Skip to Content

The Queen of Sheba and the Song of Songs

HYAM MACCOBY

M.A. (Oxon.); librarian/ lecturer, Leo Baeck College, London; author of Revolution in Judaea and Jewish-Christian Medieval Disputations. Hyam Mac­coby has contributed to numerous journals, including New Testament Studies, Encounter, The Listener, Midstream and SISR and is an editor of the Jewish Quarterly and European Judaism. He recently contributed the chapter on “The Bible” to the prestigious volume The Jewish World (ed. E. Kedourie, Thames and Hudson, 1979).

Application of Velikovsky’s revised chronology to the problematical Biblical “Song of Songs” can throw light on the identity of the two lovers who are the subject of the poem. It is shown that they are King Solomon (traditionally the author of the Song) and the Queen of Sheba, identified by Velikovsky as Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt.

VELIKOVSKY’S IDENTIFICATION of Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt as none other than the Queen of Sheba is worked out in great and convincing detail in Ages in Chaos. Yet there are still some aspects of the matter which repay reflection. One of these aspects relates to the Song of Songs, the beautiful and enigmatic love-song whose authorship is ascribed to King Solomon. It is part of the legend of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba that they had a love-relationship. Can it be that the Song of Songs is an expression of this relationship? Would such an hypothesis solve any of the puzzles and obscurities of the Song?

There is no explicit mention in the historical account of I Kings 10 of a love-affair between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There is, however, the dark hint, “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire.” In Jewish midrashic lit­erature, this hint is not taken up until the late midrash Alphabet of Ben Sira. Louis G1NZBERG [1] comments: “The legend about Solomon’s marriage with the Queen of  Sheba is perhaps of Arabic origin, as it is not found in old Jewish sources antedating the Mohammedan period. The name Bilkis, however, given in Arabic sources to the Queen of Sheba seems to be the Hebrew pilegesh ‘concubine’, and this would point to the Jewish origin of the legend.” It seems probable, then, that the Jewish tradition suppressed the story of Solomon’s love-affair with the Queen, regarding it as discreditable to him. One rabbi of the Talmud even argues that the sovereign of Sheba was not a woman at all! [2]

It was only among the Ethiopians that the story of the love-­affair became an important and central belief, since the royal house of the Ethiopians traced its descent from Menelik, who was claimed to have been the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The earliest literary expression of this belief, however, is in the Kebra Negast, a celebrated chronicle of the 14th century AD. It is rather difficult to discover how far back the legend goes in Ethiopia. According to accepted scholarly opinion, it was brought to Ethiopia in the 2nd century BC by the Arabian con­querors of the country. This is in accordance with the accepted view that Sheba was an Arabian country (i.e. Yemen). But if Sheba was another name for Ethiopia itself – derived, as DR EVA DANELIUS has suggested, from its capital city [3] – this alleged Arabian origin of the legend may be rejected, and we may assume that the legend was taken over by successive dynas­ties.

In this case, the legend was of Ethiopian origin and may go back to very early times. It may indeed have been based on fact. The actual relationship between the two monarchs varies from one version of the legend to another. In the Ethiopian version, Queen Makeda (as the Queen of Sheba is called) was seduced by Solomon. The Biblical verse quoted above, however, suggests that the initiative may have been taken by the Queen. In Ara­bian legend, Bilkis is the wife of Solomon, but the Jewish and Ethiopian versions suggest a much more transient affair, while even in the Arabian version the name Bilkis, if indeed derived from pilegesh, denies the status of honourable marriage assigned to the Queen.

Commentators on the Song of Songs have found its greatest puzzle in the status of the two lovers. Firstly, despite the ten­derness of the love expressed on both sides, there is no hint of a projected marriage. The love is consummated in the fields and has an atmosphere of romance untrammelled by human laws or conventions. There are evidently impediments to the love-affair, both on the side of the woman (her hostile “brothers”) and on the side of the man (the hostile “guards”).

