Athaliah, queen mother in the Bible, was the most powerful woman in Judah. She was the only woman in the Bible to have reigned as a monarch. She was eventually murdered by an army general called Jehu, and by his foreign soldiers.
Athaliah – Bible queen’s struggle for power
Who was Athaliah? Athaliah was probably the daughter of King Ahaband Queen Jezebel, rulers of the rich northern kingdom of Israel (see map below). She was married at an early age to King Joram of the southern kingdom of Judah. The marriage cemented an alliance between the two countries.
When Joram died and her son Aziah became king, she became ‘Gebirah‘, the highest-status woman in the kingdom. As the mother of the reigning king she out-ranked any of the wives and concubines of her son, and was an extremely powerful woman.
The Divided Kingdom: Israel in the north, Judah in the south
But her son Aziah only reigned for one year. When he was 22 he was assassinated by Jehu, who had usurped the throne of Israel.
At the time, Aziah had been visiting his cousin Joram, king of the northern kingdom. It was a perfect opportunity for Jehu to kill both of them together, and seize Judah.
Aziah’s desperate flight
First, Jehu killed Joram. Then he wheeled his chariot around to pursue Aziah. Aziah had seen Joram being murdered, and knew he was outnumbered. He turned and raced his chariot away from the frightful scene. There is a heartrending account of his desperate flight up the hill towards safety in the fortress of Gur. He did not make it. He was shot by arrows as he fled . He later died at Megiddo.
Ancient ivory plaque with the famous ‘Woman at the Window
On that same day, Queen Jezebel was killed, thrown down from a high balcony of the palace and smashed on the stones of the courtyard. She was left to die there, and the dogs ate her body.
All of Athaliah’s male relatives in Jezreel, capital city of Israel – the seventy boys and young men in the royal family, were rounded up and beheaded. On Jehu’s orders their heads were placed in baskets at the city gate.
Jehu then herded forty-two of Athaliah’s adult male relatives into a pit and slaughtered them at Betheked. He had killed anyone in Israel and Judah who might be able to claim the thrones of these kingdoms.
Athaliah takes command
Another tough ruling woman: Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain.
But there was one survivor: Athaliah.
Spared because she was, after all, just a woman, she now took command of Judah – there were no surviving adult sons or grandsons to do so – and became its queen.
Such a thing had never been done before. Women might influence politics, but they had never ruled in their own right(Margaret Thatcher’s power also outraged male politicians).
This of course infuriated the Temple priests, who had supported Jehu’s double coup d’état and helped plan it.
It’s worth pointing out that these priests were the ones who later came to write and edit Judah’s history, which is why Athaliah is portrayed as the greatest villainess of the Bible.
Who murdered Athaliah’s grandchildren?
When the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah were finally written, Athaliah was accused of murdering all the children, including her own grandsons, so that she could be queen.
But it is hard to see why she would have done so if there had been a surviving boy or young man to take over.
It is much more likely that Jehu’s agents killed the boys and that the biblical historian shifted the blame onto Athaliah, who was no friend of the Jerusalem priesthood.
Once in power, Athaliah attacked the Yahwist priestly party who were behind the attempted coup in Judah and the successful one in Israel. She suppressed worship of Jahweh and promoted worship of the old agricultural gods.
This was popular with the ordinary people, but not with the Yahwist priests whose power was diminished.
Athalia is betrayed by Jehoiada
Ivory carving of a winged cherub
She held on to power for six years – 842-837? 849-842? the dates are disputed), but eventually the leader of the Yahwist party, Jehoiada, counter-attacked.
He produced a male child whom he said had survived the massacre seven years ago, and who was supposed to be a royal prince saved from death by the action of Athaliah’s own sister Jehosheba, who also happened to be Jehoiada’s wife.
Jehoiada said his wife had hidden the boy when all his male relatives were being killed.
There is no way of knowing whether this boy really was one of the royal family, or a substitute conveniently produced at the right moment. Everyone in this story was ruthless enough to do anything they thought necessary to gain or hold onto power.
Jehoiada’s coup was well-planned. He assembled a group of foreign mercenaries to guard himself and the boy – the Jerusalem soldiery seem to have been loyal to Athaliah and therefore useless to Jehoiada.
Then at a time when the palace and Temple were relatively quiet, he surrounded himself and the boy with these soldiers and proclaimed the boy king.
Athaliah is murdered
Spreading pool of blood.
Athaliah heard the sudden commotion, and was taken by surprise. She tried to escape but was hunted down like an animal, pursued by the mercenaries then assassinated at the Horse Gate of the palace.
The boy, firmly controlled (at first!) by Jehoiada and the Temple party, succeeded to the throne.
Who murdered the children?
The question is, did Athaliah kill all her young male relatives, as described in the Bible?
What would have been her motive?
There is certainly a precedent in ancient Israel for killing all other possible heirs to the throne, but the boys she is said to have killed were her own grand-children and their survival would have guaranteed her powerful position in Judah.
It is more likely that they were killed suddenly, swiftly, by foreign mercenaries like the ones who later killed her.
