The Hebrew Bible does not have a lenient view on idolatry. The Genesis, besides talking about the origins of the world and the existence of evil, also wonders how could idolatry exist in a world created by a good god. The authors of the Bible lived in a region where the worship of little household idols and local fertility deities were common and it is believed that this rant against idolatry was an attempt at distinguishing themselves from the local customs and traditions. When God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises him the land, one of the justifications is that the current inhabitants were polluting it with idolatry. The primary book of the Priestly school talks about ritual purity and moral purity and the three heinous sins on the moral side were idolatry, homicide and sexual transgressions. Since idolatry defiles the land, the offenders are to be stoned. All this is put to test during the Queen of Sheba’s tempestuous visit to Jerusalem during Solomon’s reign.
According to myth, the Queen of Sheba, on hearing about the wisdom of Solomon, visits him. He too has heard about her and her cloven feet. Solomon talks to her about his God Yahweh and she converts. In the movie, the narrative is completely different. The Egyptian Pharaoh and the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) are allies who after failing in an effort to capture Israel come up with another plan. The Queen will travel to Jerusalem and influence Solomon (Yul Brynner). She will introduce pagan rituals which involve idols to Egypt and thus cause a rift between Solomon and his people. Once that is done it would be easy to conquer Israel.
It was a solid plan with one major loophole. The pagan fell in love with the monotheist. The monotheist too fell in love with the pagan and was willing to do anything to please her including giving permission for an an orgy festival. This, as expected, turns the clergy against Solomon. God too turns against Solomon and hits the temple and the Sheban idol with lightning. Meanwhile the Egyptians, who were waiting for an opportune moment, attack and Solomon’s army has to retreat. Hearing the news, the Queen of Sheba goes to the temple and affirms the supremacy of the one and only God. Solomon too asks for forgiveness. Everything goes well as Solomon defeats Egypt and returns right in time to Jerusalem to save Queen of Sheba from death by stoning. God forgives the Queen, but mandates that she return back to her country. Sheba returns, carrying Solomon’s baby.
The movie ends at that point, but according to an Ethiopian legend, the son of Sheba and Solomon returns to Jerusalem to meet his father. But on his return, he takes the Ark of the Covenant and the Ark has stayed in Ethiopia ever since.
- Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) by Prof. Christine Hayes, at Yale