“Solomon and Sheba” was released in 1959. The movie stars Yul Brynner as Solomon, Gina Lollobrigida as Sheba, George Sanders as Adonijah, and Marisa Pavan as Abishag. The screenplay, written by Anthony Veiller, Paul Dudley, and George Bruce, was based on a story by Crane Wilbur. “Solomon and Sheba” was directed by King Vidor.
“Solomon and Sheba”: A Love Story
I watched this movie many years before I became interested in the Old Testament. The movie is a beautiful love story between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The film describes how the Queen of Sheba came to see Solomon, fell in love with him, and became pregnant before returning to her country.
The film also tells how the Queen of Sheba, out of love, goes to the temple of God and prays for the safety of Solomon who was about to face the enemies of Israel in battle. In her prayer, she promised God if he would deliver Solomon and spared his life, she would return to her country, and adopt Solomon’s God as her God.
The Queen of Sheba also makes a promise that the child, if it is a son, would become the first male king of Sheba. According to tradition, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was Menelik who became the first king of Ethiopia. According to tradition, when Menelik had grown up, he came to visit his father Solomon and when he returned home, he took the Ark of the Covenant with him to Ethiopia and placed the Ark in a chapel in the town of Aksum.
In order to review the movie, I will discuss the role the Queen of Sheba plays in the movie, how the movie presents Solomon, and then offer an evaluation of how the movie reflects the biblical story.
The Queen of Sheba
The Bible says very little about the queen of Sheba. Her story and her visit to Jerusalem is narrated in 1 Kings 10:1–13. According to the story narrated in the biblical text,
the queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame and came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with camels loaded with spices, gold, and precious stones. She quizzed Solomon, who was able to answer all of her questions. She was thoroughly impressed by the king’s wisdom and the splendor of his court and temple, expressed to Solomon her amazement at his wisdom, achievements, and wealth, and praised Solomon’s God for the king’s happy state. Thereupon she gave the king an enormous amount of gold, spices, and precious stones. King Solomon gave her an even greater amount in return, whereupon she left with her retinue for her own country (Ricks 1992:1170).
The movie, however, portrays the Queen of Sheba in another role. In the movie, the Queen of Sheba is an ally of the Egyptian Pharaoh, possibly Siamun (Green 1978:353–367). The Queen of Sheba comes to Jerusalem to seduce Solomon and to introduce him to the worship of her gods. The Queen sees Solomon passing judgment upon the two mothers who claimed to be the mothers of one child and acknowledges Solomon’s wisdom.
Solomon falls in love with the Queen and the Queen moves into Solomon’s palace and they begin living together. The Queen of Sheba asks Solomon permission to allow a festival to her god to be held in Jerusalem. Solomon allows the Queen to celebrate the festival. The festival is a love orgy dedicated to the god Almaqah in which Solomon participates by having sex with the Queen of Sheba.
After the festival, the Egyptian army comes to fight against Solomon. The mighty Egyptian army defeats Solomon’s army and many of his soldiers defect, leaving Solomon with a small group of soldiers to face the Egyptians the next day.
Adonijah, Solomon’s brother, goes to Jerusalem and proclaims himself to be the new king in place of his brother. The Queen of Sheba believes that Solomon is being punished because of his participation in the festival to her god. So, she goes to the temple, prays to the God of Solomon and asks God to forgive Solomon and restore him to the throne. The Queen of Sheba makes a promise that if Solomon is restored, she will return to her home and Solomon’s God will be her God.
While the Queen of Sheba is praying, Adonijah incites the population of Jerusalem to stone the Queen of Sheba for promoting pagan worship in Jerusalem. The people stoned her and she is badly wounded. It is at this time that Solomon returns to Jerusalem victorious against the Egyptian army. Solomon kills Adonijah and takes the badly wounded body of the Queen of Sheba to the temple.
Solomon prays to God and the Queen of Sheba is miraculously healed of her wounds. The Queen tells Solomon that she is expecting a child, Solomon tells her that she will reign with him and that their son will become the next king of Israel.
The Queen tells Solomon of her promise to God. She returns to her country, carrying in her womb Solomon’s child who will become the first king of Ethiopia.
Since the Bible says little about the Queen of Sheba, the writers had to be creative and develop the plot mentioned above. The story of the Queen of Sheba as it appears in the movie is pure fiction and has no historical evidence to confirm its historicity.
