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Published Date: December 14, 2022

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The Egalitarian Relationship of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2022 Writing Contest Honorable Mention!

One of my best classes in seminary was Wisdom Literature. Around the semester’s midway point, I asked the professor, “Was Solomon lonely?” The prof—beloved by all and fluent in Hebrew—blinked twice and said, “Please explain.”

We students knew Solomon, king of Israel, as the major author of Proverbs and Song of Songs, the probable author of Ecclesiastes, as well as the author of Psalm 72, some 3,000 proverbs, and 1,005 songs (1 Kings 4:32). We recognized his brilliance. “But who were his friends? Was he lonely?” I asked. “His gift of wisdom seemed to silence everybody!”

The prof nodded and invited class engagement. We students decided his loneliness could not be verified because the text does not specifically mention it. However, hints abound. One intriguing and textually significant hint is the visit of the queen of Sheba to Solomon in Jerusalem.

The visit’s two biblical accounts in 1 Kings 10:1–13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1–12 confirm Solomon’s worldwide fame and introduce a new international diplomat, a woman identified only by title and country: the queen of Sheba. The parallel accounts present an egalitarian meeting in which the strengths of both monarchs shine.

Their interaction, recounted positively in both passages, emphasizes a meeting of equals in rank, education, bearing, and statesmanship. Analysis of both passages shows that the communication of King Solomon and the queen of Sheba highlighted qualities like respect, fairness, and shared responsibility. The authors of both books place the queen’s visit and the monarchs’ encounter as capping Solomon’s rise and Israel’s golden age.

Part 1: A Summary of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba in the Bible

After hearing repeatedly of Solomon’s wisdom, wealth, and peaceful kingdom, Sheba, as the West knows her, decided to see for herself. Her dramatic Jerusalem entrance has inspired roughly 3,000 years of imagination! Her caravan included a retinue of servants and “camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones”—gifts befitting both her rank and that of their intended recipient (1 Kings 10:1–2). She probably came early in Solomon’s forty-year reign (970–931 BC).

The queen and king seemed intellectually well matched. Perhaps they inspired this saying attributed to Solomon: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov. 27:17).

Sheba quickly showed she had come prepared. She soon plied Solomon with questions and “talked with him about all that she had on her mind” (2 Chron. 9:1). He had an answer for everything she asked; “nothing was too hard for him to explain to her” (2 Chron. 9:2).

Often in egalitarian interactions, the participants express impromptu appreciation for each other’s strengths in word, writing, or deed. Good manners prevail. The biblical accounts stress this graciousness.

The monarchs exchanged gifts, with Solomon’s surpassing Sheba’s. Both accounts end with the queen’s return to her country with her servants (2 Chron. 9:12). Her trip, state visit to Jerusalem, and stay took years, perhaps three. If present-day Yemen is ancient Sheba,1 the overland, roundtrip likely tallied 2,800 miles. 

Sheba followed Hiram of Tyre as the second Gentile verifying Solomon’s greatness. Hiram and Solomon engaged in shipbuilding and trade, especially trade in lumber and gold (1 Kings 5:10; 9:26–28). Hiram rejoiced that the Lord had given his friend David a wise son to rule “over this great nation” (1 Kings 5:7).

Sheba in the New Testament

Although some scholars question the queen of Sheba’s historicity and visit and see them as legendary,2 Jesus affirmed both. Calling her the queen of the South, Jesus indicated she became a believer in the same way the people of Nineveh did when Jonah preached (Matt. 12:38–42; Luke 11:29–32). Jesus prophesied an upcoming assignment for her and the Ninevites: judgment on the generation listening to him! In reference to himself, Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that “something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:29).

Shared Characteristics Between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

The accounts of Solomon and the queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9 indicate they were both

  • Wordsmiths
  • Listeners
  • Dealmakers
  • Well-educated
  • Groomed to reign
  • Beloved by their peoples

As heads of state, both King Solomon and the queen of Sheba

  • Valued trade
  • Excelled in diplomacy
  • Gave and received expensive gifts
  • Enjoyed solving and writing difficult sayings
  • Assessed people accurately
  • Displayed pomp and pageantry
  • Occupied secure thrones

Part 2: Interesting Literary Details in the Biblical Narratives

Perhaps Solomon’s public respect for his mother, Bathsheba, influenced Sheba’s decision to come to Jerusalem. Shortly after King David’s death and Solomon’s ascent to the throne, Bathsheba entered the throne room. Solomon rose. He ordered that a throne be brought for her and placed at his right, the honored position. She said she had one request; Solomon promised never to refuse her (1 Kings 2:19–20).

Solomon’s skill with words and his wisdom became well known in the ancient world. All Israel stood in awe of him, perceiving that God’s wisdom empowered him to execute justice (1 Kings 3:28).