The Bible text 2 Kings 10:12-27, 11:1-16
12 Then he set out and went to Sama’ria (capital of the northern kingdom of Israel). On the way, when he was at Beth-eked of the Shepherds, 13 Jehu met the kinsmen of Ahazi’ah king of Judah, and he said, “Who are you?” And they answered, “We are the kinsmen of Ahazi’ah, and we came down to visit the royal princes and the sons of the queen mother.”
Bible Women: Athalia, stele of her favored god Baal
A stone pillar or stele, showing the rain/water god Baal.
14 He said, “Take them alive.” And they took them alive, and slew them at the pit of Beth-eked, forty-two persons, and he spared none of them.
15 And when he departed from there, he met Jehon’adab the son of Rechab coming to meet him; and he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart true to my heart as mine is to yours?” And Jehon’adab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. And Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. 16 And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD.” So he had him ride in his chariot.
17 And when he came to Sama’ria, he slew all that remained to Ahab in Sama’ria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the LORD which he spoke to Eli’jah. 18 Then Jehu assembled all the people, and said to them, “Ahab served Ba’al a little; but Jehu will serve him much. 19 Now therefore call to me all the prophets of Ba’al, all his worshipers and all his priests; let none be missing, for I have a great sacrifice to offer to Ba’al; whoever is missing shall not live.” But Jehu did it with cunning in order to destroy the worshipers of Ba’al. 20 And Jehu ordered, “Sanctify a solemn assembly for Ba’al.” So they proclaimed it.
21 And Jehu sent throughout all Israel; and all the worshipers of Ba’al came, so that there was not a man left who did not come. And they entered the house of Ba’al, and the house of Ba’al was filled from one end to the other. 22 He said to him who was in charge of the wardrobe, “Bring out the vestments for all the worshipers of Ba’al.” So he brought out the vestments for them. 23 Then Jehu went into the house of Ba’al with Jehon’adab the son of Rechab; and he said to the worshipers of Ba’al, “Search, and see that there is no servant of the LORD here among you, but only the worshipers of Ba’al.” 24 Then he went in to offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Now Jehu had stationed eighty men outside, and said, “The man who allows any of those whom I give into your hands to escape shall forfeit his life.” 25 So as soon as he had made an end of offering the burnt offering, Jehu said to the guard and to the officers, “Go in and slay them; let not a man escape.”
So when they put them to the sword, the guard and the officers cast them out and went into the inner room of the house of Ba’al 26 and they brought out the pillar that was in the house of Ba’al, and burned it. 27 And they demolished the pillar of Ba’al, and demolished the house of Ba’al, and made it a latrine to this day.
1 Now when Athali’ah the mother of Ahazi’ah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal family. 2 But Jehosh’eba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahazi’ah, took Jo’ash the son of Ahazi’ah, and stole him away from among the king’s sons who were about to be slain, and she put him and his nurse in a bedchamber. Thus she hid him from Athali’ah, so that he was not slain; 3 and he remained with her six years, hid in the house of the LORD, while Athali’ah reigned over the land.
4 But in the seventh year Jehoi’ada sent and brought the captains of the Carites and of the guards, and had them come to him in the house of the LORD; and he made a covenant with them and put them under oath in the house of the LORD, and he showed them the king’s son. 5 And he commanded them, “This is the thing that you shall do: one third of you, those who come off duty on the sabbath and guard the king’s house 6 (another third being at the gate Sur and a third at the gate behind the guards), shall guard the palace; 7 and the two divisions of you, which come on duty in force on the sabbath and guard the house of the LORD, 8 shall surround the king, each with his weapons in his hand; and whoever approaches the ranks is to be slain. Be with the king when he goes out and when he comes in.”
9 The captains did according to all that Jehoi’ada the priest commanded, and each brought his men who were to go off duty on the sabbath, with those who were to come on duty on the sabbath, and came to Jehoi’ada the priest. 10 And the priest delivered to the captains the spears and shields that had been King David’s, which were in the house of the LORD; 11 and the guards stood, every man with his weapons in his hand, from the south side of the house to the north side of the house, around the altar and the house.
Ancient coffin portrait of a young boy
12 Then he brought out the king’s son, and put the crown upon him, and gave him the testimony; and they proclaimed him king, and anointed him; and they clapped their hands, and said, “Long live the king!”
13 When Athali’ah heard the noise of the guard and of the people, she went into the house of the LORD to the people; 14 and when she looked, there was the king standing by the pillar, according to the custom, and the captains and the trumpeters beside the king, and all the people of the land rejoicing and blowing trumpets. And Athali’ah rent her clothes, and cried, “Treason! Treason!” 15 Then Jehoi’ada the priest commanded the captains who were set over the army, “Bring her out between the ranks; and slay with the sword any one who follows her.” For the priest said, “Let her not be slain in the house of the LORD.” 16 So they laid hands on her; and she went through the horses’ entrance to the king’s house, and there she was slain.
People in the story
Athaliah, Bible queen of Judah, probably daughter of Jezebel Jezebel, queen of Israel worshipped the water/rain god Baal Jehoiada, Athaliah’s bitter enemy, leader of the Temple priests Jehu, an army general who murdered Jezebel, took the throne of Judah and hunted Athaliah