Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
A Trial of Two Mothers (2 Kgs 6:24—7.20) - but not for Cannibalism!


A Trial of Two Mothers (2 Kgs 6:24—7.20)

-     but not for Cannibalism!


Victor H. Matthews (Missouri State University at Springfield)

Don C. Benjamin (Arizona State University)

Abstract: A Trial of Two Mothers in the books of Samuel-Kings (2 Kgs 6:24—7.20) indicts a woman for breach of covenant.  During a siege of Samaria by the Aramaeans, two mothers agree to kill and eat their two children, first one, and then the other. They kill and eat the first child, but the mother of the second hides it to save its life.  The mother of the dead child indicts the mother of the second child before the ruler of the city for breach of covenant.  Curiously, neither the mothers, nor the ruler react with shame to eating children.  The focus of the traditions is entirely on the failure of one mother to fulfill her covenant with the other mother.  Social scientific studies of risk can clarify the issues at work in the tradition, and why it fails to show any shock and outrage at the women’s cannibalism.



The Deuteronomist’s History (Deut 1:1 — 2 Kgs 25:30) includes a Review of the Annals for the Monarchs of Israel and Judah (1 Kgs 11:44—2 Kgs 25:30). As part of that review, there is a Trial of Two Mothers (2 Kgs 6:26-32) in the Stories of Elisha (2 Kgs 4:1—13:21) which is submitted as evidence in a Trial of a Ruler of Israel (2 Kgs 6: 24—7:20). Each time a Trial of a Ruler of Israel and a Trial of Two Mothers were incorporated into larger traditions, their literary and theological characteristics were refined. As a result, these trials in the Bible today are remarkably sophisticated.

Previous studies of a Trial of Two Mothers have focused either on the conflict between the ruler and the prophet, or on some aspect of the social roles of the women in the trial. Other studies focus on the literary aspects of the traditions.   

Stuart Lasine, for example, identifies a Trial of Two Mothers as an example of the world-turned-upside-down motif.[1]  That would place the trial in the disaster genre with A Sufferer and a Soul in Egypt and The Admonitions of Ipuwer.[2]  Each of these traditions describes a world where calamities have resulted in the rich losing their power and the poor finding themselves in power.  Such a reversal of the normal social structures is designed to shock the audience into realizing just how desperate a situation actually is.

Likewise, Laurel Lanner’s reader-response study of a Trial of Two Mothers argues that the mother is responsible for her actions, but that the ruler, and even Yahweh, is responsible for placing her in a situation that disrupts ritual practice and shame restraints.  Certainly her hand struck the final blow, but the first blow was not hers.[3]  The irony in the tradition is that after one child has been eaten, the mother of the surviving child refuses to give him up to be eaten.  The covenant breaking triggers anger against the non-compliant mother and a desire for justice.  That in turns leads the aggrieved mother to ask the ruler to intervene.[4]

What has not been addressed in previous studies is why neither the ruler, nor the plaintiff mother, is ashamed of her cannibalism.  She simply asks the ruler to direct the defendant mother to fulfill the stipulations of their covenant.  He simply pleads that he is unable to feed her and the rest of the people of Samaria.  Social scientific studies of risk taking, however, can demonstrate that crisis situations can cause households in traditional cultures like ancient Israel to take risks which abandon the morality which their culture endorses without embarrassment.[5]

In ancient Israel, shame sentenced a household to death by placing its land and chil­dren in jeopardy. Shamed households ate too much, drank too much, were lazy, quarrelsome, selfish, and thought nothing about lying to the village assembly. They were thoughtless in their sexual relationships, and disrespectful of the new born and the dead. Their herds were mangy, and their farms run down. Shamed households did not fulfill their responsi­bilities to their own members or to their neighbors. Shamed households were on probation. They were out-of-place and not functioning properly. Consequently, both their contributions to the village and their eligibility for its support were suspended. The label downgraded the status of a household, until it demonstrated that it was once again contributing to the village.[6] 

What happens in a Trial of a Ruler of Israel is that the siege of the city and the subsequent famine places such stress on the people of Samaria that shame can no longer prevent anti-social behavior.  The mothers have made a risk calculation that the people of Samaria usually prohibit by shaming their households.

tradition history

The Deuteronomist’s History reflects a self-searching by the people of Judah after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.  The tradition charged that it was not Yahweh who had failed to protect the land from its enemies, but the people of Yahweh who had failed to obey the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel. If the people had kept the covenant, the land would have remained in the hands of the Hebrews. If, from the days of Joshua onward, the Hebrews had put to death all those who did not worship Yahweh in Jerusalem, the land would have survived. Only when one people worshiped one divine patron in one place would the land and children that Yahweh promised Abraham and Sarah be safe from their enemies. Until the time of Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.), no such tradition of liturgical conformity had existed in ancient Israel. The Hebrews had worshiped Yahweh throughout the land at sanctuaries from Dan to Beersheba. Yet the exclusiveness of the Deuteronomist’s History now characterizes the books of Joshua-Judges and Samuel-Kings today.

One stipulation in the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel in the Deuteronomist’s History is a prohibition of cannibalism (Lev 26:29; Deut 28:53-57). Both traditions about Samaria and Jerusalem under siege lament outbreaks of cannibalism (Ezek 5:10; Jer 19:9; Lam 4:10).

A Review of the Annals for the Monarchs of Israel and Judah tries to explain how the Babylonians could take away the land and people that Yahweh promised to Abraham and Sarah. Royal annals were published by monarchs as yearly reports to Yahweh of their stewardship of Israel’s land and people. The review uses these annals to put each monarch on trial in absentia. With the exception of David, Solomon, Hezekiah, and Josiah, the review finds each monarch guilty of breach of covenant and punishes them with the loss of land and people. Therefore, the review concludes that the Assyrians and the Babylonians – and here the Arameans – are simply executing a divine sentence.

The Trial of a Ruler of Israel argues that the ruler has failed to protect Samaria from its enemies and has so completely failed to provide the people of Samaria with food that they reverted to cannibalism.  In contrast, Yahweh effortlessly routs the Arameans with no more than the wind, which the Arameans confuse with the sound of an army on the move.  Likewise, Yahweh provides the people of Samaria with an abundance of food from the Aramean camp.