Secondly, and even more important, there is the puzzle of the frankness and boldness of erotic initiative on the part of the woman. This indeed has been a great stumbling-block to com­mentators from the earliest times, and is one of the main reasons why it was felt necessary to provide an allegorical interpretation of the Song, in terms of the love of God for his people Israel, or (in the Christian interpretation) for the Church [4].

Even modern academic commentators, however, have felt very puzzled by this aspect of the Song. In a strongly patriarchal society, how could this have arisen, in which the female expresses her desire so unashamedly and takes the sexual initiative so boldly? The Song begins, “Let him kiss me with his mouth’s kisses”, and continues in later passages: “Stir, O North-wind, come, O South-wind! Breath on my garden. Let its spices flow. Let my love enter his garden. Let him eat its delectable fruits.” – “His mouth is sweet, and all of him desirable. This is my love, this is my mate.” – “Come, my love, let us hie to the field, let us lie in the cypress, let us get to the vineyards. We will see if the vine sprouts, if the blossoms bud, if the pomegranate flowers. There will I give you my love. The mandrakes give scent, at our door is every delicacy; things both old and new, my love. I have stored for you.” (1:2; 4:16; 5:16; 7:11-13)

For this reason, in recent years a “cultic” interpretation of the Song has gained ground (as opposed to the “romantic” interpretation). The “cultic” view is that the Song is not about human lovers at all, but about the love-affair of a god and a goddess [5]. Many puzzling fea­tures of the Song can be explained in this way. For example, the description of the female beloved makes her seem gigantic: “Your neck is like an ivory tower … your nose like towering Lebanon, overlooking Damascus. (7:4) The male beloved is described in a way that seems appropriate to a statue of a god; “His arms rods of gold, studded with gems; based on sockets of gold.” (5:14-15) The encounter of the female with the guards, who ill-use her, is reminiscent of the story of Ishtar, who encountered hostile guards during her descent into the underworld in search of the lost Tammuz. In addition to previously known literary parallels in Sumerian writings, Marvin Pope has found many interesting parallels in Ugaritic literature to the love-expression of the Song; all these parallels relate to love between deities, not humans [6].

If the female beloved is a goddess, her sense of equality with the male in love-making is understandable. But if she was a queen, her sense of equality is just as understandable. If she was indeed Queen Hatshepsut, an independent monarch of a kingdom greater than Solomon’s, she might act with the pride of a goddess. Queens were often described in terms appropriate to a goddess. In the case of Queen Hatshepsut, the following description has been preserved: “The best of myrrh is upon all her limbs, her fragrance is divine dew, her odor is mingled with Punt, her skin is electrum, shining as do the stars.” [7] The phrases of this description have strong parallels in the Song: “Sweeter your love than wine, the scent of your perfume than any spice; Your lips drip honey, and the scent of your robes is like the scent of Lebanon.” (4:10-11) [8] The puzzle of the status of the lovers can be solved just as well by the hypothesis of a liaison between royal lovers as by the “cultic” hypothesis [9].

But there are also several puzzles that can he better solved by the “Queen of Sheba/Hatshepsut” hypothesis than by any other theory.

1. “To a mare among Pharaoh’s cavalry would I compare you, my darling.” (1:9) This direct reference to Egypt seems strange if applied to an Israelite girl, but quite natural if the beloved is an Egyptian.

2. “Black am I but beautiful, O Jerusalem girls, like the tents of Qedar, like the pavilions of Salmah. Stare not at me that I am swart, that the sun has blackened me.” (1:6) The dark complexion of the female beloved, making her conspicuous among the “daughters of Jerusalem”, would not be surprising in an Egyptian woman.

3. “Who is this [feminine] that cometh out of the wilderness perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the powders of the merchant?” (3:6) This description of the female beloved has been found very difficult by all commentators. (Chaim Rabin, in a recent article, was reduced to arguing that it applies to the male beloved, and the pronoun “this” is feminine because it refers to the unexpressed word “caravan”.) But on the hypothesis that the Song concerns the Queen of Sheba, this verse is perfectly clear. For the Queen of Sheba (or Hatshepsut) did indeed appear in Judaea, according to Velikovsky’s recon­struction, from the direction of the southern wilderness, travel­ling overland from Aqaba (Ezion Geber). Moreover, she brought with her great store of perfumes. She gave to Solomon “a very great store of spices … there came no more such abun­dance of spices as these which the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon” (1 Kings 10:10).

