Now when King Solomon heard that she was coming to him, King Solomon arose and went to sit down in a bathhouse. When the Queen saw that the king was sitting in a bathhouse, she thought to herself the king must be sitting in water. So she raised her dress in order to wade across. Whereupon he noticed the hair on her leg, to which King Solomon responded by saying: ‘Your beauty is the beauty of women, but your hair is the hair of men. Now hair is beautiful for a man but shameful for a woman.’ -The Targum Sheni to Esther, c. 7th Century
I stopped shaving my legs, on and off, when I was in college. It had more to do with laziness than with feminism; shaving just started to seem like a messy, time consuming chore in which I was no longer willing to indulge. After a while, my hairy legs started to grow on me aesthetically as well. My legs seemed bald and pasty when I got around to shaving them. After a while, this abstention became symbolic. In a small and gentle way, the hair on my legs marked my body as a body unafraid to play with gender, to break conventions, to get fuzzy. My father was horrified. It even says in the Midrash that women should shave their legs, he told me, because when the Queen of Sheba came to visit King Solomon, he would not be with her until her legs were smooth. Understandably, my father’s argument did little to convince me that my legs would be better off bald. But his comments did start me thinking about the Queen of Sheba, and I am not sure that I have ever stopped.
The Biblical Queen
Many of us only know the Queen of Sheba as the one-time consort of King Solomon, but commentators from a variety of cultural traditions have provided her with stories and legends all her own. These cast the Queen in a number of different guises — and while some are easier to identify with than others, she is always a complicated character and is always, always alluring. In fact, it’s surprising that her hairy legs first captured my attention, considering the many other interesting issues that have been associated with the Queen of Sheba.
According to the national epic of Ethiopia, the Queen of Sheba is the forebear of Ethiopia’s royal dynasty, and through oral tradition the Ethiopian Jewish community also claims her as an ancestor. Islamic traditions imagine the queen as part djinn, and in Jewish mysticism and folklore she is sometimes interchangeable with Lilith. In many of the most traditional Queen of Sheba legends, issues of gender, power, and identity are treated with unexpected frankness, offering insight into present-day conflicts.
So how did the Queen of Sheba become a hairy-legged djinni? These questions bring us back to the Hebrew Bible, which contains the earliest written accounts of the Queen of Sheba legend [I Kings 10-13 and Chronicles 9:1-12].
Our heroine in far-off Sheba hears of King Solomon’s famed knowledge and travels to Jerusalem to test him with “hard questions.” When the king answers all of the Queen of Sheba’s queries, and she sees the splendor of his kingdom. she is left “breathless.” They exchange gifts, and King Solomon gives her “everything she desired and asked for.” Finally, the Queen and her attendants return to the land of Sheba.
Like many stories in the Hebrew Bible, this brief tale leaves many questions unanswered. Where was this country of Sheba, ruled by a powerful woman? What were the “hard questions” the Queen asked Solomon? And of course, what about the tantalizing sexual subtext that is often read into this encounter? The text does say that the Queen was “breathless,” doesn’t it? What were those desires that King Solomon met so satisfactorily? You can almost picture centuries of exegetes rubbing their hands in delight, eager to fill in the blanks.
The Queen of Questions
In nearly all of their various formats, the Queen of Sheba legends give a gloss on power and otherness, on the relationships between the insider and the outsider. The set-up could not be more intriguing: Solomon, a male Israelite King and King David’s anointed son, is the ultimate insider. He has all the benefits of gender, class, ethnicity and lineage, and his power would seem to be uncontestable. But what would happen if he met up with his opposite — a foreign, heathen woman — who would dare to challenge his authority? This is exactly the situation that the Biblical text sets up for us and for centuries of Biblical scholars. The situation is so unlikely, so unthinkable, but — the Bible seems to ask us — WHAT IF?
Throughout various times and traditions, we see variant versions of this encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Generally, in the more traditional texts, the fact that Solomon answers all of the queen’s riddles is used to “prove” that the King is more suited for leadership. The Queen of Sheba, the presumptuous outsider, learns her lesson. She cannot withstand the wisdom and power of her “legitimate” opponent, and is dominated politically, intellectually, and sexually. In most of the texts, she is delighted by Solomon’s victory – she is breathless with praise for her adversary, relieved by the assurance that Davidic men really are more fit for political power.
