20 March 2012

Questions On the Queen of Sheba's Gold

The Golden Girl

You may have heard that the Queen of Sheba's gold mines have (or have not) been found in Ethiopia.*  Those who are following the story might object that, regardless of the news report, the gold mines -- if they ever existed -- would not have been in Ethiopia. You'd be right.  If ever there were a Queen of Sheba, she most probably came from the spice lands of Yemen.

Not that it really matters.

Rather, I'm thinking of two other things....

The first is that Sheba is forever linked in our minds with King Solomon, the wisest of kings.  It is the queen's arrival at his court in Jerusalem that is the beating heart of her story. 

An Ethiopian fresco of the Queen of Sheba travelling to King Solomon
As the Good Book says [Kings 10.1-13]:
 When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the LORD, she came to test Solomon with hard questions [or riddles].  Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan—with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones—she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.  Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her....
She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true.  Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard...."
And she gave the king 120 talents of gold [= ca. 4.5 tons/9,000 pounds], large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.... 
Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country. 
And that, in fact, is all we really know about her.  Which, of course, has never stopped speculation.  Storytellers from different times and places, and different ethnic and religious traditions, have imagined and embellished details according to the interests of their own communities.

So, read on (while listening, I suggest, to this wonderful recording of Georg Friedrich Händel's 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba').

The Queen's Gold Mines

Now, four-and-a-half tons of gold is quite a lot of yellow metal by any standards.  At today's price, it's roughly $213,500,000 (£ 135,000,000) worth of the stuff. What did Sheba get in return for this whopping gift?

Wisdom.  Or, more precisely, answers to her 'hard questions'.

The Bible doesn't actually tell us what 'hard questions' she put to Solomon.  Nor does it report any of the answers that she so much admired. They must have been real brain teasers to impress Sheba, who was reputed to be a pretty smart queen.  If the authors of Kings did know what it was all about, that chapter-and-verse was lost long ago.  More likely, they didn't have any more clues about it than we do.

Later rabbis were keen to fill the void.  In the Targum Sheni Esther (dated 500-1000 CE), the Midrash Misle (9th century CE) and The Alphabet of Ben Sira (ca. 11th century CE), we finally come upon some riddles. These purport to quote the very words of Solomon and Sheba, including some questions that are serious and some seemingly bizarre. A few samples:

Queen of Sheba enthroned, surrounded by attendants and animals
“What are the seven that issue and nine that enter, the two that offer drink, and the one that drinks?” Solomon answered: “The seven that issue are the seven days of menstrual impurity. The nine that enter are the nine months of pregnancy. The two that offer drink are the breasts, and the child is the one who drinks.” 

Smart!  But Sheba had many more such riddles in her quiver.

“How can a woman say to her son: ‘Your father is my father; your grandfather, my husband; you are my son, and I am your sister?’” Solomon replied: “The two daughters of Lot.” 

Correct!  The rabbis didn't ever wonder how this queen from a far-away land knew about Lot's intimate incestuous history, telling how his two daughters became pregnant by their father and bore sons!  This didn't seem to bother Solomon either.  And so the riddling went on, just so:

"What is like unto a wooden well, the contents of which are drawn up, as it were, by a bucket of iron; that thing taken up no more than stones, which forthwith are irrigated by water?"

Solomon answered: "The reed container which carries the black antimony known as stibium, which stone when crushed is used by women in painting their eyelids, and by men as a remedy in eye ailments, and which they apply to themselves by wetting the iron pin with their spittle." If you are missing a little Iron Age lore, it's said that stibium clings to the spittle on the iron pin.  Get it?

When he had solved all these riddles and many more, Sheba changed tack.  She required the king to explain such tricky business as how to perforate a pearl and to string a crooked shell.  Then, she brought before him some children who were of the same height and identically dressed, and asked of the king:
“Distinguish between the males and the females.” He made a sign to his eunuchs, who brought him nuts and roasted ears of corn, which they scattered before the children. The males, who were not bashful, collected them and tied them within the hems of their garments. The girls, however, were bashful (since their bodies would be revealed if they were to tie their undergarments) and therefore tied them within their outer garments. Solomon told the queen: “These are the males, and these are the females.”
Clever, you have to admit.  And the queen was duly impressed.

Which brings me to my second point:  Was there a method in this madness?

