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In 1 Kings 3:16–28, Solomon judges a dispute between two prostitutes about the parentage of a baby. Readings of the story that I have previously seen indicate that Solomon identifies the mother after threatening to have the baby cut in half. (An example would be this summary of the haftarah from Chabad.) The logic of his ruse makes sense: the actual mother of the child would prefer to have the child raised by another woman rather than dead.

However, the footnotes in the Jewish Study Bible seem to indicate that Solomon already knew who the mother was and simply chose to reveal the mother's identity with this ruse.

23: One says … the other says … : Solomon discerns a distinctive pattern in each woman's speech: The more loquacious one emphasizes death first while the other emphasizes life. Solomon intuits who is the mother of the living child and announces it circumspectly. 24–26: Since justice requires a more convincing demonstration of truth, Solomon stages a confrontation in which the passionate public behavior of the mother emphasizing life validates his intuition.

Assuming I'm not just splitting hairs here, when exactly did Solomon figure out the mother's identity? If he already knew (in a sense) after the women spoke, was the confrontation supposed to confirm his answer, or was it just an instrument used to force the answer to be revealed "naturally"?

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The commentaries have different angles on it. Radak says that the words of the first mother (the one who accused of a switch) just rang true when he heard them.

(Notice that the verse says "the true mother offered to give up the baby" ... but doesn't actually tell us whether that true mother was the first one, who spends all these verses with the sob story about a switch, or the second one, who says very little.)

Malbim actually says that the whole lengthy sob story is a ruse; what Radak felt was "ringing true" was actually a lie! The first mother says yours is dead and mine as alive (which means it's more important to her that the other one's is dead); the second, true mother, cares more that hers is alive, and therefore reverses the order -- mine is alive and yours is dead!

(Note as well, in the Malbim's favor, that the plaintiff in the story is combining what she saw with what she presumes happened.)

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  • You are mistaken the reference to the first one in RADAK means that the one who first spoke and said in verse 26 is meant since she was the one who could not allow the baby to be killed. Sep 12, 2021 at 14:48
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As I explain below, Shlomo knew from the claims and the circumstances which one was the real mother. However, he needed to show to the entire Bnai Yisrael the truth. And as indeed the last pasuk verse 28 has the proper effect on everyone who heard about it.

וַיִּשְׁמְע֣וּ כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּט֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁפַ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַיִּֽרְא֖וּ מִפְּנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ כִּ֣י רָא֔וּ כִּֽי־חׇכְמַ֧ת אֱלֹהִ֛ים בְּקִרְבּ֖וֹ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת מִשְׁפָּֽט׃

Had he not done so, they would not have realized that it was his wisdom that led to the result and not just a decree.

Rashi says a bas kol confirmed this decree.

היא אמו – בת קול הופיעה ואמרה: היא אמו (בבלי מכות כ״ג:).

Radak says that the mother who spoke up first (after the decree) and showed rachamim was indeed the true mother.

לא תמיתהו – הראשון אל תמיתהו. היא אמו – כיון שמרחמת עליו ובדרבותינו ז״ל יצתה בת קול ואמרה היא אמו.

Abarbanel on verse 18

וַיְהִ֞י בַּיּ֤וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי֙ לְלִדְתִּ֔י וַתֵּ֖לֶד גַּם־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה הַזֹּ֑את וַאֲנַ֣חְנוּ יַחְדָּ֗ו אֵֽין־זָ֤ר אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ בַּבַּ֔יִת זוּלָתִ֥י שְׁתַּֽיִם־אֲנַ֖חְנוּ בַּבָּֽיִת׃

says that the chochma was to be able to tell which child had been born 3 days before the other.

ואז ילדה האשה האחרת לא היו שם עדים כי אין זר עמהן בבית, לפי שחשבה שאולי המלך בחכמתו יכיר בפני הילדים מי הוא אשר נולד ראשונה שלשה ימים ובזה יתגלה האמת, אחר שלא היו שם עדים להגידו.

From memory only there is someone who says that the case was a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Had the living child been that of the mother-in-law, then the other woman would have had to wait until it grew up and was bar mitzvah in order to get yibum (or chalitzah). However if the child of the mother-in-law had died (even due to the decree of the king), she would have been completely free. This shows the motive of claiming the living child. It also shows why she was willing to let the king cut the baby in half (and kill it).

Malbim on verse 22 says

וכלל בלשון שהאדם יקדים תמיד מה שהוא העקר ויאחר את הטפל,

That people tend to put first what is most important to them and that is why the two women emphasized the different claims. Malbim explains that this is why the king called for his sword in order to show which one wanted the child to live and which one wanted the child to die.

ולברר זאת אמר קחו לי חרב – כי בזה יבורר מי הרוצה שיחיה ומי שתתרצה שימות, וכן היה.

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