The Stories of Elijah and the Stories of Elisha were once independent from the Review of the Annals for the Monarchs of Israel and Judah. The stories originally developed among Hebrew clans in Gilead east of the Jordan River. Opposition to the household of Omri, which ruled Israel from 884 to 842 B.C.E., was the catalyst that gave them their present shape.


In the Review of the Annals for the Monarchs of Israel and Judah, the Stories of Elijah and the Stories of Elisha elaborate both the indictments and the sentences that are brought against the household of Omri. In a Trial of Jehoram, for example, who ruled Israel from 850 to 842 B.C.E., the Annals of Jehoram are the indictment, and the Stories of Elisha (2 Kgs 3:4–8:24) are the sentence.

a trial of a ruler of Israel

In a Trial of a Ruler of Israel Elisha indicts the ruler and his most trusted advisor for a lack of faith in the ability of Yahweh to protect and to provide for the people and their land. The royal advisor, whose ruler ordered a soldier to execute Elisha, is sentenced to death.  

Four refrains on the price of food punctuate the trial.  Two appear in the indictment (2 Kgs 6:24 – 7:2); two appear in the sentence (2 Kgs 7:3-20).

The indictment opens by observing that inflation has driven the price of even barely edible foods like head cheese and parched peas beyond the ability of even the rich to pay (2 Kgs 6:25).

In contrast to other traditions about Elisha where the prophet works miracles to deliver the people, the prophet in a Trial of a Ruler of Israel does not personally deliver Samaria from the Arameans, but simply serves as a docent directing the attention of the ruler and his most trusted advisor to the miracle which Yahweh works.

Furthermore, at no point in his interaction with the ruler does Elisha refer to the two mothers, but simply stresses that, in contrast to the ruler and his advisor, he has complete confidence in Yahweh’s ability to provide food for the people at a price they can afford. Elisha’s involvement in the episode then ends with a sentence of death being imposed on the royal advisor.

a trial of two mothers

The indictment then presents a Trial of Two Mothers as a trial within a trial. The defendant mother refused to share her food as she had promised (2 Kgs 6:26-32). Here the food is not ordinary – barley and flour, or even hardly edible – head cheese and parched peas, but human flesh.

The famine became so great that a donkey’s head was sold for 35 ounces (80 shekels) of silver, and a little more than a pound -- one kab) -- of seed pods shaped like dove’s dung[7] sold for 2.5 ounces -- 5 shekels -- of silver.[8]  The kab is an Egyptian measure for dry volume equal, perhaps, to 1.5-2.0 liters. The word appears only here in the Bible. Josephus considers the fourth of a kab to be a sextarius or 540 dry milliliters.[9] The rabbis considered it to be one eighteenth of an ephah or about 1.16 dry quarts. There are 4.64 cups in 1.16 quarts. A cup of dry penne pasta – comparable to the seed pods – weighs about 3.5 ounces.  Therefore, a kab of dove’s dung seed pods probably weighed about 1.25 pounds.  

Therefore, two mothers negotiated a covenant to kill and eat their children – first one, and then the other.  After they killed and ate the plaintiff’s child, the defendant mother hides her child to save its life. This episode of the trial indicts the ruler for failing to believe that Yahweh will halt the famine and prevent cannibalism from spreading to other households.

 The Trial of Two Mothers opens with a familiar type-scene: a call to a ruler for justice.[10]  A type-scene is a cluster of ideas used by storytellers in more than one tradition.[11]  Early in the 20th century anthropologists catalogued the most common type-scenes in folklore.[12]

Type-scenes have an identifiable structure, such as here -- where the mother of a household – and not the father of the household -- appeals to a ruler to protect her household which is at risk.

What distinguishes a type-scene from the structure of the tradition where it appears is that it can be removed from the tradition without destroying its coherence.[13] It is possible, for example, to remove the Trial of Two Mothers from a Trial of a Ruler of Israel without destroying its coherence.  The description of the famine in Samaria, which precedes the type scene, is sufficient to indict the ruler for dereliction of duty (2 Kgs 6:25).

Type-scenes not only describe the same event – here a court martial – but also do so in almost the same words. The plaintiff mother, for example …cries out to the ruler when he is outside the palace in public: …walking on the city wall (see chart below for other examples).[14] Type scenes reflect an assumption in a culture that, when describing certain events, tellers must always address certain meaningful details with the same words.[15]

Authority figure

Female(s) figure(s)

Object of Petition


King of Samaria

Aggrieved cannibal mother

Surviving son

2 Kgs 6:24-31


2 prostitutes

Surviving son

1 Kgs 3:16-28

Joshua’s spies



Josh 2:1-21


Wise Woman of Tekoa

Surviving son

2 Sam 14:1-20



Potential heir

Ruth 3



Sons’ bodies

2 Sam 10:21-14


Jeroboam’s wife

Sick son

1 Kgs 14:1-18

Curiously, the tradition lacks any mention of any previous association between these women.  They are both simply in the city during the siege and now share a common concern for survival.  Perhaps it is merely their shared misery that has brought them together.  Still, one might expect that two strangers would be less likely to make a covenant than two persons who already know each other.

Yet another factor that suggests that the trial is intended to shock its audience is the fact that a woman addresses the ruler by herself without her husband.  The husband may have been killed in battle, or his absence is another indication that the social world of Samaria is turned upside down.[16]  David and Solomon at least heard the cases of two mothers in a formal court martial, but not on the walls of the city.

The indictment of the ruler for failing to believe that Yahweh will feed the people of Samaria is further demonstrated when Elisha confronts the ruler, and offers him a sign.  The price of good food – barley and fine flour -- will drop dramatically, and will once again become affordable for ordinary people like the four lepers who lived outside the city gates (2 Kgs 7:1-3). 

