Melakhim Alef Chapter 10
The Queen of Sheba has heard of the reputation of Shelomo and his kingdom and arrives with a delegation of officers to investigate. She challenges Shelomo with riddles and questions and he is able to answer all of them. She is furthermore impressed by the wealth of the king, the beauty of the Temple and the palace, the extravagance the king’s court and servants, the abundant meals served on his table, and the worship of God he performs in the Bet Hamiqdash.
The Queen of Sheba’s breath is taken away by what she observes, which is far beyond what she had expected to witness based on the reports she had received. She praises the officers and attendants of Shelomo who are so fortunate to have the opportunity to hear his wisdom on a regular basis, and she blesses Hashem, God of Israel, for having chosen such a wise and just monarch to rule over his people. The Queen bestows lavish gifts of gold and spices upon Shelomo. The king returns this favor by providing her with any knowledge she seeks as well as sharing with her from his royal bounty; the Queen then departs for home.
The boats of Hiram not only bring gold back to Shelomo from Ophir; they also carry exquisite wood and precious gems back from their journeys. King Shelomo uses the wood to fashion pillars for the Bet Hamiqdash and for his palace, as well as to make instruments for the musical accompaniment of the Temple service. Shelomo amasses a tremendous amount of gold on an annual basis, both from the taxes he levies on the population and from the exploits of his navy. Shelomo uses this excess gold to design heavy, solid gold, decorative shields and targets that adorn the House of the Forest of Lebanon.
Shelomo overlays his ivory throne with gold and constructs six steps leading up to it; on either side of each step is an ivory lion covered in gold, for a total of twelve lions. No other king in the world could boast of such an exceptional throne. All of the vessels used in the palace and in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were made of gold. In addition to precious metals and stones, Shelomo’s navy would arrive every three years with rare animals like peacocks and monkeys as well. There was such an abundance of gold and fine goods in Israel at this time that items like silver and cedar wood became commonplace.
Shelomo surpassed all of the kings in the land in both material wealth and wisdom. People would come from all over the world to hear his wisdom, bringing gifts of gold, silver, garments, armor, and animals to the king as a tribute. Shelomo accumulated many chariots and horses, purchasing them from Egypt at a hefty price.
In this chapter we see both sides of the tension in Shelomo exemplified, exacerbated and interwoven with one another. The account of the visit of the Queen of Sheba is historic because it describes the fulfillment of the whole purpose of the Torah. The objective of all of the commandments is that the nation of Israel sanctify the name of God in the world, inspiring the gentiles to inquire about and acknowledge His existence. Our patriarch Avraham dedicated his life to this cause and we are obligated to perpetuate his legacy. When the Prophets speak of the Messianic era, they portray the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem to learn of the ways of God from the Jewish people.
During the times of Yehoshua, the Giveonim pretended to be emissaries from a faraway land who had learned of the great deeds of Hashem and wished to accept His kingship and join the Jewish people. In reality, they were local Canaanites who feared for their lives. However, we see how excited Yehoshua and the elders were by the mere thought that they had accomplished their mission of spreading awareness of Hashem across the globe. In their state of elation they hastily accepted the false story of the Giveonim and welcomed them into the fold of Israel. Sadly, it was later revealed to be a hoax.
The case of the Queen of Sheba, however, is the “real deal” and is very exciting; motivated by sincere curiosity and interest, she has come to learn more about the God of Israel and His wisdom. In this sense, she is a latter-day “Yitro”; like the Midianite father-in-law of Moshe, she left the comfort of her homeland to investigate the reports she had “heard” about the wisdom of Hashem and His Providence. Like Yitro, she has an even further “epiphany” once she witnesses the greatness of the Torah and the people of God with her own eyes and is even more impressed than she had expected to be. She praises not only the wisdom of Shelomo but the One God of Israel, and recognizes that Shelomo has been chosen to implement “tzedaqa umishpat”, charity and justice.
The use of these words is critical because they refer us back to at least two fundamental Biblical characters. King David was described, at the height of his career, as doing justice and charity for his people. As the founder of the monarchy, his example establishes the ideal to be emulated by all future kings. More essentially, “tzedaqa umishpat” are the terms Hashem uses to describe the ethics of the household of Avraham and the principles he taught his children; they define the core values of Judaism.
Shelomo’s kingdom functioned in such a wise, judicious, equitable and charitable manner, that the Queen of Sheba was able to perceive exactly what Judaism and the God of Israel are all about. In this way, too, she is similar to Yitro, who recognized Hashem because of the justice of His actions in punishing the Egyptian oppressors and saving the persecuted Jews.
At the same time, we find Shelomo accumulating excessive wealth contrary to the laws of the Torah, indulging in luxury and extravagance beyond measure, and transgressing the prohibition of acquiring many horses. The Torah explicitly forbids the king to have a multitude of horses so he will not go to Egypt to acquire them; this, in fact, is exactly what our chapter says that Shelomo does, in contravention of the word of Hashem. Although Shelomo shares his vast wealth with the Temple, dedicating many of the fine items he receives to the improvement or beautification of the sanctuary, the majority of it seems to be invested in his palace, his throne and his treasuries.
Fascinatingly, when the palace of the king, Hall of Judgment and the House of the Forest of Lebanon were initially constructed, we noted that there was no “gold” associated with them. We interpreted this absence of gold as a symbolic demonstration of the idea that the Bet Hamiqdash, with its plethora of gold, was of greater stature and significance than Shelomo’s residential complex. The king serves to maintain a just and equitable society so that its citizens can serve Hashem properly; he is, ultimately, a servant of Hashem.
The fact that we now see that there are innumerable gold vessels, fixtures, and decorations in the palace, on the throne of the king and in the House of the Forest of Lebanon is shocking – why wasn’t this mentioned earlier?
It is possible that these adornments were added at a later time, when Shelomo’s wealth increased. Alternatively, it is possible that they were present from the outset, but the text specifically neglected to mention them in order to convey a message. Regardless of the historical timeline, the concept is the same – although Shelomo’s intentions in constructing the royal complex were sincere and God-centered in the beginning, the purity of his motives declined over time. He began to fall prey to the allure of his own riches, power and fame.
When Shelomo started out, he saw these extravagances as a necessary evil “justified” by the need to present a spectacle of majesty and power to the nations of the world. Eventually, however, building the empire became an end in itself. We see the decline elegantly chronicled in this chapter, which moves from the “pinnacle” of spiritual success (the visit of the Queen of Sheba), to grey areas in which the spiritual and self-aggrandizing impulses overlapped (the use of precious wood to adorn both the House of Hashem and the king’s residence), to the low of pure, unadulterated materialism described in the final verses of the passage (accumulation of gold, acquisition of rare items, and pursuit of lavish decoration for their own sake.)