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 Vol. 4, No. 1 

 

January, 2002

Editorial Page

~ Page 2 ~

 

The Queen of Sheba

By Louis Rushmore

Louis Rushmore "And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to prove Solomon with hard questions at Jerusalem, with a very great company, and camels that bare spices, and gold in abundance, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart" (2 Chronicles 9:1).

The designation "Sheba" appears 32 times in the Bible (KJV). Sometimes the reference is to various individuals, while often it refers to a political kingdom. Once, the Bible cites "the kings of Sheba" (Psalms 72:10) and other references appear to "the Queen of Sheba" (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9). Further, Scripture refers to "the Queen of Sheba" with the phrase "the queen of the south" (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31).

SHEBA …the name of five men, a city, and a country in the Old Testament: 1. A descendant of Ham. Sheba's descendants are believed to have settled on the shores of the Persian Gulf (Gen 10:7). 2. A son of Joktan of the family of Shem, whose descendants have been traced to southern Arabia (Gen 10:28). 3. A grandson of Abraham (Gen 25:3). Sheba was a son of Jokshan, who was a son of Abraham by Keturah. Sheba and his descendants probably lived in Edom or northern Arabia. 4. A city of the territory of Judah assigned to the tribe of Simeon (Josh 19:2). Some modern translations of the Bible (NKJV, NIV, NASB) equate Sheba with Beersheba. 5. A son of Bichri, of the tribe of Benjamin (2 Sam 20:1-22). After the death of Absalom, Sheba led a short-lived rebellion against King David and was forced to retreat inside the city of Abel of Beth Maachah. This city was then besieged by Joab, the captain of David's army. In order to save their city, the people of Abel cut off Sheba's head and threw it over the wall to Joab (2 Sam 20:1-22). 6. A mountainous country in southwest Arabia (1 Kings 10:1-13), identified as the land of "the queen of the South" (Luke 11:31) who came to investigate Solomon's fame and wisdom. By means of its international trade and control of trade routes through its land, Sheba developed into a strong commercial power. Its trade specialties were perfumes and incense. Camel caravans followed routes northward across its dry regions, bearing their precious commodities for the royal courts of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Thus the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon may have been motivated also by her interest in trade and in the unhindered movement of her caravans into the large territory under Solomon's control. 7. A chief of the tribe of Gad who lived in Gilead in Bashan during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (1 Chron 5:13).1

The "Sheba" in which we are interested presently pertains to the former country in southwestern Arabia settled by the descendants of Joktan, himself a descendant of Shem. A female sovereign of this biblical era nation appears in the four passages mentioned above. Thereby, we know her as the Queen of Sheba or the Queen of the South.

Though the wife of a king might be styled a "queen," ordinarily, females did not rule in the ancient world. Two notable exceptions addressed by both biblical and secular history cite "Candace Queen of the Ethiopians" (Acts 8:27) and the "Queen of Sheba" (1 Kings 10:1-2).

The high position occupied by women among the Sabaeans is reflected in the story of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon. In almost all respects women appear to have been considered the equal of men, and to have discharged the same civil, religious and even military functions.2

Queen No explicit mention of queens is made till we read of the "queen of Sheba." The wives of the kings of Israel are not so designated. In Ps. 45:9, the Hebrew for "queen" is not malkah, one actually ruling like the Queen of Sheba, but shegal, which simply means the king's wife. In 1 Kings 11:19, Pharaoh's wife is called "the queen," but the Hebrew word so rendered (g'birah) is simply a title of honour, denoting a royal lady, used sometimes for "queen-mother" (1 Kings 15:13; 2 Chron. 15:16). In Cant. 6:8, 9, the king's wives are styled "queens" (Heb. melakhoth. In the New Testament we read of the "queen of the south", i.e., Southern Arabia, Sheba (Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:31) and the "queen of the Ethiopians" (Acts 8:27), Candace.3

As in the case of Candace Queen of the Ethiopians, "Sheba" was not the particular name of the queen who visited Solomon. Whereas "Candace" was a dynastic title and not a personal name, "Sheba" was the name of the political kingdom over which the queen reigned and not a personal name. "SHEBA, QUEEN OF. An unnamed Sabaean (*Sheba) monarch who journeyed to Jerusalem to test Solomon's wisdom (1 Ki. 10:1-10, 13; 2 Ch. 9:1-9, 12)."4 

The location of "Sheba" has been questioned since both Ethiopia and Arabia lay claim to the "Queen of Sheba." However, it is apparent with little reflection that the Queen of Sheba lived on the Arabian Peninsula. It is interesting that the historical oddity of female sovereigns prevailed in countries parallel to each other on either side of the Red Sea. Further, references to both queens appear in the Bible relating to some interaction with Israel. "Both Assyr. and S Arab. inscriptions testify to the presence of queens in Arabia as early as the 8th century BC."5 As one would expect, Scripture's references to these respective queens are historically accurate.

