One of the Queen Sheba Fort is located at Khor-rori Dhofar region in Oman
The meeting of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba had significant repercussions upon the fate of Israel and the matriarchy of Sheba , and has inspired writers, artists and readers for centuries. This chapter will compare several versions of the Solomon and Sheba story, including I Kings 10 in the Bible, and the story of Makeda, Queen of Sheba from the Ethiopian epic, the Kebra Nagast. It will explore the character of the Queen of Sheba, and the significance of relationship with King Solomon - both personally and politically.
The Country of Sheba
The country Sheba or Saba, whose name means Host of Heaven and peace, was Abyssinia. Located in southwest Arabia on the eastern tip of the Red Sea, Sheba occupied 483,000 square miles of mountains, valley and deserts in the area of present day Yemen. Some historians claim that Ethiopia, on the western end of the Red Sea, was also part of Sheba's territory.
Sheba was a wealthy country, advanced in irrigation techniques and hydraulic power. Its people, the Sabaeans, built dams as high as 60 feet and large earthen wells which contributed to their thriving agriculture and beautiful gardens. Rich in gold and other precious stones, as well as incense and exotic spices sought by neighboring kingdoms, Sheba engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. By 1000 B.C., camels frequently traveled the 1400 miles up the "Incense Road" and along the Red Sea to Israel.
The spices of Sheba were highly prized. Frankincense, an offering to the gods, was heaped on funeral pyres, and given as an antidote for poison, and as a cure for chest pains, hemmorrhoids and paralysis. Myrrh, an ingredient in fragrant oils and cosmetics, was used in preparing bodies for burial, for healing ear, eye and nose ailments, and inducing menstruation. Other Sabaean spices were saffron, cummin, aloes and galbanum.
The Sabaeans have been described as a tall and commanding people, both woolly-haired and straight-haired. Semitic in origin, they are believed to have been descendents of the Cush of the Bible. The sacred Ethiopian book which establishes the founder of the Ethiopian dynasty as the son of Solomon and Sheba, suggests that the Sabaeans were black. "Ye are black of face - but if God illumineth your hearts, nothing can injure you," priest Azariah says to the Queen and her people in the Kebra Negast.
Because of its isolation, Sheba was secure from military invasion for at least 500 years, and was independent and at peace with its neighbors during the 11th and 10th century B.C. History reveals that at least five kings preceded the Queen of Sheba - among them Iti'amra and Karibi-ilu. Yet Arabian documents portray all of Arabia as matriarchal and ruled by queens for over 1000 years. In Ethiopia, the Kebra Negast refers to a law established in Sheba that only a woman could reign, and that she must be a virgin queen.
Numerous legends refer to the female-centered clans, matriarchal practices, and matrilineal inheritance of ancient Arabia and surrounding countries. In Assyria, the head of a family was called the "shebu," and was originally a female, or matriarch. In other mideastern lands, polyandry was sanctioned - a woman could marry several husbands, who left their own families to live with hers; she could also initiate divorce by turning her tent to face east for three nights in a row. Before the onset of patriarchy, women may have experienced superior - or at least equal - rights with men.
Since Sheba was a center of astronomical wisdom and the Queen or King was chief astronomer/ astrologer, religious life involved worship of the Sun and Moon. Shams was the Sun god.
In the Kebra Negast, the Queen tells Solomon, "We worship the sun...for he cooketh our food, and moreoever he illumineth the darkness, and removeth fear; we call him "our King," and we call him "our Creator....And there are others among our subjects.... some worship stones, and some worship trees, and some worship carved figures, and some worship images of gold and silver."
The Great Goddess who dwelt in the sacred black aniconic stone was given the title Shayba by the Arabic-Aramaen people. Shayba represented the Moon in its threefold aspect - waxing, (maiden), full (pregnant mother), and waning (old wise woman or crone). But the primary Sabaean Moon god was Ilmukah or Ilumguh, identified with the god Sin of Assyro-Babylonian mythology. Sin was portrayed as an old man with an azure beard, the color of lapis lazuli, and a turbaned head. Wearing a crown shaped like a full moon, Sin rode a crescent moon-boat from which he navigated the night sky. Also called He-Whose-Deep-Heart-No-God-Can-Penetrate, he dispersed evil and darkness, and inspired his believers with dreams and prophecies.
A Moon goddess worshipped by the Sabaeans was Astarte, or Ashtart, whom they called Astar, which means "womb." The giver and destroyer of life, Astar was Queen of Heaven and Mother of all Deities. Arriving from heaven as a ball of fire, and accompanied by a lioness, she was pictured with horns, and a disc of the sun above her forehead.
