By Israel Drazin


I spoke in the past about the tendency of many to interpret the Bible imaginatively, leading others to believe that what they imagined is the truth. Let’s look at the Queen of Sheba story, which is a good example.

Most Bible readers don’t know that the books Kings and Chronicles frequently tell the same story but Chronicles, the later book, usually changes tales to fit its agenda. Kings usually describes biblical characters with their faults, as does the five books of Moses, while, among other things, Chronicles whitewashes them. For example, Chronicles omits the lengthy episode of King David’s adulterous encounter with Bat Sheba, the murder of her husband, and the many ways that God punished him.[1]

Many people also don’t know that many stories they are told are in the Bible are not there, such as Abraham discovering the existence of God by looking at the sun, moon, and winds and deducing that they must have had a creator, and the tale of him smashing his father’s idols and being tossed into a huge fire from which he was miraculously saved. The myths about the Queen of Sheba fall into the later group: much of what is “known” about her are legends not in the Bible. What does the Bible say?

The episode is in Kings and Chronicles. The tale in I Kings 10:1-13 is only thirteen sentences long, nowhere close to the length of books and films about the queen. She is described simply as the Queen of Sheba. The Bible does not portray her as a beauty and young as the actresses who play her in films, or the color of her skin. No one knows today where Sheba is, and there is no indication that it is Ethiopia. Nor is there any hint that she came to seduce Solomon.[2] She made the trip because she “heard of Solomon’s fame…and she came to test him with riddles.” None of the riddles is mentioned. Solomon was able to answer all her questions. She was impressed by his wisdom, his palace, his organizational skill, and wealth.[3] She gave the king much gold, spices, and precious stones. In return, Solomon gave her “whatever she requested,” and she left without any indication that Solomon ever heard from her again.

The phrase “whatever she requested” is obscure: what did he give her? The plain sense is that just as she gave him precious gifts, he did the same. This was the custom of the time, and is still practiced today. Others say that he established a commercial trading system with Sheba, but this is not suggested in the phrase or elsewhere in Kings or Chronicles. Still others offer the imaginative view that Solomon had intercourse with the queen and she bore King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon who destroyed the temple that Solomon built several centuries later.[4] In essence, no evidence exists that this is a true story. Its plain purpose is to highlight the descriptions in surrounding tales, such as King Hiram sending Solomon many material goods, and is designed to show Solomon’s wisdom,[5] his kingdom’s wealth,[6] his political skills, and how these were appreciated by other monarchs.[7]

The story is repeated in II Chronicles 9:1-12, one verse shorter than in Kings. It is essentially the same narrative that is in Kings with no hint of a sexual adventure. Chronicles differs with Kings in about two dozen places, but all the differences are stylistic, as if the later author of Chronicles thought he could tell the tale better using synonyms.[8]


[1] His son with Bat Sheba died, his daughter was raped by one of his sons, another son killed the one who raped, and he later rebelled against his father, resulting in many deaths; and as David had sex with a married woman, this son slept with David’s concubines.

[2] This suggestion was prompted by the question: “Why would a queen travel to a king to propound riddles; certainly she had another agenda?” Others suggested that she came to find out when the messiah would come. Rabbi David Kimchi (known as Radak – 1160-1235) and seventeenth century David Altschuler (author of Mezuzot Tzion)  suggest that she made the trip to determine if Solomon’s wisdom was a gift from God or just natural intelligence. The question evaporates when one realizes that the tale was placed among other events and descriptions designed to show that Solomon was wise and wealthy.

[3] All kinds of imaginative speculation exist as to what impressed her. The philosopher Gersonides (1288-1344) suggested that she was impressed that his meals were properly nutritional and healthy.

[4] This is an insertion into Rashi’s commentary, but it was most likely not composed by him. Rashi’s true commentary and Radak state: Solomon gave her items that did not exist in Sheba. The insertion ends with the name Mahari, which was a name given to over a half dozen rabbis. This source states that the first temple lasted 410 years, but scholars say it was a smaller period. Similarly, I Kings 6:1 states King Solomon built the temple 480 years after the Egyptian exodus. This was 832 BCE according to the ArtScroll commentary, which would date its destruction in 422 BCE, while scholars date it as 586 BCE. ArtScroll quotes Abarbanel that the second temple was also miraculously built 480 years after the construction of the first one, in 492 BCE, while scholars date it as 516 BCE. The number 480 is most likely based on the notion that there were twelve judges in Israel before the first king, Saul, and each led the people for exactly forty years, just as Moses and King David did.

[5] Solomon’s wisdom is part of Jewish folklore. “Wisdom” is mentioned three times in the tale. Josephus tells a similar tale in his history, of Solomon and King Hiram testing each other with riddles.

[6] Both Kings and Chronicles interrupt the Sheba episode, within the thirteen and twelve verses, telling that Solomon also received gifts from King Hiram. It is possible that this was inserted to show that Solomon also received gifts from other monarchs and to teach that God’s temple depended in part upon non-Israelite gifts.

[7] It is possible to read the story as follows: The queen was the active person in the tale. She was smarter than Solomon because she tested him and decided that he was wise. She did not accept y-h-v-h as her god, but kept referring to the deity as the God of the Israelites, their God, but not the god of any other nation (Olam Hatanach).

[8] The most significant change is that Kings calls Solomon’s throne the “throne of Israel,” while Chronicles enhances it by titling it “the throne of the king of the Lord your God.” True to his goal of presenting the Israelite ancestors in a favorable light, the Chronicles author deletes the story of Solomon acquiring a thousand wives and concubines which is in the next chapter of Kings.