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What does It Mean to "Split the Baby"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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To split the baby is a reference to a story in the Old Testament in Kings 3:5-14, regarding a decision of Solomon that shows his wisdom when given a difficult task. Solomon as king was often asked to judge between people with difficult problems, and his solutions were accounted very wise. The term is often used to describe an unreasonable solution that may be used as a way to find an underlying truth.

In Kings, two women approach Solomon, both claiming to be the mother of the same baby. In fact, one woman has smothered her own child in her sleep, and has taken the child of another woman with whom she shares a home. Upon waking, the mother of the living baby finds she is holding the dead child, who she knows is not hers. Since she cannot convince the mother of the dead child to give her back her child, they go to Solomon for judgment.

Solomon’s solution is fairly unique. He hears both sides, which are identical, and decides that the best course is to cut the baby in half so both mothers will have a share. To do this, however, means to kill the child. The mother who has already lost a child is happy with the solution, but the real mother cries out and begs Solomon to let the other woman raise her child alive.

When the real mother protests the solution, and is willing to give up her rights as a mother to preserve the life of her child, Solomon hands the baby to her. Her reaction is key to determining true parentage, and the depth of her love for the child would allow her to surrender her rights as long as the child is alive.

Splitting the baby is essentially an unreasonable decision, and might refer to any judgment that must be made when the details are hard to determine. It is actually no solution, but a threat that attempts to flush out the truth of a situation, so as to make the wisest decision.

In some custody cases, one might hear a judge say, “Well we can’t exactly split the baby,” in referring to deciding the custody of a child. In this sense, Solomon’s perplexity is still felt across the world in family courts.

Further, the phrase means that a decision can only be made in favor of one party without destroying the value of the disputed item. Someone can’t really split a baby in half. Instead, he or she must decide that only one person is the true owner of the disputed property. Solomon’s decision asks, “Who deserves or has a right to this?”

Some suggest that the story is also an allegory for the split in the Jewish monarchy that occurred following the death of Solomon. The Qur’an retells this story, casting Solomon as a child in David’s court. He proceeds to get out a knife after hearing the story of the women in order to cut the baby in half, with the same results as those in the Old Testament.

In fact, David thinks Solomon’s action are insane, and orders judges to determine his sanity. The judges are surprised by his wisdom and intelligence. The split the baby act is the beginning of the Wisdom of Solomon, according to the Qur’an.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon999052 — On Oct 18, 2017

This story is not open to interpretation. It is not a metaphor. It is a historical record.

I am getting ready to not allow the baby to be split. I will lose my baby. But I will not allow my baby to be split just to prove a point. The gut reaction demands the preservation because after all, fighting over something does not include killing it in the process.

By SarahGen — On Feb 17, 2013

@alisha-- I sometimes hear people use this phrase now but it's usually a sarcastic comment. For example, my two little cousins were fighting over a doll and my brother told them to "split the baby." He was joking and the girls were just staring at him confused.

By discographer — On Feb 17, 2013

Can someone give me more real-life examples of this phrase?

By ysmina — On Feb 17, 2013

This is one of the best stories I have heard. It's so imaginative and original. Now, if there was such a case, they would just do a DNA test and determine who the mother of the baby was. But since there was no such opportunity at that time, only a decision like this would allow the truth to come out.

By anon296371 — On Oct 11, 2012

I'm also a mother and God knows I only want what's best for my children. This story, for me, is one of the most touching stories of a mother in the Bible. And I admire the decision that King Solomon made. Only God can gives us that kind of wisdom!

By baileybear — On Oct 02, 2010

@ellaesans - I really think that the Bible and stuff should be open for interpretation, however, a lot of people do not feel the same. This is a controversial issue that could go back and forth all day, so I won't say anything more than that.

By ellaesans — On Oct 02, 2010

@Kamchatka - I'm not pushing religion on you or anything, but there are lots of stories like this. Aside from that, there are lots of different interpretations, which make things very unique indeed. This article makes a good point of providing a real life application in the court room with custody cases as well.

By Kamchatka — On Oct 02, 2010

Very interesting article. I am not a highly (or even remotely) religious person, so this article was enlightening. I must admit at first, I was a little taken aback and it sounded kind of funky. But the baby's mother had the right reaction and the whole story made sense.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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