The earliest known Arabian temple was at Marib, capital of Sheba, and was called Mahram Bilqus, "precincts of the Queen of Sheba." In Arab lore, this queen was named Bilqus or Balkis; in Ethiopia, Makeda (also Magda, Maqda and Makera), meaning "Greatness." Years later, the historian Josephus, referred to her as Nikaulis, Queen of Ethiopia and Egypt.
Legends of the Queen of Sheba are common throughout Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia and Israel. In Arabian tradition, Balkis ruled with the heart of a woman but the head and hands of a man. Islamic stories portray Solomon as marrying the Queen. In contrast to the Bible,they portray her abandoning her gods and converting to the God of the Israelites.
Arabian folklore and the Qu'ran present fanciful stories of the Queen of Sheba. Many of these tales involve magic carpets, talking birds, and teleportation - the miraculous transfer of Balkis' throne in Sheba to Solomon's palace. One notable tale involves the hoopoe bird, who tells Solomon about Balkis and delivers to her a demand from him - unless she visits him, he will annihilate her people. In one story, her foot which is shaped like an ass's foot is transformed into a human foot when she steps on Solomon's glass floor; in another story, Solomon invents a depilatory in order to remove goathair from her legs.
Several Jewish legends which developed in post-Biblical times also present dubious accounts of the Queen and Solomon. Although many of her challenges to Solomon are believable, others given in the Targum Sheni, the Midrash Mishle and the Midrash Hachefez are similar to Islamic tales, and likewise unconvincing. Here again we encounter the talking hoopoe bird; here, Solomon threatens: "the beasts of the field are my kings, the birds my riders, the demons, spirits and shades of the night, my legions. The demons will throttle you in your beds at night, while the beasts slay you in the field and the birds will consume your flesh."Here also, she is described sending Solomon six thousand boys and girls all born the same hour, the same day, the same month and same year, all of equal size and dressed in identical purple garments.
More realistic portraits of the Queen of Sheba appear in the Bible and the Kebra Negast. According to Ethiopian legend, she was born in 1020 B.C. in Ophir, and educated in Ethiopia. Her mother was Queen Ismenie; her father, chief minister to Za Sebado, succeeded him as King. One story describes that as a child Sheba (called Makeda) was to be sacrificed to a serpent god, but was rescued by the stranger 'Angaboo. Later, her pet jackal bit her badly on one foot and leg, leaving lasting scars and deformity. When her father died in 1005 B.C., Sheba became Queen at the age of fifteen. Contradictory legends refer to her as ruling for forty years, and reigning as a virgin queen for six years. In most accounts, she never married.
Sheba was known to be beautiful (despite her ankle and leg), intelligent, understanding, resourceful, and adventurous. A gracious queen, she had a melodious voice and was an eloquent speaker. Excelling in public relations and international diplomacy, she was a also competent ruler. The historian Josephus said of her, "she was inquisitive into philosophy and on that and on other accounts also was to be admired."
Power and riches could not satisfy Sheba's soul, for she possessed an ardent hunger for truth and wisdom. Before her visit to Solomon, she says to her people:
"I desire wisdom and my heart seeketh to find understanding. I am smitten with the love of wisdom.... for wisdom is far better than treasure of gold and silver... It is sweeter than honey, and it maketh one to rejoice more than wine, and it illumineth more than the sun.... It is a source of joy for the heart, and a bright and shining light for the eyes, and a giver of speed to the feet, and a shield for the breast, and a helmet for the head... It makes the ears to hear and hearts to understand."
"...And as for a kingdom, it cannot stand without wisdom, and riches cannot be preserved without wisdom.... He who heapeth up gold and silver doeth so to no profit without wisdom, but he who heapeth up wisdom - no man can filch it from his heart... I will follow the footprints of wisdom and she shall protect me forever. I will seek asylum with her, and she shall be unto me power and strength."
"Let us seek her, and we shall find her; let us love her, and she will not withdraw herself from us, let us pursue her, and we shall overtake her; let us ask, and we shall receive; and let us turn our hearts to her so that we may never forget her."
Sheba Prepares for Solomon
How did Sheba learn of the wisdom of King Solomon? The leader of her trade caravans, Tamrin, owned 73 ships and 787 camels, mules and asses, with which he journeyed as far as India. Having also traded with Israel, he brought gold, ebony and sapphires to Solomon, for use by his 700 carpenters and 800 masons who were building the great temple of Jerusalem. Tamrin told Sheba about the temple, and:
"how Solomon administered just judgement, and how he spake with authority, and how he decided rightly in all matters which he enquired into, and how he returned soft and gracious answers, and how there was nothing false about him.... Each morning, Tamrin related to the Queen about all the wisdom of Solomon, how he administered judgement ... and how he made feasts, and how he taught wisdom, and how he directed his servants and all his affairs... and how no man defrauded another... for in his wisdom he knew those who had done wrong, and he chastised them, and made them afraid, and they did not repeat their evil deeds, but they lived in a state of peace."
