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The Elusive Queen of Sheba

There is probably no more elusive or intriguing queen in the Bible than the queen of Sheba. Though fable and tradition have sprung up around her and endured for centuries, she left no physical traces. The Old Testament, however, dedicates more than twenty verses to her encounter with Solomon, king of Israel (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12), and Jesus Himself alludes to her in the gospels as “the queen of the south” (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31).

Who was this woman, I wonder. The only way I can attempt to find out is to take each bit of scriptural information, and begin to piece together at least the backdrop to her life in hopes that her image will begin to emerge. I’ll begin at the beginning.

Now when the queen of Sheba heard…”

My first task is to establish where she came from. Where in the world is/was Sheba? I supposed that should be easy to establish, but it took a couple of tries to locate its possible location in a Bible atlas. When I did an on-line search, I encountered the first of several controversies surrounding this queen.

One source stated emphatically (without references) that she reigned in Ethiopia.[1] Another pointed to an Abyssinian legend which declares that she came from Ethiopia, and that her name was Mazeda (www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/queen-of-sheba.html). On the other hand, archaeologists Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman mention in their book, David and Solomon (2006), concerning the place name, Ophir, that “in the table of Nations in Genesis 10:28-29 it [Ophir] appears together with Sheba, which should no doubt be located in southern Arabia” (p. 167).[2]

Bible scholar, Leon Wood, agrees in his book, A Survey of Israel’s History: “Among Solomon’s distinguished visitors from foreign lands was a Sabean queen from the southern tip of Arabia, the land of Sheba. This country is roughly identified with the modern state of Yemen,” (p. 294).[3]

After checking several more sources, I am comfortable with the probability that Sheba was located in southern Arabia, in what is today, Yemen.

Fig. 37, The Bible as History, p. 237

Fig. 37, The Bible as History, p. 237

“…she came to Jerusalem…having a very great retinue, camels that bore spices, gold in abundance, and precious stones….”

Werner Keller, in his book, The Bible as History (1956), has an interesting description of the queen’s journey. He mentions that while Solomon used ships to traverse the Red Sea, camel caravans (a rather new mode of transport appropriately named “ships of the desert”) followed the ancient Incense Road, which spanned some 1250 miles. It is estimated that the queen’s retinue covered about twenty miles per day, and at that rate they were en route to Jerusalem for about two months—a much quicker pace than going by donkey. Keller says not only was this method quicker, it also had “a greater capacity. The camel could carry many times the burdens that an ass could carry” (p. 236).

400px-Syrian_-_Slab_with_Dromedary_Rider_from_Tell_Halaf_-_Walters_2115

Now that I’ve settled on a satisfactory place of origin for the Queen of Sheba’s story, in the next post, we’ll explore the precious cargo that she was bringing, with special attention to the spices. Why so many? Where did they come from? And of what use would they be to the king of Israel?


[1] There are two distinct camps when it comes to the queen’s place of origin. A large part of the history of Ethiopia centers around the legend that Solomon and Sheba had a relationship that resulted in the birth of a son, Menelik, who ultimately founded the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty. There is no proof for this legend, but it is commonly accepted as fact by some in Ethiopia today. For an interesting explanation of the existing controversy, follow this YouTube link.

[2] The authors also add: “The fact that the book of Kings speaks about the visit of a queen (rather than a king) lends an additional note of credibility, for Assyrian records of the late eight and early seventh centuries BCE (until c. 690 BCE) attest to the phenomenon of Arabian queens.”

[3] As well, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. S-Z, SHEBA, QUEEN OF, p. 217, states: “The identification of ancient Yemen with Sheba is confirmed by 8th cent. BCE  inscriptional evidence from the area, which provides the royal designation ‘mukarrib [i.e. federator] of Saba’. Yemen, too, is known as the area of the south (literally, ‘right hand,’ from the viewpoint of one facing east); hence the NT phrase ‘queen of the South.’”

About womenfromthebook

Mine is a life-long interest in the women of the Bible, and I enjoy exploring the world in which they lived, and discovering the challenges that they faced. I have enough curiosity about them to last the rest of my life.

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