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Hair

 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil (Luke 7:37-39).

Luke didn’t name the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but Simon said she was a sinner. Weeping, she stood behind Jesus, let down her hair and wiped His feet. Her extraordinary behavior disturbed the men. “Among the Jews it was a shameful thing for a woman to let down her hair in public.”[1] In adoration, she kissed His feet and massaged them with oil.

Simon thought that if Jesus were truly a prophet, He would have known the woman was a sinner. Responding to Simon’s thoughts, Jesus reminded him that a host customarily greets his guests with a kiss, provides water for washing their feet, honors them with anointing oil—all of which Simon had neglected to do. The woman, however, in heart-felt humility, fulfilled every courtesy Simon had neglected. Jesus called attention to the proportion of her love in comparison to Simon’s: Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47).

Cut

The woman’s hair was very long, long enough to wipe Jesus’ feet. I didn’t find any references to Israelite women cutting their hair for stylish purposes. There are references to women shaving their heads and cutting their hair in connection with vows. If a woman took a Nazarite vow, she couldn’t cut her hair for the duration of the vow. When the woman completed her obligations, she shaved her head and presented the hair in the Temple as part of an offering. A woman cured of leprosy shaved her head (Lev. 14:8). An Israelite soldier that took a foreign woman captive shaved her head, trimmed her nails, gave her new clothing and allowed her a month of mourning before consummating the marriage (Deut. 21:10-13).

Washed

Women in ancient Israel didn’t wash their hair with the regularity we do today. “How widespread and how frequent non-ceremonial bathing was in Israel is impossible to determine.” [2] Bathsheba bathed, Naaman bathed, Levites and priests washed before serving in the Temple, and men and women cured of leprosy bathed (Lev. 14:8). In the time of Jesus, some religious leaders made a great show of washing their hands. However, there’s no mention of soap for bathing the body or shampoo for washing the hair.

In the ancient middle-east “oil served a hygienic purpose prior to the invention of soap and shampoo.” [3] Although the Babylonians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and Romans used a compound made from oil, fat and caustic soda to wash clothing, the compound was harsh and tended to burn skin and hair. Women made a body scrub from oil mixed with natron, a mineral deposit that resembled baking soda. The natron scrub had some anti-bacterial properties but gummed up the hair and was difficult to rinse out. It is said that Egyptians washed their hair and their wigs in diluted citrus juice, but I found no references that citrus hair-washing was practiced in Israel.

Arranged and Colored

Isaiah, in warning ancient Israel, refers to “well-set hair.” Israel had defied God and would suffer for it. As part of the nation’s punishment, women who prided themselves on beautifully arranged hair, scarves, veils and turbans would experience the baldness of poverty and famine.

1024px-Beautiful_Greek_woman_statue

Beautiful Greek woman (public domain)
This image was originally posted to Flickr by Wonderlane at http://flickr.com/photos/71401718@N00/4258937618. It was reviewed on 12 September 2011 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

On occasion women in Egypt and Israel colored their hair. Solomon may have been referring to the use of henna as a coloring agent in Song of Songs 7:6. Your head is like scarlet [or Carmel] and the locks of your head like purple. “Some scholars suggest that this refers to the purplish sheen of hennaed black hair, since elsewhere the woman’s hair is described as black. It is certainly possible that henna was known in the Biblical period as a hair dye. In fact, the earliest evidence for henna use in the Land of Israel are wigs of henna-dyed hair, dating from the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1550 BCE), which were found in the excavations of Jericho; furthermore, Greek and Roman historians specifically mention henna from the Land of Israel being used to colour hair.”[4] 

Women paid attention to their hair—covering it, wrapping it into buns, folding, curling and braiding it. They wove ribbons into their braids and fastened them atop their heads with ivory pins. They twined pearls and jewels into their hair. They added gold dust and metallic plates to catch the sunlight.[5] In writing to Christians in Asia Minor, Peter stated that a woman’s outward adorning of arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel (I Pet. 3:3-4) should never overshadow the inner beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. The Nelson’s Study Bible states that Peter “is not condemning women who wear jewelry” [6] or dress in an attractive manner. He encourages a woman to appear and conduct herself worthy of one called to inherit a blessing (1 Pet.3:9).