"And the Queen was struck dumb with wonder at the things that she heard... and she thought in her heart that she would go to him; and she wept by reason of the greatness of her pleasure in those things that Tamrin had told her.... When she pondered upon the long journey she thought that it was too far and too difficult to undertake. But she became very wishful and most desirous to go that she might hear his wisdom, and see his face, and embrace him, and petition his royalty."
Whereas the Ethiopians emphasize Sheba's infatuation and adoration of the unknown Solomon - perhaps influenced by unfulfilled and sublimated sexual desire - Josephus describes her inquisitive, skeptical and challenging attitude:
"When this queen heard of the virtue and prudence of Solomon, she had a great mind to see him...she being desirous to be satisfied by her own experience, and not by a bare hearing (for reports thus heard are likely enough to comply with a false opinion); she resolved to come to him, in order to have a trial of his wisdom, while she proposed questions of very great difficulty and entreated that he would solve their hidden meaning."
Sheba's desire to encounter Solomon was ardent enough for her to embark on a 1400 mile journey, across the desert sands of Arabia, along the coast of the Red Sea, up into Moab, and over the Jordan River to Jerusalem. Such a journey required at least six months time each way, since camels could rarely travel as much as 20 miles per day.
Arabian camels were tall and hardy, able to store water and fat for three weeks while living only on desert roughage. Wearing saddles of oak padded with colorful fabric, and hung with gold chains and crescents to win the favor of the gods, camels in a caravan were strung together by ropes made of goat hairs. Baby camels born along the way were carried on the back of the camel ahead to assure its mother of its wellbeing.
Sheba's caravan of 797 camels, mules and asses was laden with provisions and gifts for Solomon. Since a camel's saddle could carry 300-600 pounds, the wealth she brought was vast - gold, precious stones, furniture and spices. Throughout the day, she rode on an extravagant gold palanquin, like a four-poster bed, richly cushioned, with a roof shielding her from the sun and draperies she could close for privacy. Her handsome white camel was laden with gold and precious stones. Most likely, she was also accompanied by an armed guard to protect her from desert brigands, and by her devoted servants.
As Sheba prepared for her journey, she yearned deeply for the wisdom which she imparted to Solomon. Although she already had a passion for abstract knowledge, her virgin status in a pagan society, and and her association of wisdom with a young and handsome king most likely fueled her youthful fervor. Yet the response of her servants reveal that she was not merely a lovestruck adolescent, enamored with fantasies of her hero. Sheba's own devotion to wisdom likewise inspired devotion from her people. According to the Kebra Negast, she told them:
"The honouring of wisdom is the honouring of the wise man, and the loving of wisdom is the loving of the wise man. Love the wise man and withdraw not thyself from him... hearken to the utterance of his mouth, so that thou mayest become like him... The whole story of him that hath been told me is to me as the desire of my heart, and like water to the thirsty man."
Her nobles, and her slaves, and her handmaidens and her counsellors answered and said unto her, "O our Lady, as for wisdom, it is not lacking in thee, and it is because of thy wisdom that thou loved wisdom. And as for us, if thou goest we will go with thee, and if thou sittest down we will sit down with thee; our death shall be with thy death, and our life with thy life."
Who is Solomon?
The name of Solomon (Sol-Om-On) means Sun, as well as peace. Born to King David and Bathsheba, Solomon grew up in a polygamous home, for David had 18 wives. Early in his 39-year reign as king, which began in 961 B.C., he married the daughter of the Egyptian pharoah, whose dowry included 1000 musical instruments, and 80,000 Egyptian builders. The marriage may have been a political affair, for Solomon sought the architectural skills of the Egyptians; legends say that personally, she disappointed him. Later, Solomon took hundreds of wives and concubines. Many historians believe that he did not become polygamous until after his meeting with Sheba, early in his reign.
Whatever his marital status when he met Makeda, Solomon was a handsome man, attractive to women. With dark hair, a tanned lean body and gracious smile, he had an attentive bearing and compelling charm. He also possessed courtly manners and a lively, youthful spirit. Bedecked in elegant tunics of fine fabric dyed royal purple, he wore golden collars and chains, as well a golden circlet with sea-green stones.
Israel during the time of Solomon was a unified kingdom, 30,000 square miles in area - a small but respected power existing peacefully between Assyria and Egypt. Because Solomon was talented in international diplomacy, he negotiated trading agreements with neighboring kings, most notably the Phoenician king, Hiram of Tyre. As a result, his large fleet was built and manned by Phoenicians, and capable of sailing from Esyon-Geber or Eilat on the Red Sea to Ophir, Sheba, and India.
