Wisdom is experienced first-hand

Prophecy is history /7 - The world is full of women on the move, who know how to see and understand

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire il 14/07/2019

« When Adam feels that death is drawing near, he sends his son Seth to the earthly paradise. Seth receives three twigs from the Tree of Life. The twigs grow into a wonderful tree that resists the test of time until the arrival of Solomon. Set aside, it eventually ends up on the bridge over the Kedron River, where the meeting between Solomon and the queen of Sheba takes place. The queen predicts that that wood is destined to sustain the Messiah on Golgotha one day. »

Iacopo da Varazze, Golden Legend

The visit of the Queen of Sheba reveals the essence of the gift and the relationship that women have with wisdom.

If we look carefully at our globalized economy, we discover that markets and companies are full of gift and gratuity. Because the economy is simply another part of life, and where there is life the gift will also be present, always mixed in with other means of communication. We cannot see it, we cannot tell it, but the gift lives and nourishes our life and our economy, every day. It accompanies our daily life, with its typical beauty and its ambivalence, which also emerge in the stories of the life of Solomon, which was punctuated by many mercantile exchanges and many gifts: «At the end of twenty years, during which Solomon built these two buildings, the temple of the Lord and the royal palace, King Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram king of Tyre» (1 Kings 9,10-11). We had already learnt from the text that in order to build the temple, Solomon had come into contact with Hiram, who supplied him with all the special material he needed during the many years of construction. A huge endeavor like this, which took many years to complete and was so complex that it did not really enable them to foresee all the costs, contingencies and accidents involved, required (and still requires) a special relationship with the main supplier, which in the biblical language is defined as an "alliance" or "covenant".

In every alliance – be it commercial, matrimonial, political, even a military one - the conditions and purely commercial exchange (price range, weight, measures) are joined by other relational aspects, among which those of the gift can be found as well. The very linguistic choices of the author of the text reveal this interweaving, when he shows us the relationship between Hiram and Solomon, which is clearly characterized by the mercantile lexicon and at the same time punctuated by the typical words of the gift ("to donate", "to give"). Contracts are too fragile to rely on our alliances. We need a stronger thread (fides) or fabric, which can only be created by weaving the threads of the contracts together with those of the gift - and vice versa: gratuity alone is not enough to keep our pacts alive.

However, gifts invariably also bring about their typical ambivalence: «When Hiram went from Tyre to see the towns that Solomon had given him, he was not pleased with them. “What kind of towns are these you have given me, my brother?” he asked» (1 Kings 9,12-13). In the exchange with Hiram, Solomon had promised him some cities as a counter-gift, but, evidently, the contract and the information given beforehand were incomplete and imperfect. Hiram did not like the counter-gift. He protests but Solomon does not respond. Thus, the episode ends with Hiram's disappointment and without a proper reply from Solomon, to tell us, perhaps, that not all misunderstandings have a happy conclusion, not even while constructing the most beautiful temple. The second part of this chapter continues to reveal to us the essence of the gift (and much more), in one of the most famous episodes in the Bible: the visit of the Queen of Sheba. This story has generated many legends that have crossed the entire European and Arab Middle Ages: «When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relationship to the Lord, she came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan, with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones, she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her» (1 Kings 10,1-3).

A woman, a queen, a foreigner and a pagan, who goes to Solomon in search of wisdom - in the ancient world solving puzzles was synonymous with wisdom. Perfect ingredients to arouse both charm and suspicion in the ancient male. A queen or a "witch" (in the Testament of Solomon), a woman with the foot of a hairy goat or wise, Sibyl or Solomon's lover with whom she had a son (Menelik), the progenitor of the Ethiopians (in the Kebra Nagast). Different traditions and tales have filled the gaps in the story: the name, the country, what was there before, during and after the meeting with Solomon. She has been given many imagined names: Makeda, Lilith, Hoopoe, Nicaula, Bilquis. A figure that is also celebrated in Islam and appears in the Quran (Surah 27), in many Muslim stories and in the Jewish midrash. Queen of Sheba: perhaps Ethiopia, perhaps Yemen, she was perhaps "the queen of Ethiopia and Egypt" (Flavius Josephus). Probably a woman of dark skin, as represented in some medieval paintings (Nicola di Verdun, 1181). There is a line that, starting with the Song of Songs ("black I am beautiful": 1.5), unites the Queen of Sheba with the tradition of the Black Madonna of Monserrat, by Czestochowa or Einsiedeln.

