Saturday, August 30, 2008

Future Projects III: Biblical Fiction

So it was that in 1996 I was listening to the latest Cassandra Wilson album, New Moon Daughter, and the third song, being of the name "Solomon Sang," didst appeal to me greatly. And I carefully and with a little difficulty removed the booklet from the fragile plastic jewel box and didst look within that I might check out the lyrics to the song. And lo, I read them and was struck, like a palm against the forehead of a fool, which is to say as Moe thus did to Curly, they being brothers and children of Israel to boot, by verse the second, to wit:

Wisdom was his calling
Pride sent him falling
Love was blissful misery
And when the days grew dim
Life began again
From the questions of a queen
Did she understand his sorrow
Did she see his pain
Vanity and precious stones
Weigh you down the same
But when he lay down with Makeda
Solomon Sang.

That Ms. Wilson, she of the sublime talent and smoky vocals, was referring to King Solomon's meeting with the Queen of Sheba was well understood by me. Yet two things were previously unknown to me: her name being Makeda, and the fact that they knew each other...well...biblically. I decided to perform some research, and so I Yahoo'd (this being in the days before I knew from Googling) the term "Makeda," and found I much interesting stuff I never learned in Sunday School.

The account of Solomon and Makeda in the Hebrew Bible is told in all of 13 verses in I Kings, chapter 10:
I Kings 10 (King James Version)

1 And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions.

2 And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.

3 And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not.

4 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built,

5 And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD; there was no more spirit in her.

6 And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom.

7 Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.

8 Happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.

9 Blessed be the LORD thy God, which delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel: because the LORD loved Israel for ever, therefore made he thee king, to do judgment and justice.

10 And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.

11 And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones.

12 And the king made of the almug trees pillars for the house of the LORD, and for the king's house, harps also and psalteries for singers: there came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.

13 And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.

Sounds pretty platonic to me. And though I can't personally vouch for it, Wikipedia informs me that the account of this story in the Qur'an is similar. There is, however, a different version that appears in an ancient compilation of Ethiopian legends called the Kebra Negast (the Glory of Kings). In this account, the Queen of Sheba, named Makeda, is seduced by Solomon. Furthermore, she is impregnated and gives birth to a son named Menelik, who grew up to become the first emperor of Ethiopia.

[As a quick aside, I was working at public TV station WGBH at the time, and was selected to be a judge in a youth writing contest. We each read submissions from a particular age group. I think I got 8- to 10-year-olds. One story was head and shoulders above the rest, and it was written by a young boy named Menelik Washington. Thus, when I read about the Kebra Negast account, I was further struck by this (cf. Moe and Curly). I recommended that Menelik be a finalist and he ended up winning the award for his age group.]

Quoting from Wikipedia: "The narrative given in the Kebra Negast - which has no parallel in the Hebrew Biblical story - is that King Solomon invited the Queen of Sheba to a banquet, serving spicy food to induce her thirst, and inviting her to stay in his palace overnight. The Queen asked him to swear that he would not take her by force. He accepted upon the condition that she, in turn, would not take anything from his house by force. The Queen assured that she would not, slightly offended by this intimation that she, a rich and powerful monarch, would engage in stealing. However, as she woke up in the middle of the night, she was very thirsty. Just as she reached for a jar of water placed close to her bed, King Solomon appeared, warning her that she was breaking her oath, water being the most valuable of all material possessions. Thus, while quenching her thirst, she set the king free from his promise and they spent the night together."

Interestingly, for the next 2,900 years, all Ethiopian emperors traced their lineage back to Menelik I, and therefore, to Solomon. The last emperor in this line was Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), who, as every reggae fan knows, is believed to be God incarnate by Rastafarians.

So it was that all these things brought to my mind the idea, "Hey, this would make a swell book." For lo, even as I am a faithful Jew, the Kebra Negast version kicks ass and the Hebrew Bible version is boring, and wouldn't it be fun to write a Biblical sex scene? I'm thinking something along the lines of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, where the scriptural origins are taken as a springboard for imagined and invented dialogue and context. Although if I wanted to have some fun with it, throw in some scatological scat, I could use as my touchstone Joseph Heller's God Knows, where King David recounts his life while on his deathbed, replete with debauchery and anachronistic details.

In the interim, I recommend the Cassandra Wilson song most highly.

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