Solomon was (at least initially) a capable administrator, who raised the vast wealth required for his many projects by consolidating his central government and taxing the twelve districts of his kingdom, each which supported his court for one month each year. Later in his reign, his reliance upon heavy taxation, forced labor and slavery led to revolt.
Although reports in I Kings of his 40,000 horse stalls and 1400 chariots may be exaggerated, archaeologists have unearthed 450 horse stalls and 150 sheds for chariots at Megiddo alone. Indeed, Solomon was a wealthy king who gloried in splendor and luxury. His palace boasted vineyards, gardens, pools and singers with exotic musical instruments. Its three large pillared halls, built of cedar and cypress, were ornamented with carved ivory, gold, and sandalwood, with draperies of crimson and purple. Between two imposing gold lions, he sat on his great ivory throne with golden armrests and golden embroidery.
In order to build his Palace and Temple, Solomon sent 10,000 workers a month to Lebanon to fell and transport over land and sea the 120-foot feet high cedars of Lebanon. His great temple, built by Phoenician craftsmen, consisted of three large rooms of richly carved cedar, cypress and marble, with a huge bronze altar and bronze columns 40 feet high, hauled up to Jerusalem from the Jordan valley. Although costly, the Temple was a source of national pride and unity.
Solomon's commitment to building the Temple reflected not only his love of magnificent architecture, but also his piety. Early in his reign, he dedicated himself to God. When God asked him what he most wanted, instead of choosing riches or power, he said, "Give thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil." Pleased at his request, God rewarded him not only with wisdom, but also honor and wealth. "So King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the earth sought the presence to Solomon, to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart."
Over 3000 proverbs have been attributed to Solomon, as well as 1005 psalms, the book of Ecclesiastes and in the Christian Apocrypha, The Wisdom of Solomon. In this book, Solomon speaks of wisdom in a voice reminiscent of Makeda:
"When I reflected in my mind
That in kinship with wisdom there is immortality,
And in her friendship there is pure delight...
I went about seeking how to win her for myself.
I loved her and sought after her from my youth up,
And I undertook to make her my bride,
And I fell in love with her beauty....
So I decided to bring her to live with me,
Knowing that she would give me good counsel,
And encouragement in cares and grief.....
If the possession of wealth is to be desired in life,
What is richer than wisdom, which operates everything?
She understands the tricks of language and the solving of riddles;
She knows the meaning of signs and portents,
And the outcomes of seasons and periods.
Wisdom is bright and unfading,
And she is easily seen by those who love her,
And found by those who search for her."
Solomon's wisdom was not only political and theological; he was also an expert on natural history. A gardener, he planted olive, spice and nut trees as well as vineyards; he admired and studied spiders, locusts and harvesting ants. According to the Bible, "he could talk about plants from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop growing on the wall; and he could talk of animals and birds and reptiles and fish."
A Meeting of Minds
Although an Ethiopian tale portrays Sheba and her prime minister dressed in man's clothes as they meet Solomon, most accounts describe her arriving bejewelled and draped in dazzling robes. Immediately, Solomon gave her a luxurious apartment in a palace next to his, and provided her with fruits, rose trees, silks, linens, tapestries, and 11 bewitching garments for each day of her visit. Daily, he sent her (and her 350 servants) 45 sacks of flour, 10 oxen, 5 bulls, 50 sheep (in addition to goats, deer, cows, gazelles, and chicken), wine, honey, fried locusts, rich sweets, and 25 singing men and women.
A gracious host, Solomon showed Sheba his gardens of rare flowers ornamented with pools and fountains, and the architectural splendors of his government buildings, temple and palace. She was awed by his work on the temple, by his great lion-throne and sandalwood staircase, and by his enormous brass basin carried by the twelve brass bulls which symbolized the twelve months of the year. She sought astronomical knowledge, for which he was known; Solomon had developed a new calendar which added an extra month every nineteen years.
Although impressed by Solomon's wealth, Sheba was more interested in his wisdom. Some scholars suggest that her visit was also economically and politically motivated, "the conclusion of a trade agreement governing both land and sea routes, rather than a meeting of mutual admiration." But she came, according to the Kebra Negast, to learn from him, and according to the Bible, "to prove him with hard questions."
What were these "hard questions?" Theologians throughout the ages have speculated on their nature, believing them to pertain to: peace and war, the meaning of life, evil, secrets of death and immortality, the relationship between spirit and body, sexuality, male/female differences, the role of women, the reliability of paternity as a basis for an economic system, the cycles of the moon and tides, and the name and nature of God. Whatever the questions, most sources refer to lengthy discussions occurring between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
According to Josephus, "upon the king's kind reception of her, he both showed a great desire to please her, and easily comprehending in his mind the meaning of the curious questions she propounded to him, he resolved them." Not only did Sheba ask Solomon philosophical questions; she also tested him with riddles.
