The Queen of Sheba
by Stephanie Catmull
1 Kings 10: 1-13
(I Kings 10: 1-13) When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stone – she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offering he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed.
She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your men must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.
And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
(Hiram’s ships brought gold from Ophir; and from there they brought great cargoes of almugwood and precious stones. The king used the almugwood to make supports for the temple of the Lord and for the royal palace, and to make harps and lyres for the musicians. So much almugwood has never been imported or seen since that day.)
King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty. Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country.
(Matthew 12:42) The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here.
Did you notice that the Queen of Sheba is not given a name in the Bible, only her title? And interestingly enough, any direct archaeological evidence of the legendary queen of Sheba is not found in any other historical sources, besides that of the Bible and Josephus. Her legend, though, abounds because of her unquenchable search for wisdom, her political savvy as trade negotiator for the Incense Road, her contributory gifts to King Solomon (a tradition paralleled through the Magi’s gifts to Baby Jesus of gold, spice and stones), her personal conversion to Judaism, and the claimed lineage of Divine kingship rulers as her direct descendants in modern-day Ethiopia.
The Queen of Sheba ruled over Sabaea, a region that modern scholars pin to the area of southern Arabia and quite possibly modern -day Yemen or Ethiopia. The Sabeans may have been descendants of Abraham through his second wife, Keturah. Queen Sheba ruled a fabulously wealthy nation and was, like her contemporary Solomon, a highly esteemed intellectual. She was born into an Ethiopian dynasty, sometime in the 10th century B.C., when her father and grandfather being the last two rulers of the dynasty appointed her as their successor. She carved out for herself a position of great power and influence despite being ruled in a male-dominated society. Although not specifically mentioned, she was probably very dark-skinned – a trait rarely seen in the Jewish nation, and was thus rather striking. Her idolatrous country worshiped various gods, chief of which was Attar. Rich, smart, powerful, beautiful, and leader of her country, the Queen of Sheba was independent and brilliant in her own right.
So, why would the Queen of Sheba then choose to travel a journey of seven years (though she made it in three) to Jerusalem when she had everything she needed in her own country? According to the Bible, she wanted to determine firsthand if the wisdom of Solomon was true. But knowing her strong appetite for knowledge, was she hungry enough to travel great distances to find her intellectual soulmate? Or was it merely to set her eyes upon his rumored magnificent wealth? Maybe it allowed her to pay tribute to one of the great Kings of the world, and through her gifts express submission to his authority in the land. As a the economic leader of a wealthy nation, she perhaps needed to negotiate key commercial trade routes that King Solomon was encroaching upon and risking her country’s financial future. Some scholars believe she was summoned by King Solomon, hoping to convert her nation in a non-militaristic manner to Judaism since her country was one of the few not worshiping the God of Abraham.
Or, was Queen Sheba the one ultimately searching out the wisdom of the one true God? Was she a restless spirit searching for more than material wealth and meaningless gods, and was she seeking for Solomon to provide her with this Truth? Did she inherently know that, through the quiet whisperings of God’s Spirit in her soul, that this Truth lay beyond possessions, power and the trappings of false gods?
Her story begins as King Solomon has completed the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem in approximately 957 B.C and was living his own palace known as the Forest of Lebanon. The Queen leaves Sabaea and begins the arduous 1,200 mile journey to Jerusalem through Moab and the Arabian desert with an impressive entourage of servants, dozens of camels, four and a half tons of gold (worth $3,500,000 in today’s currency, giving an idea to how much she had to have been worth to afford such an extravagant gift). She also brought expensive spices, jewels, and interestingly the root of a balsam tree. This tree, now widely found in Israel, only grew in Sabaea at the time and was considered a rare treasure. Since the Queen of Sheba brings it to Judea, she is purposefully presenting King Solomon with a unique, priceless gift, thus acknowledging her high esteem for his intellectual abilities and regard for his splendor. It is also because of her gift that Israel has, in abundance today, the wood from the balsam tree.
When she reaches King Solomon, she immediately tests him with hard questions before she even presents him with gifts. Obviously her quest for knowledge supercedes that of political correctness. Queen Sheba had the utter confidence and boldness of a true monarch as to dare approach him as an equal. The Bible does not state what these questions are, but in Jewish tradition the riddles can be found in detail in the Midrash proverbs:
1) The Queen riddles: “Seven depart, nine enter, two pour, one drinks.” Solomon’s perceptive answer: ‘Seven days of a woman’s uncleanness, nine months of pregnancy, two breasts of the mother, at which the one child is nourished.’ Note that the seven days of uncleanness refers directly to the Jewish tradition that a woman does not engage in intercourse during this period, and that anyone touching her by extension would also be considered unclean. At the end of the seven days, she is commanded to ritually cleanse herself before resuming sexual relations.
