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Women in the Old Testament: The Queen of Sheba

Monday, September 03, 2012
1 Kings 10:1-13.

The visit of the Queen of Sheba from afar to King Solomon to hear his wisdom has been made very well known by the use that Jesus made of it (Mt 12:42 & Lk 11:31). Sheba is mentioned rarely in the Bible, indicating it was on the extreme age of the area that with which the Jews had contact.

The original journey and meeting of the two leaders was, it seems, made for pragmatic earthly reasons – but the Oriental and Jewish understanding of wisdom covers, and is probably rooted, in such pragmatic good sense. It was a meeting of two leaders and their retinues to come to a trade agreement. We have just been told that Solomon, in whose reign Israel reached its maximum size, controlled the land at the head of the Red Sea (1 Kings 9:26-28). He equipped a fleet there and had a lot of influence on trade routes that passed through or near his expanded territory. The exact location of Sheba is disputed but it is most probably in Arabia. It presumably made use of the Red Sea and other trading routes that Solomon controlled. It was beholden on other states and traders to make trading arrangements with him for the good of their own exports and wider economies. Such meetings involved impressing each other with the quality of one’s court, and exchanging gifts, all of which happens in 1 Kings 10:1-13, but a deal also had to be struck. Part of this involved asking policy questions, listening to an assessment of political and economic issues: raising such issues would certainly be included in the ‘difficult questions’ and other ‘things on her mind’ in our text. She, and her officials, may also have asked ‘obscure riddles’ as this was part of Oriental diplomacy in this period. A king was a judge and expected to be wise, and in many cultures was seen as an instrument of divine teaching, even perhaps of divine revelation. As well as testing his political, economic and practical wisdom, these more obscure puzzles gave further indication of a king’s intelligence and wisdom. The Queen was impressed on all fronts - he literally took her breath away - and made a deal with Solomon. It appears that he got huge payments (as the more powerful monarch - v 10) but she got what she wanted in trade terms too (v 13). The passage and this principal reading of it make good sense of its location amidst other passages about the trade expansion and riches of Solomon.

The story tells us other things too. It is interesting that a woman ruled a kingdom, something unusual in that period, though not unheard of in parts of Arabia. She was not a Jew. Her comments to Solomon show her to be remarkably familiar, for a foreigner, with aspects of the Jewish religious view and its view of the purpose of kingship (v 9). She notes both that is a result of Yahweh’s favour and everlasting love that Solomon reigns and importantly she stresses that he has been made king to minister justice and righteousness. These are the key principles of the covenant and of his role within it especially in the Deuteronomistic understanding of it. Prophets often insisted upon them and kings in general neglected them.

Her mention of them is impressive and perhaps ironic, given the narrative development. The very next chapter tells of the fall of Solomon. He is enticed by the religion of foreign women. It is also clear that he exploited his people to make his court as impressive as it was. One is left wondering if the Queen of Sheba sensed the dangers and was giving him a hint, put in a diplomatically wise and subtle way, to be careful. Certainly she did him no harm, unlike these other women, and may have had a truer grasp of the heart of divine wisdom than Solomon, at least as he deteriorated in his later years. All this makes her an impressive figure, one to be commended, and not just for going to such efforts to listen to wisdom.

Jesus himself commends her: the people of his own day are more interested in seeing signs than hearing wisdom, a fact made more shocking by the superiority of the wisdom of Jesus over that of Solomon. Not only does the Queen of Sheba put them to shame: Jesus says she is competent to judge them. High praise indeed and perhaps indicative that she did see the flaws in the attitudes and policies of Solomon. At any rate she not only listened to and recognised wisdom: she had wisdom.

Andrew Brookes OP


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