The Targum Sheni, Midrash Mischle, and Midrash Hachefez describe twenty two of her riddles:
"What is it? An enclosure with ten doors; when one is open, nine are shut, and when nine are open, one is shut," Sheba asked Solomon. Solomon answered, "The enclosure is the womb, and the ten doors are the ten orifices of man, namely his eyes, his ears, his nostrils, his mouth, the apertures for discharge of excreta and urine, and the navel. When the child is still in its mother's womb, the navel is open, but all the other apertures are shut, but when the child issues from the womb the navel is closed and the other orifices are open."
In another riddle pertaining to the body, Sheba posed to Solomon, "Seven leave and nine enter; two pour out the draught and only one drinks." How did Solomon respond? "Seven are the days of woman's menstruation, nine the months of her pregnancy; her two breasts nourish the child, and one drinks."
Other riddles concerned with common objects and materials. At one point, Sheba asked, "What when alive does not move, yet when its head cut off, moves?" Solomon's answer: "the timber used to build a ship." Another riddle she proposed was: "It is many- headed. In a storm at sea it goes above us all, it raises a loud and bitter wailing and moaning; it bends its head like a reed, is the glory of the rich and the shame of the poor, it honors the dead and dishonors the living; it is a delight to the birds, but a sorrow to the fishes. What is it?" Solomon replied, "Flax, for it makes sails for ships that moan in the storm. It provides fine linen for the rich and rags for the poor, a burial shroud for the dead, and a rope for hanging the living. As seed it nourishes the birds, and as a net it traps the fish."
Some of Sheba's questions were related to the Hebrew Bible. For example, "The dead lived, the grave moved, and the dead prayed. What is it?" The answer: "The dead that lived and prayed was Jonah; the fish, the moving grave." In one theological riddle, she asked: "What is the ugliest thing in the world, and what is the most beautiful? What is the most certain, and what is the most uncertain?" Solomon replied, "The ugliest thing...is the faithful turning unfaithful; the most beautiful is the repentant sinner. The most certain is death; the most uncertain, one's share in the World to Come." In addition to riddles which required a verbal answer, Sheba tested Solomon's ingenuity in action. Dressing five boys and girls identically, she asked him to detect their sex. When he handed them bowls of water for them to wash their hands, the girls, unlike the boys, rolled up their sleeves. Sheba also brought Solomon two flowers alike in appearance, but one was real while the other was artificial; he distinguished them by noting how bees swarmed to the flower with the genuine fragrance. Then, giving him a large emerald with a curved hole in the middle, she asked him to draw a thread through it; he sent for a silkworm, which crawled through the hole drawing with it a silken thread.
The Midrash Hachefez reports still another test of Solomon's cleverness. Sheba presented Solomon with the sawn trunk of a cedar tree, the ends cut off so that they looked the same; she asked Solomon which end had been the root, and which the branches. Solomon ordered the tree stump to be placed in water. When one end sank while the other floated, he said to her, "The part which sank was the root, and that which floated on the surface was the end containing the branches."
According to the Kebra Negast, the questions and tests were mutual; Solomon also challenged Sheba. Yet existing legends describe only a few of the artful strategies he used to outwit her. Determined to discover if the stories of her deformed foot were true, he arranged for a stream of water to flow onto the glass beside his throne (in the Qu'ran, he had running water with fish swimming about it under clear glass), so that Sheba would lift her skirts as she approached him. When she did so, he noted the hair on her legs, and told her, "Thy beauty is the beauty of a woman, but they hair is masculine; hair is an ornament to a man, but it disfigures a woman." He then invented a depilatory in order to acquaint her with his conceptions of womanhood.
During Sheba's six month visit with Solomon, she conversed with him daily. The Kebra Negast informs us that "the Queen used to go to Solomon and return continually, and hearken unto his wisdom, and keep it in her heart. And Solomon used to go and visit her, and answer all the questions which she put to him... and he informed her concerning every matter that she wished to enquire about." Frequently, they roamed Jerusalem together, as she questioned him and watched him at work.
Once, observing a laborer wearing ragged garments, sweating, carrying a stone on his head and a jug of water around his neck, Solomon mused:
"Look at this man. Wherein am I superior to this man? In what am I better than this man? Wherein shall I glory over this man? For I am a man and dust and ashes, who tomorrow will become worms and corruption, and yet at this moment I appear like one who will never die. As is his death, so is my death, and as is his life, so is my life.
Then what is the use of us, the children of men, if we do not exercise kindness and love upon earth? Are we not all nothingness, mere grass of the field, which withereth in its season and is burnt in the fire? On the earth we wear costly apparel... we provide ourselves with sweet scents... but even whilst we are alive we are dead in sin and in transgressions. Blessed is the man who knoweth wisdom, compassion and the fear of God."