4. The course of the love-affair. It appears from the Song that the love-affair faced great opposition. “My mother’s sons were angry with me. They made me the keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept.” (1:6) It has been regarded as a great puzzle that the female here is represented as a humble vineyard-watcher, while elsewhere in the poem she appears as a great lady. But may it not be that she is speaking metaphorically about her kingdom? She (Hatshepsut) may be saying “My coun­trymen put me in charge of my country, Egypt, but my own vineyard (my virginity) I have not kept against Solomon.” The anger of the “brothers” may be understood easily if she was the Queen of Egypt. Her love-affair with Solomon had political implications, that would have been unwelcome to her official advisers. It might well have led to the subjection of Egypt to the power of Solomon. It is not surprising that the idea of a match between the Egyptian queen and Solomon should have been opposed. [Comment: This all has further consequences if Hatshepsut were also, as we have argued, Abishag the Shunammite].

5. On the other hand, there would be no objections to a match between Solomon and an Egyptian princess whose hand would not bring with it power over Egypt. We know that Sol­omon did indeed marry such an Egyptian princess, who must have been a younger sister of Hatshepsut (on the Velikovskian chronology). [Comment: We believe that this Egyptian princess was Hatshepsut herself, and that Solomon was both Thutmose II and Senenmut in Egypt].

Can we see any reference to such a sister in the Song? “We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day she shall be spoken for?” (8:8). This is apparently spoken by the “brothers”. Can it be that they are offering Solomon a recompense for their refusal to accept the idea of a marriage between him and their queen Hatshepsut? They are saying, perhaps, that there is an Egyptian princess whom he can marry, when she is old enough. It may be objected that according to the book of Kings (3:1), Solomon married his Egyptian princess before the visit of the Queen of Sheba, and even before the completion of the Temple. However, the beginning of chapter 1l suggests, possibly, another sequence of events: it was only after the visit of the Queen of Sheba that Solomon’s heart turned to “strange women”, including “the daughter of Pharaoh”.

6 . The end of the affair. Many commentators have noted that the love-affair seems to end unhappily. There are the sad expre­ssions in the last chapter –”Love is as strong as death; jealousy is as cruel as the grave” (8:6) – which seem to show that love has proved a cause of mourning. The last verse of the poem begins, “Flee, my beloved . . .”, expressing a farewell. For polit­ical reasons, it seems, the love of Solomon and Hatshepsut had to be terminated. In her last words to her lover, Hatshepsut says. “My own vineyard is before me.” i.e. she must return to her own country. At the beginning of the same chapter (8:l-2) sadly, “O that thou wert as my brother … I would lead thee and bring thee to my mother’s house.” [Comment: Solomon was in fact her brother, but not by her own mother]. In other words, she regrets that Solomon is not an Egyptian so that she could marry him.

It may be, then, that the Song of Songs was written by a court poet of Solomon (or by Solomon himself) to commemorate his sweet but doomed love-affair with the great queen who came to visit him [10]. Whether Hatshepsut actually became pregnant and bore a son who became the progenitor of the Ethiopian royal house, as claimed in Ethiopian legend, is a matter for speculation and perhaps for further research in the Egyptian records. But it may well be, at any rate, that the devotion with which Hatshepsut, on her return from the holy land of Punt, set up a temple of her own on the model of Solomon’s Temple (as described in Velikovsky’s brilliant argument), may have been inspired not only by religious feeling but by her longing for the man with whom she had fallen in love and from whom political exigencies had forced her to part.

