The Queen of Sheba: How A Legend Was Born
The Queen of Sheba is an enigmatic figure found in all three of the Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In addition to her presence in these three religions, the Queen of Sheba plays an important role in the history and identity of the Ethiopian people.
While most people regard the Queen of Sheba to be a legendary figure, she is considered by the Ethiopians to have existed, and is revered as the mother of their nation. Moreover, she is believed to have been the founder of the Solomonic dynasty, which ruled over Ethiopia until its last ruler, Haile Selassie I, was deposed in 1974.
The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an. In both these religious texts, she is never mentioned by name. Nevertheless, the different traditions have given her different names.
For instance, Arab sources refer to the Queen of Sheba as Balqis or Bilqis, while a Christian source, De Mulieribus Claris or De Claris Mulieribus (meaning ‘Concerning Famous Women’), written by the 14 th century Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio, refers to the legendary queen as Nicaula. As for the Ethiopians, they refer to the Queen of Sheba as Makeda. This name is found in the Kebra Nagast (meaning ‘The Glory of Kings’), which was written in the 14 th century and considered to be Ethiopia’s national epic.
The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible
In the Hebrew Bible, the story about the Queen of Sheba is found in 1 Kings 10: 1-13, and 2 Chronicles 9: 1-12, though both accounts say more or less the same thing. In both of these accounts, the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon in Jerusalem, as she had “heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD,” and wanted to “prove him with hard questions”. For her visit to Jerusalem, the Queen of Sheba brought with her “a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones”.
The account then states that the Queen of Sheba asked Solomon the questions that she had set, and the king was able to answer all of them. The queen was overwhelmed by Solomon’s wisdom, as well as the wealth of his kingdom, “And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built, / And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD; there was no more spirit in her”.
The Queen of Sheba was impressed by the wisdom of King Solomon. (JarektUploadBo / Public Domain)
Needless to say, the presence of the Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Bible is meant to show off Solomon’s wisdom, the wealth of his kingdom, and to glorify God. At the same time, the account provides us with a tantalizing glimpse of the wealth possessed by the Queen of Sheba:
“And she gave the king a hundred and twenty talents (about 4 tonnes) of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. / And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones”. 1 Kings 10:10 New International Version (NIV) Bible
Solomon, likewise, treated the queen with great generosity during her stay in Jerusalem, “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty”. After that, the Queen of Sheba returned to her own country, and does not reappear in the Hebrew Bible.
It may be mentioned that this legendary queen makes a cameo in the New Testament. In Matthew 12: 42, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees who were asking him for a sign by saying “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here”. The ‘queen of the south’ is equated with the Queen of Sheba.
In addition, this Old Testament story is re-cast in a new light by Christians. For instance, the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon is seen as a metaphor for the submission of the Gentiles to Christ. In addition, the queen is said to foreshadow the Virgin Mary through her chastity. And her gifts of gold, spices, and stone, are said to mirror the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented by the magi to the infant Jesus.
The Queen of Sheba in the Qur’an
The account of the Queen of Sheba is found also in the Qur’an and is quite similar to the one in the Hebrew Bible. In Surat an-Naml, the story of the Queen of Sheba begins with a bird known as a hoopoe, who brought news to Solomon about the land of Sheba. The hoopoe reported that this land was governed by a woman, who "has been given of all things, and she has a great throne”.
In addition, the hoopoe found that the queen and her subjects were “prostrating to the sun instead of Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [His] way, so they are not guided, / [And] so they do not prostrate to Allah,”. Hearing this report, Solomon commanded the hoopoe to deliver a letter to the Queen of Sheba, in which the queen is invited to submit to Allah.
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Bilqis reclining in a garden, the Queen of Sheba facing the hoopoe, Solomon’s Messenger. (Shakko / Public Domain)
The queen consulted her advisers on the reply that she should send to Solomon and they responded by saying “We are men of strength and of great military might, but the command is yours, so see what you will command”. Although the queen was aware of her kingdom’s military might, she opted for a more diplomatic approach, “Indeed kings - when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honored of its people humbled. And thus, do they do. / But indeed, I will send to them a gift and see with what [reply] the messengers will return”.
The gifts sent by the Queen of Sheba to Jerusalem were rejected by Solomon, who said “Do you provide me with wealth? But what Allah has given me is better than what He has given you. Rather, it is you who rejoice in your gift”. In addition, the king threatened to take military action if the queen still did not submit, “Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased”.
Therefore, the Queen of Sheba decided to travel to Jerusalem. Prior to her arrival, however, Solomon assembled his djinn, had one of them bring the Queen of Sheba’s throne back to his palace, and had it disguised. This was done so as to see if the queen was able to recognize her own throne.
