Untold Stories of the Bible: The Queen of Sheba
Posted by addisethiopia on February 14, 2016
In the Bible’s Old Testament there is an unusually erotic chapter, nestled in there between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah: the Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon.
As a girl sitting in church, reading through the Bible, this one immediately caught my eye. I spent many a Sunday morning reading it, wondering at the beautiful language, the poetry of love and longing, the sexual attraction that rose through the pages. You can read the full text here, but below are some snippets that stirred me during my churchgoing adolescence:
…Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine…
…I am dark, but lovely, you daughters of Jerusalem, like Kedar’s tents, like Solomon’s curtains…
…As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banquet hall. His banner over me is love.Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples; For I am faint with love. His left hand is under my head. His right hand embraces me…
…How beautiful are your feet in sandals, prince’s daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a skillful workman. Your body is like a round goblet, no mixed wine is wanting. Your waist is like a heap of wheat, set about with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, that are twins of a roe. Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are like the pools in Heshbon by the gate of Bathrabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which looks toward Damascus. Your head on you is like Carmel. The hair of your head like purple. The king is held captive in its tresses.
…How beautiful and how pleasant you are, love, for delights! This, your stature, is like a palm tree, your breasts like its fruit. I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree. I will take hold of its fruit.” Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine, the smell of your breath like apples, Beloved, Your mouth like the best wine, that goes down smoothly for my beloved, gliding through the lips of those who are asleep…
[more of that version can be found here]
—Also, check out this artist’s stunning illustrations of the Song of Songs!—
Hot stuff, right? (Especially if you’re reading it during an otherwise staid Presbyterian church service.) Of course, I had the same thought you did: what the hell is it doing in the Bible?! According to many Church sources, it was decided that this erotic union between a man and a woman – so clearly depicted in the love poem – was an allegory for God’s love towards the Israelite people. Though I am not a theologian, I find this hard to buy. For me, it’s clearly all about a passionate young couple, dreaming of one another and their future together in the most poetic words they can.
Which begs the next question. Who wrote it? And who is it about?
As usual, history is unclear. The song is generally attributed to the celebrated King Solomon – as famous for his skills as a lover as he was for serving God. And one of his most famous visitors was the enigmatic Queen of Sheba.
As imagined by medieval Europeans, from an illustrated manuscript in Prague.The Queen of Sheba on horseback, as depicted in an Ethiopian fresco.
Sheba itself is a mysterious land, so ancient that people are not even sure exactly where it was. Some scholars have suggested it’s in the Southern Arabian Peninsula, around modern-day Yemen. In Arabic legend she is named Bilquis; a name as lovely as the woman was reported to be. However, most believe that Sheba was an ancient name for the (also ancient, and fascinating) country of Ethiopia. There, she was known as Makeda, which is the name I chose for the queen in my story.
Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s legendary wisdom and knowledge, so she went to Jerusalem with an astonishing retinue. There, she tested King Solomon with hard questions, all of which he answered to her satisfaction. And, after giving her “all that she desired,” the queen went home.
Ethiopian tradition completes the story, stating that the queen gave birth to a son – Menelik – on the way home to Sheba. When he had grown into a young man, Menelik went to visit his father on his own, and ended up making off with the Ark of the Covenant. According to legend, the Ark’s final resting place is in Ethiopia. In addition, the Kings of Ethiopia are considered, to this day, rulers by divine right of their direct descendance from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Emperor Haille Selassie even enshrined the fact in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955. This legend is also supported by the strength of the Jewish and, later, the Christian faith in Ethiopia. It is one of the oldest Christian lands on Earth, despite being surrounded by neighbors of different faiths. And the fascinating story of Ethiopian Jews is also one of the world’s many mysteries. Food for thought…
The beautiful Queen of Sheba
The idea of a beautiful, intelligent, strong foreign queen, who takes all she wants from Solomon and then caravans home in style, is of course an appealing one for an erotica author. After a while, though, you get tired of writing about royalty; they get more than their share of the limelight. So I decided to focus instead on the unmentioned characters of Sheba’s magnificent entourage: the servants.
She is also an empowering Black character of the Bible – one of many who go far too often unmentioned.
By placing Sheba in Ethiopia, I was able to draw on my experiences with the large Ethiopian-American community here in Seattle. I go out for Ethiopian food a lot. The spices, the tang of injira bread, the sensuality of eating with your hands, all brings to mind a country of rich history. And the women are beautiful, with their rich brown skin, dark eyes, curling black hair, and white traditional dresses. In designing the Sheban women, I thought of them and all the strength, beauty, and independence they portray.
In the end, this story emerged as one of the most romantic in the Ancients collection. A fitting tribute, I hope, to the eternal beauty of the Song of Songs; and the mystery of that fabulous, mysterious, ancient Queen of Sheba.