Queen of Sheba Legends Arise Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the biblical account, the queen of Sheba visited King Solomon and witnessed his wisdom and power, inspiring more legends in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. Sheba’s origin continues to be a matter of historical conjecture.

Summary of Event

In the brief biblical story of I Kings 10:1-13, the queen of Sheba came to test King Solomon and was overcome by his wealth and wisdom, which surpassed her own mystifying riddles and riches. Sheba, Queen of Solomon

The earliest recorded account of the nameless queen takes place in the court of Solomon in the tenth century b.c.e. but probably was composed in the post-exilic period (sixth century b.c.e.) from earlier traditional materials. Even if the queen cannot be named, can her kingdom be located? If she is a historical figure, it is most likely that she came from a wealthy culture of the Arabian peninsula. No clear geographical or archaeological proofs substantiate the origin and existence of the queen, though there is some evidence of one or more queens in regions of the Arabian peninsula.

Saba (Sheba) was the most prominent of several kingdoms in southern Arabia (present-day Yemen); however, the spice-trading culture flourished sometime after the time of Solomon, in the eighth or seventh century b.c.e. Although this Sabaean culture is anachronistically linked to the story in I Kings, the rich land certainly would have been known to the tellers of that story in post-exilic Israel. The Sabaeans had a caravan economy situated between the Near East and Africa and India, carrying spices, metals, and other trade goods. They were particularly envied for their frankincense and myrrh, resins harvested from trees exclusive to the region. Linguistic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Sabaeans influenced the surrounding cultures of the entire south Arabian region. Thus, it is likely that the opulence of the trade goods coming from Saba contributed to typical ideological tales, such as those found in the biblical accounts. Speculation continues about the queen’s historicity, for which there is no direct evidence. Her land has been associated with Arabia, Africa, and Egypt.

This indirect evidence can be misleading or fruitless unless contextualized by another historical approach, which is to inquire of the histories of the traditional tales themselves that accrued in each of the western monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and not to take them merely literally. That is, the event of the queen of Sheba is not tied securely to facts but more significantly to a web of religion and culture.

The historical consequence of the queen of Sheba is paradoxically to be located in her various fictional representations. Rather than attempt to search out the queen’s elusive historical presence, scholars can uncover the purposes of the storytellers. In pursuing the varied and abundant avenues of her legends, scholars find that the queen plays many roles. In the brief story in I Kings (repeated in II Chronicles), the queen of Sheba visits Solomon bearing lavish gifts; she tests the king with riddles and is overcome by his wealth and wisdom, offering up a testimony to Solomon and his god. It is a typical ethnic legend that boasts of Solomon by overshadowing the legendary power of Sheba. Given the politics of theocracy, it is possible that in early versions of the tale, the queen of Sheba represented Astarte, a goddess of rival religious sensibilities, humbled and narratively demoted to human status before the presence of Yahweh, God of Israel.

Jewish, Christian, and Muslim narratives have continued to elaborate the story into the present time. In the New Testament, the woman of the legend is called the Queen of the South and is used as an apocalyptic figure of judgment (Matt. 12:42). In Jewish folklore, the enigmatic queen is linked with Lilith, a demonic figure and the first wife of Adam. In the medieval Christian tradition, the queen is associated with the legend of the True Cross, being an allegory of the church. She has been linked with the woman of the “Song of Songs”; although implausible historically, the connection indicates part of the rich literary and religious tradition of the queen, a fluid figure who becomes part of many narratives.

In the Qur՚ān (Surah 27:15-45), the queen serves as a miniature emblem of the entire message of the Muslim tradition; Solomon subdues her (named Bilqis in the Qur՚ān), so that she submits to Allah (God). Solomon’s magical abilities with the language of birds and his transportation of the queen’s throne disadvantage her, and the queen is tricked into revealing her unacceptably hairy leg. Ethiopia plants its origin story in the erotic encounter between Solomon and Sheba, who gives birth to their founding emperor, Menelik. The Jewish tradition focuses on the “hard questions,” the riddles, with which she tests him. In later literary and artistic versions of her story, she is an emblem of transgressive womanhood: overreaching and sexual. The legend is the source for orientalist romance (as in the works of French novelist Gustave Flaubert or English writer Rudyard Kipling): The story is often an allegory of gender politics.

Significance

Thus, it is the tracing of and considering the legends of the queen, rather than the searching for the elusive and literal queen, that is of historical significance. The queen who visited Solomon has many permutations, political, artistic, and religious, that extend through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions in numerous locales. The legend continues to diverge and to flourish in religion and the arts.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clapp, Nicholas. Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Fast-paced travelogue, history, and speculation.
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    xlink:type="simple">Cogan, Mordechai. I Kings. Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday, 2000. This source clarifies historical and textual issues in the biblical narrative.
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    xlink:type="simple">De Voragine, Jacobus. The Golden Legend. Vols. 1-2 in Readings on the Saints. Translated by William Granger Ryan. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. This medieval collection, Aurea Legenda, compiled around 1260, records the Queen of Sheba’s role in the Legend of the True Cross, a popular theme in devotional painting.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Shea: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. The book traces transmutations of the Sheba story from testimonies of political and religious dominance to anxieties of gender and culture.
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    xlink:type="simple">Pritchard, James B., ed. Solomon and Sheba. London: Phaidon, 1974. Survey essays trace the diffusion of the legend through Jewish, Muslim, Ethiopian, and medieval Christian legends, with lucid overview by Pritchard.
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    xlink:type="simple">Simpson, St. John, ed. Queen of Sheba: Treasures from Ancient Yemen. London: British Museum Press, 2002. Twelve scholars contribute essays on the legend of Sheba, including artistic and religious traditions up through the present and archaeological finds in Yemen and surrounding areas.
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