how they fit together or relate to the larger picture.
As a result of this disjointed approach, I understood the Bible a little like the way my 4-year-old understands Star Wars. Though she has seen only a few scenes, American culture is saturated enough with all things George Lucas that she knows the characters’ names nevertheless. Given her limited exposure to Star Wars itself, she mistakes the few pieces she has seen for the much larger picture that plays out over the course of the saga. So it was with me before I read the Bible as a whole.
But then, as I read the entirety of Scripture, I found parts I had never come across before—pieces that add definition to the overarching storyline that encompasses everything from Genesis to Revelation.
Each new detail I discover in that story informs my understanding of God, too. Shortly after reading of the Creator cutting Israel in two because of Solomon’s actions, I find myself considering God’s faithfulness anew. In preserving Judah as a remnant of David’s kingdom, God fulfills His promise to “establish the throne of (David’s) kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:13). Hundreds of pages later, His faithfulness to a faithless people continues to unfold when the Lion of Judah enters the world through David’s family.
I wonder, though, if before Jesus came along, the inhabitants of Judah felt that God loved them less because He’d decreased the size of David’s kingdom. Jesus’ death on the cross argues that God’s love for His people hadn’t been halved—for He manifested not a fraction of the Father’s love, but its fullness.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory