Solomon, Open Theism, and the Divine Bluff

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Two prostitutes appear before Solomon, disputing over who was the mother of a certain child and who was the mother over the child who had died. There were no witnesses, so it was one's word against the other's. Solomon orders a sword brought in and commands his soldiers to divide the child in two to give half to each. The mother offers to give her child to the other woman, and the other woman says to kill the child so neither would have a baby.

I've never encountered anyone who thinks Solomon ever meant to kill the child. He expected that his bluff would reveal the mother, and it did. But it was a bluff nonetheless. This incident is held up by the narrator as an example of Solomon's great wisdom.

It never occurred to me before, but this passage has some striking similarities to passages where God desires to bring a certain response out of someone and says he'll do something but then goes back on it when a human being responds a certain way to what God says. For example, he says he'll destroy Israel and rebuild it from Moses in the aftermath of the golden calf incident, but when Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel God relents. He tells Hezekiah of his impending death, and Hezekiah's response brings extra years.

A common open theistic interpretation of such passages holds that God is not serious in his original statement if he never intended to do what he says. If God had known all along that Moses would respond as he did, then the passage doesn't seem to the open theist who makes this objection as if God's statement has the seriousness of what it actually says. It strikes me that the parallel passage of Solomon in his divinely-given wisdom, by the same reasoning, must have actually intended to cut the child in two. But I've never actually encountered anyone claiming this. It was a bluff. He didn't have divine insight that would guarantee his knowledge of how these two prostitutes would respond to his bluff, but he was wise enough to anticipate that this might be an effective way to decide the case.

So why couldn't God be doing the same thing but with infallible access to how people will respond, thus engaging in a similar bluff but one that God knows will not be called? Knowing how Moses would respond, God brought out exactly the response in Moses that occurred. If this is supposed to be somehow deceptive or immoral in some other way, as I think open theists who make this argument are saying of the traditional interpretation of these passages, then I think you have to say by the same reasoning that Solomon was being similarly immoral.

Now it's fine to say that Solomon was being immoral here, but it's difficult to make that claim if you want to hold up the moral teaching of the scriptures as divinely-inspired, since the narrator does seem to endorse Solomon's move as wise. That doesn't mean we who aren't as wise and don't have as much insight into people's character should always do the same thing in similar circumstances, but it does mean there's nothing wrong with someone sufficiently wise doing what Solomon does, and thus when God does it it's also not wrong. So you don't have to think God didn't know for sure what Moses would do.

2 Comments

Hey Jeremy -

For the record, I think Neal Morse is one of the most talented Christian artists making music today - I'm glad someone else is in on the secret!

You make some interesting points here - I'm an open theist and did a four part series on my blog a few weeks ago. But this is a passage I've never dealt with. Some things come to mind though:

As far as the insincerity of God and the idea of a divine bluff, open theists don't necessarily believe God must have full knowledge or no knowledge concerning human behavior. Partial knowledge of a person's heart often suffices in determining the probability of that person making a particular choice. In open theism, God is not ignorant and groping around in the dark. He merely allows human choice to functionally impact life as we know it.

If God knows everything in the future, the deception comes when God though capable of direct command or request, chooses to creates a false pretense in order to coax humans into a particular action. Passages in the prophets express God's outrage and emotion as much as anything - we often take too linear an interpretation from them.

You write: "If this is supposed to be somehow deceptive or immoral in some other way, as I think open theists who make this argument are saying of the traditional interpretation of these passages, then I think you have to say by the same reasoning that Solomon was being similarly immoral...Now it's fine to say that Solomon was being immoral here, but it's difficult to make that claim if you want to hold up the moral teaching of the scriptures as divinely-inspired, since the narrator does seem to endorse Solomon's move as wise."

That's a logical conclusion, but it doesn't really treat the full breadth of the Old Testament as the narrative it is. There is plenty in the Old Testament that falls outside the boundaries of God reavealed in Jesus's ministry, death, and resurrection. Analogy by way of content alone can get you into trouble real quick. Take the story in Judges 4 where a lady runs a tent peg through a guy's head. By your reasoning, if she did it, God condones it and we should too. Or that Judas hanged himself. Just because it's in the Bible doesn't mean it receives approval from God.

Same with Solomon. Solomon was wise, but fully human. And when we draw conclusions about God from human behavior in the Bible, it always brings a mixed bag of sorts. Some of it is in there to show us what not to do! For as many things as Solomon did correctly, he also taxed the people harshly, engaged in polygamy, and catered to pagan religions against God's express orders. The Hebrew word for wisdom means "skill for building" as much as it means mental acumen. Solomon was wise for the buildings he constructed as much as for any "wise" decision we think he made as king. As Christians we always have to return to the paradigm established in the ministry of Jesus. Otherwise we assume that "content = condoned behavior" in the Bible. Personally, I see too much danger in that equation.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. God bless.

Sam

I never claimed that because it occurs in the Bible it must be ok. I claimed that in this particular passage the narrative structure of the passage seems to indicate that the narrator is deliberately using this example to illustrate the wisdom given by Solomon. I don't know of anyone who has ever said otherwise in this case. There are plenty of ways that the Kings narrator disapproves of Solomon, but this particular case seems to have been put where it is in order to illustrate that Solomon was wiser than anyone else ever before (and in fact it even says any that will ever come later, another difficulty for open theism unless God just prevents anyone from achieving the same level of wisdom for some reason without knowing for sure if anyone would work really hard to try to reach a greater level of wisdom).

As for the groping-in-the-dark issue, I'm not trying to say that open theists can't allow for God to make reasonable predictions. It's just that a lot of open theists explicitly argue for open theism by finding cases in the Bible where God tests someone and then claiming that God wouldn't test someone if he already knew what was in their heart. Such a view requires that at least a significant degree of their choice cannot be known to God. They claim that the passage would be deceptive in calling it a test if God didn't mean it seriously as a test, without God knowing how they'd respond. So I'm not the one claiming this of open theism. It's the open theist argument that claims it.

As for the analogy, I do think it holds up. We have one kind of case with God doing something that on the surface would appear disingenuous if God knew how people would respond, since he doesn't intend to do what he said he'd do. We have another kind of case with Solomon doing something that on the surface would appear disingenuous if he didn't intend to do what he said he'd do. So granting my claim that the narrator does endorse Solomon's action as being a typical case of the wisdom God gave him, I think the analogy holds up.

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