A tale of two ancient women and two priests
Before Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great, there were Athaliah, the only queen of Judah, and Jehosheba, her courageous stepdaughter. Ninth century BCE. A tiny city in a tiny kingdom in the Ancient Near East. Over 2,850 years ago, the actions of this murderous grandma and her eventual nemesis in Jerusalem would affect world history and the very existence of three major world religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Athaliah bat Ahab reigned for six years (ca. 841–835 BCE) both as the first and only female monarch of the ancient kingdom of Judah and their only monarch, who was not of the line of King David. Jehosheba bat Jehoram, her husband’s daughter from another wife, committed a single-handed act of bravery that led to a coup, Athaliah’s assassination and the Davidic line’s restoration.
Now the priests. Jehosheba’s husband, Jehoiada, devised and executed this coup, and he’s the first priest in our tale. The second is an Anglican priest who suggested that these women were too “obscure” to garner interest even in a women’s Bible study several years back. I hope to restore these two women’s significance in history and hopefully lift them out of obscurity beyond a subplot in biblical history or fodder for Christian romance literature.
A birthday moment that changed my life
On my birthday in 2009, my ears pricked up listening to the Daily Audio Bible podcast’s reading of 2 Chronicles 22:10–23:21. The passage, first recounted in 2 King 11, describes how Athaliah usurped the throne after the death of her son, King Ahaziah, by assassinating all his male heirs, her grandsons. Jehosheba, Ahaziah’s half-sister, hid his youngest son, Joash, in a linen closet and later raised him in the Temple with her husband, Jehoiada the priest. Jehoiada ousted Athaliah six years later and enthroned Joash.
Why had I never heard anyone teach on this story in 26 years of churchgoing? I mean, Athaliah reigned for six years. That’s a big deal. Assuming Jehosheba grew up around her, they must have had a relationship. And, if they did, there’s a story to tell. Plus, what could motivate even the most power-hungry grandmother to murder her own grandchildren to gain the throne? Also, the backstory, which starts in 1 Kings 16/2 Chronicles 17, is rather traumatic and rather bloody. Why did one woman in the face of tremendous suffering chose wickedness and the other, goodness?
Those questions in 2009 started my journey researching and crafting (and researching and crafting) an as-yet-unpublished historical fiction novel, A Certain Shade of Light, that follows the lives of these two women. That journey has included stops in Houston, Abu Dhabi, London, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Los Angeles and back to Houston. More on that in a later blog, though.
Let’s start with Athaliah bat Ahab
Athaliah (עֲתַלְיָ֫הוּ) was born in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, probably in the royal city of Tirzah, after her grandfather, Omri, captured the throne of Israel, around 885 BCE. Her father was the infamous King Ahab of Israel; hence, bat Ahab or “daughter of Ahab.” The Bible also calls her “bat Omri,” and I take the view that it means “granddaughter” or “female descendant” of Omri, not “daughter of Omri.” House of Omri, like in the Mesha Stele. It’s like how ben David literally means “son of David” but also refers to his descendants, a Middle Eastern version of Johnson.
King Ahab, Athaliah’s dad, is vilified in the Bible for syncretism – that is, combining the worship of Yahweh (God) with other gods, particularly those of his even more infamous wife, Jezebel. Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, whose father, Ethbaal, married her to Ahab to seal his political alliance with King Omri. She thus became Athaliah’s stepmother (more on that relationship in a future post) and mentored her to become a zealous follower of Baal Melqart and the other Phoenician gods. Still with me?
Then comes another political alliance between King Ahab and Jehoshaphat, king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Ahab gave Athaliah in marriage to King Jehoshaphat’s heir, Jehoram, to seal their alliance and end the continual skirmishes between these kingdoms since their division about 60 years earlier.
Athaliah changed world history – come on!
