Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Queen of Sheba and the Historicity of the Books of Kings

I read an interesting discussion of the story of the Queen of Sheba (see 1 Kings 10) this week in Jens Braun Kofoed's 2005 work Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Kofoed notes some of the rather fanciful legends that exist about the Queen of Sheba in Arabia, Persia, Ethiopia, and Israel. Arabian folklore and the Qur'an relate stories about the queen (named Bilquis or Balkis) that involve magic carpets, talking birds, and the magical transfer of the queen's throne from Sheba to Solomon's palace. In one legend, a hoopoe bird tells Solomon about Balkis and then delivers a message to the queen that Solomon will destroy her people if she does not come to visit him. In another, the queen has a foot shaped like an ass's foot that is transformed into a human foot the moment she stepped on Solomon's glass floor. Solomon invents a depilatory that removes goat hair from the queen's legs in another tale. A Jewish legend recounts that the queen sent Solomon six thousand boys and girls all born the same hour, the same day, the same month and same year, all of equal size and dressed in identical purple garments. Islamic legends portray the queen as marrying Solomon, abandoning her gods, and converting to faith in the God of Israel. In the Ethiopic national epic, Kebra Negast, the queen's name is Makeda. She became queen at the age of 15 and later travels to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. While she is there, Solomon dazzles her with his wisdom and also tricks her into having sexual relations. The queen conceives and gives birth to a son named Menelik. When he is old enough, Menelik travels to Jerusalem to meet his father. Solomon commanded that the firstborn sons of the priests and elders of Israel accompany Menelik on his journey back home. However, Menelik and Azariah, the son of the high priest, stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple and took it with them on the trip, making Aksum the New Jerusalem and Ethiopia the New Israel. You can read more about these legends and tales about the Queen of Sheba at

It was common for scholars in the 19th and 20th centuries to also dismiss the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba's visit to Solomon as legendary propaganda designed to praise the greatness of Solomon's wisdom and piety. However, extra-biblical evidence has actually served to enhance at the very least the historical plausibility of this story. Though many of the legends connect this queen to ancient Ethiopia, she more likely resided in the country of Saba, in southwest Arabia (present-day Yemen). Studies by Kenneth Kitchen have demonstrated that the kingdom of Saba was well-established by the tenth-century B.C. and engaged in a lucrative caravan trade. The "incense route" extended from Saba to the Levant and across to Mesopotamia. The inscriptions of Ashurbanipal II and Tikulti-Ninurta II from the 9th century BC refer to these Assyrian kings collected tribute at Hindanu, a main outlet along this caravan road, and an 8th century record documents how a caravan with at least two hundred camels coming from Saba was plundered at this site. Kofoed concludes: "It is highly likely, therefore, that by 1000 B.C.E. camel caravans occasionally traveled the 1,400 miles up the 'Incense Road' and along the Red Sea to Israel, bringing with them the highly prized goods of Saba." All of this adds credibility to the biblical account that a queen from Saba could and would have visited Solomon for diplomatic purposes in this time period.

Even more significantly, the final form of Kings was not written until at least the middle of the exile in the 6th century (note the last event recorded in 2 Kings 25:27-30), and Kofoed notes that many scholars believe that the author of Kings wrote in the Hellenistic or Persian times. If so, it is all the more remarkable that the writer(s) of the material in Kings got it right when they placed trade relations between Saba and Israel in the 10th century. It was either "just a lucky stab" or more likely that the biblical writers had access to reliable historical sources and traditions from the time of Solomon's reign. Kofoed notes other places where the writer of Kings got it right in regard to specific details about historical events that are confirmed by outside sources like the Assyrian Royal Inscriptions and the Babylonian Chronicle. This evidence that the writer of Kings used reliable sources in compiling his history means that "a basic trust in his historical information, therefore, is heuristically defensible and commendable—not only when we can check the information elsewhere, but generally." The minimalists have tended to view the biblical portrayal of the Davidic-Solomonic empire as a literary fiction, but here is another example of how solid and credible evidence does not require or support that conclusion.



  1. At this point it seems that one would have to have more blind faith in believing that the Davidic reign and dynasty were fictional rather than accepting the literal biblical account. It makes more reasonable and rational sense to accept the evidence and realize that the Scriptures are, in fact, accurate.


    Another recent find relating to the historicity of Solomon in Jerualem.