One woman’s hair and humility

All four gospel accounts mention the occasion of Jesus being anointed with oil by a woman before He was crucified, but with some variations (indicated in italics).

  • The accounts in Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 agree almost word-for-word. Both writers say that an unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head with fragrant oil while He was at dinner in the home of Simon the Leper. Some disciples criticized the woman for wasting the oil on Jesus rather than selling it to help the poor. Jesus stated that the woman had done a good work by anointing Him prior to His burial. The act would be remembered as a memorial to her.
  • Luke states that Simon the Pharisee hosted the dinner (Luke 7:36-50). The unnamed woman was a known sinner from the city. She wept at Jesus’ feet and wiped the tears with her hair. She anointed His feet with fragrant oil. Simon criticized her in his thoughts. Jesus drew a lesson about love and forgiveness from the woman’s devotion. He acknowledged that the woman was a sinner, and He forgave her sins.
  • John is the only writer that identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8). Lazarus, Martha and Mary hosted the supper. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with fragrant oil and wiped them with her hair. Judas questioned why the oil was not sold to help the poor. Jesus stated that Mary had the oil in preparation for His burial and that the poor would always be there.

Postscript: Who was the woman?

Some scholars say that the differences in the four accounts reflect what the writers saw and remembered, which is the nature of eyewitness reports. These scholars believe there was only one occasion when a woman anointed Jesus, and details from the accounts can be accounted for. Their reasoning is based on speculations:

  • Simon may have been related to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and may have owned the home where the three friends prepared supper.
  • Simon may have been a Pharisee and a recovered leper.
  • The unnamed woman may have anointed Jesus’ head before she anointed His feet.
  • Simon may have condemned her in his thoughts while Judas and the disciples criticized her openly.
  • Jesus may have addressed Simon’s self-righteous lack of love privately and corrected the disciples in public.

Other commentators believe that Mary of Bethany and a different unnamed woman anointed Jesus on two separate occasions. “There is no Biblical evidence whatever for identifying this sinful woman with Mary Magdalene or with Mary of Bethany as some commentators have done…as for Mary, sister of Martha, what is said of her devout spirit is strikingly adverse to that of a harlot of the streets.”[7] Lockyer’s argument rests most strongly on his confidence that Mary of Bethany, the dear friend of Jesus, could not have been the unnamed, sinful woman.—Mary Hendren


[1] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, on-line note on Luke 7:38

[2] Archeological Study Bible, Zondervan, “Bathing,” p. 456

[3] Same source, “Perfumes and Oils,” p. 1746

[4] hennabysienna.com/henna-in-the-bible.html

[5] On-line commentaries: Barnes’ Notes, and Adam Clarke’s, notes on 1 Peter 3:3

[6] Nelson Study Bible, NKJV, Second Edition, note on 1 Peter 3:3, p. 1986

[7] Herbert Lockyer,  All the Women of the Bible, p. 231

Locusts

After 400 silent years, God was speaking through a new prophet who called people to repentance and promised someone greater to come.[1]

 Before John the Baptist was born, an angel told his father astounding things about his son. He would have the Holy Spirit before birth. He would never drink wine or alcohol. He would become a great man and turn many people to God. He would preach repentance and prepare people for the Messiah.

Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Zacharias prophesied that his son would be called the prophet of the Highest; for you will go before the face the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins (Luke 1:76-77).  With responsibilities of such importance, why did John live an austere life in the desert?

An illustration of John the Baptist preaching ...

An illustration of John the Baptist preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, from the 1875 Young People’s Illustrated Bible History (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John’s message was not a soft one. Like the desert itself, his words were challenging, a shaking of the status quo, an awaking to essentials of change.  As Jesus said of John: But what did you go out into the wilderness to see…a man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.” Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:8-11).