Postscript

Interesting further light on the connections between the Song of Songs and Egyptian culture is thrown by a recent book, A Study of the Language of Love in the Song of Songs and Ancient Egyp­tian Poetry, by John B, White (SBL Dissertation Series 38, Scholars Press, Missoula, Montana, 1978). White finds many significant similarities between the Songs of Songs and Egyptian love-poetry, which he dates specifically to the 18th Dynasty. He states: “Although the later Ramesside period saw the writing down of love lyrics, it is the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1550 – 1300 B.C.) which provides the most fertile ground within which the roots of love poetry could grow. The cultural development at the begin­ning of the New Kingdom provides the atmosphere and the background for many of the images which appear in the love poems.”

White, of course, taking the conventional chronology for granted, assumes that the cultural influence has travelled from Egypt to Palestine, and that the Song of Songs has been model­led, partly at least, on Egyptian poetry stemming from the 18th Dynasty. On the basis of the Revised Chronology, Velikovsky argued that the renaissance of culture in the New Kingdom came, on the contrary, from Palestine, to a large extent. It is thus an in­teresting possibility that the Song of Songs actually influenced the development of love-poetry in Egypt. The following example of Egyptian love-poetry, taken from White’s translations, shows the similarity that [he] claims; but to students of Velikovsky the reference to “Punt” will be of special significance. If, as Velikov­sky argues, Punt is Palestine, it would seem that to the Egyptian poet of the 18th Dynasty the land of Solomon was regarded as a land of magical delight and poetry.

My brother, my beloved,

my heart goes after your love . . .

I came from snaring,

my traps are in my hand,

in my other hand, my cage

and my hunting instrument.

As for all the birds of Punt,

they alight upon Egypt, anointed with myrrh.

The first to come seizes my bait.

His odor is brought from Punt;

his claws are filled with resin . . .

My ointment is good myrrh.

You are there with me

when I set a snare.

The happiness is the going to the fields

of the one who is loved.

Whether this type of love-poetry with a rustic setting travelled from Palestine to Egypt or vice versa is less important than the strong link demonstrated between the poetry of the Eighteenth Dynasty and that of the age of Solomon. On the conventional chronology, the time-gap between the two similar styles of poetry has to be explained on the lines that “classical” Egyptian poetry, of about 500 years previously, influenced the Hebrew poet. On the Revised Chronology, we have here a living, contemporary cultural exchange.

Notes and References

1.    Louis Ginzberg: Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia, 1909), VI, p. 389.

2. Rabbi Jonathan: Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra, 15b. Velikovsky, how­ever, attributes this view to a memory of Hatshepsut’s official description and portrayal as a man, noting: “It was unusual, and contrary to the political and religious conceptions of the Egyptians, to have a woman ruling on the throne; therefore she disguised herself and assumed the attributes of a man. On many of her statues and bas-reliefs she is portrayed with a beard. . . . Egyptologists of the first half of the nineteenth century pictured and described Hatshepsut as a king, being misled by some of her statues and the masculine pronouns she applied to herself.” (A in C, iii: “Make-da and Make-ra”.)

3.  E. Danelius: “The Identification of the Biblical ‘Queen of Sheba’ with Hat­shepsut, ‘Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia’” (llI), Kronos 1.4, p. 10: “Sheba, trans­cribed ‘Saba’ in Greek, was the name of the capital of Ethiopia up to the time when this name was changed, by Cambyses, to Meroe.” The reference is to Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, II, x, 2. The close links between Egypt, Ethiopia and Saba/Seba are shown by their mention in Gen. 10:7 and Isaiah 43:3 and 45:14.