1 Kings 10:1 Doubt has arisen whether the "queen of Sheba" was an Ethiopian or an Arabian princess. Both countries profess to have traditions on the subject connecting the queen of Sheba with their history; and in both countries, curiously enough, government by queens was common. But the claims of Arabia decidedly preponderate. The Arabian Sheba was the great spice country of the ancient world; whereas Ethiopia furnished no spices. The Arabian Sheba was an important kingdom. Sheba in Ethiopia was a mere town, subject to Meroe. ... If Ophir be placed in Arabia, there will be an additional reason for regarding Sheba as in the same quarter, because then Solomon's trade with that place will account for his fame having reached the Sabaean princess.6

1 Kings 10:1 The principal reasons for concluding that the queen came from this district of Arabia may be summarized as follows:-First, the presents she brought to Solomon were products of that country ...7

The ancestry of the people over whom the Queen of Sheba ruled is distinct from the inhabitants of biblical Ethiopia. "…Sheba was a South-Arabian or Joktanite tribe (Gen 10:28)…"8 Arabia is a vast land of geographical contrasts with mountains ranging up to about 12,000 feet and a great desert. The combination of these two characteristics severely affects the Arabian lifestyle.

ARABIA (wilderness)-the large peninsula east of Egypt, between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf … 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) wide and 2,300 kilometers (1,400 miles) long, Arabia is nearly one-third the size of the United States. It has almost no rainfall except along the coast, where it measures about 51 centimeters (20 inches) per year. There is only one river and one lake in the entire peninsula. Although a sudden shower may create a short-lived stream, most of the water in Arabia comes from deep wells or desert oases. Consequently, there is little agricultural activity on the peninsula.9

The Queen of Sheba's realm was roughly equivalent to present day Yemen. "SHEBA The kingdom of the Sabeans (which see), which, according to some, embraced the greater part of the Yemen, or Arabia Felix."10 That part of Arabia enjoyed a more agreeable climate than most of the rest of the region. "SHEBA  A land in the southern, fertile mountainous southwestern part of Arabia, inhabited in antiquity by the Sabeans (cf. Gen. 10:7, 25--8)."11 The people of Sheba enhanced their environment with the extensive use of dams and an irrigational system to reclaim land overtaken by the wilderness.

SHEBA The kingdom of Sheba embraced the greater part of the Yemen, or Arabia Felix. … Near Seba was the famous dike of El-'Arim, said by tradition to have been built by Lukman the 'Adite, to store water for the inhabitants of the place, and to avert the descent of the mountain torrents. The catastrophe of the rupture of this dike is an important point in Arab history, and marks the dispersion in the 2d century of the Joktanite tribes.12

The inhabitants of Sheba nurtured spices, which they also traded with Palestine, Africa, Europe and Asia. In addition to being farmers and merchants, they were also alleged to be slave traders and essentially land pirates.

SHEBA The chief occupations of the Sabaeans were raiding and trade. The chief products of their country are enumerated in Isa 60:6, which agrees with the Assyrian inscriptions. The most important of all commodities was incense… The Sabaeans or people of Saba or Sheba, are referred to as traders in gold and spices, and as inhabiting a country remote from Palestine (1 Kings 10:1 f; Isa 60:6; Jer 6:20; Ezek 27:22; Ps 72:15; Matt 12:42), also as slave-traders (Joel 3:8), or even desert-rangers (Job 1:15; 6:19 ...13

In the Bible it was known as an exceedingly rich land, from which the Queen of Sheba brought gold, precious stones and spices (1 Kgs. 10:1 ff.) such as frankincense (Isa. 60:6; Jer. 6:20; Authorized Version: 'incense'). These were brought to the Mediterranean coast by merchants of Tyre (Ezek. 27:22). The Sabeans traded in slaves (Joel 3:8) and did not refrain from robbery (Job 1:15; 6:19).14

Sheba was in the path of trade in spices from southeastern Arabia, around the southern tip of mountains toward Palestine. Consequently, Sheba developed a caravan route to facilitate this trade, by which the kingdom became wealthy. Palestine, at that time dominated by Israel, was also along the caravan route between Arabia and points north. Therefore, Solomon had much to gain in controlling or otherwise taxing the freight passing through Palestine. The Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon doubtless bore a pragmatic perspective additional to any passing interest in the wise man of Israel, Solomon.

