Some of Sheba's questions were related to Old Testament wisdom. For example, "The dead lived, the grave moved, and the dead prayed. What is it?" The answer: "The dead that lived and prayed was Jonah; the fish, the moving grave." (22) In one theological riddle, she asked: "What is the ugliest thing in the world, and what is the most beautiful? What is the most certain, and what is the most uncertain?" Solomon replied, "The ugliest the faithful turning unfaithful; the most beautiful is the repentant sinner. The most certain is death; the most uncertain, one's share in the World to Come." (23)

In addition to riddles which required a verbal answer, Sheba tested Solomon's ingenuity in action. Dressing five boys and girls identically, she asked him to detect their sex. When he handed them bowls of water for them to wash their hands, the girls, unlike the boys, rolled up their sleeves. Sheba also brought Solomon two flowers alike in appearance, but one was real while the other was artificial; he distinguished them by noting how bees swarmed to the flower with the genuine fragrance. Then, giving him a large emerald with a curved hole in the middle, she asked him to draw a thread through it; he sent for a silkworm, which crawled through the hole drawing with it a silken thread.

The Midrash Hachefez reports still another test of Solomon's cleverness. Sheba presented Solomon with the sawn trunk of a cedar tree, the ends cut off so that they looked the same; she asked Solomon which end had been the root, and which the branches. Solomon ordered the tree stump to be placed in water. When one end sank while the other floated, he said to her, "The part which sank was the root, and that which floated on the surface was the end containing the branches."

According to the Kebra Negast, the questions and tests were mutual; Solomon also challenged Sheba. Yet existing legends describe only a few of the artful strategies he used to outwit her. Determined to discover if the stories of her deformed foot were true, he arranged for a stream of water to flow onto the glass beside his throne (in the Quran, he had running water with fish swimming about it under clear glass), so that Sheba would lift her skirts as she approached him. When she did so, he noted the hair on her legs, and told her, "Thy beauty is the beauty of a woman, but they hair is masculine; hair is an ornament to a man, but it disfigures a woman." He then invented a depilatory in order to acquaint her with his conceptions of womanhood.(24)

During Sheba's six month visit with Solomon, she conversed with him daily. The Kebra Negast informs us that "the Queen used to go to Solomon and return continually, and hearken unto his wisdom, and keep it in her heart. And Solomon used to go and visit her, and answer all the questions which she put to him... and he informed her concerning every matter that she wished to enquire about." (25) Frequently, they roamed Jerusalem together, as she questioned him and watched him at work. 

Once, observing a laborer wearing ragged garments, sweating, carrying a stone on his head and a jug of water around his neck, Solomon mused:

"Look at this man. Wherein am I superior to this man? In what am I better than this man? Wherein shall I glory over this man? For I am a man and dust and ashes, who tomorrow will become worms and corruption, and yet at this moment I appear like one who will never die. As is his death, so is my death, and as is his life, so is my life.

Then what is the use of us, the children of men, if we do not exercise kindness and love upon earth? Are we not all nothingness, mere grass of the field, which withereth in its season and is burnt in the fire? On the earth we wear costly apparel... we provide ourselves with sweet scents... but even whilst we are alive we are dead in sin and in transgressions. Blessed is the man who knoweth wisdom, compassion and the fear of God." (26)

Whether Sheba was an adoring adolescent in search of a wise hero, or a confident, powerful young woman who journeyed to Jerusalem to challenge Solomon, she was impressed with his wisdom, compassion, justice and wealth. I Kings tells us:

"And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built, and the food of his table, and the attendance of his ministers...she said to the King, `It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thine acts, and of thy wisdom. Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it; thou hast wisdom and prosperity exceeding the fame which I heard. Happy are thy men...that stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.'" (27)

Josephus also states that she was surprised to learn that the flattering reports she had heard about Solomon were true, "that she was amazed at the wisdom of Solomon.... She was in the greatest admiration imaginable, insomuch that she was not able to contain the surprise she was in, but openly confessed how wonderfully she was affected." (28)

continue to page seven
Read the Old Testament - I King 10 or II Chronicles 9



(22) Midrash Hachefez, quoted in Rappoport, p. 128, Ginzberg (1913), p.147, Ginzberg (1956), p.563, and Frankel, p.234-5

(23) quoted in Gaer, p.243.

(24) Targum Sheni, retold in Ginzberg, (1913) p.145, in Ginzberg (1956) p.562, in Silberman in Pritchard, pp. 70-71. Also appears in ben Yosef, Sadya, the Ma'ase Malkath Sehba, THE TALE OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA, and in the Qu'ran (Koran).

(25) Budge, chapter 28.

(26) Budge, chapter 27.

(27) I Kings 10: 4-7

(28) Josephus, VIII, 6:5, p. 226.

Copyright 1990 by Tracy Marks
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