Yet unlike 1 Kings 8 where Solomon’s direct speech dominates, he remains silent in the Sheba stories. He acts—by hosting, answering questions, and bestowing gifts—but is not directly quoted. Instead, Sheba speaks. The narrators in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles let her extol Solomon’s wisdom, grandeur, and his subjects’ happiness. 

This detail is textually interesting: neither account describes Sheba. Her face and form are left to imagination. However, here’s a textual hint: I think Solomon possibly used Sheba as his model for the woman in Song of Songs; she describes herself as “black and beautiful” (Song 1:5). The Song’s woman—like Sheba with Solomon—is the dominant voice.

Was Sheba’s visit more than intellectual curiosity? The accounts hint she came for trade. The ships of Solomon and Sheba likely crisscrossed in the Red Sea. Solomon controlled land from Ezion-Geber, a Red Sea port, northeast through Aram, an area including the flat coastline along the Great Sea, the Mediterranean. Possibly, Solomon awarded favored trade status to the queen of Sheba and her country with these words: “King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for” (2 Chron. 9:12a).

A Closer Look at Sheba’s Character

Sheba’s stand-out bearing marked her. Consider these insights:

Rank. She used it well. Imagine the buzz her arrival caused as her camels lumbered through Jerusalem’s narrow streets! Attention centered on her!

Honesty. Solomon’s daily display of wealth, food, table settings, and burnt offerings to the Lord left her breathless (2 Chron. 9:4).

Assessment skills. During her visit’s many public appearances and banquets, she assessed everything. She praised Solomon for the happiness of his servants who heard his wisdom (2 Chron. 9:7).

Public speaking. Sheba gave Solomon an “Exceeds Expectations” rating by saying, “Not even half the greatness of your wisdom was told me” (2 Chron. 9:6).

Spiritual growth. She acknowledged Solomon’s God: “Praise be to the Lord your God who has delighted in you and placed you on his throne as king” (2 Chron. 9:8a).

Challenged Solomon. Sheba reminded him why he reigned: “Because of the love of your God for Israel and his desire to uphold them forever, he has made you king over them, to maintain justice and righteousness” (2 Chron. 9:8b).

Advance preparation. After studying Solomon from afar, she acted accordingly. She knew of his wealth (she gave him over four tons of gold!), wisdom (she devised hard questions), and international statesmanship (she showed herself a savvy player). Perhaps because of learning Solomon liked highly flavored food, she gave him “large quantities of spices” (2 Chron. 9:9), a gift, no doubt, that has made generations of women smile.

Legends about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Many legends surround the interaction of these two monarchs. In Islamic tradition, the queen is named Bilqis; in Ethiopian tradition, she is called Makeda, and on the last night of her stay she was tricked into bed by Solomon and became pregnant.3

Years later, Menilek, as the son was named, visited his father in Jerusalem, was given the Ark of the Covenant, and became Ethiopia’s first emperor. According to tradition, the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum, Ethiopia, contains the Ark of the Covenant. 

Some Egalitarian Concluding Thoughts

Sheba’s fact-finding, pomp-filled visit differed from Solomon’s other exchanges. In those he led, dominated, lectured. People listened, deferred, and largely remained silent.

I think his brilliance isolated him.

Yet with Sheba, Solomon listened. She shared her thoughts openly; perhaps that encouraged him to do likewise. He seemed to desire to please her (1 Kings 10:2; 2 Chron. 9:12). Of equal rank and at the apex of their powers, they conversed.

I think perhaps both lacked friends.

However, within 1 Kings 10’s glowing account, the narrator introduces two concerns: excessive wealth (Solomon’s drinking vessels were gold) and horses (Solomon kept 12,000). Deuteronomy 17:16–17 forbids both.

Then 1 Kings 11:1 abruptly mentions Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines. The number defies imagination and belief. Deuteronomy 17:17 states a king must not acquire many wives. The structural arrangement of 1 Kings 10–11 indicates that perhaps Solomon’s phenomenal number of women showed not only lust but also loneliness.

When Sheba turned her camels southward and homeward, perhaps Solomon searched for a replacement. Perhaps he longed for communication and camaraderie, for an egalitarian partner who challenged him instead of tacitly agreeing.

I think he never found another Sheba.

Photos by Oladimeji Odunsi and Jyotirmoy Gupta on Unsplash.

Notes:

[1] Robert R. Wilson, “1 Kings” in HarperCollins Study Bible, gen. ed. Harold W. Attridge (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 495.

[2] Claudia V. Camp, “1 and 2 Kings,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 101.

[3]“Queen of Sheba,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Queen-of-Sheba.


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