Zealous and bold, John poured himself into a brief, galvanizing ministry. He drew crowds of people from Jerusalem. Multitudes came to be baptized and “ with many other exhortations he preached to the people” (Luke 3:18). John’s lifestyle befitted the role of a prophet in the manner of Elijah.

John’s Diet

It’s curious that we remember so readily unusual things about a person. For example, remembering John’s diet of locusts and honey. To most of us in the western world, locusts seem unappetizing. Even in ancient Israel “insects in general were considered dirty and defiling.”[2] However, these insects make it on the list of foods suitable for human consumption (Lev. 11:20-23). Other desert dwelling creatures like snakes, lizards, geckos, toads, hawks, spiders, centipedes, bobcats, turtles, mice, camels, coyotes, John would not have eaten. Locusts were one of the few clean sources of protein available to him in the wilderness. Composed of 60-75% protein, locusts, when combined with honey, made a nutritious diet.

How John prepared the locusts or if he ate them raw, the Bible doesn’t say. Current recipes for cooking locusts feature them boiled in water, toasted over coals, roasted on skewers, fried in oil, stewed in sauces and sun-dried with salt. Directions for the roasted/toasted/fried and salted versions call for removing the heads, wings and insides, leaving just a crunchy exoskeleton. Sun-dried locusts store indefinitely.  Dried and ground into powder, the meal can be mixed into flour or stirred into liquid (a handy protein shake?). http://www.fao.org/ag/locusts/en/info/info/faq/ Check out interesting facts about locusts in the linked article, including recipes for cooking locusts—stuffed with peanuts? Mixed into guacamole for stuffing tacos?

English: Skewered locusts to eat, in Donghuame...

English: Skewered locusts to eat, in Donghuamen, Beijing, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What Kind of Locusts?

 The Biblical account of edible insects is brief.

Yet these you may eat of every flying insect that creeps on all fours: those which have jointed legs above their feet with which to leap on the earth. These you may eat: the locust after its kind, the cricket after its kind, and the grasshopper after its kind (Lev.11: 22).

 Entomologists have filled out the description. Locusts and grasshoppers have six legs: four of the legs end in feet for creeping on the ground and two of the legs, the hind ones, are tall and jointed for leaping and hopping. Scientists say that grasshoppers and locusts aren’t significantly different. Both eat grass, grains, cotton, leaves, fruits and vegetables. The NKJV gives the edible insects from the grasshopper family four descriptors: locust, destroying locust, cricket and grasshopper. Other translations of the Bible name them bald locust, beetle and katydid. The prophet Joel used four words to describe them: gnawing locust, swarming locust, creeping locust, and striping locust. And still more names: desert locust, migratory locust and Moroccan locust. Most likely, John ate what is known as the desert locust.

John’s Other Diet

I’m not inclined to try a diet of sun-dried locusts and honey. But John’s other diet is compelling. He fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. Like Jesus Christ, his food was to do the will of God and finish the work he had been given (John 4:34).—Mary Hendren


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, NIV Vol. 8, p. 98

[2] Oded Borowski, “Every Living Thing, Daily Use of Animals in Ancient Israel,” p. 159

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The Elusive Queen of Sheba: Conclusions of the Matter

First impressions

Solomon's_Temple,_Museum_für_Hamburgische_Geschichte,_Hamburg,_Germany_IMG_5846_edit

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 (Publicdomainpictures.net) 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: http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/spice-entry.php?term=Cinnamon Native to Sri Lanka and southern India.
Cloves

cloves-20122_1280

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.
Frankincense

640px-Frankincense

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

Myrrh-wikipedia-public-domain

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. http://www.wysinfo.com/Perfume/Perfume_history.htm.

[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 (publicdomainpictures.net)

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. http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/Hort_306/reading/Reading%2026-1.pdf

[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 (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.’”

Levirate Law—in Confusion

The Sadducees confronted Jesus with a difficult question that appeared to be a theological puzzle. Actually the question was a red herring to engage Christ in a dispute the Sadducees and Pharisees had about the resurrection. The Sadducees argued that there was no resurrection of the dead, but the Pharisees believed the dead would live again (Acts 23:7-8).

