An Obscure Biblical Figure, a Black Feminist Pop Icon

Little is known about the Queen of Sheba — which has made her an alluring symbol from antiquity to the present.

A rendering of a black woman in a light green and gold dress in a contrapposto pose, wearing a tall, jeweled gold crown and holding a large scepter.
STAYING POWER: An illustration of the Queen of Sheba from Konrad Kyeser’s “Bellifortis” (“Strong in War”), an early-15th-century German military treatise.

Halle Berry played her in a made-for-TV movie. In the film “Black Is King,” Beyoncé describes herself as an heir to her legacy. In the Starz TV series “American Gods,” she’s a love goddess who devours men while they orgasm. A headline on the online Jewish feminist site Alma declares her “the Black Jewish queen […] you probably didn’t learn about in Hebrew school.”

Meet the Queen of Sheba, a scarcely mentioned figure in the Bible who has loomed large in the public imagination for hundreds of years.

She’s been represented as an idolatrous Yemeni sun worshiper, the lover in the Bible’s “Song of Songs” and the founding mother of an Ethiopian dynasty. Today, she is widely seen as a Black feminist icon who reigned in Africa.

In fact, there’s no archaeological evidence to show she ever lived. The texts that mention her — whose standards for historical proof don’t come close to contemporary ones — reflect the biases, political agendas, prejudices and literary traditions of the societies that produced them.

Jillian Stinchcomb, the Florence Levy Kay Fellow in Hebrew Bible and Mediterranean Cross-Cultural Textual Traditions, has studied the evolution of the Queen of Sheba’s image from antiquity through the Middle Ages. Over time, she says, the mysterious queen, simply by being an “other” — a woman in a man’s world, a foreigner in King Solomon’s court — assumed a symbolic heft far greater than the one she’s accorded in the Hebrew Bible.

“She’s powerful and able to meet one of ancient Israel’s greatest kings on her own terms,” says Stinchcomb. “That makes her really exciting for people to think about, especially in the modern period when we’re so hungry for models of powerful, self-assured women.”

Exceedingly intelligent

The queen is first mentioned in the Bible’s book of Kings. The ruler of a land called Sheba, she somehow learns of King Solomon’s fame and decides to visit. She asks him a series of tough questions — we’re not told what they are — that he answers easily. Seeing his palace, servants and ritual burnt offerings, she is “left breathless.” Before leaving, she pays tribute to the king by giving him gold, precious stones and spices.

A similar story about the queen appears in the second book of Chronicles.

There isn’t a known place called Sheba in the ancient world. Many scholars have assumed “Sheba” is a reference to Saba, a wealthy port city in Yemen known for its trade in spices and its production of myrrh and frankincense. But Saba thrived during the eighth century B.C.E., 200 years after Solomon supposedly reigned. Stinchcomb also points to a verse from Psalm 72, which speaks of “the kings of Sheba and rulers of Saba,” suggesting the ancient Hebrews thought of the two places as distinct.

The Bible never mentions the queen’s skin color. It’s rare for physical descriptions to be given anywhere in biblical text, and the concept of race didn’t exist yet. The ancient Hebrews “viewed differences between peoples mainly in terms of where they came from and their lineage,” Stinchcomb says.

Written more than 1,000 years after the Hebrew Bible, the Quran is the first text to identify “Sheba” as “Saba.” But while the text is forthcoming about the queen’s homeland, it never mentions her name. She is described only as a woman with a mighty throne. Later on, Muslim commentators began calling her Bilqis (also the name used for her in “American Gods”).

According to the Quran, one day, while inspecting his army of humans, animals and jinn (shape-shifting spirits made of fire and air), King Solomon notices his crown-feathered messenger bird, the hoopoe, is missing. Solomon — who in the Quran possesses magical powers, such as controlling the wind, commanding spirits and talking to animals — grows irate. “I will punish him most severely or slay him unless he gives me a valid excuse,” he says.

