Wednesday of Week 5 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 10:1-10

The story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon gives an opportunity for the sacred writer to describe the extraordinary magnificence of the Jerusalem court.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Sheba is to be identified with a mercantile kingdom that flourished in southwest Arabia circa 900-450 BC. It profited from the sea trade of India and east Africa by transporting luxury commodities north to Damascus and Gaza on caravan routes through the Arabian Desert. It is possible that Solomon’s fleet of ships threatened Sheba’s continued dominance of this trading business. The queen, too, may have wanted to establish better trading relationships. Solomon dominated the Transjordan and, holding Ezion-Geber, controlled the caravan route from north Arabia to Syria and Egypt. Judging by the descriptions of both Solomon and the queen, it was a highly lucrative trade for both of them.

However, some hold that the queen mentioned here more probably ruled over one of the Sabaean settlements of northern Arabia. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) distinguishes between the more usual ‘Sheba’ (used here) and ‘Seba’ which it associates more closely with Cush, or Ethiopia. The name Seba came to be used for the far South, just as Tarshish stands for the Western limits of the earth, figuring as one of the great tribes of travelling merchants. This far-off people, together with the kings of Arabia and Seba, will come to do homage to the future King, as implied in Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus (Matt 2:11, referring to Ps 72:1-11 and Is 60:6).

The purpose of the queen’s visit was to test Solomon’s wisdom, whose fame had reached as far as her kingdom. Arriving with a large retinue and weighed down with expensive gifts, she asked him questions on all the things in which she was particularly interested. He dealt easily and competently with every problem she posed to him.

It seems that the queen of Sheba recognised a connection between the wisdom of Solomon and the God he served. Jesus used her example to condemn the people of his own day who had not recognised that “something greater than Solomon” was in their midst (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31).

When the queen saw the wealth and opulence with which Solomon was surrounded – his palace, the food on his table, the number and dress of his attendants and the holocausts he offered in the Temple, she was rendered speechless. Solomon far surpassed all her expectations both in his wisdom and his prosperity. Indeed, she said, blessed were the king’s court and attendants to be always in the presence of such wisdom. The reports she had received at home gave no idea of the reality she now saw with her own eyes.

She concluded by calling blessings on the God who put a person of such wisdom and judgement as Solomon on Israel’s throne. However, it does not imply her personal recognition of the God of the Israelites; there is no hint that she abandoned belief in her own gods.

Before leaving, she gave even more gifts, including 120 gold talents, an enormous amount of money. Never again would anyone bring such an abundance of gifts as the Queen of Sheba brought to Solomon.

Underlying this story, of course, is the understanding that all Solomon’s magnificence was a sign of God’s blessings on his people. God alone was the source of all these blessings. It is clear that the description of this visit was not merely to describe the queen’s desire to experience Solomon’s wisdom at first hand. For the writer, the focus is not on the queen, but on the magnificence of Solomon’s court as a reflection of Israel’s glory and God’s special favour on them as a people.

We too need to remember that all the good things we have and experience are not simply the result of our own efforts. They can disappear just as quickly as they came. We can never claim anything as absolutely our own.

We are simply stewards of all that comes into our hands. What we are given is not merely for our own enjoyment, least of all to be used at the expense of others. They are gifts by which we can be of service to others. Everything is for one purpose only: God’s praise and service. And an awareness of that is a form of real wisdom.

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