To draw a statement from Christ supporting their belief, the Sadducees concocted a marriage situation that had one chance in a million of happening. Unlikely as it was that a Jewish woman would be married and widowed by seven brothers, the law did take care of that earthly scenario.

If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the widow of the dead man shall not be married to a stranger outside the family; her husband’s brother shall go in to her, take her as his wife, and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And it shall be that the firstborn son which she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name not be blotted out of Israel (Deut. 25:5-6).

The Sadducees projected that such tangled affairs would create chaos in the resurrection. Which of the seven resurrected brothers was entitled to the woman who had been married to them all? Or from the woman’s perspective, which of the seven would she be bound to forever? The Sadducees assumed that laws governing physical life would govern eternal life—if there were such a thing. Their answer to the hypothetical confusion physical laws would produce in the resurrection was to reject the resurrection. Christ corrected their misunderstanding of life after death.

You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels of God in heaven (Matt. 22:29-32).

 Levirate Law Working Beautifully

The levirate marriage was an “alternate arrangement under specific bounds to make possible the retention of landed property throughout the families of Israel” and to protect “widows without children.”[1]  In the story of Ruth, the levirate law worked beautifully to protect a childless widow, and her deceased husband’s property. Boaz fulfilled the obligations of the levirate law when he married Ruth, Mahlon’s widow. As a near relative of the family, Boaz qualified for the duty of fathering an heir for Ruth’s deceased husband. He was also entitled to the property that would have been become Mahlon’s when Naomi died. From the marriage of Boaz and Ruth, a son was born who upheld Mahlon’s name and property rights.

And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, from the hand of Naomi. Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his brethren and from his position at the gate” (Ruth 4:9-10).

 Levirate Law not so Beautiful

Figures_Judah_Gives_his_Signet,_Bracelets_and_Staff_in_Pledge_to_TamarThe levirate law played a part in Boaz’s ancestry, going back six generations to Perez, one of the twin sons of Tamar (Matt. 1:3). Tamar (possibly a Canaanite woman) was married to Er, the firstborn son of Judah. Er died because of an unspecified wickedness that angered God, and Tamar was left a childless widow. In accordance with the levirate law, Judah told Onan, his second son, to impregnate Tamar and preserve the family line of his deceased brother. But Onan refused to beget children for Er. His callous disdain for Tamar displeased God. Onan died for his contempt of duty, and Tamar was widowed the second time.

Judah told Tamar to remain a widow until his third son Shelah was old enough to be married (Gen. 38:11). Then he sent Tamar away to her father’s house where she was no longer of much concern to him. Perhaps fearing that Shelah would meet the same unfortunate end as his brothers, Judah seemed in no hurry to facilitate this union.

When Shelah was grown and Tamar realized that “she was not given to him as a wife” (Gen. 38:14), she undertook a daring deception. Veiling herself as a prostitute, Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah. Not knowing whom he was impregnating, Judah, in a perverse twist of the law, fathered Tamar’s twin boys.

Observations

Twins were considered “a special blessing from the Lord”[2] and Tamar’s name is recorded in the lineage of the Savior. Some commentators refer to her as a “heroine of the faith—despite her origins and the nature of her actions.”[3] Other writers describe Tamar and Judah harshly. “It shocks our inner, finer feelings to see Christ’s lineage interwoven with such abhorrent degradation as we have in this chapter (Genesis 38). We cannot but wonder how Judah and Tamar have the distinction of mention in that sacred genealogy of Jesus Christ.”[4]

As a reader of this significant birth story, I am sobered. I wonder that commentators venture to make judgments. When Judah acknowledged that he caused Tamar’s pregnancy, God allowed his words—Judah’s words—to be the verdict of record: She has been more righteous than I, because I did not give her to Shelah my son (Gen. 38:26). —Mary Hendren

 


[1] Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 150

[2] New King James Study Bible, Second Edition, Thomas Nelson, note on Genesis. 38:27.

[3] Same source, note on Genesis. 38:30.

[4] All the Women of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, p.163.

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