The sentence then explains that the sign which Elisha offered the ruler is fulfilled. After Yahweh routs the Aramean army from its camp, the people of Samaria plunder food from the Aramean camp, which drives down the price of barley and flour (2 Kgs 7:16).

The trial then amends the indictment of the ruler with a Story of Four Lepers from Samaria (2 Kgs 7:3-20) who seek asylum in the Aramean camp.  When the lepers return to the city and tell their ruler that the Aramean camp is deserted, the ruler does not celebrate it as a divine victory.  Instead he considers it an Aramean ambush.  So he dispatches a messenger to find the Arameans. This episode of the trial indicts the ruler for failing to believe that Yahweh will protect Samaria from its enemies.

The sentence concludes by explaining the execution of the ruler’s most trusted advisor as a punishment for not believing the sign that Yahweh could make barley and flour affordable again for the people of Samaria (2 Kgs 7:18-19). 

Without any other assets and without the likelihood that the siege would soon be lifted, the women take the risk of negotiating with one another for their own survival. In contrast, the widow of Zarepath in the miracle story Elijah Feeds and Widow and Her Son (1 Kgs 17:8-16) avoids risk.  When Elijah asks her to make bread for him with her last flour and oil, she is not afraid to obey him. Consequently, Yahweh saves her household from starvation.

The non-compliant mother switches from risk taking to avoiding risk. She hides the child and trusts in Yahweh to save her and him. The other mother, however, remains a risk taker. She and the other woman had made a survival pact and she fulfilled its stipulations, but the other mother did not.  Since covenant-keeping is the basis of their community, that becomes the greater crime than whether they have shared a meal of human meat. Therefore, she is not willing to remain silent in the face of the other woman’s covenant-breaking.

Even more inexplicable is the fact that in everything the mother says or does, there is no sense of moral outrage at the death and consumption of her own child, only outrage that the other child in not being made available for their next meal.[17] The very fact that she is willing to publicly make known their plan without shame suggests she has abandoned all sense of communal responsibility.  She has taken a risk to feed herself and is slavishly bond to it.  Her only desire is to fulfill the stipulations of the covenant and her passion reflects the idea that the ruler should support her.[18]

Like other courts martial in the Bible, a Trial of Two Mothers serves as a test of the ruler’s ability to make a wise decision and dispense justice to the people. [19]  In each trial where this type-scene appears there is a possibility for loss of public loyalty if the ruler fails to perform the role of a just king. [20]  Of course, failure to perform expected duties already exists in the sense that the ruler has failed to prevent the siege of his capital and by extension is responsible for the current conditions that are endangering normal behavior and the cohesiveness of the community.  He may not be directly responsible for the crime presented to him by the mother, but he is obligated to find a just sentence.  Otherwise, the cry can be raised, as Absalom does against David, that there is no justice in the land and the people need to direct their support to a new leader who will serve them and their interests (2 Sam 15:1-6).  In a Trial of Two Mothers, however, the ruler does not make a decision, wise or foolish.  Instead, he directs his anger over the situation at Elisha and he leaves the resolution of the crisis to Yahweh.

Several interesting parallels to the type-scene involving a woman’s cry for justice appear in the Bible.  For instance, Solomon hears a Trial of Two Mothers (1 Kgs 3:16-28), who are also arguing over the life of a child after another child has died.[21]  That trial, however, simply begins with the statement that the two mothers …came to the king and stood before him (1 Kgs 3:16). The statement is a direct link to Absalom’s promise to hear the cases of all who came to him if he were king (2 Sam 15:3-4).[22]  The trial also demonstrates that the true test of justice is the keeping of covenants. The Deuteronomist’s History always portrays Solomon as a just king.  In this way he obtains honor and avoids the shameful charges that Absalom had made about a neglectful and unjust David (2 Sam 15:3).

There also is a marked contrast between the wisdom of Solomon and the foolishness of the ruler of Israel to find a solution.[23] The Deuteronomist’s History may be consciously contrasting the unjust rulers of the northern Israel with the just rulers of Judah.  In the Trial of the Two Mothers it is the singular lack of wisdom on the part of the ruler in the face of extreme emotion and crisis that provides a stark comparison with just kings like Hezekiah and Josiah.

 Furthermore, when the mother of the dead child seeks out the ruler of her city for justice she does not find him in his throne room.  Instead, he is walking the city’s walls. Like Ahaz (735-715 B.C.E.) in the book of Isaiah (Isa 7:1-25) the ruler has recessed his court in order to inspect the city’s defenses. The recess also allows the city elders time to negotiate with one another, and advocates like Isaiah and the mother to press their causes informally.

Both trials involve children.  Isaiah petitions Ahaz who has sacrificed his son to spare Isaiah’s son by leaving the fate of the city to Yahweh. A mother who has sacrificed her son petitions her ruler to compel her covenant partner to sacrifice her son.

The mother’s petition is also parallel to the petition of the wise woman of Tekoa to David in a Trial of Amnon (2 Sam 13:1 – 14:33).  The wise woman says: Help, O King! David responds: What is the matter? (2 Sam 14:5). [24]  Here, however, the ruler responds: I cannot! Only Yahweh can help you. How can I help you? Both my threshing floor and wine press are empty. The ruler demonstrates his weakened condition by sarcastically stating that she might as well turn to Yahweh for relief since he is incapable of doing anything for her, and certainly not from the denuded or occupied vineyard or the threshing floor.[25]

But, of course, in that case the mother is asking for the life of her surviving son rather than for his death.  When brought out of his revelry he discovers that his macro concerns also have micro repercussions for his subjects when without any sense of protocol or decorum a woman asks him directly for the life of another woman’s child.[26] 

The two mothers who address Solomon serve as the initial test of the ruler’s wisdom.  In both trials a child is lost, and its mother is at risk. There is also a similar callousness expressed by one of the mothers in each trial. In both instances the accusing woman claims to have been injured or deprived of her rights. The argument between the mothers who petition Solomon contrasts with the fact that only one mother petitions the ruler of Israel.[27]


social scientific research on risk


Much empirical research and theoretical writing dedicated to the study of risk is now available.[28] Today there are at least four scholarly journals dedicated to the study of risk. The relationship between risk and society is now a primary focus of social scientific studies of western industrial cultures.

