Saturday, March 15, 2014

Czenzi Ormonde, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba


Opening Passage:
It was a time of waiting. Lifted by winds that come before the winter rains, the sighs of Jerusalem were carried far. They cooled the tents and hearts of those who still dwelt in the desert; the ardor of lovers in distant fields. They shamed into silence the haggling in the market-places and pressed the gentle hands of the old, who remembered, against the laughing mouths of those too young to remember that David the King had been a mighty warrior in the days of his glory.

Now he was old and stricken in years....

Summary: The story of Solomon in 1 Kings is largely a string of episodes with some information about how Solomon organized his kingdom, so anyone attempting to write biblical fiction about Solomon has to consider how to unify it into a story. Ormonde's approach to this is interesting, since she takes the narrative order of the story in the book of Kings to be thematic rather than chronological. This is not an immediately obvious way to read it, but there's something to be said for it textually, and it has the advantage for novel-writing that you can draw on practically all the material of the text. Thus, for instance, Adonijah, Solomon's brother, dies in 1 Kings 2:25, as part of a series of passages on the transition from David to Solomon, while Solomon marries the daughter of Pharaoh in 3:1, which begins a number of passages on his rule, starts preparing to build the Temple in 5:1, and is visited by the Queen of Sheba in chapter 10, in the middle of a set of passages discussing his trading empire. In Ormonde's novelization, the story is framed by the Adonijah story, with most of it occurring at the beginning, but Adonijah's death at the very end; the visit of the Queen of Sheba overlaps the building of the Temple and is motivated by the massive trading system Solomon is beginning to build up; and so forth. The major difficulty raised by this is why there is such a long delay before Adonijah's death, since it is difficult to make sense of any such gap in the 1 Kings narrative. Ormonde's solution to this problem is somewhat ingenious, although perhaps not entirely plausible.

The basic story, of course, is set. Solomon was the son of David and Bathsheba. He was not the oldest son of David. That had been Absalom, who had died in an attempt to take the throne from his father. Another older brother, Amnon, also died. The next oldest was Adonijah son of Haggith who, as David was "old and stricken in years" (1 Kings 1:1, note Ormonde's deliberate echo in the opening passage), and, indeed, apparently bedridden and needing a nurse, Abishag, to take care of him, began to prepare for taking the throne; the text tells us that even as he gave himself kingly airs, "his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?" (1:6). In addition, Adonijah had the support of David's commander, Joab, and one of his major counselors, the priest Abiathar. However, there seems to have been some doubt in the court as to the propriety of Adonijah's behavior; we are told that a number of other significant people in the court, including Zadok the priest, the commander Benaiah, Nathan the prophet, and the old guard who had fought with David "were not with Adonijah" (1:8). At this point, Adonijah calls a great feast, inviting many important people, but not, very noticeably, Nathan, Benaiah, Solomon, and the mighty men of David. Trying to cut the conservative element of the court out, it seems. While this happens, however, Nathan the prophet -- the very same prophet who had excoriated David and Bathsheba for their original adulterous liaison -- goes to Bathsheba, pointing out that as soon as Adonijah seizes power for real, her life and the life of her son is in danger. He tells her to go to David and remind him that he promised her their son would rule, and that they will likely instead be killed if Adonijah takes power. This she does, and while she is doing so, Nathan himself comes in (he seems to have had an extraordinarily devious mind), tells David about the big feast Adonijah is hosting and, as nonchalantly as you please, asks David if he had given Adonijah the throne and Nathan had just not received the memo: "Is this thing done by my lord the king, and thou hast not shewed it unto thy servant, who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him?" (1:27).

David immediately responds as you would expect him to, given his experience with Absalom: he makes a countermove to cut the ground from beneath Adonijah's feat. Solomon will be anointed king by Zadok and Nathan, blow the trumpet to let the people know, and have Solomon set on the throne of Israel. This they did. Messengers inform Adonijah after the fact, all his guests scatter, and Adonijah flees to the nearest altar for sanctuary. Two major mistakes, you see: the first in doing everything so blatantly and alienating the old guard, and the second in courting the powerful and not realizing that what makes the king is that the people recognize him as such. Once David had Solomon proclaimed king in a way that would be recognized by the people, Adonijah had no chance. Solomon promises, however, to spare his life as long as he's a good boy. David dies and Solomon's rule begins well. Adonijah, however, comes to Bathsheba asking for a favor: let Abishag be given to him as a wife. Bathsheba carries the request forward. Solomon sees it as a power play by Adonijah: "And why dost thou ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? ask for him the kingdom also; for he is mine elder brother; even for him, and for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab the son of Zeruia" (2:22). Indeed, it very likely was a power play, an attempt by Adonijah to establish that he really did have some claim on the throne; Adonijah's comments to Bathsheba strongly suggest that he still thought of the throne as taken from him, the rightful claimant. It was also strongly suggested earlier in the narrative that Abishag had been witness to what happened when David gave the throne to Solomon. In any case, Solomon takes it as proof that Adonijah is not, in fact, acting in good faith, and has him killed. As I noted above, in order to have this story structure the main tale, Ormonde inserts a gap between Adonijah's request and his death of many years, during which Adonijah schemes in exile.

