Another Time, Another Place
By S M Chen, posted 12-29, 2016 by D Kovacs
“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of…glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…”
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) Ode—Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’
I had the privilege of living during the same time as a great and wise man. So wise was he, there was none other like unto him, either before or after. Considering how many have lived, and how intelligent some were, that’s saying a lot. But everything I tell you is true. I either saw it myself, or heard it from those who are beyond reproach and whose words I believe as if I’d uttered them myself.
His mother was Bathsheba, a lovely woman who married King David, his father, after her husband, Uriah, died in battle. But that is a story for another time.
So how did Solomon, who reigned for some 40 years, come to acquire such wisdom?
He had a dream.
Almost all of us dream at some time or other. I admit to not understanding dreams very well, and think that most of the time they don’t mean much, if anything.
But sometimes they do, for that seems to be one of the ways the God of Solomon communicated.
In the dream the Almighty appeared and asked what Solomon wanted.
This was well before he was led astray by 700 wives and 300 concubines, which, like so much livestock, he accumulated in increasing number with the passage of years. His heart, at that earlier time, seemed to be in the right place.
He asked not for a long life, or riches, or dominion over his enemies. Instead, he asked for discernment and understanding, so as to better serve the people.
This pleased Yahweh, who granted what he requested. The other things were added unto him.
As David his father had written (Ps. 37:4), ‘Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.’
I was a maid to one of Solomon’s wives. I accompanied her from our foreign land. Other than being attentive to her, I said little. But my eyes and ears were open, and my curiosity large. I missed my family, of course, but resigned myself to the fact that I would likely see little of them for some time – perhaps years – to come.
When I considered it might be never, I allowed myself the luxury of tears, but, as time went on, they, like the thoughts themselves, became less frequent.
It was with interest that I watched an incident unfold in Solomon’s court not long after our arrival.
Two women, both of ill repute, appeared in front of the king with one baby.
Both claimed to be the mother of the child, another baby (the child of which one?) supposedly having died recently, apparently crushed by its mother during the night. They desired that the king should resolve their dispute.
Solomon listened intently, then said, “Bring me a sword.”
I had heard the story of Abraham and Isaac, and halfway hoped there would appear, perhaps miraculously, a ram in the thicket (or something equivalent), but there was none. It was apparent to me that the hand of death was not to be stayed.
Solomon then commanded, “Divide the baby in half. Give half to each woman.”
It had gone silent and one could hear the sound made by the sudden collective gasps of many onlookers.
The sword was brought. But, before Solomon’s command could be obeyed, one of the two women reached for the child and cried, “No! Please don’t! Give her the baby. Don’t harm it!”
The other woman coldly rejoined, “Do as the king said. Cut!”
King Solomon then said, “Do not raise the sword. Give the child to the first woman. She is the real mother.”
The sighs of relief were only slightly less audible than the prior gasps. And we marveled amongst ourselves at the wisdom of the king.
This was but one of many such incidents, but perhaps the most memorable. Solomon’s reputation as sage of the first rank deservedly spread. How far and wide I was to realize only after the queen of Sheba arranged for a visit. She came from the southern part of Arabia, where women had equal rights (a rarity in that day) and there was great wealth. She wanted to see for herself whether what she had heard about Solomon was true.
The queen was a beautiful woman whom I immediately envied. But I did not allow that sentiment to linger, for I knew that I could only aspire to her station; I would never achieve it. Some are born to greatness, beauty and wealth. I was not such a one.
A darker part of me wanted to hate her, but, even briefly, I could not.
After the usual pleasantries, formalities of courtesy, a royal banquet, and exchange of some gifts (whose magnitude I will not attempt to describe; I will say she had a magnificent procession and gifts of gold, spice, and precious stone), she posed a riddle for the king.
Not a matter of life and death, as was the prior encounter with the two harlots, but serious nonetheless in its import.
In the palace, which was truly majestic, the queen turned her head and called out, “Bring the children.”
In came twelve children, all dressed alike in clothing that hid almost everything but their faces, which were partially concealed. Some looked so much alike they could have been twins. Perhaps some were. They are all of similar height.
The queen said to Solomon, “I wish you to tell me which are boys and which are girls.”
Stroking his beard, he said, “Bring me basins of water.”
And it was done.
“Set them in front of the children,” he said, “one for each child.”
And it was done.
“Now,” Solomon said, “I wish for the children to wash their hands.” He turned toward the children. “Would you please wash your hands for me?”
And he watched as each child washed hands.
The child who immediately plunged his hands into the basin Solomon identified as a boy. The child who rolled up her sleeves first Solomon identified as a girl.
And he was right. There were 7 boys and 5 girls.
“Perchance it was luck,” said the queen, musing. “Let’s try this.”
She clapped her hands.
In walked a girl of perhaps 12, holding two bouquets, one in each hand. They were spectacular. It is true I was some distance away, but they looked identical. The girl stood before Solomon.
“Pray tell me,” said the queen. “Which of these is real, and which is not?”
I was astonished that they were not both real. They looked to be. I marveled at the ability of some artisan who had crafted the one which was not.
Solomon did not closely examine the bouquets. He did not sniff them. What he did do is command that some windows of the palace be opened.
Whereupon, a couple hummingbirds, wondrous little creatures that can fly in place and backwards, darted in and hovered around the bouquet of real flowers. They were soon joined by some butterflies, amazing in their own right as they, during their life cycle, transform from unattractive worms into lovely imagos.
Solomon pointed to that particular floral cluster and said, “Those be the real ones.”
The queen had other difficult questions for Solomon. About nature. About the universe. About the origin of things. Where we came from, and whence we were destined to go.
Most questions I do not recall; some I didn’t hear in person. But I do remember this: his answers often amazed and astonished. They were often simple, always profound. And appeared to come from a place inaccessible to the rest of us.
Sometime later, upon her departure for her homeland, the queen declared, “What I heard about you was true. But I didn’t believe it. Now, after seeing with my own eyes, I do. Only the half was told me about your wisdom and prosperity. Happy are your people, and blessed be your God.”
I witnessed great things that seemed to come from the God of Solomon. He acknowledged as much.
The latter part of Solomon’s reign was not as great as earlier. I think that, had he not strayed from the path of his younger years, it might have been otherwise.
In the end, I regret less that things didn’t end differently than that, for a time, however brief, in the place to which I was taken because of my mistress, I saw and heard things that were a source of wonderment.
And that, sometimes, is enough.