2) The Queen riddles: “A woman says to her son, ‘Your father is my father, your grandfather is my husband, you are my son and I am your sister.” Solomon correctly answers: ‘This mother is one of the daughters of Lot, who were with child by their father.’ Because the queen is a descendant of Abraham and Ketara, she would presumably have full knowledge of the stories of Abraham and his nephew Lot through the oral traditions handed down through the years.
3) She brings before King Solomon prepubescent children, all in the same attire, and asks him to distinguish between the males and females. Solomon made a sign to his eunuchs, who brought him nuts and roasted ears of corn, which they scattered before the children. The males, who were not bashful, collected them and tied them within the hems of their garments. The girls, however, were bashful (since their bodies would be revealed if they were to tie their undergarments) and therefore tied them within their outer garments. Solomon told the queen: “These are the males, and these are the females.” Notice that Solomon wisely uses the mannerisms of young girls to find the answer, as opposed to trying to find any anatomical clues.
4) The Queen of Sheba brought a number of people before Solomon, some circumcised and others uncircumcised. She asked of him: “Distinguish between the circumcised and the uncircumcised.” Solomon immediately made a sign to the High Priest to open the Ark of the Covenant. Those who were circumcised stood or bowed their bodies to half their height, while their countenances were filled with the radiance of the Shekhinah. The uncircumcised, however, fell on their faces. Solomon immediately told the Queen of Sheba: “These are the uncircumcised, and these are the circumcised.” She asked him: “How did you know?” He explained to her: “From Balaam the uncircumcised, of whom it is said: ‘who beholds visions from the Almighty, prostrate, but with eyes unveiled’ [Num. 24:4]. If he did not prostrate himself, he would see nothing. I also learned from Job, for when the three friends of Job came to console him, he told them [Job 12:3]: ‘I am not less than you’ [literally, I do not fall from you]—I do not fall like you, for you are uncircumcised, while I am circumcised.”
Take into account that in each of these riddles, the queen of Sheba had to have some knowledge of Jewish tradition, culture, and the Torah. How is this possible if her country was an idolatrous nation and was never taught or integrated with the Jews? Perhaps she had already been doing some self-seeking of Judaism before her arrival to Israel, attempting to satisfy her thirst for knowledge. As an adept leader and noble stateswoman, she would impress Solomon with her knowledge of Jewish traditions. She quite likely came up with these riddles herself, and demonstrates her own intellectual capabilities. It’s also possible that within her deep introspection, she recognized the futility and worthlessness of her own life (much like Solomon’s book of Ecclesiastes). But instead of her impressing him, he turns the tables and fills her with of admiration and awe of the knowledge God has given him. One wonders if their conversations together revolved around the meaningless of their wealth, and centered on God. Did she provide some inspiration to his writings in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes?
As mentioned in the Bible, the magnificence of Solomon’s wealth, the splendor of his architecture, his efficiency in running his country like a well-oiled machine, his finely dressed servants, his delectable gourmet food, and his astounding wisdom left the queen of Sheba utterly speechless and awestruck. Before she arrived, Queen Sheba had a sneaking suspicion that the rumors about his kingdom were nothing more than an exaggeration (since she couldn’t always trust secondhand reports), and yet they proved to be a vast understatement compared to the reality she was seeing with her own eyes. Because of her superlative wisdom, she does not trust the rumors brought to her by underlings. Obviously Solomon’s annual income of at least $20,000,000 proved quite extensively larger than her own. But the Queen Sheba was not only drawn to his wealth and wisdom, but more importantly, she desired to know the Spirit of his God. Take special notice of the fact that her gifts of adulation – gold, spices, and jewels – to the ancestor of Jesus are a similar precursor to the three gifts given by the Magi to the actual Baby Jesus.
It is also noteworthy that the establishment of trade routes between their two countries was an outcome of their meeting. The Incense Road, which was established in 1000 B.C.E., began in Southern Arabia and ended in Israel. Its continuation across to Egypt, Syria and Ethiopia relied upon King Solomon’s concession. The Queen’s massive gifts of spices were indicative of her intentions to ratify the trade route with the King, and her negotiations proved successful. A ninth-century B.C. stamp with a southern Arabic script, made of a reddish-brown clay indigenous to Yemen corroborates this theory. The queen needed these commercial trade routes to cement her country’s financial future, thus proving that she was an adept negotiator as well.
Queen Sheba’s zeal for acquiring knowledge, especially knowledge about the one true God, was insatiable. She took any and all lengths to learn about Him, and went directly the most reliable source on earth – King Solomon. Understandably, this is why Jesus spoke specifically about the Queen of the South, widely believed to be the Queen of Sheba, as she came from the ends of the earth to gain his wisdom. Jesus parallels her actions with those of the believing Jews who, without ceasing, ravenously seek out the spirit of Jesus during his ministry, and speaks judgment on those who refuse to believe. The greatest treasure she took back with her was the spiritual and moral wisdom God had put into the heart of Solomon.
Many scholars believe that though Queen of Sheba was attracted to Solomon’s mind, no sexual relationship between the two monarchs took place for months due to her chastity (akin to that of the Virgin Mary). She offered him the gifts and talents brought during her journey to Jerusalem, and showered him with unabashed admiration, but she did not offer herself. Her virtue remained intact until, purportedly (not relayed in the Bible), the fateful evening of her last night in Solomon’s palace before the long journey back to Sabaea.
Keep in mind that according to the Bible, Solomon has now offered Queen Sheba anything her heart desired. Since she already had wealth, wisdom and power, her final request could be construed as wanting an heir, which is especially important in Biblical times in order to ensure a woman’s survival. Since Queen Sheba was not thought to have had a husband, the survival of herself and her monarchy was in peril. Delicious rumors are rampant about the night she was tricked into losing her chastity in the palace.
Legend has it that, during her final evening in Jerusalem, the two monarchs agreed not to take anything else from each other unless they were given expressed permission. He would not take advantage of her purity, and she in return would not take any of his possessions. But Solomon, a reputed womanizer who had hundreds of wives and concubines, wanted Queen Sheba for himself. He had his kitchen staff prepare an extra salty meal full of hot spices, yet left no water in her room. Late that night, his plan worked beautifully as Sheba became incredibly thirsty. Finding no water, she hastily grabbed the water from Solomon’s cup. Caught in the act, Solomon called her on the carpet about the broken agreement, and held her to its terms. They both enjoyed this one night of lovemaking, whether by trickery or mutual consent, until the sun rose the next morning.
The Queen of Sheba leaves the following day, and according to both Jewish and Ethiopian anecdotes, with a baby son growing in her belly. Upon her departure, Solomon entrusts her with his ring engraved with the Lion of Judah, signifying Israel, which she holds as heirloom for her newborn son and proof of his parentage. Menelik (meaning “Son of the Wise’), allegedly born of Solomon and Sheba, becomes the heir of Sabaea and the future king of Ethiopia. The queen of Sheba is ultimately responsible for converting her entire country into the true religion and ridding them of false idols.
Her son Menelik reportedly returns to King Solomon in Israel until he is 18 years old, and under Solomon’s tutelage becomes immersed in Judaism. When he returns back to his homeland, Menelik also, according to legend, brings back with him the treasured Ark of the Covenant as a gift from his father, King Solomon. Whether this exchange actually took place is debated, and whether the transfer of the true Ark of the Covenant, or a mere replica, is also circumspect.
Menelik thus becomes the first in an unbroken line of 225 emperors in Ethiopia from the Davidic lineage of Jesus. While there is no way to prove for certain that Menelik is the son of Solomon and Sheba, recent genetic studies (according to the Christian Science Monitor) have found that some Ethiopians have 40-50 percent of their genomes that match more closely with populations outside of Africa, and that this genetic mixture occurred 3,000 years ago. Some Ethiopians share up to 40% of their DNA with populations in Syria and Israel.
Why is this genetic relationship important? Some Ethiopians believe that their country replaced Israel as God’s chosen country, and that is why He chose to have the Ark of the Covenant brought there (and still kept in a small courtyard outside Saint Mary’s Church). The Ethiopian emperors believe also that they have a divine right to rule (even going so far as to put this in their constitution), since the kings are directly descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, through which Jesus’ lineage is traced. Emperor Haile Selassie, known as Ras Tafari, was the last emperor of this Solomonic dynasty, and was overthrown in 1974. From his monastic rule until present day, the Rastafarian movement has taken hold, where the lineage of emperors from Menelik believe that they are half-Divine, living Gods .
An interesting bit of trivia about one of the more famous Rastafarians revolves around the musician and once Christian fundamentalist, Bob Marley. While he did not descend from the Divine emperor lineage of the Solomonic dynasty, he became incredibly close with this last Emperor Haile Selassie. So close in fact that the Emperor allegedly gave Bob Marley the Lion of Judah ring handed down by King Solomon to Queen Sheba. Bob Marley, upon his death, was buried with three items: His guitar, a joint, and Solomon’s ring. Whether legend or fact, it does bring a tasty tidbit of King Solomon into our modern world. These tales of Queen Sheba’s illegitimate son may be heavily intertwined in Ethiopian society, but they do not detract from the seeker of Knowledge and Truth, or from the fact that her allegiance with King Solomon resulted in the Christian Ethiopia.
The Queen of Sheba, the true lover of Wisdom and Truth, journeyed for years and thousands of miles in search of Israel’s one God. She met with his anointed ruler on earth, Solomon, and quickly became a scholar of the Jewish faith. Upon her conversion, she carries her faith to her country of Sabaea , where the entire nation is turned away from false idolatry, and converts to Judaism. The Queen of Sheba not only successfully negotiated trade treaties, she embodied the virtuous woman that Jesus reveres – one who constantly seeks the Spirit and wisdom of God. Her true successful reign was that of listening and responding to God’s whisper, and going to the ends of the earth to find Him.