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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Sabina Poppæa
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The inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Sheba in southeastern Arabia, known from the Bible, classical writers, and native inscriptions. The genealogies of Genesis give three pedigrees for Sheba, the eponymous ancestor of the Sabeans, who is variously termed (1) the son of Raamah and the grandson of Cush (Genesis 10:7; 1 Chronicles 1:9; comp. Ezekiel 27:22, 38:13), (2) the son of Joktan and a great-great-great-grandson of Shem (Genesis 10:28; 1 Chronicles 1:22), and (3) the son of Jokshan and a grandson of Abraham by Keturah (Genesis 25:3; 1 Chronicles 1:32). There seem, therefore, to have been three stocks of Sabeaus: one in Africa (comp. the Ethiopian city of Saba mentioned by Strabo, "Geography," p. 771), and the other two in Arabia. Of the latter one is connected with the story of Abraham, and the other with that of the kingdom localized by Genesis 10:30, including the Joktanites generally, and extending "from Mesha, as thou goest unto Sephar, a mount of the east." In Job 6:19 the Sabeans are mentioned in close association with the Temeans, an Ishmaelite stock (Genesis 25:15) that dwelt in Arabia (Isaiah 21:14; comp. Jeremiah 25:23-24).

In the Bible.

The Psalms and the prophetical books lay special emphasis upon the wealth and commercial activity of the Sabeans. The gifts of the kings of Sheba () and of Seba () to Solomon are noted in Psalms 72:10, gold being especially mentioned among these presents (ib. verse 15). In both these passages the Septuagint, followed by the Vulgate, identifies Sheba with Arabia (βασιλεῖς Ἀράβων, Ἀραβία). Isaiah 60:6 adds incense to the gifts which these countries were to bring (comp. Jeremiah 6:20). Despite the collocation with Dedan in Genesis 10:7, 1 Chronicles 1:9, and Ezekiel 38:13, the merchants of Sheba, whom Ezekiel addressed in the words "occupied in thy fairs with chief of all spices, and with all precious stones, and gold" (Ezekiel 27:22), were doubtless Sabeans; but the reference in the following verse to the "merchants of Sheba," together with Haran, Canneh, Eden Asshur, and Chilmad, who by implication would be Asiatics, is probably a mere dittography, and is rightly omitted in the Septuagint. The wealth of Sheba is indicated also by the list of the gifts brought by its queen to Solomon, and which were "a 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" (1 Kingsx. 10; comp. ib. verse 2; 2 Chronicles 9:1,9; see SHEBA, QUEEN OF).

The only mention of the Sabeans in a warlike connection is in Job 1:15, where they are described as attacking and killing the servants of Job to rob them of cattle; but according to Joel 4 [A. V. ] 8, they dealt in slaves, including Jews. In the New Testament there is a reference to the kingdom of Sheba in the allusion to "the queen of the south" (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Sheba must be carefully distinguished from the Cushite or African Seba (comp. Genesis 10:7; 1 Chronicles 1:9), as is shown by the discrimination between the "kings of Sheba and Seba" in Psalms 72:10, and by the collocation of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba in Isaiah 43:3, 45:14.

In the Classical Writers.

Strabo, basing his account for the most part on Eratosthenes, an author of the third century B.C., gives considerable information of value concerning the Sabeans ("Geography," ed. Müller, pp. 768, 778, 780). Their territory was situated between those of the Mineans and Cattabanes; and their capital, Mariaba, stood on the summit of a wooded hill. The country, like those adjoining, was a flourishing monarchy, with beautiful temples and palaces, and with houses which resembled those of the Egyptians. The mode of succession to the throne was peculiar in that the heir apparent was not the son of the king, but the first son born to a noble after the monarch's accession. The king himself was also the judge; but he was not allowed to leave the palace under penalty of being stoned to death by the people.

Commerce, Agriculture, and Religion.

Inscriptions of the Sabeans are numerous, but the information which these records furnish is comparatively meager. They cover, it is true, a period of about 1,300 years, ceasing only with the extinction of the kingdom in the sixth century C.E.; but only of the period just before and just after the beginning of the present era are they sufficiently abundant to allow even an approximation to a coherent history. The earliest inscription known is one containing the name of Yetha-amara, who has been identified with the "Ithamara the Sabean" of an inscription of Sargon dated 715 B.C. Besides the epigraphical remains, there is a large number of coins, dating chiefly from 150 B.C. to 150 C.E. These are of special value for the history of the nation, even during its period of decline, since they bear both the monograms and the names of numerous kings. The Sabean inscriptions are dated by eponymous magistrates previous to the introduction of an era which has been identified with the Seleucidan (312 B.C.), and which has also been fixed by other scholars as beginning in 115 B.C., although there are traces of other chronological systems as well. These texts frequently allude to commerce, agriculture, and religion. The chief articles of trade are the same as those mentioned in the Bible and the classics, with the addition of horses and camels. The agricultural texts are chiefly prayers for increase in crops and live stock, with the inevitable petition of the Semite for male offspring. They contain also a number of plant-names, as well as occasional references to systems of irrigation. The military texts, in their accounts of successful raids on and repulses of other marauding tribes, confirm the allusion in Job 1:15.