On the other hand, the Bible has much to say about Solomon and one can compare the Solomon of the Bible with the Solomon of the movie. It is here that the movie completely departs from the biblical narrative. “Solomon and Sheba” is a highly fictionalized movie and presents a story that in many ways, departs and contradicts the biblical text.
In the movie, Solomon is presented as a man of prayer, as a wise king who gives righteous judgment. When he becomes king, he goes to the high place at Gibeon and asks God to give him an understanding heart that he may judge the people with righteousness and that he may discern between good and evil (1 Kings 3:9). Solomon also quotes portions of The Song of Songs to the Queen of Sheba. In the movie, God speaks to Solomon twice.
The rest of the story of Solomon is fictitious and departs in many ways from the biblical narrative. The movie begins when Solomon and Adonijah are fighting the Egyptian army. While they are on the battlefield, a messenger arrives and tells Solomon that David is about to die. Solomon returns to Jerusalem and Adonijah, who remained behind, proclaims himself to be the new king of Israel.
When Adonijah comes to the palace, David is placed upon the throne and right there he proclaims Solomon to be the new king. Adonijah is irate and leaves the palace. Later, Solomon goes to Adonijah’s house and asks him to become the commander of the army of Israel.
Adonijah and Joab make an attempt to assassinate Solomon. When the plot is discovered, Solomon banishes Adonijah who goes to Egypt and makes an alliance with Pharaoh, promising to conquer Solomon if Pharaoh would help him become the new king of Israel in place of Solomon.
When Solomon hears that the Egyptians, together with Adonijah, are coming to Jerusalem, Solomon gathers his army to battle with the Egyptians. In the battle, Solomon’s army is routed and many of his soldiers deserted him. Solomon is left with a few men to fight against the Egyptians.
That night, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple to ask God to forgive Solomon for the sin he has committed. In the morning the army of Israel returns to Solomon in great numbers. Solomon devises a plan to defeat the Egyptians. After the Egyptian army is decimated, Solomon and his army take some of the spoils and return to Jerusalem.
Upon his return, Solomon sees the people stoning the Queen of Sheba. He confronts Adonijah. They duel in front of the temple and Solomon kills Adonijah. Solomon then takes the Queen of Sheba who is badly wounded, goes to the temple and there prays for the Queen. In response to Solomon’s prayer, God speaks to him and miraculously heals the Queen of Sheba.
The Queen tells Solomon that she is expecting a child. Solomon tells her that she will reign with him and that their son will become the new king of Israel. The Queen tells Solomon of her vow to God. She promises Solomon that, if the child is a boy, he will become the first king of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba then returns to her country.
“Solomon and Sheba” and the Bible
Although the movie is based on the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, the movie is highly fictionalized and departs almost completely from the biblical text. The whole story about the Queen of Sheba is not in the Bible. The writers who wrote the script for the movie had to develop a story about the Queen in order to make her the second most important person in the movie.
The story of Solomon in the movie is not the story of Solomon that appears in the Bible. In the Bible, Adonijah is killed early in the reign of Solomon. Adonijah never made an alliance with Egypt, he never became the commander of Israel’s army, he never usurped Solomon’s throne, and he never actually sat on the throne of Solomon.
The movie is a beautiful, fictionalized love story between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Yul Brynner plays an almost convincing Solomon and Gina Lollobrigida plays a beautiful and dynamic Queen of Sheba. Her role implies that many women in antiquity exercised power and influence over kingdoms and people.
However, it is tragic that people will learn nothing about the Bible from this movie, except that there was a king called Solomon who became king of Israel upon the death of his father. Even Solomon’s coronation as king of Israel as portrayed in the movie differs from what the Bible says about the way Solomon became king.
I enjoyed the movie, not because it was an Old Testament movie. I enjoyed the movie because of its love story. The way the Queen of Sheba came to the temple to pray to God and the promise she made to God was very moving.
You should watch this movie, not to learn more about the Old Testament, but to enjoy a beautiful love story, the conversion of a woman from paganism to faith in the true God, and how political ambition is transformed by the power of love.
For previous posts on the Old Testament and Hollywood, see my post, “The Old Testament Goes Hollywood.”
NOTE: For other studies on Solomon, David’s son and King of Israel, read my post Solomon, King of Israel.
Green, Alberto R. W. “Solomon and Siamun: A Synchronism Between Early Dynastic Israel and the Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt.” Journal of Biblical Literature 97 no 3 (1978): 353–367.
Ricks, Stephen D. “Sheba, Queen of (Person).” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. 5:1170. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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