Yep. Athaliah first starts affecting history by converting her husband to the worship of the Phoenician gods. Now, King Solomon was guilty of worshiping his multitudinous wives’ multitudinous gods. For the most part, Judah stuck with Yahweh and dabbled with Asherah (another future post). Only after Athaliah’s story does the Bible record a continual and growing passion for other gods besides Yahweh and their practices, including child sacrifice and ritual prostitution (yet another post) in Judah. Depending on your viewpoint, Athaliah sowed the seeds for a pluralistic and tolerant Judah or she set in motion Judah’s apostasy, which resulted in their exile to Babylon about 250 years later.
So, what? Well, in Babylon, Judaism took shape and the very books that record this story were written. The system of synagogues and rabbis started during the Babylonian exile. The remnant of Israel became known as “Jews,” from “Judah,” the remaining tribe/nation after other tribes of Israel were exiled or assimilated into the Assyrian empire. Before the exile, there was no “Judaism,” per se. These tribes had a national god, Yahweh, stories and the legal code through Moses (Torah) along with rituals, prophets, priests from this code. Thus, Athaliah’s negative influence on the kingdom of Judah facilitated, one could argue, the positive creation of Judaism, which itself has had a huge influence on the world.
Another Jewish queen, Salome Alexandra, ruled 700 years later, of Hasmonean Judea, but Athaliah was the only sole-reigning queen ever of ancient Judah. Even everyone’s favorite villainess, Jezebel, never reigned as sole monarch.
Who was Jehosheba bat Jehoram?
Jehosheba was the daughter of King Jehoram, Athaliah’s husband, and another wife in his harem. Although Athaliah was Jehoram’s chief wife, polygamy was standard practice for kings. The anonymity of Jehosheba’s mother has given me a lot of latitude in my novel.
At some point, Princess Jehosheba marries Jehoiada, a priest and eventually the high priest in Jerusalem. I found this odd, too. Why would King Jehoram marry his young daughter (13–17 years old) off to a 100-year-old priest (2 Chronicles 24:15)? Gross! There’s a story there, too. For the sake of the novel, I lowered Jehoiada’s age by a good 50 years. Still squeamish for modern folks, but I’m not writing a romance novel, either.
We know that Jehosheba had at least one child, a son, Zechariah, who became a prophet. He and Joash were buddies, having been raised together while Joash was hidden. That is, until Joash has him stoned for preaching against idolatry. Out of my novel’s scope, thank God.
It’s all about Messiah.
For Jews and Christians, the Messiah must come from David’s line (Isaiah 11:1, Jeremiah 23:5). Although Muslims define Messiah differently, they do believe Jesus son of Mary is the Messiah and will return in the End Times. Mary and Joseph were of the line of David. Had David’s line remained broken after Athaliah’s usurpation of the throne, there would have been no Jesus, no Christianity and no Islam. No matter what your feelings about these two world religions, both have had a tremendous influence on the history of much of this planet.
So, by saving Joash, Jehosheba ensured that the restoration of the Davidic line, the messianic line. Her actions signaled that God would keep his covenant promise to David that his “throne would be established forever.” The Messiah, for Jews and Christians, ultimately fulfills this promise.
So, why have so few people heard the story?
This brings me back to the second priest. Great guy, loves God. Yet, like many men, women’s stories are peripheral, even when they’re smack dab in the center of things. Athaliah was the greatest internal threat to the survival of the House of David until the Babylonians shut things down. A young woman risked everything to save the day. And they’re both too obscure to study.
Also, in a time where women are breaking the glass ceiling in so many arenas, this story is particularly relevant.
There have been more discussions about Athaliah and archeological discoveries since I began this journey in 2009 and writing in 2012. That was discouraging when they contradict one of my main storylines. However, my hope and prayer for my novel, when I finish it and when it gets published, is that it will bring the story of these women to a wider audience – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic and even pagan – and give them each a voice. Stay tuned!
What do you think? Have you heard of these women? Do you think their story is important? I’d love to hear your comments!