4.  The early allegorical treatments (Midrash, Targum, Origen, Jerome, etc.) solved the problem by banishing erotic content altogether. The Zohar (13th cen­tury), however, in a curious anticipation of the modern “cultic” theory, interpreted the female lover as the Shekhinah, the female aspect or companion of god, with whom she is engaged in continual love-affair, a cosmic reflection of the holiness of human sexuality. This is a recognition of the equality between the lovers in the Song. Similar in some ways, though not in others, is the Christian mediaeval interpretation of the female lover as the Virgin Mary (beginning with Rupert, Abbot of Deutz, in the 12th century). A more matter-of-fact way of explaining the equality of the female was put forward by Theodore of Mopsuestia (5th century), who suggested that the Song was an epithalamium to celebrate the marriage of Solomon to the daughter of Pharaoh. (This theory has many of the virtues of the Queen of Sheba theory, but does not explain the clandestine aspects of the love­affair.) In modern times, the equality of the lovers has suggested a Women’s Lib­eration interpretation (C. D. Ginsburg: The Song of Songs, 1857; and Phyllis Trible: “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical interpretation”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 41, 1973, pp. 30-48), relating the Song to the equality of the sexes in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Another explanation is that the Song was written by a woman, expressing her sexual desires and frustrations in dream­-sequences (Max Pusin, unpublished; see Marvin Pope: The Song of Songs, New York: Anchor Bible Series, 1977, pp. 133-4). Yet another explanation is that of Chaim Rabin (“The Song of Songs and Tamil Poetry”, Studies in Religion 3, 1973, pp. 205-219): that the song is derived from Tamil (Indian) love-poetry, in which the female longs for the absent male (a merchant travelling in the spice trade). [Comment: Rather, Tamil drew from the Song of Solomon].

5.    The chief proponents of the “cultic” theory (female lover as goddess) are Wilhelm Erbt (1906), E. Ebeling (1923), T. J. Meek (1924), W. Wittekindt (1926), N. H. Snaith (1933-4), W. O. E. Oesterly (1936) and Marvin Pope (op. cit., 1977).

6.  Pope, op. cit.

7. J. H. Breasted: Ancient Records of Egypt (Chicago, 1906), II, §274, as quoted by Velikovsky in A. in C iii “Terraces of almug trees”.

8.  See also 5:5: ” … my hands dripped myrrh, my fingers liquid myrrh.”

9.  A possible objection to the identification of the female of the Song with the Queen of Sheba/Hatshepsut is that she is called “the Shulamite” (7:1). The old idea that this is a place-designation equivalent to Shunammite” (i.e. from Shunem, as in the case of Abishag the Shunammite. I Kings 1:1-4), has now been largely abandoned. [Comment: Not by us]. A widely-held view is that it is a feminine form of the name “Solomon” and therefore, in the context, simply means “she who is beloved of Solomon”. Another explanation, advanced by the proponents of the “cultic” theory, is that Shulammit is the name of a goddess. W. F. Albright (“The Syro-Mesopotamian God Shulman-Eshmun and Related Figures”, Archiv für Orientforschung, 7, pp. 164-169) equated the Shulamite with the goddess Shulmanitu of the city of Assur, “female counterpart of the war-god Shulman”. [Comment: Again, Solomon and Sheba may have been the origins for this Mesopotamian mythology].This view, advocated by Marvin Pope and others, is that the name Shulammit means “one who is at peace” and refers to satisfied love.

10. A late date (Persian or Hellenistic) for the Song has now been abandoned by many scholars. The “cultic” theory demands an early date. W. F. Albright, for example (“Archaic Survivals in the Text of Canticles”, in Hebrew and Semitic Studies presented to G. R. Driver, eds. D. Winton Thomas and W. D. McHardy, London, 1963, pp. 1-7), argues that archaic expressions similar to Ugaritic show that the Song is basically 500 years older than Solomon (though edited in the 4th-5th century BC). The revised chronology, however, puts the Solomonic age about 100 years before the Ugaritic literature, which may thus have been influ­enced by the Song. As an instance of the change of attitude towards the language of the Song, we may cite the word kofer, meaning “cypress”, a kind of perfume. This word occurs three times in the Song: 1:14, 4:13 and 7:12. The word was once thought to be a loan-word from Greek, but it has been found in Ugaritic, and is now regarded as a Semitic loan-word in Greek. See Marvin Pope, op. cit., p. 34.

Taken from: SIS Review [UK] Vol IV, No. 4 (Spring, 1980), pp. 98-100.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply