Was King Solomon really wise?

I am working on a book analyzing King Solomon. You may be interested in this draft of my tenth chapter



                                                                                  Chapter 10                                            

                                                                The visit of the queen of Sheba


Two primary events are discussed in this chapter along with several other seemingly inconsequential matters that may or may not indicate that Solomon was acting wisely and properly, or both. They are the visit of the queen of Sheba[1] and accounts and descriptions of Solomon’s wealth.[2]


Who was the queen of Sheba, where did she come from, and why did she visit?

The King’s author describes two events that ostensibly prove Solomon’s wisdom.[3] Neither proves it. The first, in chapter 3 deal with two prostitutes each of whom claims that a live child is hers and the other woman’s child died. The woman who found a dead child in her bed claims the other prostitute placed her dead child in her bed and snatched her living baby. When Solomon ruled that the baby should be cut in two, one woman said do so, but the other prostitute called out, do not kill the child, give it to the other woman. Solomon then ruled that this second woman was the mother. He gives no reason for his decision, but it is generally understood that he felt that she demonstrated true motherly love.

The problems with this tale, discussed in the commentary to chapter 3, is that the story is not original, it is a legend or fairy tale found in many cultures. More significantly, calling out to give the child to the other woman does not prove anything. It is possible that the first prostitute, the true mother, did not want her child because the baby interfered with her business and did not want the other to have the child out of revenge because she stole her child. It is also possible that the woman who begged Solomon not to cut the child in two was the mother of the dead child but felt guilt; she wanted a live child so much that she stole the one that her companion bore, but she did not want to go so far as to see the child she wanted killed; it is better that the baby be returned to its mother. It is possible that the author of Kings wrote the tale as a mockery: “Yes, people say Solomon was wise, but he was as wise as the pagan kings in the popular legends; his decisions made no sense.” The rabbis recognized that Solomon’s decision was not logical and was foolish, and stated in the Talmud that Solomon learnt who was the true mother because of a communication from God. Thus, the tale does not prove Solomon’s wisdom, but the reverse.

In this chapter,[4] the author tells readers that Solomon was renowned for his wisdom throughout the world and the queen was so impressed that she came with gifts to see Solomon (1) to discover if the rumors were true, “to test him with riddles.” She (2) “spoke with him of all in her heart.” She (3) gave Solomon 120 talents of gold and other gifts. In turn, (4) “Solomon told her all of her words; there was nothing the king hid from her.” And he gave her whatever she wanted to take with her and gifts she did not ask for.

Rabbis and secular scholars recognize that the Bible does not give the queen’s name, we have no sure information of the whereabouts of her country other than giving the impression that she traveled a long distance.[5] While the chapter states several times that she came to test Solomon’s wisdom and praises him several times for being wise, many, such as Sweeney, think, despite no explicit statement in the chapter, that she came to Solomon to negotiate a trade deal, and some, such as Rashi to 10:13, even suggest that her goal was to have a baby by the Israelite genius.[6] The Quran states that her goal was religious. It emphasizes that the queen was so impressed by Solomon that she converted to the true faith.[7]

While the chapter mentions Solomon’s wisdom several times, as it does in chapter 3 in the tale of the two prostitutes, a close reading of what transpired in this chapter shows, as the narration in chapter 3, no act of wisdom. Nothing in the story indicates that Solomon was extremely smart. For example, the queen does not test Solomon’s wisdom, “she came to test him with riddles.”[8]