The references to religion are for the most part names of deities; but the entire lack of description renders a reconstruction of the Semitic pantheon practically impossible. It is clear, however, from the appellations of the gods that the religion of Sheba closely resembled the pre-Islamic Arabian cult, and showed certain affinities with the Assyro Babylonian system as well. Among the Sabean gods the most important were Almaḳah ("the hearing god"?), Athtar (a protective deity and the male form of "Ashtaroth," to whom the gazel seems to have been sacred), Haubas (possibly a lunar deity), Dhu Samawi ("lord of heaven"), Ḥajr, Ḳainan, Ḳawim ("the sustaining"), Sin (the principal moon-god), Shams (the chief solar deity), Yaṭa', Ramman (the Biblical Rimmon), El ("god" in general), Sami' ("the hearing"), Shem (corresponding in functions to the general Semitic Ba'al), Ḥobal (possibly a god of fortune), Ḥomar (perhaps a god of wine), Bashir ("bringer of good tidings"), Raḥman ("the merciful"), Ta'lab (probably a tree-god), and Wadd (borrowed from the Mineans). A number of goddesses are mentioned, among them Dhat Ḥami ("lady of Ḥami"), Dhat Ba'dan ("lady of Ba'dan"), Dhat Gaḍran ("lady of Gaḍran"), and Tanuf ("lofty").

It becomes clear, even from this scanty information, that the religion was in the main a nature-cult, like the other Semitic religions; and this is borne out by a statement in the Koran (sura 27:24) that the Sabeans worshiped the sun. Few details of the cult are given, although there are frequent mentions of gifts and sacrifices, as well as of "self-presentation," a rite of doubtful meaning, but one which evidently might be performed more than once. Ritual purity and abstinence of various forms also seem to have formed part of the Sabean religion, and the name of the month Dhu Ḥijjat or Maḥijjat, the only one retained by the Arabs (Dhu'l-Ḥijja, the twelfth month), implies a custom of religious pilgrimage to some shrine or shrines.

Government and Society.

To the account of the government as described by Strabo the Sabean inscriptions add little. The word for "nation" is "khums" (fifth), which apparently implies an earlier division of Arabia or of a portion of it into five parts; and the people were divided into tribes ("shi'b"), which, in their turn, were composed of "tenths" or "thirds." The kings at first styled themselves "malik" (king) and, possibly later, "mukarrib," a term of uncertain meaning, while they afterward were called "kings of Saba and Dhu Raidan," and finally monarchs of Ḥaḍramaut and Yamanet as well. There were likewise kings of a number of minor cities. From a late text which mentions a king of Ḥimyar and Raidan and of Saba and Silḥin, it has been inferred that the capital of Sheba was later removed to Raidan while the actual palace remained at Ḥimyar, and that from this circumstance the dynasty and all that it ruled were formerly called Himyaritic (the "Homeritæ" of Ptolemy and of Christian ecclesiastical authors), a designation now generally discarded.

The state of society in Sheba seems to have been somewhat feudal in character. The great families, which evidently possessed large landed estates, had castles and towers that are frequently mentioned in the inscriptions; and remains of some of these buildings are still extant. The status of woman was remarkably high. The mistress of a castle is mentioned in one inscription, and the epigraphical remains represent women as enjoying practical equality with men, although a few passages imply the existence of concubinage.


The Sabean language belonged to the Semitic stock. While some of the inscriptions differ little from classical Arabic, most of them show a close affinity with Ethiopic. The weak letters occasionally possessed their consonantal value as in Ethiopic, although they have become vowels in Arabic. On the other hand, the article is affixed as in Aramaic, instead of being prefixed as in Arabic, and certain syntactic phenomena recall Hebrew rather than the South-Semitic dialects. The alphabet, which, like all the Semitic systems except Ethiopic, represents the consonants only, is plausibly regarded by many as the earliest form of Semitic script.

  • Osiander, Zur Himjaritischen Alterthumskunde, in Z. D. M. G. , Leipsic, 1865;
  • Halévy, Etudes Sabéennes, Paris, 1875;
  • D. H. Müller, Burgen und Schlösser Süd-Arabiens, Vienna, 1879-81;
  • idem, Epigraphische Denk-Müler aus Arabien, ib. 1889;
  • idem, Süd-Arabische Alterthümer. ib. 1899;
  • Mordtmann and Müller, Sabäische Denkmüler, ib. 1883;
  • Schlumberger, Le Trésor de San'a, Paris, 1880;
  • Glaser, Skizze der Geschichte Arabiens, Munich, 1889;
  • idem, Geschichte und Geographie Arabiens, Berlin, 1889-1890;
  • idem, Die Abessinier in Arabien und Afrika, Munich, 1895;
  • Hommel, Aufsätze und Abhandlungen, ib. 1892-1901;
  • idem, Südarabische Chrestomathie, ib. 1893;
  • Mordtmann, Himjaritische Inschriften in den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin, 1893;
  • Derenbourg, Les Monuments Sabéens du Musée d'Archéologie de Marscille, Paris, 1899;
  • C. I. S. (Inscriptiones Himjariticæ et Sabææ), ib. 1889 et seq.
L. H. G.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sabeans'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​s/sabeans.html. 1901.
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