Sunday, May 1, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Queen of Sheba, by Roberta Kells Dorr



Roberta Kells Dorr.  The Queen of Sheba.  HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.  

In I Kings 10:1-13, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon of Israel.  She has heard of Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, and she is coming to Solomon to see if the report she has heard is accurate.  She asks Solomon difficult questions to test his wisdom.

Roberta Kells Dorr’s The Queen of Sheba is a novel about this famous encounter, but it includes other biblical stories as well.  Solomon in this book is the Solomon of the Book of Ecclesiastes (assuming Solomon wrote or is depicted in Ecclesiastes): brooding, disenchanted with life, and feeling as if life’s pursuits are an empty chasing after wind.  Events of I Kings 11 are depicted in Dorr’s book: Solomon’s construction of pagan temples in Israel for his foreign wives; the Edomite Hadad’s troubling of Israel; and the events that would lead to the Ephraimite Jeroboam’s revolt against Solomon’s kingdom, as well as the secession of Northern Israel from it.  

There is also a side-story in Dorr’s book about Badget, an Israelite merchant with two wives, one kind and the other bitter because she cannot have a child.  This story is not in the Bible, but, in Dorr’s book, it sets the stage for the infamous story in I Kings 3:16-28.  In I Kings 3:16-28, King Solomon proposes to divide a child in two when two mothers are claiming the same child, and the child’s mother begs Solomon not to do so.

There are cases in which Dorr draws conclusions from the biblical narratives.  Like some biblical scholars, Dorr maintains that the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon was related to trade, as Solomon’s building of posts at the Red Sea threatened other countries’ trade.  Solomon in the Hebrew Bible is married to the Pharaoh’s daughter, and the Pharaoh in I Kings 11:18-19 favors Solomon’s enemy Hadad.  Dorr constructs a story in which Solomon’s beloved Egyptian wife is a spy for the Pharaoh.

Of course, Dorr takes some poetic license.  In Dorr’s book, Solomon’s Egyptian wife adopts Jeroboam as her son so Jeroboam would succeed Solomon on the throne, as she competes with Solomon’s Ammonite wife Naamah, the mother of Rehoboam (who actually will succeed Solomon).  The Queen of Sheba is named Bilqis, and she becomes disillusioned with paganism when she tries to sleep with the moon-god in order to have a child, only to find that he was really the priest.  That launches her on a search for truth, and she becomes curious about the peculiar God of Israel.  Solomon and the Queen of Sheba have a child, who would rule Ethiopia.  (Dorr draws here from a mixture of history and legend.)

The book had parts that I especially liked.  First, there was the comparison between the Queen of Sheba’s method of arriving at judicial decisions with that of King Solomon.  The Queen of Sheba’s method was very pragmatic and reasonable: it took into consideration the various interests involved and what would benefit them and her interests as Queen.  But her method was not exactly just.  Solomon, by contrast, was under the authority of the Torah and valued justice and truth.  

Second, there was Solomon’s loneliness as king.  Because people acted formally around him, he could not be friends with many people.  The scene in which Solomon pretended to be his brother Nathan around the Queen of Sheba was good, in light of this.

Third, the discussion between the Queen of Sheba and the priest of the moon-god Ilumquh after the Queen discovered the priest’s impersonation of the deity was interesting.  The Queen says, “Without truth the whole world has gone mad.”  The priest says: “Who is wise enough to know if there is an Ilumquh.  If there isn’t, there should be.  If he doesn’t speak, he should speak.  It’s not our fault if we must at times speak and act for him” (page 62).

I was rather ambivalent about the spiritual journeys of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Regarding Solomon, his rationale for building pagan temples was not particularly convincing: he wanted to appease pagan gods.  This could have been developed more, but Dorr would have done better simply to have stuck with another theme in her book: that Solomon was not actually convinced of the pagan gods’ power but rather sought to appease his foreign wives, whom he married in a pragmatic attempt to maintain peace with other nations.  Solomon’s struggle between pragmatism and his belief in God was a positive aspect of this book, as was Solomon keeping his faith even after hearing God’s plan to punish his kingdom for his sins.

Regarding the Queen of Sheba, she asked good questions about Israelite religion and how that compared to her own----questions pertaining to such issues as justice, idolatry, and human sacrifice (which the Torah forbids) and Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.  At the same time, she seemed rather credulous in accepting the historicity of biblical stories, which was slightly inconsistent with Dorr’s attempt to depict her as a rigorous pursuer of truth.  

Good book, overall!

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