Monday, December 7, 2015

The Queen of Sheba

The Queen of Sheba was a queen regnant who appears in the Bible. The tale of her visit to King Solomon has undergone extensive Jewish, Arabian and Ethiopian elaborations, and has become the subject of one of the most widespread and fertile cycles of legends in the Orient.



The queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones" (I Kings 10:2). "Never again came such an abundance of spices" (10:10; II Chron. 9:1–9) as those which she gave to Solomon. She came "to prove him with hard questions", all of which Solomon answered to her satisfaction. They exchanged gifts, after which she returned to her land.

The use of the term ḥiddot or "riddles" (I Kings 10:1), an Aramaic loanword whose shape points to a sound shift no earlier than the sixth century B.C., indicates a late origin for the text.  Since there is no mention of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C., Martin Noth has held that the Book of Kings received a definitive redaction around 550 B.C.

Virtually all modern scholars agree that Sheba was the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, centered around the oasis of Marib, in present-day Yemen. Sheba was quite known in the classical world, and its country was called Arabia Felix. Around the middle of the first millennium B.C., there were Sabaeans also in the Horn of Africa, in the area that later became the realm of Aksum. There are five places in the Bible where the writer distinguishes Sheba (שׁבא), i. e. the Yemenite Sabaeans, from Seba (סבא), i. e. the African Sabaeans. In Ps. 72:10 they are mentioned together: "the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts". This spelling differentiation, however, may be purely factitious; the indigenous inscriptions make no such difference, and both Yemenite and African Sabaeans are there spelt in exactly the same way.

The alphabetic inscriptions from South Arabia furnish no evidence for women rulers, but Assyrian inscriptions repeatedly mention Arab queens in the north. Queens are well attested in Arabia, though according to Kitchen, not after 690 B.C. Furthermore, Sabaean tribes knew the title of mqtwyt (high official). Makada or Makueda, the personal name of the queen in Ethiopian legend, might be interpreted as a popular rendering of the title of mqtwyt.

The queen's visit could have been a trade mission. Early South Arabian trade with Mesopotamia involving wood and spices transported by camels is attested in the early ninth century B.C. and may have begun as early as the tenth.

The ancient Sabaic Awwām Temple, known in folklore as Maḥram (the Sanctuary of) Bilqīs, was recently excavated by archaeologists, but no trace of Queen of Sheba has been discovered so far in the many inscriptions found there.


Christian scriptures mention a "queen of the South", who "came from the uttermost parts of the earth", i.e. from the extremities of the then known (Christian) world, to hear the wisdom of Solomon (Mt. 12:42; Lk. 11:31).

A mystical interpretation of the biblical Song of Songs, or Canticles, which was theorized to provide a literal basis for the speculations of the allegorists, makes its first appearance in the works of Origen, who wrote a voluminous commentary on the Canticles. In his commentary, Origen identified the female speaker, or "bride" with the "Queen of the South" of the Gospels, that is, the Queen of Sheba, who is assumed to have been Ethiopian.  Other scholars have proposed that the couple in the book are Solomon and Pharaoh's daughter, and their marriage, or, alternatively, Solomon's marriage with an Israelitish woman, the Shulamite. The former was the favorite opinion of the mystical interpreters to the end of the 18th century; the latter has been favored since its introduction by John Mason Good in 1803.[

The female speaker is assumed to have been black due to a passage in Canticles 1:5, which the Revised Standard Version (1952) translates as "I am very dark, but comely", as did Jerome (Latin: Nigra sum, sed formosa); alternatively the New Revised Standard Version (1989) has "I am black and beautiful", as the Septuagint (Greek: μέλαινα ἐιμί καί καλή).

According to legend, the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon the self-same gifts which the Magi would later bring to the Christ child.

During the Middle Ages, Christians sometimes identified the queen of Sheba with the sibyl Sabba.

The Old Testament has held special significance for African Christians. Many identify with the Old Testament and its rituals (such as sacrifice) and this sometimes has brought them into conflict with missionaries who emphasized the Christian values and practices based on the New Testament and European cultural norms. Africans want to embrace the Old Testament literally – such as its marriage customs and its emphasis on community – and find inspiration and sustenance in the Exodus theme of liberation (J. Mbiti, "African Christians and the Jewish Religion", in: Christian Attitudes on Jews and Judaism (October 1977), 1–4).


In the Quran, the queen is simply the "queen of the sabaa'". The story is partially similar to the Bible and other Jewish sources. the Hoopoe [a talking bird that speaks prophecy] brought the news to King Solomon about saba and that he found a woman who was the "Queen of sabaa" with her people worshipping the sun(27,21-23),Solomon sent a message with the whoopoe to command them to come to him as Muslims(27,28)the Queen asked her people for advice then sent a present to Solomon which he refused to accept and sent back with her messengers, whereupon she appeared before him. Before the queen had arrived, Solomon had got her throne to his palace with the help of one who had knowledge of the book. She could not fully recognize the throne, which had been disguised. she was invited to Enter "As-Sarh" (a glass surface with water underneath it or a palace): but when she saw it, she thought it was a pool, and she (tucked up her clothes) uncovering her legs. and finally accepted the faith of Solomon. (27, 44).  The full story in Quran,is in 27-Surat Alnaml, verses 15-44.

Muslim commentators (Tabari, Zamakhshari, Baydawi) supplement the story at various points. Using the "Israelite literature" from Jews converts as reference;The Queen's name, not mentioned in Quran, is given as Bilkis, probably derived from Greek παλλακίς or the Hebraised pilegesh, "concubine". The demons at Solomon's Court, afraid that the King may marry Bilkis, spread the rumour that the Queen has hairy legs and the foot of an ass. Hence Solomon's ruse of constructing a glass floor which the Queen mistakes for water thus causing her to lift her skirts. Solomon then commands his demons to prepare a special depilatory to remove the disfiguring hair. According to some he then married the Queen, while other traditions assert that he gave her in marriage to a tubba of Hamdan.

Although the Quran have preserved the earliest literary reflection of the complete Queen of Saba story, there is no doubt that some of its commentators' narrative is derived from Jewish sources Midrash.

Bible stories of the Queen of Sheba and the ships of Ophir served as a basis for legends about the Israelites traveling in the Queen of Sheba's entourage when she returned to her country to bring up her child by Solomon.  There is a Muslim tradition that the first Jews arrived in Yemen at the time of King Solomon, following the politico-economic alliance between him and the Queen of Sheba. However, that tradition is suspected to be an apologetic fabrication of Jews in Yemen later transferred to Islam, just like many other traditions.

Afterword by the Blog Author

There are hundreds of stories, tales and legends about the Queen of Sheba.  Typically,she is presented as an unearthly personification of wisdom.  She is even the wise heroine, named Balkis, of a Kipling children’s story, The Butterfly that Stamped, one of Kipling’s Just So Stories for Little Children.

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