Why didn't King Solomon punish the prostitutes who came to him for justice?

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Answered Questions

In 1 Kings 3:16, harlots came before King Solomon for justice. Why didn't he punish them for being harlots? Does this mean that prostitution was legal in Israel?

Just because prostitutes are mentioned in a descriptive passage of scripture, it doesn't follow that prostitution was either legal or even tolerated. It might be true that prostitution was tolerated by a given community described in the scriptural narrative. But we would have to infer this from something other than this passage about King Solomon.

In fact, Biblical law makes it clear that:

  1. fornication [Hebrew: זָנָה] (including the specific sin of sex prior to marriage) is sinful [Lev. 19:29, Lev. 21:9, Deut. 22:21]
  2. witnessed adultery (breaking an established marriage/betrothal covenant) is a capital offense [Lev. 20:10]
  3. fornication which doesn't break an established marriage covenant can, under certain circumstances, incur a fine (or bridewealth restitution) payment (but whether the civil government is involved in enforcing this would depend upon the girl's father/guardian bringing it to the attention of the judge). [Deut. 22:28-29]

However, the role of the Biblical judge is limited to dealing with the cases that are brought to them. There was no police force which roamed around looking for prostitutes (or men frequenting them) to bring charges against them. This type of "proactive policing" is totally beyond the allowed powers of the civil government under Biblical law.

Does this mean that prostitution (engaged in by unmarried women) was "allowed" by Biblical law? Only in the sense that the community itself "allowed" it. Based upon the example of Judah and Thamar (Gen. 38), it seems that the Israelite community was prepared to allow prostitution, as long as the prostitutes covered their faces (Gen. 38:14-15). You cannot have a legal "witness" to an act of adultery if you cannot identify the woman involved, right? Plausible deniability for a community that wants to avoid dealing with sins (sins which will eventually corrupt a community, e.g. Lev. 19:29).

The fact that the women coming to King Solomon are labeled as "harlots" does not mean:

  1. That they were still harlots. It is possible that they had repented of their sinful lifestyle.
  2. That prostitution was legal.
  3. That there was anyone willing to step forward as a witness to any ongoing harlotry on their part.

The fact that this incident with "harlots" is highlighted in scripture is probably showing that Solomon was willing to provide justice to even the most shameful citizens of his kingdom. From the Biblical perspective, this commitment to justice for people of every status level should be considered a positive statement about King Solomon. This is akin to the way the gospels highlight that Jesus ate with sinners and tax-collectors.

On the other hand, it is clear that King Solomon broke many Biblical laws, including violating the "king laws" in Deut. 17:16-17 (cf. 1 Kings 10:14-26, 1 Kings 11:1-3) and (later) committing actual idolatry (1 Kings 11:33). It would not be surprising if the Israelites (including Solomon) "winked at" harlotry, the way Judah (and presumably the other tribal elders) did in Gen. 38. Many history books try (through omission, mostly) to whitewash the character of the "great men" (protagonists). The Biblical narrative, however, is based strictly upon history, which makes it much more complex and accurate than just about any other history book out there.