The Bible only tells us of a foreign woman without a name, who goes to Solomon to receive wisdom, bearing splendid gifts. An essential and beautiful detail, which immediately enriches the vision that the Bible has of the woman: here she is a queen, lover and desirous of wisdom, generous and exceeding donator of gifts. She leaves her country because he is attracted by wisdom, by another kind of wisdom of a different God, but that is also the wisdom of all – the universalist soul of the Bible emerges once again: if wisdom is true it must be the wisdom of all. She leaves to know it, and hence to meet and face it in person. Listening to stories or reading a papyrus was not enough, because wisdom is revealed through personal encounters, in heart-to-heart dialogues. And with that foreign woman who came from far away to honor and meet a wise king (in the Middle Ages some commentators also saw the icon and the announcement of the Magi here) Solomon found a special understanding - "there was no word so hidden to the king that he could not explain it". The Books of Kings do not tell us of any other such deep connection or understanding with any other man, king or prophet.

Women are capable of this special intimate relationship with wisdom - which tends to remain shrouded in mystery to many men, who in the Middle Ages tried to replace this wisdom-laden intimacy by imagining a romantic or erotic one instead. The history of female spirituality and mysticism however tells us of many women similar to the Queen of Sheba. Women who are able to make a long journey (sometimes lasting an entire lifetime), solely because they are attracted by wisdom, seduced by the infinite charm of an eye-to-eye or heart-to-heart dialogue with it, meeting a different king, to be with and talk to about "what they bear in their hearts". Even today, monasteries, convents, but also regular families and anyone’s home, are full of women able to set out to search for this wisdom and these dialogues. We do not realize it, we do not understand them, sometimes we humiliate and offend them, but they continue to leave for this journey, to meet, to dialogue. «When the queen of Sheba saw all the Wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the Lord, she was overwhelmed» (1 Kings 10,4-5).

What is important is the description of what exactly struck the queen. Beyond wisdom, she saw "the foods" on his table, and then "the orderly way in which the servants were seated, their service and their garments". The way we sit, serve and dress servants: this is the first time that we read detailed elements like these in the historical books of the Bible, and we needed a woman to show them to us. Delicate notes, which most heads of state on official visit in general never see, a mistake; because it is precisely details such as these that do not escape many female eyes that tell the wisdom of a community. Women's travel stories are different. Yesterday and today - hopefully tomorrow too.

«She said to the king: "The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your people must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!"» (1 Kings 10,6-8).

Women too have their own way of "touch in order to believe", and by touching they see twice as much ("... not even half"). But it is not Thomas's kind of touch. Their faith does not need to touch to believe (that Gospel story is typical of males); to the women not present in the house when the Risen Christ appeared it was not necessary to put a finger in the wound to believe. Women do not need to touch wounds to believe, they know how to have faith without touching and seeing. Wisdom, however, they must touch, they need to know and meet it. Hearsay is not enough to know it. They need to go there to see, to listen, to talk, to hear themselves called by name: "Maria", and then answer: "Rabbuni"; they know how to hear and recognize mutually called names in this encounter. The conclusion to this wonderful visit is very beautiful indeed: «And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon» (1 Kings 10,10). That queen had come with many gifts, exaggerated gifts. And she left with as many gifts: «King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired and asked for, besides what he had given her out of his royal bounty» (1 Kings 10,13).

There is no other language in the face of wisdom. Wisdom is born and flourishes only in encounters of excess and exaggerated gifts. When you meet with wisdom, either you give too much or you don't give enough – that is why many people once they have discovered wisdom can only give to it their whole lives. After the departure of Makeda-Lilith-Hoopoe-Nicaula-Bilquis, Solomon never experienced those scents and aromas again. But we can experience their perfume in those that another woman poured, as a great and excessive gift, at the feet of another King; in the aromas that other women used to anoint the crucified body; or in that oil that a man on the road to Jericho used to anoint another man. Who knows how many Queens of Sheba are traveling through deserts and seas today, loaded with other gifts and aromas, for us? But the Wisdom of Solomon is not here to welcome them.

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