The Queen of Sheba departs her land with many gifts for King Solomon. (Eugene a / Public Domain)
After that, the Queen of Sheba was invited into the palatial hall, and mistaking the glass floor for water, lifted her skirt, in order to avoid wetting her clothes. Finally, the Queen of Sheba admitted her mistake and submitted to Allah.
Embellishments About the Queen of Sheba
The narratives about the Queen of Sheba in both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an have some gaps in them, and commentators and religious scholars in later times have attempted to fill them. As a result, the stories surrounding the Queen of Sheba were embellished and became even more colorful than they already were.
An embellishment of this story states that Solomon’s djinns were afraid that the king would be tempted to marry the queen, and one of them whispered to Solomon that the queen had hairy legs, and the hooves of an ass. Solomon, being curious, ordered a glass floor to be built before his throne.
When the queen lifted up her skirt to cross the ‘water’, it was revealed that she did have hairy legs. Solomon ordered his djinns to create a depilatory for the queen. The story ends without concluding if Solomon married the Queen of Sheba.
Many embellishments, such as the glass floor story, have been written about the Queen of Sheba. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
In the Hebrew Bible, the Queen of Sheba is said to have tested Solomon with riddles, but these riddles are not found in the text itself. These riddles, however, can be found in the Midrash, a compilation of writings involving the critical explanation / interpretation of the Hebrew Bible by ancient Jewish authorities.
In the Midrashic account, the Queen of Sheba’s first riddle is as follows, “How can a woman say to her son: ‘Your father is my father; your grandfather, my husband; you are my son, and I am your sister?’”. Solomon’s answer to the riddle was the two daughters of Lot, who got their father drunk, had sex with him, got pregnant as a result, and bore sons.
Next, the Queen of Sheba brought a group of children before Solomon. They were all of the same height and wore the same attire. The queen told Solomon to distinguish between the boys and girls.
The king had nuts and roasted ears of corn scattered before the children. The boys, who were not bashful, collected them, and tied them within the hems of their garment, while the girls, who were bashful tied them within their outer garments, since their bodies would be revealed if they had done as the boys did.
Lastly, the queen brought a group of men before Solomon and asked him to distinguish between the circumcised and the uncircumcised. Solomon had the Ark of the Covenant brought out and opened, and the “circumcised stood or bowed their bodies to half their height, while their countenances were filled with the radiance of the Shekhinah,” whereas the uncircumcised fell prostrate on the ground.
The most significant embellishment to the story, however, is found in the Kebra Nagast. In this text, the Queen of Sheba is called Makeda, and is said to have stayed in Jerusalem for six months, where she learned from Solomon. On the last night of her stay, she was tricked by the king into having sex with him. According to the tale, Solomon had invited the queen to a banquet, during which spicy food (to induce her thirst) was served.
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There is a story that King Solomon tricked the Queen of Sheba into spending the night with him. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
After the banquet, the king invited her to stay in his palace for the night. The queen agreed, on the condition that he would not take her by force. Solomon agreed to that, on the condition that the queen would not take anything from him by force.
Makeda, though slightly offended, agreed. In the middle of the night, Makeda woke up, as she was very thirsty, and reached for a jar of water close to her bed. Solomon appeared, warning the queen that if she drank the water she would be breaking her oath.
Makeda’s thirst, however, was too strong and she drank the water, thus freeing Solomon from his oath. The two ended up spending the night together. Makeda became pregnant, and when she returned to her kingdom, gave birth to a son, Menelik, who became the first emperor of Ethiopia.
Where Was the Queen of Sheba From?
Lastly, arguably the greatest mystery surrounding the story of the Queen of Sheba is the location of Sheba itself. In the Kebra Nagast, the Queen of Sheba is said to be from Ethiopia. The identification of Ethiopia as Sheba is supported by the 1 st century AD Jewish historian, Josephus, who identified the Queen of Sheba as the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia.
17th century AD painting of the Queen of Sheba from a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)
One view held by modern scholars today is that the Queen of Sheba came from Axum, an ancient kingdom in Ethiopia. An alternative suggestion is that the Hebrew word ‘Sheba’ is derived from the Arabic ‘Saba’, an ancient kingdom located in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, in what is today Yemen. Although the archaeological evidence showed that there was indeed a civilization thriving in that region, the artifacts were dated to the 7 th century BC, about 300 years after Solomon’s reign.
During the 1980s, however, new discoveries showed that the Sabaean civilization was already in existence during the 10 th century, making it not impossible that a queen from there could have visited Solomon in Jerusalem. In any case, conclusive answers have yet to be found, and the question about the location of Sheba is still, at present, left open.
Top image: The Queen of Sheba meets with King Solomon. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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