Now two women who were harlots came to the king, and stood before him. And one woman said, “O my lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then it happened, the third day after I had given birth, that this woman also gave birth. And we were together; no one was with us in the house, except the two of us in the house. And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. So she arose in the middle of the night and took my son from my side, while your maidservant slept, and laid him in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to nurse my son, there he was, dead. But when I had examined him in the morning, indeed, he was not my son whom I had borne.”
Then the other woman said, “No! But the living one is my son, and the dead one is your son.” And the first woman said, “No! But the dead one is your son, and the living one is my son.” Thus they spoke before the king. And the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son, who lives, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! But your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’”
Then the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to one, and half to the other.”
Then the woman whose son was living spoke to the king, for she yearned with compassion for her son; and she said, “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him!” But the other said, “Let him be neither mine nor yours, but divide him.”
So the king answered and said, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him; she is his mother.” And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice. (1 Kings 3:16–28)
Two harlots come before Solomon, both claiming that the child in question is theirs. The first accuses the second of switching babies after the second had accidentally killed her child while sleeping. Both women claim the child is theirs, and there are no other witnesses who come forward. Based on the claims, there is apparently no way for Solomon to decide who the real mother is based on evidence already available. It is very likely, though not recorded in Scripture, that this case had gone before other judges before coming to Solomon and they were not able to resolve the issue.
In the passage just before this account (1 Kings 3:5–15), Solomon asks God for “an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil.” God is pleased with Solomon’s request for discerning justice and grants his request.
In order to determine the identity of the true mother Solomon calls for a sword and orders the child cut in half so that each woman may have a part of the child. The first woman compassionately—and likely very quickly—cries out (as most mothers would!), “O my lord, give her the living child, and by no means kill him!” This action exposes the true mother who would rather see her child alive and raised by another woman than cut in half. The jealousy and treachery of the second woman is exposed by her reply, “Let him be neither mine nor yours, but divide him.”
Knowing that Solomon has been granted the ability to discern between good and evil in a just way, is it even reasonable to think that Solomon truly intended to cut the child in half? His call to action was a very wise way to expose the true mother based on her reaction to the peril of her child.