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Solomon’s Feminine Metaphor for Wisdom

When Solomon succeeded David as king of Israel, he asked God for wisdom to rule the nation. Solomon’s humility pleased God, and by God’s beneficent endowment his request was granted.

  And God said unto him, Because you have asked this thing [for wisdom] and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies; but have asked for yourself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to your words: I have given you a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like you before, neither after you shall any arise like you (I Kings 3:11-12).

Solomon’s stunning wisdom, stirred within him a “consuming passion” for knowledge, and “he became the literary prodigy of the world of his day.”[1] He is credited with composing three thousand proverbs (I Kings 4:32) and being the principal writer of the book of Proverbs.

Wisdom literature

Solomon wrote three of the five books of biblical wisdom literature: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. The authors of wisdom literature write about how life works: how to tell good from evil, how to know God, how to live harmoniously with others, how to choose a right path, and how to recover from mistakes, along with many other human interest topics.

In writing Proverbs, Solomon started with a purpose: “to know…to perceive…and to receive the instruction of wisdom” (1:2-3) in order to live righteously, securely and free from fear (1:33). He arranged his sayings in the form of guidance for his son. Was he thinking of his son Rehoboam at the time? Or did he intend a larger audience when he began? I don’t know. Either way, his theme of fatherly advice is appropriate for imparting wisdom.

One study Bible notes that “Proverbs is probably the most down-to-earth book in the Bible. Its education prepares you for the street and the marketplace… it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family: practical guidance for successfully making your way in the world.”[2]

I do wonder about the commentator’s statement “it offers the warm advice you get by growing up in a good family.” In my mind, warm advice involves conversation, questions, give-and-take discussion, and that is not the style Solomon chose for Proverbs. Each generation is taxed with teaching proverbs as warm advice, contemporary and engaging.

Mother and three children, oil on wood, 38.5 x...Feminine Metaphor

In the first nine chapters of Proverbs, Solomon stressed the importance of his own words and that his son would do well to heed them (5:1). Then moving away from himself, Solomon personified Wisdom using the feminine pronouns “she” and “her.” He likened Wisdom to a feminine presence that existed from creation, a mysterious “woman” who possesses the qualities of care, concern, love, and benevolence, and who appears and disappears in the narrative—as it suited him.

Ancient Wisdom

Solomon pictured Wisdom as having lived from ancient times.

  The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I have been established from everlasting, from the beginning, before there was ever an earth (8:22-23).

Solomon depicted Wisdom as having an interest in mankind since the time God populated the earth …rejoicing in His inhabited world, and my delight was with the sons of men (8:31).

Solomon represented Wisdom as worthy to heed: Now therefore, listen to me, my children, for blessed are those who keep my ways (8:32).

 Caring Wisdom

 Mom, you’ve got to come…I’m…

How many times have I been there for him? Have I gone when he was in trouble? He’s so edgy, with the wrong crowd, drifting, not hearing what I say. I’ve told him to break with those friends, but he hates to hear the truth. So brash and naïve, he’s ruining his life and doesn’t see the consequences. He thinks I’ll always be there to bail him out. Sometime I won’t be there…I’ll be gone…gone from him (1:20-33; 8:1-11).

I’ve greatly paraphrased Solomon’s picture of Wisdom’s concerned efforts for her children. Chapters 1 and 8 bring to my mind a mother watching, praying and waiting as her grown child moves further from her sphere of influence. Doesn’t every mother know there will be joy and sorrow when children leave home? Solomon portrays a particular, motherly grief when a child suffers from bad decisions.

 They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies. For the turning away of the simple will slay them (1:30-32).

Most youthful missteps are not fatal, thankfully. Many sons and daughters, momentarily errant, eventually “see the light” and return to safe ground. This is so beautifully illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The father rejoiced when his son returned home, a humbler, wiser man.

Lady wisdom (2)

Lady wisdom (2) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wisdom Rejoices

Like the prodigal’s elated father, Wisdom’s joy overflows when children turn to her.

I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently will find me…that I may cause those who love me to inherit wealth, that I may fill their treasuries (8:17, 21).

Solomon connected wisdom with generosity, abundance and riches (9:1-6). He portrayed Wisdom welcoming her child after a troublesome absence. She’s made everything ready—the fatted calf, fine wines and bread, important guests—and everyone gathers to celebrate the one who has chosen to “forsake foolishness and live” (9:6).


After thinking about Proverbs 1:20-33 and 8:1-11, I wonder if Solomon taught his son in a one-on-one manner? Did he have a favored son or daughter that received his personal attention? As a royal father, did he make time sit down with them and explain how life works? If tutors educated the king’s children, and mothers imparted wisdom and integrity, it might explain why Solomon pictured the sadness and the joy of Wisdom as a woman.—Mary Hendren


[1] Halley’s Bible Handbook, Edition 23, p. 269

[2] The New Student Bible, NIV, Zondervan (1986), p. 568



The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Conclusions of the Matter

First impressions


Model of Solomon’s Temple
Museum fur Hamburgische Geshichte, Hamburg, Germany

She must have marveled as her entourage finally reached the outskirts of Jerusalem, home of the famed King Solomon. It had been weeks and hundreds of miles since the queen of Sheba began her journey from the arid climes of southern Arabia, and even though she undoubtedly enjoyed all the amenities of the royalty of her day, extended travel on ancient roadways was bone-jarring and just plain wearying.

What must she have thought when she first caught sight of the famed capital of Israel? As she entered the gates of Jerusalem and neared the king’s premier building projects—the Millo, the impressive and beautiful temple Solomon had erected in honor of his God, and the king’s own palace—did the abundance of richly mellow gold veneer and lacy filigree, the soft sheen of opaque ornate ivory, and the smell of sandalwood, cedar and pungent incense overwhelm her senses?

A queen with a quest

She came on a two-fold mission: to cement some sort of trade agreement, and to witness the wisdom of this famous ruler of Israel. It was common knowledge that his innate abilities (God-given, it was said) and keen intelligence were exceptional. 1 Kings 4:31-34 comments that he was wiser than all men; he spoke three thousand proverbs; he wrote more than a thousand songs; and he was perhaps the leading authority on the botany and zoology of his day. Solomon oversaw gardens of herbs, vegetables, and orchards of succulent fruits. Perhaps he even had a zoo of sorts, featuring the likes of peacocks and apes from the distant East of India. His numerous stables were filled with the finest Egyptian horses, and there were hundreds of chariots at his disposal. Plus he had been able to assure peace and stability to the kingdom of Israel. This was no ordinary monarch the Arabian queen was about to meet.

F.W. Farrar, in his Solomon: His Life and Times (1886?), proposes a scene encompassing her visit there: “…she saw him [Solomon] seated on the unrivaled lion-throne of gold and ivory, dispensing justice in the pillared hall of cedar. She saw him seated at the banquet, at his table covered with the richest delicacies brought from distant lands in boundless profusion. She saw the vessels and lavers of pure gold, and the goblets for wine, the great guests seated at the table, and the retinue of gorgeously-attired attendants, and the various stringed instruments framed in aromatic wood” (p. 136). If she had any doubts as to his wealth and majesty, they were soon put to rest.

Public domain Google pictures

Public domain Google pictures

Hard questions?

At a certain point she was able to pose her “hard” questions. Did she come to learn more about Solomon’s God? Was hers merely an attempt to survey the competition, and gain insights into Israel’s commercial agenda? The Bible does not say.

Some rabbinic literature written well after the first century AD (and which was excluded from  the literary productions of the conservative Rabbis of the day) went so far as to furnish not only the imagined gist of her inquiries, but her exact questions. Some sources recorded four questions or riddles; others, as many as nineteen. Here are a couple of examples:[1]

Q: “Seven there are that issue and nine that enter: two yield the draught, and one drinks.

A: Solomon’s supposed answer: “Seven are the days of a woman’s defilement, and nine the months of pregnancy; two are the breasts that yield the draught, and one the child that drinks it.”

Q: A woman said to her son, thy father is my father, and thy grandfather my husband; thou are my son, and I am thy sister.

A: Again, Solomon’s supposed answer: “Assuredly it was the daughter of Lot who spake thus to her son.”

Other questions prove quite fanciful, and given that they were generally written hundreds of years after the fact, can only fall into the category of pure folklore/legend in my estimation. The queen of Sheba appears to have been an astute business woman, perhaps a wily politician, and greatly intrigued by the likes of Solomon. It’s hard to image that such a mind would seriously employ the trivialities of worthless riddles by which to make her assessments.

Lasting impressions

Josephus, on the other hand, offers this quote, ostensibly from the queen herself, concerning her conclusions: “All things, indeed, O king, that came to our knowledge by report, came with uncertainty as to our belief to them; but as to those good that to thee appertain, both such as thou thyself possesses, I mean wisdom and prudence, and the happiness thou has from thy kingdom, certainly the same that came to us was no falsity; it was not only a true report, but it related thy happiness after a much lower manner than I now see it to be before my eyes….One would therefore bless God, who hath so loved this country, and those that inhabit therein, as to make thee king over them” (The Antiquities of the Jews, 8.6.5).

While the Bible does not specify what these hard questions were, Jesus alludes to them in Luke 11:31: “The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold are greater than Solomon is here.” The Bible says “she communed with Solomon all that was in her heart, and he told her all her questions: there was not anything hid from the king, which he told her not” (1 Kings 10:2-3).

Her quest at a satisfactory end, the Bible says, “she thus turned and went to her own country, she and her servants” (1 Kings 10:13). Thus the elusive queen of Sheba fades into the backdrop of the life of Solomon, king of Israel, never to appear again.

The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Harems, Incense and Perfume

But King Solomon loved many foreign women, as well as the daughter of Pharaoh: women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites — from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel,”You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. 1 Kings 11:1-5

No small harem

While King Solomon was on the one hand keenly concerned with international trade (which was favorably advanced by his treaty with Hiram of Tyre and now possibly with the queen of Sheba), his interest in spices also assumed a more personal and immediate focus. Though hard to imagine, his harem had reached an astounding proportion—seven hundred women of first rank (wives and princesses) and three hundred concubines, many of whom were non-Israelite worshipers of pagan gods. It seems that foreign trade brought with it “a toleration of heathen customs and religious views,”[1] which in turn created a constant demand for incense and spices.

Lamentably, Solomon himself gradually adopted a form of idolatrous worship involving the Sidonian goddess, Ashtoreth (a moon-goddess sometimes referred to as Aphrodite by the Greeks and Romans), as well as Milcom.1 Kings 11:8 records that he built high places dedicated to these pagan gods where his wives (and perhaps Solomon himself) could burn incense and sacrifice.

The timeless allure of perfume

On a purely physical level though, if there was a luxury near and dear to the heart of a woman…and her king, it might have been perfume. The origin of perfumery is hard to pinpoint, though the genesis of the word itself (i.e., per through fumus smoke) suggests it was first sensed when burning resins from fragrant woods such a bdellium, balsam, myrrh and frankincense. Records indicate that early perfumes took the form of an oily or solid buttery substance created by combining natural oils like olive, almond, sesame, or animal fats with a saturation of fragrances.[2] While used regularly by priests in their religious functions, higher classes such as the women of Solomon’s harem[3] also enjoyed such extravagances.

Perhaps the most revealing primary source concerning the power of such sensory delights is from the pen of Solomon himself in the “Song of Songs.” Possibly written early in his forty-year-reign, Israel’s king composed an epithalamium or nuptial song—an expression of a bridegroom to his bride. In chapter one, verses twelve through fourteen, the Shulamite bride speaks: “While the king is at his table, my spikenard sends forth its fragrance. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, that lies all night between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blooms in the vineyards of En Gedi.”

Esther (public domain)

Esther (public domain)

Another indication of what may have gone on within the confines of Solomon’s royal household is found in the book of Esther. Though hundreds of years later, it seems plausible that the procedures for preparing the initiates to a king’s harem might have been something similar. The Woman’s Study Bible (1995) notes: “During the Persian period and even among some Arabian tribes in this century, women would build a small charcoal fire in a pit in the floor. A fragrant oil, such as that from sandalwood, cloves, myrrh, or rose, would be placed in the cosmetic burner and heated in the fire. The woman would crouch naked over the burner with her robe draped over her head and body to form a tent. As she perspired, her open pores absorbed the fragrance of the oil. By the time the fire burned out, her skin and clothing would be thoroughly perfumed” (p. 786, “Beauty Preparations: Esther’s Make-Over”).

Considering the size and beauty demands of Solomon’s household, it is safe to conclude that the queen of Arabia’s treasure trove of spices would have been enticing, to say the least.