  • People test one another with riddles for fun; they are not IQ tests. Samson was involved with riddles at a party in Judges 14:12, where the term is used.[9] In his commentary to judges, Slotki states that the Hebrew word for riddle, chidah, is derived from a root “to tie a knot.” He adds: “As a source of entertainment the riddle was much loved in all ages.” Josephus[10] states that Hiram and Solomon engaged in matching wits with chidot (plural of chidah) and Hiram is not alleged to have been exceedingly wise. This understanding that chidah used for fun was recognized by Targum Sheni to the book of Esther which details three riddles and Midrash Mishle has another nineteen that the queen propounded.[11]
  • Verse 2 states that the queen spoke with Solomon “all in her heart,” but the text does not say she tested him to see if he was wise. It does say she “saw the wisdom of Solomon and the house that he built, the food on his table, how his servants sat, how his ministers stood, their clothes, his drinks, and his burnt offering that he offered in the house of the Lord.” And she said to Solomon, “the report that I heard in my country about your acts and wisdom is true.” Other than the statement about his “burnt offering,” what impressed the queen was a well-managed meal,[12] not a display of unusual wisdom, despite the text saying that she saw wisdom. Even the offering was not unusual. Many ancients and modern people did not eat until they had thanked god for the bounty before them. Is the author using tongue-in-cheek mockery again? While verse 2 states she spoke with Solomon “all in her heart,” it does not say what was in her heart, and the narrative describes her praising his ability to hire good managers for his meals, not his management of his kingdom. Significantly, while she praised his household, she did not praise his temple.
  • No reason is given for the queen’s gift to Solomon of 120 talents of gold or for his gifts to her in return. Many scholars contend that one of the queen’s goals was to arrange trading enterprises and the exchange of items was part of these dealings. If so, the mention of the exchanges does not indicate wisdom, but fit into the end of the chapter which speaks of Solomon’s wealth. The number 120 is the same gift sent by Hiram in 9:14 and 120 should not be taken literally. It is a typological number and signifies “a lot” and “completeness,” and is still used today when one wishes that another live 120 years.
  • Similarly, when verse 13 states that Solomon gave the queen “all her desire, whatever she asked,” a plain reading suggests only that he agreed with her trade requests, not sex, as some legends suggest, and not proof of his wisdom.

In short, as with the tale of the two prostitutes, there is nothing in this second tale that indicates that Solomon was wise, other than the many protestations by the narrator that remind us of Macbeth and the lady protesting overmuch. Solomon’s wisdom, mentioned four times in the thirteen passages that focus on the queen, prompt us to devalue these statements.  It is true that many clergy and scholars interpret words such as “all her desires, whatever she asked” to mean the queen wanted Solomon to prove he was very smart and he did so, but this is not the plain meaning of these words. Furthermore, if the King’s author wanted to say that Solomon was really wise and not continue to hint that he was not, the author should have written this instead of using words whose plain meaning is something else.

Two questions

The answers to two similar questions supports what has been stated. First, why does the Bible describe the riddle that Samson asked while it tells nothing about any of the queen’s riddles? Each story is composed to highlight its message. The Samson story shows that Samson was a physically powerful man who thought he was smart. He rejected his parent’s warnings not to have relations with Philistine women. At the party he asked a riddle that he must have felt was clever, but it was a riddle that was impossible to decipher; it required the Philistine men to whom he asked the riddle to know that he had just killed a lion; they had no way of knowing about his adventure with the lion and could not answer his riddle. His foolishness brought about his downfall at the hands of Delilah. The author of this tale needed to tell readers the impossible riddle for readers to understand the message of the story. In the queen of Sheba narrative, we have no need to know what any riddle was. He author is telling us that while all thought that Solomon was very smart, including the queen, she did not ask him hard questions, only entertaining riddles.

Second, why does the author narrate along tale about the prostitutes and only mention a couple of words in saying that the queen propounded riddles? Again, the narrative of the two prostitutes is necessary for a reader who pays close attention to why Solomon decided the case as he did to see that he acted foolishly. This is unnecessary in regard to the queen’s riddles. All we need to see is the Kings author’s mockery: the “wise” Solomon was tested with riddles, not difficult questions.[13]

Solomon’s wealth

The remaining sixteen verses in the chapter focus on showing Solomon’s wealth. As with the queen of Sheba, and as in 5:14, verse 24 states for the third time, “All the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, which God had placed in his heart.” And when people came, like the queen, they brought huge gifts. Olam Hatanakh comments, this turns the queen of Sheba story into a paradigm, for not just she, but many acted as she did.

Among the list of items that Solomon built for himself was a highly decorated throne with six steps to the seat of the throne. Scholars point out that like the temple as a whole which was copied from pagan temples, the throne was also a copy. Sweeney writes:[14] “The portrayal of Solomon’s throne is analogous with Phoenician and Egyptian models of the late Bronze and early Iron ages” when Solomon reigned. There was a belief that seven heavens exist with god at the seventh heaven. So too Solomon sat at the seventh level. Robinson comments:[15] “Did Solomon sit on his throne as king, on the seventh level, visibly declaring himself to be God’s vice-regent with access to the inner counsel of the Almighty, and control over the human communities of men? We have no specific evidence, but it may have been so.”

Verse 14 states that Solomon received 666 talents a year,[16] millions of dollars, in addition to the money he made in trades. Adding the numbers of money Solomon received during the year of the queen’s visit, Rashi notes that the figures total 660. We have no way of knowing today how the 666 figure was calculated.[17]

The chapter concludes with a hyperbolic statement that Solomon was so rich that silver in Jerusalem as like stones[18] and that Solomon acquired thousands of horses from Egypt which, as previously states, was a violation of Deuteronomy 17.



[1] Olam Hatanakh states the queen of Sheba story is a legend similar to many legends about wise men in other cultures. In contrast, Robinson dismisses the view that the story of the queen’s visit is a legend as is Matthew’s visit of the magi to the infant Jesus, who also came from a distant land because they were impressed by rumors or the stars that the baby was exceptional, and they, like the queen brought gifts. As proof, he states: “Legend alone would have been much more likely to create a king of Sheba.” He overlooks the repeated appearance of women in in the Solomon story.

[2] Robinson calls the description of Solomon’s wealth gross hyperbole. One can also compare the magi and the queen’s visit to the visit by Jethro to his son in law Moses in Exodus 18. He heard “all that God had done for Moses.” His gift was bringing his son-in-law Moses’ wife and two sons. He did not seek wisdom, but gave Moses practical advice on how to manage the people.

[3] The view that Solomon was exceedingly wise is the generally accepted understanding of what is said in Kings, which is denied in this book which stresses a careful reading of the text. Reflecting the common view that Solomon was wise and established a wealthy kingdom, the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 79b states that Jethro, the queen of Sheba, and other people were so impressed that there was a surge in conversion to Judaism during Solomon’s reign, and people came from far away distances to convert to Judaism, as did the queen of Sheba. Similarly, there is a tradition in Midrash Song Rabba 1:10 that the wise king Solomon wrote the biblical books of Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.

[4] In verses 1-13.

[5] There is a view in the Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 15b that the Hebrew word malkat, overwhelmingly rendered “queen,” should be translated “royal retinue,” and that the visitor was a man. Abarbanel, Cogan, and others opine that she ruled over Yemen. In Antiquities 8.158-59, Josephus states that the queen ruled over Egypt and Ethiopia.

[6] According to Ecclesiasticus (Ben Sira) and the Second Targum to Esther 1:3, Solomon’s and the queen’s descendant was Nebuchadnezzar.

[7] Cogan, page 315.

[8] Verse 1.

[9] Samson was not known for his wisdom, and the riddle was simply part of the party entertainment.

[10] Antiquities 8, 5, 3.

[11] Slotki to Kings. Despite the common translation of chidah as a riddle, some translators, recognizing the problem that chidot are used for entertainment, translate the word as “hard questions.” This is possible because the Hebrew word chad means “sharp,” but the rest of the chapter, as we will see, does not indicate that hard questions were asked. We are not told of any hard questions that she asked and the only item mentioned in the chapter that impressed the queen was the management of his meal.

[12] Abarbanel states that it was the quantity of food that impressed the queen, while according to Gersonides, it was the nutritional and health value of the foods.

[13] Ehrlich comments that we have no need to know the riddles; they were nonsense stuff. Midrash Mishle 1 describes the queen’s riddles as sexual.

[14] Page151.

[15] Page 131.

[16] The biblical wording could mean every year or the year that the queen visited Solomon.

[17] Revelation 13:18 states that 666 is the number of the beast. It does not explain what this means and no suggestion is made that this New Testament statement refers to Solomon. There are NT texts that have 616 instead of 666.

[18] Verse 27.


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