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.