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.
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:
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.
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.