The Queen of Sheba

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,(3) 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."(4). 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.(5)

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."(6)

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."(7)

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(3) The story of the Queen of Sheba in recorded in the Old Testament in I Kings 10:1-13; a similar version also appears in II Chronicles 9:1-12. Other references to the Queen of Sheba are: Psalms lxxii, 15, and in the New Testament, Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31.

(4) Ginzberg, Louis, LEGENDS OF THE JEWS, volume 4, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1913, p. 144.

(5) Ibid., p. 144.

(6) Josephus, Flavius, JEWISH ANTIQUITIES, translated by Ralph Marcus, Harvard U Press, Cambridge, 1937, Book VIII, chapter 6:5, p.226.

(7) Budge, Sir Ernest A. Wallis, translator, THE QUEEN OF SHEBA AND HER ONLY SUN MENYELEK, (THE KEBRA NEGAST), Oxford University Press, London, 1932, chapter 24.

Copyright 1990 by Tracy Marks
(Torrey Philemon at Ancient Sites)
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