Whether Sheba was an adoring adolescent in search of a wise hero, or a confident, powerful young woman who journeyed to Jerusalem to challenge Solomon, she was impressed with his wisdom, compassion, justice and wealth. I Kings tells us:
"And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the attendance of his ministers...she said to the King `It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thine acts, and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it; thou hast wisdom and prosperity exceeding the fame which I heard. Happy are thy men...that stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.'"
Josephus also states that she was surprised to learn that the flattering reports she had heard about Solomon were true, "that she was amazed at the wisdom of Solomon.... She was in the greatest admiration imaginable, insomuch that she was not able to contain the surprise she was in, but openly confessed how wonderfully she was affected."
The sketchy portraits that we have of Sheba hint at her emotional openness, as well as her intellectual curiosity. Even the brief account of her in I Kings, that "she communed with him of all that was in her heart...there was not anything hid from the king which he told her not" , suggests that her encounters with Solomon were not only intellectual discussions, but also open and heartfelt dialogues. The Kebra Negast is considerably more effusive:
"And he visited her and was gratified, and she visited him and was gratified... And she marvelled in her heart, and was utterly astonished in her mind, and she recognized how wise he was in understanding, and pleasant in graciousness, and commanding in stature. And she observed the subtlety of his voice, and the discreet utterances of his lips, and that he gave his commands with dignity, and that his replies were made quietly and with the fear of God."
When she expressed her admiration and joy to Solomon directly, he answered with humility, and likewise expressed his admiration for her. The Kebra Negast reports her saying to him:
"O how greatly have pleased me thy answering, and the sweetness of thy voice, and the beauty of thy going, and the graciousness of thy words. Thy voice maketh the heart to rejoice...and giveth goodwill to the lips, and strength to the gait. I look upon thee and I see that thy wisdom is inexhaustible, and that it is like a lamp in the darkness, and like a pomegranate in the garden, and like a pearl in the sea, and like the Morning Star among the stars, and like the light of the moon in the mist, and like a glorious dawn and sunrise in the heavens."
And King Solomon answered and said unto her, "And King Solomon answered and said unto her, "Wisdom and understanding spring from thee thyself. As for me, I only possess them in the measure in which the God of Israel hath given them to me because I asked and entreated them from Him. And thou, although thou dost not know the God of Israel, thou hast this wisdom which thou hast made to grow in thine heart."Wisdom and understanding spring from thee thyself. As for me, I only possess them in the measure in which the God of Israel hath given them to me because I asked and entreated them from Him. And thou, although thou dost not know the God of Israel, thou hast this wisdom which thou hast made to grow in thine heart."
...And moreover, Solomon marvelled concerning the Queen, for she was vigorous in strength, and beautiful of form, and undefiled in virginity; and she had reigned for six years in her own country, and notwithstanding her gracious attraction and her splendid form, had preserved her body pure."
Were Solomon and Sheba lovers? Did Sheba lose her virginity to the King? The Bible does not say so directly. However, the Hebrew verb bw', which means "to come", is used to describe Sheba's approach to Solomon; this particular word also means coitus, and frequently in the Bible refers to entering a house for the purpose of sexual relations. The statement that "King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked" (as well as Josephus' explanation, "for there was nothing that she desired which he denied her" might also imply that he not only fulfilled her intellectual and material passions; he also fulfilled her sexual passion.
Ethiopian and Arabian accounts explicitly refer to sexual relations between Solomon and Sheba. The Kebra Negast describes that "he pondered in his heart, `A woman of such splendid beauty hath come to me from the ends of the earth! What do I know? Will God give me seed in her?'" He desired her, and she likewise may have desired him, but because she sought to retain her virginity in order to reign as queen, she refused him. After six months together, when Sheba contemplated leaving, he begged her to stay, and asked her to marry him. But she declined, most likely because she was committed to her own people, and was also unwilling to be a wife to a polygamous man, in a society where women had few rights.
Ingenious Solomon was not to be deterred by her refusal. He tricked her into choosing to give herself to him sexually. An Arabic account tells us:
"And Solomon loved women passionately, and... when her visits to him multiplied, he longed for her greatly and entreated her to yield herself to him. But she would not surrender herself to him, and she said unto him, `I came to thee a maiden, a virgin; shall I go back despoiled of my virginity, and suffer disgrace in my kingdom?'
And Solomon said unto her, "I will only take thee to myself in lawful marriage - I am the King, and thou shalt be the Queen...Strike a covenant with me that I am only to take thee to wife of thine own free will - this shall be the condition between us: when thou shalt come to me by night as I am lying on the cushions of my bed, thou shalt become my wife." And behold she struck this covenant with him, determining within herself that she would preserve her virginity from him."