Early Christian Riddling

The Jewish Women's Encyclopaedia thinks there is.  But, before we get to that, I'd like to tell you about a brand new document that also purports to record Sheba's riddling with Solomon.  This early-Christian text, preserved only in Armenian and Syriac (recently translated from the latter by the eminent Oxford scholar, Sebastian Brock**), mixes serious and peculiar questions, too -- with some leaning towards the completely loopy.
Question:  How does this [earthly] sphere revolve, to the right or to the left?  And when the whole of it revolves, does it all revolve equally, in the same direction, or part of it one way, part of it another?
  Solution:  The sphere has a double revolution: its firm part revolves westwards, to the right, and turns rapidly, each night and day completing the movement of its course.  But the planets, which ride above it, revolve eastwards, to the left, and each of them completes the revolution of its journey in accordance with the measure of its altitude, ranging from every thirty years to every thirty days
Having briefly dabbled with the cosmos, Sheba again displays astonishing familiarity with the patriarchs of Israel, so much so that Solomon gets a bit tetchy:
Question: A foreign mother of native sons, a murderess who brought up lawless men;  the theft prospered, and in cunning bore as fruit a king.
    Solution:  Solomon said to her: You insult my ancestors with your questions, for Phares son of Judah, by the cunning and the theft of Tamar, who was considered to be the murderer of her husbands, produced the king David in his line. 
I am quite puzzled by this riddle: Sheba must be referring to Genesis 38 but I can make no sense of it.  Happily, she gets right back to basics.  The next two questions are set in the 'land of the Indians':
Question:  How is it possible that a woman who eats pomegranates in the land of the Indians does not become pregnant?
Answer:  Pomegranates are cold and moist, while India is hot and dry, and so, they are eaten there as opposites, women who eat them do not become pregnant because they are of the same composition as a woman.
 Opposites, it seems, do not attract.  This is a late (but far, far from the latest) survival of the ancient Greek theory of the sexes, pitting chilly wet women against superior hot-and-dry men.  As Aristotle argued in the Generation of Animals, the male is characterised by an abundance of the superior element, fire, and the qualities hot and dry, while the female has an abundance of water and is therefore cold and wet.  Rather soggy, in fact.  Since women are cold and moist, eating a cold, moist fruit in a hot, dry climate doubles down the negatives, so to speak, and prevents the happy event.  If there were any doubt, the next questions rubs it in.
Question:  When a man drinks wine in the land of the Indians, how is it that his intercourse does not result in conception?
Answer:  The wine in the land of the Indians induces a heavy sleep, and because it is hot and dry by nature ... it prevents cohabitation, being of the same composition as intercourse, and it causes desire to become confused in a disrupting manner, not allowing nature to flow in accordance with the norm of procreation.
Thus, the hot dry (!?!) wine + the hot dry man = no baby either. According to Aristotle's theory of the sexes, the hotness of the male and the coldness of the female determine their roles in reproduction.  The extra heat that characterises the male lets him turn his food intake into the ultimate residue, namely spurts of white semen.  The female, lacking heat, can achieve only an imperfect concoction, which dribbles out as red menstrual blood.  However unlikely this appears, that may explain the next riddle:

Question: An unclean thing that brings up kings and that is softened; it is honoured in clouds, and is sprinkled with change, and is sent like excrement on the paths of the fields.
Answer: Solomon says:  In the menstruation which becomes milk, in the excretion (‘clouds’) on the breast, are kings and lowly nourished.  This is what you are saying, set out in a delightful way.
Enough!  While I'm glad he was delighted, much more of this will drive me quite mad.

Sheba the Riddler

As the Jewish Women's Encyclopaedia rightly argues, the main shared element in all of Sheba's rabbinic riddles is that they are concerned with gender. The first riddle pertains to the female’s birth cycle: menstruation, pregnancy, birth, and nursing.  The second turns upside down the generational hierarchy within the family, by interchanging father and grandfather, husband and father, mother and sister. Solomon's solution restores the normal order, since it reveals that this is an exceptional case, which held good only for the daughters of Lot. The answer to the third riddle is a tube of eye makeup used differently by men and women.  The fourth indicates the differences between males and females that supposedly are already noticeable in young children, and is connected to the shame felt by girls at publicly exposing parts of their bodies. That, QED, is the 'natural' order of things, a stance obviously endorsed by the Christian riddles, too.

Solomon as riddlee is determined to restore the natural order by winning over this foreign queen of fabulous wealth and wisdom, who is also a dangerous (that is, out of place) female of power in a world ruled by men.  Here we have a monster in the making, a woman who has usurped male prerogatives (on Sheba as demonic monster, see The Zenobia Romance).  How could the queen ever have believed that she could outwit the wisest of kings?  How, indeed, could a woman challenge a man with any expectation of winning?