And yet, nothing that has to do with the Queen of Sheba is quite that simple. She is a wily queen, after all, and more than Solomon’s match when it comes to “hard questions.” In the Targum Sheni to Esther, an Aramaic commentary on the Purim story, the Queen of Sheba’s riddles all have to do with paradoxes and complications that are as relevant to her own situation as they are to the abstract puzzle itself. What is “a cause of praise to the free, of shame to the unfortunate, a cause of praise to the dead, of shame to the living, of joy to the birds, of agitation to the fish?” asks the queen. When Solomon answers that flax can be all of these things, he admits that one substance can have many purposes. Flax can be food that sustains a bird; if can also be made into a net with which to catch a fish. Flax can be made into a beautiful linen garment for the rich, or a crude garment for the poor; it can be made into clothes for the living or a shroud for the dead. The only thing that is clear about the use of flax is that it cannot be pinned down.
Pinning down the Queen of Sheba is as complicated as defining only one particular use for flax. She is a woman and a foreigner, and yet she does not behave like the women or the foreigners who typically cowered in the face of King Solomon’s greatness. She is an outsider who acts like an insider. By challenging King Solomon and presuming to be his equal, she forces us to re-evaluate both of those categories.
The Queen of Sheba does not give Solomon any way to win her game of wits. By admitting that flax does not fit in to any one category, Solomon must acknowledge that human beings can also behave in conflicting ways, and that the Queen of Sheba can simultaneously be a woman, and a powerful ruler. Of course, if he does not admit this, he loses to the Queen of Sheba because he cannot answer her riddle.
As we learn from the Queen of Sheba, there are some competitions you can neither win nor lose. The world is just too fuzzy.
The Queen of Complexities
When I first encountered the Queen of Sheba stories, I identified with her completely. There was the Queen of Sheba, a fuzzy-legged woman like me, struggling against the male king who would limit her access to power and influence. I was the Queen of Sheba, engaged in a game of wits with the anti-feminist Rabbis who enforce unfair religious rules. I was the Queen of Sheba, struggling against the politicians and corporate leaders who create inequalities, support sexist laws, leave women on the outside.
But the Queen of Sheba is not easily owned – not by King Solomon, and not by me. Also linked with Africa and with blackness, the Queen of Sheba represents the cultural categories that our society continues to exploit, exploit, and push toward the “outside.” In a particularly Jewish context, the Queen of Sheba has been associated with the African and Middle-Eastern Jews who have been situated on the margins of the community, and are engaged in a struggle with Ashkenazic “insiders” for influence, power, and basic respect. As an Ashkenazic American woman, what is my relationship to the people who are even further on the outside? Am I the Queen of Sheba, as I had always presumed to be, or am I, in fact, King Solomon?
The Queen of Sheba is of the “wrong” gender and the “wrong” origin — the very embodiment of the outsider. And yet, as one might expect from such a slippery and complicated queen, she also reminds us that the relationship between the insider and the outsider can shift. At different points in our lives, in different contexts, every human being gets to play the role of the Queen of Sheba as well as that of King Solomon. In fact, we can well imagine the Queen of Sheba herself playing the “insider” in interactions with her own servants and subjects. Caught in the paradoxes and complexities of a fuzzy world, the Queen of Sheba too can be complicit in injustice.
In a world where our roles are always shifting, the encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon becomes symbolic of the very moment of struggle, the pivotal point at which we learn to secure power in some contexts and to share power in others. Being a Jewish woman — and an “outsider” in certain contexts — does not make me incapable of oppressing others, of supporting a system of hierarchies and inequalities, of pledging tacit allegiance to King Solomon. What is my relationship to the sweatshop workers who create the clothes that I wear? What is my relationship to the people who pick the grapes that I eat? In a fuzzy world, everyday choices are pregnant with significance, as monumental as the royal encounter between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
The Queen of Symbols And for me, the Queen of Sheba always leads back to fuzzy legs. My fuzzy legs are my tribute to a fuzzy world, in which categories of gender, origin and identity become blurred at the edges, fuse into one another, and cannot contain the totality of who I am. They remind me that I am never completely helpless nor am I ever completely powerful — the rules of fuzziness do not allow for absolutes. They remind me that I can be a cause of praise to the free, as well as a cause of shame to the unfortunate, and all at the same time. Through a world full of paradox, riddles, and hard questions, I travel on my own fuzzy legs.