Biblical history,  Houseful of Chaos Press

Athaliah: Strategic Regent or Unhinged Queen-Mother?

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I was luck enough to listen to a lecture not long ago by Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney, where she was talking about the role of women pharaohs as a link that allowed the culture to maintain the male line when a pharaoh died before his son was old enough to rule. I want to repeat a few key ideas she brought up, and then talk about how those ideas can be applied to looking at two Bible stories.

Dr. Kara Cooney spoke about Merneith, an Egyptian regent who ruled after the death of her husband and before her son was old enough to rule. When Merneith’s father and again when her husband died, hundreds of people were sacrificed to accompany their pharaoh into the afterlife. This was a way in which insecure kings and regents could clear out the political competition. Dr. Kara Cooney mentioned that it could have been Merneith making the decision who to sacrifice to go with her husband into the afterworld, and that could easily included her son’s brothers, if they were a threat to her son.

I want to suggest that we keep that story in mind when looking at the stories that tell of the end of Ahab and Jezebel’s family. Ahab was a king of Israel. His wife, Jezebel, was a princess of Sidon. The Bible blames them for promoting worship of Baal, failing to king an Aramean king when they should have, and having someone killed so they could steal his land. The end of their family is predicted. Yet after Ahab’s death, his sons rule for a while. Their daughter, Athaliah, marries into the royal family of Israel and her son has time to take the throne and rule for a bit.

Then a commander of the army, Jehu, takes the throne of Israel. There’s some speculation that Jehu could have been a descendant of Ahab’s father Omri – a different branch of the family tree, because the Assyrian texts identify him as a son of Omri, though different translators argue that it only meant a ruler of that kingdom. In any case, Jehu takes the throne.

2 Kings 20 tells of the slaughter of people after Jehu becomes king of Israel. The text talks of Jehu having seventy of the former king’s sons killed. He also summons all worshippers of Baal to a celebration and has all of them put to death. While the Bible supports this as wiping out worship of Baal, I’m thinking about it in the context of political power. Jehu was doing the same thing Merneith had to do – killing those who might threaten her power – even if the religious justifications were different.

2 Kings 11 talks about Athaliah, the mother of the king of Judah. It says that upon hearing that her son has been killed, she sets about to destroy all members of the royal family. It says the former king’s sister hides her brother’s son so that six years later the boy can be brought out of hiding and declared king. When the boy is declared king, Athaliah calls it treason and she is killed.

The whole story is fascinating. A quick, uncritical reading of the story makes Athaliah seem unhinged. Why would she try to kill the whole family? Yet, I think about the story in light of Merneith’s story and of other rulers coming into power in early monarchies. A mass slaughter may have seemed like the only way to keep the different branches of the royal family from splitting the kingdom. The boy was taken “from among the king’s children who were about to be killed.” The different children could have been from different wives, each with families that would fight for their right to inherit. Jehu killing the children of the king of Israel is assumed to be necessary, so why would Athaliah killing the children of the king of Judah not be necessary? It seems strange because those are her grandchildren, but she would have known all along that not all of them can rule.

So that brings me to the next question. Why would her grandson – Joash son of Ahaziah – need to be hidden from her to be saved? I find myself wondering whether she had a different favourite child whom she may have envisioned ruling after her. Perhaps there was another child spared, whom no one bothers writing about. Maybe that hypothetical other child died before reaching adulthood, allowing an open space for the hidden away child to be brought forward as the next ruler instead. Or perhaps she was young enough she thought she could have another child to rule after her. Or perhaps Joash, son of Ahaziah, would have been spared anyway, but the aunt took custody of him so that she could gain control. I think of how Catherine of Medici, the 16th century French queen learned that she needed to grab control of whichever underaged son would be king or be pushed out of the way by his other advisors. Perhaps Joash was not actually in danger, but just a pawn to be fought over.

Athaliah was a descendant of Ahab, whose family the Bible says was doomed. Having Joash taken into hiding and then Athaliah killed when he is proclaimed king helps in some ways to free him from that stigma of being a descendant of Ahab and Jezebel.

It is fascinating that Athaliah was credited with ruling for six years. One possible interpretation is that the only potential competition for her – her grandson Joash – was not old enough to rule until then. From this light it would seem like she stole this time away from him or his regent. However, there were plenty of rulers of ancient kingdoms who lasted a much shorter time before losing their throne to people with less claim. She must have had some competence, and if there was a lack of competition, it would have been because of the proficiency of the massacres she did at the time of her son’s death. Her ruthlessness there may have been what allowed there to be a throne available for her grandson to claim.

In many ways the story is very close to a success story on the part of a women who rules until her son or grandson is old enough to take the throne. It is almost the type of story of which the women would be the heroine, who makes it possible for the young king to inherit. Except it isn’t. The story is written to portray the woman as the largest threat to the young king.

The picture I am using to illustrate this post is from Wikimedia Commons. It is an early 16th century illustration from a book on the lives of famous women. The book was written by a Dominican friar, Antoine Dufour.

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