Common Ancient Spices

CinnamonCinnamon bark ( Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of Cinnamomum verum, a small evergreen tree reaching about 15m tall. The spice itself is prepared by growing the tree for two years and then cutting it to ground level. New shoots form from the roots which are eventually stripped of their bark and left to dry naturally. Only the inner bark is used leaving long cinnamon strips which curl into rolls (“quills”) as they dry. Read more at Celtnet: Native to Sri Lanka and southern India.


Clove trees are members of the Myrtaceae (Myrtle) family. The name derives from French clou, a nail, as the dried buds, which forms the spice itself, vaguely resemble small irregular medieval nails in shape. Native to Indonesia. Harvested primarily in the Spice Islands and Madagascar, today this spice is also grown in Zanzibar, India, and Sri Lanka.


A fragrant gum resin from trees of a genus (Boswellia of the family Burseraceae) of Somalia and southern coastal Arabia that has been used in incense for religious rites, perfumery, and embalming. Native to southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa.


Myrrh is the aromatic resin of a number of small, thorny tree species of the genus Commiphora, which is an essential oil termed an oleoresin. Myrrh resin is a natural gum which has been used throughout history as a perfume, incense and medicine. It can also be ingested by mixing it with wine. It was so valuable in ancient times that it was, at times, equal in weight value to gold. (Wikipedia, Myrrh) Indigenous to southern Arabia, Abyssinia, and the land of Punt (understood to be a region in East Africa at the south end of the Red Sea, opposite the modern Arabian port of Aden and extending southward along the Somali coast).
Pepper (black)cracked-black-peppercorns The dried fruit of the flowering vine, Piper nigrum, a member of the Piperaceae (pepper) family. The pepper vine is a native of southwestern India and has been traded from there since prehistory.

[1] Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, 1 Kings 11:1.

[2] Early processing methods included pressing the ingredients (much like the way olives were pressed for oil), plants being placed in a sheet of cloth and twisted until the aromatic materials were drained from the source, and cold and hot steeping.

[3] Much later than the time of Solomon, Classical Greeks saw the beginning of a distillation process which led to Greece becoming the first manufacturers of liquid perfume (not, however, the perfume associated with our modern day.) Some of their commonly used fragrances were rose, saffron, frankincense, myrrh, spikenard, cinnamon and cedar wood. Some of these may have been included in the offerings the queen of Sheba brought to Solomon hundreds of years earlier.

The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Gold and Spices

And she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones; there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon (2 Chron. 9:9).

When the queen departed Sheba, Scripture says she came to Jerusalem with “a very great retinue.” How many does “very great” indicate? No consulted commentary ventures any speculation, but perhaps there is a way to guesstimate. Bible scholar, Leon Wood, equates a talent (the queen gave Solomon one hundred and twenty talents of gold) to  just over sixty-six pounds.[1] A rough calculation yields 7,920 pounds…of gold—worth a staggering amount by today’s precious metals market! Evidently a dromedary camel can carry from 300-900 pounds (per a Goggle search). That means the queen could have had anywhere from nine to twenty-six camels just to carry the gold.[2]

There is no way to determine the weight of the jewels or the spices so as to calculate how many additional camels were needed. Nor is there any way to assess how many attendants would have accompanied her, whether she was escorted by armed guards or units of her army perhaps, or how many of these pack animals were needed to carry necessities such as food, clothing and shelter (i.e., tents). Suffice it to say, “she came with a very great retinue” (1 Kings 10:2).

“. . .there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon . . . .”

Why were spices of such note in this account? Why would they have been gifts worthy of the king of Israel? There are several reasons, some going farther back into antiquity.

1. A primary consideration is one of commerce. According to a note in The Women’s Study Bible (p. 565), Sheba’s considerable economy was “dependent upon worldwide, overland spice trade.” Solomon’s new trade alliance with Hiram, king of Tyre, may have caused the queen concern since her merchants must travel through Israel in order to reach other distribution points. Her gifts, including an abundance of spices, were no doubt part of trade negotiations, and as such, were expected. 1 Kings 10:22-25 fills in some of the details.

Arabia was known for its dominance of the spice trade, and went to great lengths to guard its “trade” secrets. It was not above using disinformation as to the origin of its precious commodities (many of which came from as far away as India) nor the routes used to procure/transport them. By keeping a corner on the spice market, Arabia, and in this case, Sheba, could control the supply, charge exorbitant prices, and thus far, avoid paying duty. There was much at stake during this meeting of two formidable potentates.