The major focus of any novel called Solomon and the Queen of Sheba will be the King and the Queen. Solomon as Ormonde imagines him is a man of warm understanding, inclined to think the best of people, including his brother Adonijah; he also does not really want to be on the throne. His mother, Zadok, and Nathan put him there, and now that he is there, he will do his duty, but he does not really think of himself as entitled to it. He is also shown from the beginning to have a weakness of women; Adonijah jokes about it early on.

In tradition, there are two major sources of legend about the Queen of Sheba outside the Bible itself, an Arabic strand and an Ethiopian strand. (Sheba was almost certainly the Kingdom of Saba in southwestern Arabia across the Red Sea from Ethiopia, and ancient Yemen and Ethiopia both had thriving Jewish populations to cultivate such legends.) In the Arabic strand of legends she is called Balkis or Belkis; in the Ethiopian strand, she is called Makada. Ormonde draws on both. The Queen of Sheba at the beginning of the novel is Belkis, a ruthless tyrant of a woman set on draining her kingdom dry in order to have the most magnificent tomb ever built; her heir and successor is the young Makada, who kills Belkis out of self-defense. Makada is being managed by the ruthless and manipulative Vizier, Tamrin, and between the two of them, they work out a way to foil Solomon, whose increasing power over major trade routes worries them both. Like many kings (1 Kings 4:34), Makada comes to Israel on a trade mission, but she is out for more than that: she intends to find Solomon's weakness and bring him down.

Ormonde makes a lot of very good choices in building her narrative. There are some things I wish had been given more play, though. For instance, Ormonde emphasizes the idea that David originally intended to build the Temple because he recognized a fundamental weakness in human nature that needed to be addressed. David had done an immense amount of work to build for his people a spiritual legacy; but spiritual legacies are invisible, and people take for granted what is invisible. So the Temple was to be a visible sign of this invisible legacy, a way everybody could just look and see it. This fits very well with much of the rest of the narrative, since it contrasts with Solomon's temptation to focus so much on visible legacy that he nearly fails to preserve the spiritual legacy it was supposed to represent. It doesn't exactly fall out of the narrative, but it doesn't get as much development as I think it should have. I also wish there had been more of Tanis, the Pharaoh's daughter; she was written very well, a very sympathetic character, and she does to some extent fall out of the story for no good reason.

Of course, the major centerpiece of the novel, qua novel rather than qua biblical fiction, is the sexual tension between Solomon and Makada. This is a fairly obvious move, one not strictly required by the biblical narrative, but one very consistent with it. We are told that "when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart" (1 Kings 10:2) and that "king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty" (10:13), both of which would be remarkably strong statements if the point were just that they worked out a nice trade alliance. The interesting twist, of course, is how Ormonde makes this, and the strong praise of the Queen for Solomon in 1 Kings 10, fit with the fact that Makada is the primary villain of the story.

Favorite Passage: In this passage, Makada and Tanis are talking about Solomon. Makada is baffled by the Israelite worship of only one God, and asks Tanis why, when she married Solomon, she did not embrace his God rather than continue to worship her own, which she has to do in very quiet discrete manner. Tanis replies that he didn't ask it of her.

"If he had?"

Tanis spoke with slow deliberation. "I don't know. It is not a simple thing, to relinquish the belief of your fathers. I have no wish to turn my back on the comfort and nourishment of my early years. I don't believe it is possible. I could stand before the Ark of his God, perhaps move my lips in the songs of his worship, till I would be fearful that when the time came for my lifeless heart to be weighed on the scales it would know the fury of Thoth. Still, I read the forbidden rolls that ell of the one deity of Ikhnaton. He was believed to have a loving hear that looked on men with mercy--the same as Solomon's God--so I sometimes wonder--"

Recommendation: It's no Ben-Hur, but it is a competently constructed tale with some beautiful passages. It also does have that air of Golden-Age-Hollywood biblical epic. So if it happens to come your way, I recommend you try it out.


  1. Well,
    it sounds like it’s an enjoyable book; it looks like it fitted what you assumed
    it might look like.

  2. But I know that my favorite epic
    (movie) was Kampf um
    Rom, ‘Bătălia pentru Roma’ in Romanian, by Siodmak; many buffs knew, here, about Cethegus and Witiges and Mathaswintha
    and Rauthgundis. I have seen it twice (both times, on TV), and was very
    impressed with it.

  3. ‘The Doomed City’, by J. R.
    Carling, was a book cherished by some of the Romanian readers; that novel had
    its Romanian fans.

  4. branemrys9:10 PM

    I'll have to keep an eye out for it.


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