Caravan Trade with Arabia. Solomon was also interested in overland trade with the south. The visit of the Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1-10, 13), an incident by no means to be dismissed as legendary, is to be understood in this light. The Sabeans, originally nomadic, had by this time settled and established a kingdom the center of which was in what is today eastern Yemen. Their strategic position astride the caravan routes from Hadhramaut northward toward Palestine and Mesopotamia enabled them to dominate the trade in spice and incense for which southwestern Arabia was famous. Exploiting the development of camel transport, they were beginning a commercial expansion which in ensuing centuries resulted in a trading hegemony over much of Arabia. It is possible that, taking advantage of the failure of the Egyptian trade monopoly in Ethiopia and Somaliland, they had also extended their interests there. The Queen of Sheba's visit is, therefore, intelligible. Solomon not only controlled the northern terminus of the trade routes; his maritime ventures had brought him into direct competition with the incipient caravan trade, stimulating the Sabean queen to act in its interests. She therefore visited Solomon, bringing samples of her wares: gold, jewels, and spices. Since Solomon received her royally, she presumably gained the agreement she sought. In any event (I Kings 10:15), taxes and duties from Arabian trade flowed into Solomon's treasury.15

A major purpose of her costly (1 Ki. 10:10) yet successful (1 Ki. 10:13) visit may have been to negotiate a trade-agreement with Solomon, whose control of the trade routes jeopardized the income which the Sabaeans were accustomed to receive from the caravans which crossed their territory -- an income on which Sheba (or better Saba) was dependent despite considerable achievement in agriculture due to favourable rainfall and an effective irrigation system. The spices, gold and precious stones with which she sought Solomon's favour (1 Ki. 10:3, 10) would have been typical of the luxurious cargoes of these caravans, which linked the resources of E Africa, India and S Arabia to the markets of Damascus and Gaza by way of oases like Mecca, Medina and Tema. … The widespread domestication of the camel 2 centuries or so before Solomon's time made the Queen of Sheba's trip of about 2,000 km feasible (1 Ki. 10:2).16

In the days of Solomon, and subsequently, commercial intercourse was to a considerable extent kept up with this country (1 Kings 10:15; 2 Chr. 9:14; 17:11). Arabians were present in Jerusalem at Pentecost (Acts 2:11). Paul retired for a season into Arabia after his conversion (Gal. 1:17). This country is frequently referred to by the prophets (Isa. 21:11; 42:11; Jer. 25:24, etc.)17

Further, the trip from Sheba to Jerusalem was no leisurely stroll, but a horrendously rigorous adventure by way of primitive conveyances some 1,000 miles through inclement weather and treacherous terrain. Like biblical Ethiopia, southern Arabia was considered beyond the civilized world that encircled the Mediterranean Sea and extended through the Fertile Crescent.

SHEBA The fact of the chief and best ascertained settlement of the Sheba tribe being in the extreme south of the Arabian peninsula sufficiently explains the language used of the queen who came from thence to hear the wisdom of Solomon, that she was a queen of "the south," and "came from the uttermost parts of the earth," i.e. from the extremities of the then known world (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31). The distance in a straight line could scarcely be under a thousand miles.18

The plentiful natural resources of Arabia that passed through Sheba and on which its prosperity depended were at stake. Therefore, the journey to Jerusalem was critical to the well-being of Sheba. Doubtless, Sheba and the Queen of Sheba perceived that they had little choice but to court the favor of Solomon.

ARABIA The products mentioned in the Bible as coming from Arabia … They seem to refer, in many instances, to merchandise of Ethiopia and India, carried to Palestine by Arab and other traders. Gold, however, was perhaps found in small quantities in the beds of torrents (comp. Diod. Sic. 2:93; 3, 45, 47); and the spices, incense, and precious stones brought from Arabia (1 Kings 10:2,10,15; 2 Chron 9:1,9,14; Isa 60:6; Jer 6:20; Ezek 27:22) probably were the products of the southern provinces, still celebrated for spices, frankincense, ambergris, etc., as well as for the onyx and other precious stones. Among the more remarkable of the wild animals of Arabia, besides the usual domestic kinds, and of course, the camel and the horse, for both of which it is famous, are the wild ass, the muskdeer, wild goat, wild sheep, several varieties of the antelope, the hare, monkeys (in the south, and especially in the Yemen); the bear, leopard, wolf, jackal, hyena, fox; the eagle, vulture, several kinds of hawk, the pheasant, red-legged partridge (in the peninsula of Sinai), sand-grouse (throughout the country), the ostrich (abundantly in central Arabia, where it is hunted by Arab tribes); the tortoise, serpents, locusts, etc. Lions were formerly numerous, as the names of places testify. The sperm-whale is found off the coasts bordering the Indian Ocean.19

However, about 900 years later, the Roman Empire determined to either enlist Arabia as a trading partner or control the still opulent Arabian trade routes. Arabia, like biblical Ethiopia, was still beyond the so-called civilized world that was held in the firm grasp of the Romans. Rome made the fatal error of attempting to overextend itself in terrain and a climate with which it was not familiar to obtain its desire regarding Arabia by force.