She must be made 'natural' and put in her place.  Solomon answers all of her riddles quickly and somewhat derisively, thinking them mere child's play.  But Sheba's ability to make riddles out of Solomon's heritage (Lot's daughters, Phares and Tamar, among others) marks her for the boundary-crossing female that she is.  Perhaps that's why Kings 10 doesn't sample her riddles: too aggressive? or too close to the bone? Though Solomon can answer these and all of the others, she has presented herself as a ruler equal in status and wisdom, one capable of keeping her place in her own world.

Then she left and returned with her retinue to her own country.

Wherever that was.

* Shared thanks for the first reports of the new claims to PaleoJudaica and to Past Horizons.  You can read the press releases on those sites or at the Guardian's website: 'Archaeologists strike gold in quest to find Queen of Sheba's wealth.  A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba derived her fabled treasures. Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: "One of the things I've always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba's mines is extraordinary."'  Personally, I wouldn't count on it.

** I am immensely grateful to Prof. Brock for sending me a pre-publication translation of these early-Christian riddles and granting permission to use them on my blog.  The whole will appear in the first volume of texts edited for the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project at the University of St Andrews. More information on the manuscript: Date and origin unknown; survives in this form only in Syriac and Armenian, but completely different questions are known from Jewish tradition; they could not be any earlier than c.6th century, and must be earlier than the earliest textual witness, in fact in Armenian, ca.13th century CE.

Sources include 'The Queen of Sheba' on Viewzone (translated and annotated by David Ben-Abraham); 'King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba' at King Solomon Legend;  Tamar Kadari, 'Queen of Sheba: Midrash and Aggadah' at Jewish Women Encyclopaedia; and (especially) Carole Fontaine, Smooth Words: Women, Proverbs And Performance In Biblical Wisdom, Continuum Press, 2009 (partly available via Google Books).


Top: Mural from Lalibela, now in the National Museum at Addis Ababa. Supposedly the Queen of Sheba, but more likely to be St George heading for the dragon. Photo credit: unknown, via Wikipedia.

Youtube credit: 

Middle: 14th century Persian manuscript frontispiece depicting Queen Sheba (Bilqīs) enthroned. She is surrounded by attendants and animals, both real and fantastic. Above her is a flying mythical bird (sīmurgh).  Photo Credit: The Walters Art Museum.  Licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0.

Below:  Betty Blythe in the title role of the Queen of Sheba, December 1921. Reproduced by permission of © The Trustees of the British Museum.  Middle East: Registration number: EPH-ME.471.


  1. Joe in Australia3/4/12 06:34

    Question: A foreign mother of native sons, a murderess who brought up lawless men; the theft prospered, and in cunning bore as fruit a king.

    Tamar was not from Abraham's family, but her twin sons by Judah were "native". She was a murderess in that her husbands died because of her beauty; and a thief because she secretly arranged to get pregnant by Judah, thereby stealing his semen or perhaps stealing family progeny to become a levirate wife. Her son Zerach stuck stuck his hand out of her womb first, but his brother Peretz "broke out" before he did; hence he was lawless. And the theft prospered, because Peretz was the ancestor of King David and hence Solomon himself.

  2. Thanks Joe, that does explain the riddle. It's still amazing that that the riddlers imagined these tales were known as far and wide as the land of Sheba :-)

  3. Anonymous18/5/12 11:20

    There is a different explanation.

    Solomon was said to have married Pharaoh's daughter, and the Queen of Sheba was said to be the Queen of the South. Meanwhile the Kebra Negast says that the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba ended on the Dead Sea.

    Quite obviously, the Queen of Sheba was the Egyptian princess who married King Solomon. Sheba simply means 'star' in Egyptian - and so this princess was being called the Queen of Heaven, or Isis. And she was venerated ever after in Israel, as the Book of Jeremiah states.

    So what was this massive treasure that she brought? was it a dowry?

    Possibly, but it is also entirely possible that King Solomon was threatening Sheba, as the Kebra Negast says. And at this same time, the tombs of the kings in the Valley of the Kings were being looted. There is a great deal of evidence that says this was state-sponsored looting, to pay tribute to the northern king who was threatening Thebes.

    That king was Solomon, and so King Solomon's Mines that provided so much gold, were actually the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

    See 'Solomon, Falcon of Sheba'.



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