2. Spices and aromatic gums were quite valuable—some of them were purportedly deemed more precious than gold—and in demand. As early as Genesis 2:12 bdellium,[3] a fragrant gum resin which is thought to be from the arid regions of western India, is mentioned. Another mention of spices is found in the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37:25). Joseph was cast into a pit by his jealous brothers, and eventually sold to a caravan of Ishmaelite (some say Midianite)[4] spice merchants traveling the main trade route from Gilead to Egypt—possibly one of the routes the queen intended to use.

Cinnamon bark (

Though hundreds of years later than the time of Solomon, in the days of the early Roman empire, naturalist Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, wrote that a pound of pepper, the cheapest and most available spice, would buy forty pounds of wheat, and “a pound of the finest cinnamon oil [which most likely came from India or modern-day Sri Lanka] would cost a centurion up to six years’ work.”[5]

3.  Spices were used in funerary preparations—both as preservatives and agents to control the odors of putrefaction. Egypt in particular is known for its embalming techniques and funerary practices involving various herbs, unguents and spices.[6] Using these to slow or kill bacteria that caused decomposition was an effort to keep a corpse fresh and presentable. According to Egyptian belief, mummification preserved a home—a necessary physical frame—to which the immortal ka (life principle) could return.[7]

Israel had its own funerary practices. 2 Chronicles 16:13-14 recounts the burial of King Asa of Judah: “They buried him in his own tomb, which he had made for himself in the City of David; and they laid him in the bed which was filled with spices and various ingredients prepared in a mixture of ointments. They made a very great burning for him.”

4. Spices and unguents were used in religious rituals. In Leviticus 24:7 Moses is instructed to pour “pure frankincense” on the showbread. In Exodus 30:22-33 he is given the formula for holy anointing oil. Using quality spices, perfumers were to combine:

  • five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh,
  • half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels),
  • two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane,
  • five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary,
  • and a hin of olive oil.

He was further instructed, ‘”With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. It shall not be poured on man’s flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.'”

Presumably Solomon himself was anointed king with this same holy oil (1 Kings 1:38-39). “The anointing of Solomon was carried out immediately, as the king had commanded. . . .‘The oil-horn out of the tent’ (i.e., a vessel made of horn and containing oil) was no doubt one which held the holy anointing oil, with which the priests and the vessels of the sanctuary were anointed (see Exo. 30:22 ff.).”[8]

Next time…

There is another reason Solomon would have welcomed such an abundance of spices, one which has to do with his harem. We’ll explore this fascinating topic in the next post.

[1] Leon Wood, A Survey of Israel’s History (1970), p. 292, note 16. However, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, v. 10, equates the 120 talents to be four and one-half tons (p.101)! The above calculation would have to be refigured based on this formula.

[2] There is an ongoing mystery as to the source of the queen of Sheba’s gold. As recently as February 2013 a British archaeologist discovered what may have been her gold mine in northern Ethiopia. Historically Ethiopia was part of the territory of Sheba according to some scholars, and thus under the queen’s control.

[3] F. Rosengarten, Jr. 1969. The Book of Spices, pp. 23–96, Jove Publ., Inc., New York.

[4] It seems ironic that these merchantmen could have been distant relatives of Joseph’s through Keturah, Abraham’s wife after Sarah died. See Genesis 25:1-2.

[5] Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (2004), p. 73.

[6] In the winter of 1975-1976 the deteriorating mummy of Ramses II (argued by some to be the pharaoh of the exodus) was sent to the Musee de l’Homme in Paris for conservation concerns. An x-ray revealed for the first time that peppercorns had been inserted into the king’s nose with plugs of an unidentified resinous substance. Jack Turner, in his book, Spice: The History of a Temptation, mentions, “. . . its [the peppercorn] identity confirmed after an exhaustive process of elimination of native African species some three millennia after its harvest somewhere in the tropical south of India” (p.146).

[7] Turner, p. 147.

[8] From Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: New Updated Edition, Electronic Database.

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 ( 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).


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.’”

A Mother’s Advice

Who was King Lemuel mentioned in Proverbs? Was he King Muel who ruled the mysterious land of Massa? Was he a Chaldean prince from an ancient country? Jewish and Christian commentators “consent” to the probability that Solomon is the king addressed in Proverbs 31:1-9,[1] and that his mother affectionately called him Lemuel.

