A Clever Queen Learns the Wisdom of God: The Queen of Sheba in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur'an

Article excerpt

The story of the Queen of Sheba, who comes to the court of King Solomon of Israel, is found in 1 Kings 10:1-14 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12 of the Hebrew Scriptures and sura 27:23-44 of the Qur'an. The Queen remains unnamed throughout the story in both scriptures.1 This paper will introduce the character as she appears in 1 Kings and the Qur'an,2 taking account of her motivations, actions, and the outcomes of those actions, identifying how the characterisation of this woman is both similar and different between the two scriptures. In particular we will investigate what it is that she desires and the outcome of her desiring, so as to better appreciate how she is depicted. From the close reading and analysis of the stories, common attitudes and common themes about women will be identified, in particular the associated themes of desire and shame. Finally a comparison will be made with the views of the queen contained in commentaries on both scriptures.

In making a study of the character of the Queen of Sheba, this article will use a narrative critical method for a close reading of the two scriptures.3 This method focuses on the structure of the narrative plot and how that unfolds for the reader/listener, climaxes and their resolution, characterisation, and the act of narration itself. While such a method is common when studying the Hebrew Scriptures, it has been less readily used by those studying the Qur'an, where traditionally Qur'anic exegesis has not been so interested in the narrative as a whole, being much more focussed on what has been called an 'atomistic' approach where:

individual verses . . . and verse segments become the focus of study, with little literary significance attached to the larger units of composition . . . And it is no surprise that few studies of narrative - of plot, dialogue, characterization - in the Qur'an consequently exist, for the very concept of narrative presupposes the existence of sustained presentation, which an atomistic approach does not allow.4

This article will attempt to redress the imbalance to some extent by dealing with both scriptures in the same way, with the same method, to focus clearly and strongly on the character of the queen; present a new reading of her character from close attention to the text; and illustrate how that reading may be at odds with other commentary about her.

Before presenting commentary on the character of the queen, one should note the difference in approach that can be found between major biblical and Qur'anic commentators. While biblical commentary is as old as the biblical text, whether that be the commentary of early Jewish midrashists or the early Christian fathers, most modern biblical commentary does not take its point of departure from these earlier works, although they may occasionally refer to them. On the other hand, one of the currently most prolific Qur'anic exegetes cited in this work, Al Sabouni, is typical of modern Qur'anic scholars who consistently and constantly acknowledge earlier significant Qur'anic scholars from the classical and medieval periods - Al Tabari, Al Qortobi, Ibn Kathir - as well as giving his own modern interpretations.5

I. The Story in 1 Kings 10:1-13

The story begins in 1 Kings 10:1 with the information that the Queen of Sheba has heard a report about Solomon, king of Israel. The exact nature of the report is unclear in the Hebrew text, apart from the use of the phrase 'the name of the Lord' (l'eshem adoncn'),6 so perhaps the report has something to do with Solomon's devotion to the God of Israel. Whatever it is the Queen has heard, she determines to test for herself. The Hebrew describes this activity of testing with the verb nsh, which has connotations of weighing up, proving, or trialling.7 We are told that riddles or perplexing questions (hidoth) will be the means by which she will test him, which implies that the report must also have dealt with Solomon's intellectual ability or his wisdom. …