The Romans under Aelius Gallus had already in 25/24 BC equipped an expedition numbering 10,000 Roman, 1,500 Nabatean, and 500 Jewish soldiers, whose aim was either to gain the friendship of the Arabian peoples, or to conquer a rich country. Although the Romans reached the southern extremities of the peninsula, neither aim was achieved, nor did it enrich greatly the knowledge of these lands. It is only since about 1950 that more serious archaeological research has been undertaken in this inhospitable area. … From the scanty literary evidence we know that by the beginning of the Christian era most of the Arabian peninsula was ruled by the Sabeans. It was about that time that the Romans attempted to lay their hands on the fabulous riches of Sheba, but without success.20

After their conquest of Egypt (25 BC) the Romans organized an expedition designed to seize the Nabatean trade routes in Arabia. The Nabatean minister Syllaeus was appointed chief guide and the Roman general Aelius Gallus marched at the head of 10,000 Roman soldiers, some Nabatean dromedaries and Jewish archers. By treachery, as Strabo puts it, the Nabatean misled the Romans and lost a great part of the army. Those who did not perish of thirst and disease returned to Egypt without achieving their objective. According to Strabo Syllaeus was put to death in Rome. … a renewal of war between Herod and the Nabateans, in which the later were defeated.21

What the would-be Roman conquerors could not obtain, even with the iron-fisted earnest of Roman legions, they subsequently destroyed. Unable to obtain Arabia for itself, Rome proceeded to (1) ruin the source of Arabian assets, and (2) develop an alternative measure to displace the caravan routes.

After the conquest of Egypt by Augustus several expeditions were sent out with the aim of conquering the spice-producing countries, but they all failed. Better shipbuilding helped the Romans to overcome these difficulties and to take over the greater part of the Arabian trade. This, coupled with the destruction of the ancient dams, brought to an end the great prosperity of the Arabian peninsula and turned it into the desert which it has remained down to the present day.22

The relatively inaccessible Arabian Peninsula prospered for over 1,000 years, back to the kings of ancient Assyria, but finally fell victim to the insatiable appetite of the Roman Empire. "Sheba is mentioned in inscriptions of Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon and Sennacherib, kings of Assyria, which refer to luxurious commodities brought by camels from Sheba."23 The inhospitable environment had been harnessed through irrigation and products were moved to far-flung markets through the domestication of the camel. Arabians forced the land to produce and while the rest of the world could not get past the check valve of mountains and desert of Arabia, the Arabians could bring their goods to market through the same obstacles. The Romans changed all of that.

Summarized, the Queen of Sheba met the challenge of competition from Israel and its king. She courted the favor of Solomon to preserve the prosperity of Sheba. She like Candace Queen of Ethiopia occupied the unique role as regal ruler of an ancient kingdom just beyond the boundaries of the civilized world. Like Ethiopia, Sheba served as a portal through which trade traversed between the so-called civilized and the unexplored, uncivilized world of antiquity. The Queen of Sheba reigned over an Arabian realm equal to present day location of Yemen. The Arabians charmed distant lands with their treasures for over a millennium before expiring. The simplest and shortest statements in the Bible, such as references to the Queen of Sheba, are vibrantly alive with meaning when we become familiar with their biblical and secular backgrounds.

Endnotes

1 Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright (Nashville:Thomas Nelson Publishers) 1986.

2 Weir, Thomas Hunter, "Sheba," International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database (Biblesoft) 1996.

3 Easton, M. G., M. A. D. D., Easton's Bible Dictionary, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1996.

4 The New Bible Dictionary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1962.

5 Ibid.

6 Barnes' Notes, Electronic Database, (Biblesoft) 1997.

7 Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, Electronic Database, (Biblesoft) 1997.

8 International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Electronic Database, (Biblesoft) 1996.

9 Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary.

10 The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, (Chicago:Moody Press) 1988.

11 G.G. The Jerusalem, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, (New York: Prentice Hall Press) 1990.

12 McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia, Electronic Database (Biblesoft) 2000.

13 International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.

14 G.G.

15 John Bright, A History of Israel, (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press) 1981.

16 The New Bible Dictionary.

17 Easton.

18 McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia.

19 Ibid.

20 G.G.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

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