Risk can be defined as “a material or symbolic danger or harm” that is imminent and requires a response. [29]  Risk also can refer to an alleged negative future event. [30]

Risk is also about how people employ specific strategies to manage or reduce real danger and uncertainty once they obtain knowledge about the real or imagined threat. Risk theorizing concerns how particular populations in various social, economic, political or ecological situations deal with real dangers or potential harm and how they manage, prevent, or make decisions about risk. The management of uncertainties may occur through rational or logical risk calculation or it may entail non-rational reactions to harm or other dangers.

 Social scientists have identified risk as an important organizing principle in western industrial cultures today.[31] Risk is a core component in any study of these cultures. The analysis of risk consciousness and contrasting modes of risk discourse are among the most important considerations for any serious attempt to frame daily life in industrial cultures today.

There is little agreement, however, as to how risk should be defined and studied, and little consensus when it comes to identifying the social conditions that are implicated within the rise of risk debate. A major task is making sense of the many contrasting ways in which the language of risk features as a label for social problems.   This study concentrates on a sociological approach to risk that examines …the ways in which risk attitudes and behaviors are shaped according to our institutional affiliations and social commitments of everyday life.[32] Of course, this study will also take into account the social and political conditions inherent in a pre-industrial society in the Near East.

Social scientific studies on risk take into account that some risks are based on fairly familiar natural disasters or everyday accidents, which are not predictable nor can they be anticipated.  Instead, even though they are familiar occurrences, they can only be dealt with as they occur and any risk calculation that results is likely to follow precedents formed during previous disasters. Where risk calculations reach new heights is in the face of new risks, which differ significantly from the everyday issues that people must cope with, such as a military invasion, a major change in the ecology, economic downturn or the emergence of a political shift.[33] In these cases, it is the lack of firm knowledge about the degree or the long-term consequences of risk that makes the situation more formidable and stressful.[34] These studies also show that the risk-averse prefer to use long established responses for handling stress while risk takers prefer innovative responses.[35]  The argument against risk taking is often based on the uncertainty of benefit and cost for any given situation. [36] In fact inaction may be the result of an inability to estimate the probabilities associated with a particular action

The risk construct is based on the acceptance of a degree of risk to be taken.  The range of risk is found even if the decision is to avoid risk since that choice also has consequences.  The possible outcomes are based on possible consequences for each risk taken.  The resulting events therefore are triggered by the spectrum of possible outcomes.  For example, if the ruler follows Elisha’s advice and waits for Yahweh to resolve the situation and does not effectively convey why he has made that decision, then he may be faced with mutiny by his subjects.  In the chart below, the actual outcomes are the result of the risks taken and the possible consequences of each risk decision.

Risks Taken                 Possible Outcomes

No Action Taken

Siege Continues

Siege Ends

City Falls

City Survives

Actual Outcomes

Attack Ordered

Food Supply Diminishes

Food Supply Replenished

City Destroyed

Enemy Defeated



Water Supply Exhausted

Access to Water Returns

People Killed

People Survive


Call to Allies for Help

Morale Deteriorates

Morale Improves

People Enslaved

People Remain Free


Place Blame on the Prophet

King’s Authority Undermined

King’s Authority Restored

King Deposed

King Continues to Rule


 The reactions of the ruler and his subjects that are described in a Trial of a Ruler of Israel (2 Kgs 6:24—7:20) are a good example of both risk taking and risk avoiding behavior.  At the beginning of the story, the people of Samaria face of an abiding disaster in which the survival of every household is in imminent danger. As a result risk calculations will take place that measure the extent of the danger against a possible set of protective actions and secondary consequences.

The people of Samaria must either take the risk of feeding themselves or avoid risk and place their trust in Yahweh’s intent to feed and protect them.  If their decision is to take the risk then they may well decide that their survival or self-interest supersedes the importance of the survival of their weakest member(s). 

Risk taking by negotiating covenants with neighboring states for food and protection,  which is condemned by the prophets,  has led to instances of infanticide (Ezek 16:4-6a), expulsion of the sick like lepers  (Lev 13:45-46; 2 Kgs 7:3), and cannibalism (2 Kgs 6:26-30).[37]  While household or the state may develop traditions to explain or justify their actions, they will also have to deal with unexpected consequences -- second-order dangers -- associated with their action that may in turn heighten their danger and dispel their certainty of specific risk-construction.”[38]

The Trial of the Ruler of Israel and the Trial of Two Mothers raise the question whether the ruler and the people of Samaria -- faced with a seemingly impossible situation of a long-term siege -- will avoid risk or take risks to respond to their situation. Risk-avoidance, which is consistent with the theology of the Deuteronomist’s History, would require the ruler and the people to trust in Yahweh’s ability to lift the siege and, as Elisha predicts, restore a balance to their economy and lifestyle by providing enough food for all.  Conversely, risk-taking ignores the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel in favor self-interest and of cannibalism to address their short-term need for food.[39]

The intention of the Deuteronomist’s History is to argue that Babylon took away the land and children which Yahweh had promised to Abraham and Sarah because the rulers of Israel and Judah did not obey the stipulations of the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel.[40]  It plays upon the tendency by humans to take the risk to solve their problems in their own way rather than avoiding risk and having faith that Yahweh will feed and protect them as promised in the covenant. 

One motif in the Deuteronomist’s History involves a ruler who is instructed on how to maintain Yahweh’s favor.  That ruler, however, takes risks without regard for the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel.  While these decisions may have been a logical response to stress, they are still considered to be sins by the Deuteronomist’s History.[41] The annals of the rulers of Israel and Judah involving risk taking are folded into a review explaining why particular households – like the household of Saul and the household of Jeroboam -- are rejected by Yahweh.