The name “Lemuel” means devoted to God. When Solomon was an infant, God sent a prophet to give him the name of “Jedidiah” which means beloved of the Lord. Some posit that this “name, spoken by the prophet of the Lord, was the final symbol of God’s forgiveness in the lives of David and Bathsheba.”[2] That Bathsheba cherished this God-given name and considered her son endeared to Him strengthens the general belief that Solomon is Lemuel.

In her position as Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba served as an intercessor and advisor to him. In contrast to the wife of a king who held “a position of comparatively little importance,” the queen mother “commanded great influence.” [3] Women who had the highest authority during the Judean monarchy were the mothers of kings. The queen mother had a fixed position in the king’s administration, but the influence of a wife /concubine depended on many factors: the king’s favor, whether the woman was of royal birth, whether she bore the king’s first child, or whether she gave birth to the heir to the throne. When the king took another woman, it shuffled the pecking order in the harem, but it did not disturb the control of the queen mother.

The Hebrew word gebhirah means the “mistress” or “queen mother.” It refers to a woman with a “sanctioned position within the Judean court and [who] had such great influence upon her son that she too receives blame as part of the monarchy for the fall of Judah.” The books of 1 and 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles include the names of the mothers of the kings of Judah because they were part of the success or failure of the kingship.

The Anointing of Solomon by Cornelis de Vos. A...

The Anointing of Solomon by Cornelis de Vos. According to 1 Kings 1:39, Solomon was anointed by Zadok. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As queen mother, Bathsheba felt a measure of responsibility for her son’s conduct. Drawing on her understanding of Solomon’s character and the demands of ruling, she advised him on how to be a good king. An example is this is found in Proverbs 31:1-9 (paraphrase mine):

Don’t fritter away your strength on pursuing women, sexual gratification, and political alliances through marriage. Such behavior destroys kings and their kingdoms.

 Avoid excessive use of alcohol. Its effects are mind-altering. It leaves one unable to remember the law and how to make just decisions.

 Stand up for the weak and helpless. Be compassionate and stay in touch with reality.

 His respect

The last recorded conversation between Bathsheba and Solomon is a discussion on the topic of David’s attendant Abishag.  Based on this example of how mother and son interacted, I believe Solomon customarily listened to her with respect. “Bathsheba therefore went to King Solomon…and the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand. Then she said, ‘I desire one small petition of you; do not refuse me’” (1 Kings 2:13-21). Although Solomon refused the “one small petition” she asked on this occasion, he accepted Bathsheba’s right to present her case.

It is unlikely that Solomon wholly rejected Bathsheba’s three points on being an honorable king. But in the course of his reign he did not wholly take them to heart, either. On the negative side, he gathered a harem of a thousand women, he gratified himself with wine, and he imposed heavy taxes and forced labor. When Solomon died, the people remembered him for having placed a “heavy yoke” and “burdensome service” on them (1 Kings 12:4).

Advice not taken

Why didn’t Solomon follow his mother’s advice? Maybe he didn’t see the need for it. He was youthful, vigorous and confident. God had given him wisdom, riches and honor. He felt assured of God’s love and favor (1 Kings 3:4-14). He built a magnificent house for God, and God blessed it with His glory.

Maybe Solomon had a different vision for his reign—a generation gap? His father was a man of war and had consolidated the kingdom.  Solomon assumed the throne in peacetime. His goals were made possible by peace.

I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven (Eccl. 1:13).

 I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly (Eccl. 1:17).

 I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives (Eccl. 2:3).

Maybe he had already started down a bad path and Bathsheba was correcting him, as some commentators believe. “This exclamation of Lemuel’s mother implies apprehension in respect to the sins against which she warns him if not remonstrance against the present practice of them.”[4]

In the End

After her intercession for David’s son Adonijah, Bathsheba vanishes from scripture (1 Kings 2:13-21). Did she continue advising Solomon? Did she deal with his excesses? Did she encourage him to write? Did she help compile his wise sayings? Did she read that he valued her teaching?

My son, keep your father’s command, and do not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; tie them around your neck. When you roam, they will lead you; when you sleep, they will keep you; and when you awake, they will speak with you.

 Was she gratified?—Mary Hendren

[1] An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, John Gill, online note on Prov.31:1

[2] NKJV Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on II Samuel 12:25

[3] Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, p.778

[4] The Family Bible Notes, Justin Edwards, note on v. 2, Online Publishing source

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