He then arranged a great feast for her, beautifying his tent with purple hangings, carpets, marbles and precious stones, and burning aromatic powers and incense. "Follow me now and seat thyself in my splendour in the tent,'" he told her, "and I will complete thy instruction, for thou has loved wisdom, and she shall dwell with thee until thine end and for ever." When she agreed, he rejoiced. He prepared meats which would make her thirsty, fish cooked with pepper, and drinks containing vinegar. Then they dined and conversed until late in the night, when he suggested that she sleep there near him, rather than return to her apartment.
The Kebra Negast describes an agreement which Solomon then made with Sheba (in contrast to the Arabic text in which he promises not approach her sexually unless she approaches him first). Here, he swears that he will not "take her by force" as long as she does not "take by force" anything of his:
"And she said unto him, `Swear to me by thy God, the God of Israel, that thou wilt not take me by force. For if I, who according to the law of men am maiden, be seduced, I should travel on my journey back in sorrow, and affliction and tribulation.'
And Solomon answered and said unto her, `I swear unto thee that I will not take thee by force, but thou must swear unto me that thou wilt not take by force anything that is in my house.' And the Queen laughed and said unto him, `Being a wise man, why dost thou speak as a fool? Shall I steal anything, or shall I carry out of the house of the King that which the King hath not given me? Do not imagine that I have come hither through love of riches. Moreoever, my own kingdom is as wealthy as thine, and there is nothing which I wish for that I lack. Assuredly I have only come in quest of thy wisdom.'
... And she said unto him, `Swear to me that thou wilt not take me by force thy, and I on my part will swear not to take by force thy possessions'; and he swore to her and made her swear."
In both accounts, Sheba slept in Solomon's tent, and awakened in the middle of the night thirsty and craving water, but only able find a water in a jar by Solomon's bed. Solomon had, of course, asked his servants to hide all other sources of water. Believing him to be asleep, she reached across his bed for water, but he opened his eyes, seized her hand and said:
"`Why hast thou broken the oath that thou hast sworn that thou wouldn't not take by force anything that is in my house?' And she answered and said unto him in fear, `Is the oath broken by my drinking water?....Be free from thy oath, only let me drink water.' And he permitted her to drink water, and after she had drunk water...they slept together"
In the Arabic text, Solomon reminded her of the agreement they had made if she came to him by night. She then "remembered the covenant that existed between him and her. And she gave herself into his embrace willingly."
Sheba may have been Solomon's lover, but she did not become his wife or remain with him much longer. After she had visited him for six months, she chose to return to her own country. Before she left, she gave Solomon 120 talents of gold (10 million dollars), precious stones and spices in great abundance, and highly prized sandalwood for his temple. In the Biblical story, "Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked...besides that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty." Likewise, Josephus states, "Solomon also repaid her with many good things...bestowing upon her what she chose of her own inclination, for there was nothing that she desired which he denied her; and as he was very generous and liberal in his own temper, so did he show the greatness of his soul in bestowing on her what she herself desired of him."
Unlike the Bible and Josephus, the Kebra Negast provides details of Solomon's gifts - beautiful apparel, 6000 camels, wagons laden with luxurious goods, and vessels for travel over desert, air, and sea. Because she was now pregnant with his child, he also gave her a ring, for he hoped that she would bear him a son, who might in time visit Jerusalem and prove his identity to Solomon.
The Aftermath: Solomon's Later Years
The visit of the Queen of Sheba was the culminating point of Solomon's life. After she left, he continued to write and speak words of wisdom, but he and Israel deteriorated. We might speculate that this deterioration was triggered not only by his increasing preoccupation with building a glorious palace and temple, but also by Sheba's return to her country. Never again would Solomon encounter or love a woman he could call her equal.
After she left, Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines, many who were foreign women who eventually "turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God." (42) Although God had commanded that he and the Israelites reject idolatry and the gods of other nations, Solomon built pagan temples for his many wives. In the region south of the Mount of Olives, referred to as the Hal of Shames, he constructed shrines to Ashtoreth, goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, goddess of Moab; and Milcom and Molech, goddesses of the Ammonites. He also honored Astarte, who was worshipped by many cultures, including the Sabaeans.
Although Solomon was known for his internationalism and his openmindedness to foreign cultures and their beliefs, his religious tolerance contributed to his downfall. Not only did he anger God; he also failed to unify his people, who needed their monotheistic practices in order to maintain religious identity and national pride.
The completion of his luxurious Temple became more important to Solomon than the practice of his religion. Then his luxurious Palace - built for personal rather than collective use - took precedence over the Temple. Finally, his writing and preaching of wisdom became increasingly divorced from experience.
