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A pagan queen’s prophetic message

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This month’s TextMessage is the third installment in a five-part series featuring the writing of seminary president Lynn Jost, as he shares some insights from his doctoral study on the book of 1 Kings.—Eds.

1 Kings 10:1–13

1 Kings 8–10 contains three important monologues. First, Solomon prays a long temple dedication to God, appealing to Yahweh to hear Israel’s prayers of repentance (8:22–61).

Second, when Solomon finishes his building activities, Yahweh appears to Solomon as he had in his inaugural dream (9:1–9). This time, Yahweh promises to place his “name” on the temple, but doesn’t commend Solomon as he did in his first appearance to the king (3:4–13). God’s primary message here is that Solomon will be blessed if he heeds the law, but he and his sons will be cut off if they fail to keep the laws of Deuteronomy.

The remainder of chapter 9 reports details of Solomon’s reign. Verses 15–23 amend the book’s earlier report (5:13–18) that Solomon conscripted Israelites as slave labour for his building projects, claiming the only people conscripted as slaves were surviving Canaanites who hadn’t been exterminated by Joshua. If these survivors were descendants of Rahab and the Gibeonites, the reader is left to puzzle how it is more acceptable to enslave these people than ethnic Israelites.

The queen’s visit

The third monologue, found in chapter 10, is a message from the non-Israelite (pagan) queen of Sheba to Solomon. Verse 1 reads, “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions.” In the NRSV, the verse reads, “When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, (fame due to the name of the LORD), she came to test him with hard questions.”

Sometimes we forget our English Bibles have been translated from Hebrew. When Hebrew text is converted to English, we call the English text translation. When spoken words are translated to a new language, we call the product interpretation. In fact, all translation is interpretation. Most of our translations are quite trustworthy, but all of them interpret the original.

A literal translation (interpretation?) of verse 1 might read: “When the queen of Sheba heard the hearing of Solomon to the name of Yahweh….” The phrase calls to mind Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 3:9, where he requests “a heart listening to do justice.” Yahweh’s word to Solomon in 1 Kings 9:3 also links Solomon’s prayer to the name of Yahweh and Yahweh’s insistence that Solomon keep Deuteronomic law. As we look at the literal meaning of the Hebrew words, we realize the foreign queen is attracted to Solomon due to his capacity to hear (obey) the name of Yahweh.

Verse 1 also says the queen came “to test him with hard questions.” The word “questions” is translated “riddle” in the story about Samson’s wedding contest (Judges 14:12). Scholars suggest that the term refers to diplomatic manoeuvres, international commercial trade negotiations, or tests to prove that Solomon was conversant with cultural affairs. The queen is said to “test” Solomon to prove the quality of his person and reign. The queen’s speech (10:9) indicates that she tests Solomon’s commitment to justice.

Verses 4–5 then give readers a tour of the palace complex. The NIV translates the queen’s reaction as “overwhelmed.” The NRSV translates more literally: “there was no more spirit in her.” One reading is that the tedium of hearing ad nauseam about the king’s menu, seating charts, cutlery, and waiting system left the queen bored to death by the focus of Solomon’s “wisdom” on unessential details.

The queen revives quickly to commend Solomon for his achievements. The speech builds to this climactic word: “[Yahweh] has made you king to maintain (execute) justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tsedekah).” Here, the queen reminds Solomon that he is skilled to hear Yahweh’s name and mishpat, but throughout his reign he has been distracted by the kind of royal mishpat (justice) that resembles Egypt more than it does Deuteronomy.

As we read this chapter, we’re invited to examine ourselves. According to Article 7 of the MB Confession of Faith, God’s mission for the church is to keep the Great Commandment (love God and neighbour) and the Great Commission (make disciples of all nations). By so doing, we too will maintain God’s justice and righteousness. Using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a guide, let’s ask how we are doing in the categories of self-control, purity of thought, marital faithfulness, truth-telling, reconciliation, and praying for enemies (Matthew 5:17–48). Are we fulfilling God’s definition of righteousness?

Lynn Jost is president of MB Biblical Seminary and lives in Fresno, Cal.

When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD, she came to test Solomon with hard questions…. When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed. She said to the king, “The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true…. Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king to maintain justice and righteousness.”

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