Risky Behavior




1 Sam 13:2-15

Performs unauthorized sacrifice

Dynasty ended



1 Sam 15

Fails to complete herem of Amalekites

Dynasty ended



2 Sam 11—12:23

Adultery with Bathsheba

Death of child and troubled succession



1 Kgs 11:1-25

Builds altars for foreign divine patrons

Divided kingdom



1 Kgs 14:6-14

Altars & golden calves at Bethel and Dan; non-Levitical priests

Dynasty ended



1 Kgs 16:31-33; 21:17-26

Foreign wife; Baal worship; Naboth’s judicial murder

Dynasty ended

Unnamed ruler  of Israel


2 Kgs 6

Relies on city walls rather than trust in Yahweh to deliver the city from the Aramaeans

Credibility and chief advisor lost



Isa 7

Calls on the Assyrians to rescue him from Israel and Syria

Judah is invaded and impoverished

Among the fullest expressions of the risk motif are the indictment of Solomon who married 700 primary wives and 300 secondary wives and who …turned away his heart (1 Kgs 11:3), and the indictments of the household of Omri for …walking in the way of Jeroboam (1 Kgs 16:19).

Solomon established alliances through marriage; the more marriages contracted the more powerful the ruler.[42] The Deuteronomist’s History was not interested in Solomon’s political achievements, but in why a successful ruler like Solomon would also be the last ruler of a united Israel.  Citing the prohibition against marrying foreign women (Exod 34:16; Deut 7:3-4), the History indicts Solomon for succumbing to the demands of his wives to worship their divine patrons rather than Yahweh alone (1 Kgs 11:4-8).

From a social scientific perspective Solomon took the risk of personally trying to feed and protect Israel on his own, rather than relying on Yahweh.  The consequence for those who try to do for themselves what Yahweh has promised to do for them is always famine and war.  Consequently, Solomon is the last ruler of a united Israel.

Jeroboam led the secession of 10 tribes from the household of David, and who founded the northern state of Israel. Ahijah the prophet designates Jeroboam as king (1 Kgs 11:26-37). If Jeroboam listens to all that Yahweh commands, walks in Yahweh’s ways, and does what is right in Yahweh’s sight then his household will rule the northern state of Israel forever (1 Kgs 11:26-38; 2 Sam 7:11-27).

Jeroboam, like Solomon, was politically astute.  To prevent the Hebrews in the northern state of Israel from continuing to make their pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they may be convinced to …revert to the household of David (1 Kgs 12:26), he established pilgrimage sanctuaries to Yahweh at Dan on Israel’s northern border and Bethel on its southern border. Consequently, the Deuteronomist’s History indicted him for failing to worship Yahweh only in Jerusalem.

  Individuals are not viable in traditional cultures.[43]  The base community in ancient Israel was the household, not the individual.[44] Only a household could feed and protect its members, and contribute to the feeding and protecting of the other households in the village. In a Trial of a Ruler of Israel the ruler is the father of the household no longer able to feed and protect it land and people.[45] He, the mothers and the lepers take the risk of trying to feed and protect themselves.  Elisha, in contrast, avoids risk and continues to have confidence that Yahweh will feed and protect Samaria.  

The normal forms of social interaction and social restraint are compromised during the crises of war and famine.  Social control mechanisms -- like labeling and shaming -- which support risk adverse behavior fail.[46] War, especially when it is perennial or long-term, has always been one of these major social disruptors since it contributes to a general acceptance of heightened levels of violence against persons and property and civil disorder.[47]  During the course of the nearly constant hostilities that characterized the history of the Near East, military activities including raids on local villages as well as the besieging of cities disrupted normal business activities, all types of travel, typical processes like marriages and burials, and the very concept of community was thrust aside in the midst of mounting crises. [48] The degree to which negative disruptions occur and continue to escalate has a significant effect on group stability and social dynamics.[49]

Risk Theory may be used to demonstrate how the two mothers, in a time of extreme stress, respond to the disruption to their daily social rituals and what becomes expendable when a household, a village or a state can no longer feed its people and protect its land.[50]  Faced with a total disaster for their city, they experience a breakdown or loss of meaning that threatens to totally disrupt their sense of identity and social cohesion.[51] Their trauma is shared by the ruler, who abdicates his responsibility to care for and provide for the needs of his subjects. He has taken the risk of becoming the sole provider of and protector of Samaria, and he has failed.  Yet he says to the mothers: Avoid  risk, and have faith in Yahweh.

There is a general agreement among the people of Samaria that nothing can be done and that social failure and the very existence of their households are at risk.  When the father of a household can no longer feed its people or protect its land, lines of authority are blurred and social breakdown is more likely.[52] 

A Trial of Two Mothers demonstrates that social stresses – famine and abdication of leadership on the part of their ruler -- have led to social failures. Consequently, the mothers can no longer avoid  risk  and have faith that Yahweh will feed and protect them.  They take the risk of killing and eating their children in order to survive. Social failure makes it impossible for them to depend on Yahweh – to be risk adverse.  Therefore, they trust in themselves and become risk takers. 

Even the Deuteronomist’s History is not scandalized by the mothers’ cannibalism, but presents it only as a dramatic example of  risk taking (Deut 28:47-57).[53]  People under siege will watch their enemies feast on their livestock and their crops outside the walls, while they are forced to eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters to avoid starvation.[54] 

Likewise, a sentence in a Trial of Jerusalem in the book of Ezekiel (Ezek 5:9-10) condemns parents in the city to eat their children, and children in the city to eat their parents. In like manner, the Annals of Ashurbanipal, a Great King of Assyria (668-627 B.C.E.), proclaims that during one of his campaigns against Babylon the inhabitants ate each other’s flesh because they were starving.[55]

The Jewish Wars of Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100) also describes a mother eating her child during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70.[56] Here a mother who has apparently been driven mad by the theft of what little food she has and by the likelihood of slavery should she survive the siege.  She says to her nursing son: You poor child! To whom shall I sacrifice you: to this war, to starvation, or to slavery? If the Romans spare our lives, we become their slaves. Famine may kill us, even before slavery comes upon us. The Romans are worse than either slavery or death by starvation. Come on, then, be my food!  Anger these Romans. Become the scorn of the entire world, which is just waiting for the Romans to destroy us Jews.  At that point she kills the child, roasts him and consumes half the body while putting the rest aside.  Remarkably, the smell of roasting meat attracts a hungry crowd who demand a portion, but when she tells them it is her son and challenges them to eat from the same dish she has, they are shocked into slinking away in their shame and misery for themselves and for the city.[57]

The point of a Trial of a Ruler of Israel and of a Trial of Two Mothers is not that one human is eating another, but that the mother and the ruler she addresses have lost hope that Yahweh will deliver Samaria. Cannibalism, here is treason against the Covenant between Yahweh and Israel.  Cannibalism here is a pantomime as in a Trial of Jerusalem in the book of Jeremiah (Jer 16:1-3) where Jeremiah does not marry or attend weddings or funerals. These are the rituals that unite the present generation to its ancestors in the past and its descendants in the future. Judah, however, will be destroyed. Time is suspended. There is no past and there will be no future. Jeremiah’s pantomimes and those of the two mothers not only portray what will happen to Samaria and Jerusalem in their last days, but also set those final days into motion. The wars between Israel and Arm and between Judah and Babylon will bring marriages, funerals, and all household celebrations to an end.

 Feeding children rather than eating them, marriage and burying the dead all require a belief in tomorrow. Here in a Trial of Two Mothers and a Trial of Jerusalem these rituals are suspended. Thus in a world without hope or belief in the saving power of Yahweh, those children who can no longer be fed, are to be consumed.  Their mothers take the risk that if they eat their own children they may survive.  


What the interaction between the two mothers and the ruler demonstrate is that one mother is trying to force an action by attempting to convince him to do his job while he is looking for a way to impose responsibility on someone else. In their brief dialogue there is seems to be a clear disconnect between the thinking of the mother and the ruler.  She is adamant that justice be served and therefore her primary complaint addresses covenant-breaking and it really does not matter to her that what has occurred here is cannibalism.  The ruler performs a ritual form of humiliation or degradation by tearing his clothes and displaying to the people of Samaria that he already is wearing sackcloth.  His public degradation, which, under other circumstances, would call on Yahweh to save the city,turns to anger and he shifts the blame for the current state of affairs by blaming them on Elisha. [58]

  Calculating the damage that has been done to his authority, the ruler now takes a further risk by directly blaming Elisha for the siege because the prophet had counseled him not to kill the Aramaeans when he had the chance (2 Kgs 6:21-23).  Of course, the prophet’s death could in no way end the siege, but it might redirect the public’s anger away from the ruler. Displaying his lack of a workable plan, the ruler  simply demonstrates his frustration over his own failures and lack of control.  He takes the risk  of pronouncing an oath to have Elisha executed that day.[59]  He then sends his most trusted advisor  to carry out these orders.

The ruler, then, himself comes to Elisha’s house and indicts the prophet: This trouble is from Yahweh! Why should I place my hope in Yahweh any longer? That question, of course, is the literary  cue for Elisha to predict that Yahweh would lift the siege and that the people’s economic straits will be relieved.[60]  Siege will be lifted and Elisha will once again be affirmed as a true prophet.  The ruler’s loss of authority associated with his failure to accomplish all of these goals on his own may be lessened in the process.  However, it seems likely that this ruler  will never completely forget his feelings of helplessness, guilt, and shame.  As such, he is simply another of a long line of rulers sketched darkly in the Deuteronomist’s History.

In conclusion, the eating of children was a biblical sign of the ultimate horror of siege warfare.  When parents ate their children, the end time was upon a city. A significant teaching in the Deuteronomist’s History is that the reason why Israel and Judah have lost the land and children promised to them by Yahweh is that they have not fulfilled their covenant with Yahweh.   These two mothers – possibly representatives of Israel and Judah – have taken the risk of trying to feed and protect themselves by negotiating covenants with neighboring states, and they have failed.  The Trial of Two Mothers indicts the women for breach of covenant, a far worse crime than eating one’s children. 

[1] Stuart Lasine, “Jehoram and the Cannibal Mothers (2 Kings 6:24-33): Solomon’s Judgment in an Inverted World,” JSOT 50 (1991), 35-36

[2] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels, laws and stories from the ancient Near East. 3rd edition; Paulist Press: New York: 223-229. Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol. 1: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 149-69. A more recent translation of Ipuwer can be found in COS 1.93-98.

[3] Laurel Lanner, “Cannibal Mothers and Me: A Mother’s Reading of 2 Kings 6.24—7.20,” JSOT 85 (1999), 107-16.  See also G. Hens-Piazza, Nameless, Blameless, and Without Shame: Two Cannibal Mothers before a King (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003), 80.

[4] S. Bowles and H. Gintis, “Social Capital and Community Governance,” The Economic Journal 112 (2002), 427, conclude after examining the results of “public goods games” that “punishment triggers shame for those who have shirked” in their contributions to the game and that this emotional reaction is part of the reason why punishment is effective as a social control mechanism.

[5] Furthermore, a number of variables are at play, such as gender and socio-economic status that are indicators of a “higher frequency of distressing life events” that lead to both a higher rate of chronic disease, suicide, and risk-taking behavior.  Even today, for the 85% of the world’s population living in developing countries “everyday life consists in a bitter struggle for existence.”  On this see, Iain Wilkinson, Risk, Vulnerability and Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 2010), 2-3.

[6] Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, "Social Sciences and Biblical Studies," in Honor and Shame in the World of the Bible, eds. Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Vol. 68 (Atlanta GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 1994), 12.

[7] For Jonas C. Greenfield, "Doves' Dung and the Price of Food : The Topoi of 2 Kings 6:24-7:2," in Storia e Tradizioni Di Israele (Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1991), 121-126. One and one quarter pounds of dove dung is too small a quantity to use as fuel.  Greenfield therefore suggests that dove’s dung was slang for dried pods whose seeds were shaped like dove dung.

[8] The light shekel weighed 11.4 grams or 0.40 ounces; the heavy shekel weighed 12.5 grams or 0.44 ounces. Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 197.

[9] Antiq IX, iv.1

[10] Victor H. Matthews, "The King's Call to Justice," Biblische Zeitschrift 35, no. 2 (01/01, 1991), 204-216.{{696 Whitelam, Keith W. 1979}}

[11] Mark W. Edwards, "Homer and Oral Tradition: The Type Scene," Oral Tradition 7, no. 2 (1992), 284-330. Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1960). Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical NarrativeBasic Bks, 1981), 55-78. Robert Alter, "Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention," Critical Inquiry 5, no. 2 (1978), 355-368.

[12] {{1868 Aarne,Antti 1987; 1869 Grimshaw,Polly 1976}}

5 S. Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca NY: Cornell University, 1978), 19. I. J. F. de Jong, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad (Amsterdam: Gruner, 1987), 31.

[14] Albert B. Lord, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition (Ithaca NY: Cornell University, 1991), 27.

[15] M. N. Nagler, Spontaneity and Tradition: A Study in the Oral Art of Homer (Berkeley CA: University of California, 1974), 84, 112.

[16] Compare another scene in which a woman appears alone without either a husband or other members of her household to shield her from the affront of contact with a strange man.  Jael is apparently the only person available to greet Sisera when he staggers into Heber’s encampment (Judg 4:17-18).  As Victor Matthews has noted in “Hospitality and Hostility in Judges 4,” BTB 21 (1991), 13-21, normal social protocols are intentionally violated in this story to shock the audience and to make it clear how anarchic the judges period had become.

[17] See G. Taylor, Pride, Shame, and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 104-107. She notes that it is not possible to feel guilt or remorse about something that one does not believe is their fault. Perhaps the woman would wish to undo the siege and its affects, but there is no sense here that she wishes to undo the death of her child. She is too fixated on her own survival.

[18] The degree of indignation expressed against the other woman is another particularly interesting aspect of this story.  The two cannibal women are rivals for the life of the remaining child.  Given the patriarchal nature of ancient Israelite society, it is possible that there is a male bias on the part of the author rendering these women as fractious creatures who are only interested in serving their own needs.  However, that implies that women never choose to abuse each other.  Certainly, gender does not restrict human nature in terms of self-interest. See E.V. Spelman, “The Virtue of Feeling and the Feeling of Virtue,” C. Card, (ed.), Feminist Ethics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 213-32.

[19] Michael Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, 2 Kings (AB 11; New York: Doubleday, 1988), 79-80, note the policy allowing a subject to “appeal indirectly to the king, by a procedure known as ‘speaking the word of the king’ (abat šarri qabû/zakāru), in order to obtain royal intervention in what was perceived to be an unjust act by the administration.”

[20] Burke O. Long, 2 Kings (FOTL 10; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 92.

[21] Stuart Lasine, “The Riddle of Solomon's Judgment and the Riddle of Human Nature in the Hebrew Bible,” JSOT 45 (1989), 69-70, points to Solomon’s efforts to evoke strong emotional feelings, including “the compassion of the true mother” and “the envy of her rival” by his over the top judgment.  The callousness of the false complainant is certainly comparable to the aggrieved mother in the cannibal story.

[22] Michael Cogan, 1 Kings (AB 10; New York: Doubleday, 2001), 194.

[23] G.A. Rendsburg, “The Guilty Party in 1 Kings iii 16-28,” VT 48 (1998), 535.

[24] Cogan and Tadmor, 2 Kings, 79, points out the formal nature of this interchange. 

[25] Taylor, Pride, Shame, 92, concludes that when someone feels shame there is the sense that “I see myself as being all of a piece, what I have just done, I now see, fits only too well what I really am.”  The self has been “disfigured,” altered in such a way that it no longer remains the same and must be restored in the eyes of the public and in the mind’s eye of the person involved.

[26] See Lasine, “The Riddle,” 66, and “Jehoram,” 26. He concludes that the story illustrates the destructive behavior that prophets associate with rampant social breakdown.

[27] See M. Garsiel, “Revealing and Concealing as a Narrative Strategy in Solomon's Judgment (1 Kings 3:16-28),” CBQ 64 (2002), 229-247.

[28] Jens O. Zinn, “Recent Developments in Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty,” Qualitative Social Research 7 (2006), 3.  See also Wolfgang Bonss, Vom Risiko: Unsicherheit und Ungewissheit in der Moderne. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2005: 302-305.

[29] Jens O. Zinn, “A Comparison of Sociological Theorizing on Risk and Uncertainty,” in Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty: An Introduction, edited by Jens O. Zinn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 173. A similar discussion of the concept of risk appears in Wilkinson, Risk, 15.

[30] Jens O. Zinn, “A Comparison of Sociological Theorizing on Risk and Uncertainty,” in Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty: An Introduction, edited by Jens O. Zinn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 173. A similar discussion of the concept of risk appears in Wilkinson, Risk, 15.

[31] So Beck 1992, 1999; Giddens 1990; Bauman 2003: 186-222 and Iain Wilkinson, Risk, Vulnerability and Everyday Life. London: Routledge, 2010, 7.

[32] Wilkinson, Risk, 42.  He adds that social theorists “work to bring more emphasis to the analysis of power relations, political values and social ideology” rather than concentrating on “modes of probabilistic thinking,” which is more typical of business models.

[33] Jens O. Zinn, “Risk Society and Reflexive Modernization,” in Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty: An Introduction, edited by Jens O. Zinn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 23.  See also Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (London and Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1992).

[34] See the discussion in John Tulloch, “Culture and Risk,” in Social Theories of Risk and Uncertainty: An Introduction, edited by Jens O. Zinn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 147-148 and his critique of Ulrich Beck’s concept of a “risk society.”

[35] Alan S. Miller and John P. Hoffman, “Risk and Religion: An Explanation of Gender Differences in Religiosity,” JSSR 34 (1995), 65; Charles A. Holloway, Decision Making Under Uncertainty: Models and Choices (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1979), 391-414.

[36] Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (London: Routledge, 1987), points to how institutions and groups set boundaries around uncertainty as a means of social control and as a way of diminishing the available choices that can be made by individuals. Her model, while helpful, does not take into account those who are either immune to the consequences of risk or are too wedded to their own conception of the acceptability of a certain extent of risk.  On these latter individuals and groups, see Paul Bellaby, “To risk or not to risk? Uses and Limitations of Mary Douglas on Risk Acceptability for Understanding Health and Safety at Work and Road Accidents,” Sociological Review 38 (1990) 477-479.

[37] For example, see Amos’ repeated condemnation of those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (2:7a; 5:11; 8:4).

[38] Jens O. Zinn, “Recent Developments in Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty,” Qualitative Social Research 7 (2006), 3.  See also Wolfgang Bonss, Vom Risiko: Unsicherheit und Ungewissheit in der Moderne. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2005: 302-305.

[39] At the heart of this calculation is a risk appraisal and subsequent efforts at risk management.  See on this process J. Frank Yates and Eric R. Stone, “The Risk Construct,” in Risk-taking Behavior, edited by J. Frank Yates. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

[40] In the process of weaving together the various episodes involving the prophets Elijah and Elisha, the Deuteronomistic Historian drew upon a number of type-scenes and familiar motifs.  For instance, the contest between Yahwehs motif (1 Kgs 18), the king’s call to justice motif (1 Kgs 21), women petitioning the king type-scene (2 Kgs 6:24-32), and the test of patience type-scene (1 Kgs 17:8-16; 2 Kgs 4:1-7; 2 Kgs 7) all appear in these narratives. 

[41] See a fuller discussion of this motif in V.H. Matthews, "The King's Call to Justice," Biblische Zeitschrift 35/2 (1991), 204-216.

[42] See J.M. Durand, “Une alliance matrimoniale entre un marchand Assyrien de Kanesh et un marchand Mariote,” in W.H. van Soldt, ed. Veenhof Anniversary Volume: Studies Presented to Klaas R. Veenhof on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday. Leiden: Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, 2001, 119-132; and H. Schulman, “Diplomatic Marriage in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 58 (1979) 177-93.

[43] R.A. Shweder, “Toward a Deep Cultural Psychology of Shame,” Social Research 70 (2003), 1120. See V.H. Matthews and D.C. Benjamin, Social World of Ancient Israel (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1993), 142-154, for shame as a primary means of social control in ancient Israel.

[44] Z. Crook, “Honor, Shame, and Social Status Revisited,” JBL 128 (2009), 598-99.

[45] See a similar narrative in 2 Kgs 4 in which the prophet demonstrates his ability by reviving the son of the Shunammite woman.

[46] See P.A. Thornburg, J.D. Knottnerus, and G. Webb, “Disaster and Deritualization: A Re-examination of Early Disaster Research,” Conference Papers: American Sociological Association, Annual Meeting (Philadelphia, 2005), 1-23, using Structural Ritualization Theory project as their thesis that ‘ritual practices are disrupted in a disaster and deritualization leads to the breakdown of action and meaning’ (p. 3).  Note that the rape of the defeated – of both warriors on the battlefield, and their women – is not a breakdown of social ritual, but a condition of total warfare.  Warriors rape their enemies to shame them as women; they rape these women to wage war against the future generation.  Total war is waged on four fronts: present on the battlefield, future by raping and disemboweling the pregnant, past by desecrating graves, and the eternal by desecrating sanctuaries. See P. Gordon and H.C. Washington, “Rape as a Military Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible,” A. Brenner, (ed.), A Feminist Companion to the Latter Prophets (FCB 8; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 308–25.

[47] See E. Vikman, “Ancient Origins: Sexual Violence in Warfare, Part 1,” Anthropology & Medicine 12 (2005), 21-31.

[48] See the use of crisis by Jeremiah when he engages in an enacted prophecy that removes him from the normal social processes of marriage and mourning (Jer 16:1-9).

[49] J.D. Knottnerus, “The Need for Theory and the Value of Cooperation: Disruption and Deritualization,” Sociological Spectrum 23 (2003), 10-11.

[50] Jens O. Zinn, “Recent Developments in Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty,” Qualitative Social Research 7 (2006).

[51] Thornburg, et al, 5.

[52] Knotternus and Mason, “The Application of Structural Ritualization Theory to Polar Expeditions,” 16.

[53] See a similar warning in Lev 26:29 and another example of parental cannibalism in Baruch 2:2-3.

[54] For P.C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1976), 347-48 the people of Samaria have placed their trust in walled cities instead of Yahweh, and now it is their enemies who benefit from the produce of the land while they are reduced to cannibalism. For T.R. Hobbs, 2 Kings (WBC 13; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985), 78-79 given this 6th century theological declaration in the Deuteronomist’s History, the question arises whether the 9th century siege of Samaria and the accompanying report of cannibalism are designed as a proof text in the History to make his point or whether the Deuteronomy passage is based on the actual events of Samaria’s siege in Jehoram’s time.

[55] ANET, 298. See also G. Frame, “A Siege Document from Babylon Dating to 649 B.C,” JCS 51 (1999), 101-106.

[56] Jewish Wars of Titus Flavius Josephus,  6.3.4 (authors’ translation)

[57] See H. Chapman, “‛A Myth for the World’: Early Christian Reception of Cannibalism in Josephus, Bellum Judaicum 6.199-219,” SBL Seminar Papers 39 (2000), 359-78.

[58] Compare the wearing of sackcloth in Jonah 3:6-9 as an effort to show contrition and repentance in the hope that Yahweh would respond with an alleviation of potential or real danger.

[59] See the consequences of risk taking when Saul (1 Sam 14:24-46) and Jephthah (Judg 11:29-40) rashly take an oath.

[60] W.J. Bergen, “The prophetic alternative: Elisha and the Israelite monarchy,” R. Coote, (ed.), Elijah and Elisha in Socioliterary Perspective (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 132, asserts that “prophetic power undermines and even embarrasses monarchic power, but it is ultimately useful to it.”  Obviously, kings who must seek help (a motif that is found throughout the prophetic literature –see 1 Kgs 13:4-6) are leaders who could be considered ineffective and shamed by the people.