It turns out the bird has been visiting the Queen of Sheba. When he returns, he tells Solomon she reigns over a land where people worship sun or sea, and she is exceedingly powerful and intelligent. Solomon sends an invitation to the queen via the hoopoe, who is now back in his good graces.

At Solomon’s court, the queen is ushered into a chamber whose glass-tiled floor she mistakes for water. She lifts her skirt to keep it dry. Solomon points out her misjudgment, triggering a transformation in the queen, who immediately recognizes the error of her ways and decides to worship God with Solomon.


‘Black and beautiful’

In the manuscripts of the first-century historian Josephus, a Judean-born Jew later granted Roman citizenship, the Queen of Sheba becomes African.

Josephus wrote that she ruled over Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt was under Roman control at the time, a jewel in the imperial crown. The fact that she commanded the region would have seemed impressive to contemporary readers.

Ruling Ethiopia — “the fuzzy southern edge of the known world, beyond the reach of the Roman Empire, only sometimes accessible by trade,” as Stinchcomb writes in her 2020 PhD dissertation — would have endowed the queen with a certain exoticism and otherness, just enough to spark the Roman reader’s imagination without straining credibility or engendering repulsion.

Josephus’ account of the queen and Solomon’s meeting ends on a positive note for the Jews. “I judge the Hebrew people to be a blessed one,” the queen says.

The distinction of being the first to state the queen’s skin color falls to third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria.

In his commentaries on the Bible, Origen wrestled with what seemed to him a major problem: the steamy, erotic love poetry in the “Song of Songs.” As Stinchcomb puts it, “he didn’t like God being associated with sex.”

Origen had read Josephus. If the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian, it stood to reason she was the lover described as “black and beautiful” in the “Song of Songs.” Origen then decided the queen wasn’t a real person at all but a symbol of the Gentile Church. The “Song of Songs,” therefore, was about the union between Israel — as represented by God or Solomon — and the Gentile Church.

An Egyptian-born Christian African, Origen wanted to show his religion was a natural outgrowth of and replacement for Judaism. As far as he was concerned, the spiritual union between Israel and the Queen of Sheba symbolized this.

No longer an ‘other’

During the 13th century, a new dynasty ascended to the Ethiopian throne, practicing Oriental Orthodox Christianity and claiming descent from King Solomon. The royal family’s origin story was set out in an epic, the Kebra Nagast (the “Glory of the Kings”).

In the epic, the Queen of Sheba is named Queen Makeda, a worshiper of the sun and the ruler of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum, located above the Horn of Africa. She learns of King Solomon from a merchant, who tells her of the king’s great wisdom. A benevolent and enlightened monarch who, according to the Kebra Nagast, believes “wisdom is the best of all treasures,” the queen naturally wants to visit this king.

They hit it off. The Kebra Nagast says Makeda sees “how perfect [Solomon] was in composure, and wise in understanding, and pleasant in graciousness, and commanding in stature. And she observed the subtlety of his voice, and the discreet utterances of his lips.” She renounces her religion in favor of his.

The sexual undercurrent between them surfaces when Solomon makes Makeda promise not to take anything from his house without asking. He then secretly feeds her spicy foods. After catching her sneaking a drink of water, he says she must have sex with him as punishment for breaking her promise.


Though Makeda objects, Solomon argues it’s a fair exchange. “Is there anything that thou hast seen under the heavens that is better than water?” he says. Nine months and five days after leaving Jerusalem, according to the epic, Makeda gives birth to a son, Menelik I, who founds Ethiopia’s Christian dynasty.

The Kebra Nagast became popular throughout Africa, Europe and America in the 19th century. “It’s a great story and a fun read,” Stinchcomb says.

It has done the most to fix the Queen of Sheba in the contemporary imagination as African and Black. It is also the only version of the story told from the perspective of the society to which the queen belongs. No longer an “other,” she’s at last found a home.

The Kebra Nagast, says Stinchcomb, “is Ethiopians claiming her as one of their own.”

A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Experience, the university’s multimedia platform about identity and community. Subscribe to The Jewish Experience.