Solomon no longer lived by the humane principles for which he had become respected and honored. Some historians even view him as a tyrant who became devoted to his own glory, and whose greed and extravagance led him to build his kingdom on injustice, oppression and misery.
Solomon drew tax lines across the old tribal borders, alienating tribal elders. For his costly architectural projects, he taxed mercilessly, forcing those who could not pay into slavery, and seizing their lands. Many starved and died. Raising a levy of 30,000 men for forced labor from Hebrews and non-Hebrews of his northern kingdoms, rather than his own people of Judah, Solomon divided his country. His people, including his own sons, became increasingly resentful, and began to revolt.
After his death, the northern kingdoms of Israel stopped tolerating the forced labor and high taxes which had fed Judah, and refused to accept Solomon's son Rehoboam as king. Civil war resulted; ten northern tribes set up their own kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam, leaving only the kingdoms of Judah and Benjamin to Rehoboam. Such internal strife only made the Israelites weak, and vulnerable to invasion. Eventually, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians conquered them, and carried them off into exile. While the Queen of Sheba's visit was a time of glory, it marked the beginning of the end for Solomon and all of Israel.
The Aftermath: Sheba and Her Son
Sheba's life after Solomon was more fortunate. Upon returning home, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Ibn al-Hakim, "son of the wise man." Some Jewish, Islamic and Persian sources state that this child was Nebuchadnezzar ; Ethiopians believe him to be David II (the name given him by Solomon), who later called himself Menelek, and who was the first king of the Ethiopian dynasty.
The Kebra Negast states that when Menelek was 12 years old, he began asking his mother about his father, and that when he was 22, he traveled to Jerusalem, bearing the ring which Solomon had given Makeda. Because Menelek's facial features, eyes, legs and gait were similar to his father's, Solomon recognized him instantly. Rejoicing in his firstborn male heir, he wanted Menelek to be his successor, but Menelek refused. Although he remained for a time to study the laws of the Hebrews, Menelek, like his mother, chose to return to Sheba. Solomon was deeply grieved at his departure, and also dreamed of laying with Makeda, experiencing once again the glory that they had known together.
No existing Jewish or Christian documents refer to Sheba giving up her reign as queen, or insisting that only kings descending from Solomon should rule, or converting to Islam. Indeed, in the Bible, she offered respect to the Hebrew god, but returned to her own country and customs. The Kebra Negast presents a different picture. Written to establish the Solomonic kings as the basis of the Ethiopian dynasty, and Islam as the national religion, it emphasizes her decree that "there shall be no more queens in Ethiopia, but only a man." Here she is portrayed telling Solomon, "Henceforward a man who is of thy seed shall reign, and a woman shall nevermore reign; only seed of thine shall reign and his seed after him."
Here too, she is described writing Solomon a letter, requesting that he send her a fringe from the holy Arc of the Covenant, so that the Sabaeans might reverence it. When Solomon demanded that his counselors send their eldest sons to Sheba to spread the religion of the Israelites, his counselors rebelled and arranged for the theft of the Arc, which was then secretly transported to Sheba.
"From this moment I will not worship the sun, but will worship the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel," Sheba had told Solomon. Now, she declared that her people "shall not worship the sun and the magnificence of the heavens, or the mountains and the forests, or the stones and three trees of the wilderness, or the abysses and that which is in the waters... or feathered fowl which fly...and they shall not pay adoration unto them." Not only did she forbid pagan worship, but she also declared the Hebrew god the national god.
After her visit to Solomon, Sheba continued to earn respect from her people for the wisdom she had gained and continued to gain, as a result of her commitment to learning, spiritual development, and benevolent leadership. She was also revered for her kindness to her people, and her capacity to live by her philosophical and religious principles. In her prayers to her new god, she said:
"Grant unto me that I may follow Wisdom, and may not become a castaway; grant that I may make her a foundation for me, and may never be overthrown; grant that I may stand upon her as firmly as a pillar and may not topple over; grant that I may become vigorous through her, and not suffer from exhaustion; grant that I may grasp her firmly, and may not slide; grant that I may dwell in her in peace....
Through her I have dived down into the great sea and have seized her depths a pearl whereby I am rich. I went down like the great iron anchor whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas, and I received a lamp which lighteth me, and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding. I went to sleep in the depths of the sea, and not being overwhelmed with the water I dreamed a dream.
And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun; I laid hold upon it, and I will never let it go. I went in through the doors of the treasury of wisdom and I drew for myself the waters of understanding. I went into the blaze of the flame of the sun, and it lighted me with the splendor thereof, and I made of it a shield for myself, and I saved myself by confidence therein, and not myself only but all those who travel in the footprints of wisdom, and not myself only but...my country."