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Athaliah by Cat Quine

Athaliah was a northern Israelite princess who married King Jehoram of Judah in the ninth century BCE. She was either the daughter of King Ahab of Israel (2Kgs 8:18) or the daughter of King Omri (2Kgs 8:26). Her marriage to Jehoram sealed an alliance between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and she became queen mother upon her son Ahaziah’s ascension to the throne of Judah (2Kgs 8:25-27). After Ahaziah’s untimely death she became Queen of Judah (2Kgs 9:27-28; 2Kgs 11:1-3). The Bible presents her as a foreigner who illegitimately seized the throne by murdering the Davidic royal family, and she was later assassinated in a coup organized by a priest.

How did Athaliah come to power?

The Bible claims that, upon hearing news of her son’s death, Athaliah murdered “all the royal seed” of Judah and became queen (2Kgs 11:1-3). However, her six-year reign (2Kgs 11:3) must have necessitated internal political support, so most scholars believe the accusations of her bloodshed are exaggerated. As King Ahaziah was only twenty-three when he was killed supporting the king of Israel in battle (2Kgs 8:26), his death likely threw the Davidic royal line into crisis as his heirs would have been too young to rule. Athaliah’s royal origins, familial connections to Israel, and experience as wife of King Jehoram and queen mother of King Ahaziah made her a strong candidate to steer Judah through the crisis. Whether she ruled in her own right as the sole queen or was a queen-regent ruling on behalf of Ahaziah’s heir(s) is uncertain. The Bible presents her as the sole ruler, though that may be intended to undermine her legitimacy and distance her successor from her legacy.

How did Athaliah’s rule end?

The Bible gives no information about events during Athaliah’s reign and instead focuses on the coup against her, organized by the priest Jehoiada. 2Kgs 11:3 states that the infant prince Joash was saved from Athaliah’s killing spree by his aunt, to be hidden and raised in the temple. After six years, Jehoiada liaised with the military captains and guards and they crowned Joash king in the temple (2Kgs 11:4-12). When Athaliah heard the noise, she came out, cried “treason, treason” but was executed on Jehoiada’s orders (2Kgs 11:13-16). Jehoiada and the people then made covenants (2Kgs 11:17), destroyed a temple of Baal (2Kgs 11:18-19), and Joash took his seat on the throne (2Kgs 11:20). The report of the coup is strongly political; the temple backdrop to the events and the rare example of coronation rituals (only seen in other contested successions 1Sam 11:15; 2Sam 2:4; 2Sam 5:1-5; 1Kgs 1:33-40) gives legitimacy to the actions of the conspirators. The coup is also gendered: Athaliah is the only woman mentioned and after her death, Joash takes his seat on the “throne of kings” (2Kgs 11:20).

Was Athaliah a Baal worshiper?

Although the biblical text reports a Baal temple was destroyed after the coup against Athaliah, she is not explicitly said to have been a Baal worshiper, nor to have built or encouraged the activities of the Baal temple. Only the Jewish historian Josephus made such a claim, around nine centuries after Athaliah’s death (Antiquities 9.154). Indeed, the name Athaliah means “Yahweh is great/large” or “Yahweh is exalted,” and she is never directly accused of any idolatrous worship; the closest biblical example of this is in 2Chr 24:7, which states that her children broke into the temple and used the vessels for the Baals. Even this does not accuse Athaliah directly. The detail is vague and evidently polemical—the royals likely did not have to “break into” the temple to gain entrance. Given the biblical authors’ tendency to highlight idolatrous worship wherever possible with foreign women (e.g., Jezebel, 1Kgs 16:31-32; 1Kgs 18:19), this raises the possibility that Athaliah was a Yahwist, which suggests the conspirators’ motivations were more political than religious. In any case, the destroyed Baal temple literarily brings the coup in 2Kgs 11 in line with Jehu’s coup against the northern Omride kings, which also culminated in the destruction of a Baal temple (2Kgs 10:1-28).

How is Athaliah Remembered?

The biblical authors present Athaliah’s reign as a brief interruption that threatened Judah and was ended by a priestly sanctioned coup seeking to restore order. By describing the coup in detail and ignoring events in her rule, they do their best to distract readers from dwelling on the implications of a woman holding such power. While presenting her as a failed, foreign usurper, the texts gloss over the fact that Joash was her grandson (2Kgs 11:2) and thus part-foreign and a usurper himself. The only two words attributed to Athaliah tell their own story of her betrayal: “treason, treason!”

Cat Quine , "Athaliah", n.p. [cited 5 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/main-articles/athaliah

Contributors

Quine-Cat

Cat Quine
Junior Research Fellow, University of Oxford

Cat Quine holds a PhD in Hebrew Bible studies from the University of Nottingham where she works as Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of Casting Down the Host of Heaven (Brill, 2020), she publishes widely on biblical politics, gender, and history, and she is currently writing a book on Athaliah.

A northern Israelite princess who married King Jehoram of Judah, Athaliah was the only female monarch of Judah before her assassination at the hands of a priest.

Did you know…?

  • Athaliah was the only female ruler of the Kingdom of Judah and is the only monarch of Judah to not receive traditional regnal formulae or a royal burial in 1–2 Kings.
  • Although some assume that Athaliah was the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel, the Bible makes no such claim, which suggests this was not the case. Given the polemic against both women, any direct connection would likely have been stated.
  • Despite the destruction of a Baal temple, Athaliah is not explicitly said to have been a Baal worshiper or idolatrous at all.
  • As she is not directly stated to have been idolatrous, Athaliah’s “sins” appear to have been ruling as a woman and the Israelite influence on Judah that she represented. King Jehoram (2Kgs 8:18) and King Ahaziah (2Kgs 8:26-27) are said to have walked in “the ways of the kings of Israel” and “the house of Ahab” respectively because of her presence.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

2Kgs 8:18

18He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lo ... View more

2Kgs 8:26

26Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of King Omri of Isr ... View more

2Kgs 8:25-27

Ahaziah Reigns over Judah
25In the twelfth year of King Joram son of Ahab of Israel, Ahaziah son of King Jehoram of Judah began to reign.26Ahaziah was twenty-tw ... View more

2Kgs 9:27-28

Ahaziah of Judah Killed
27When King Ahaziah of Judah saw this, he fled in the direction of Beth-haggan. Jehu pursued him, saying, “Shoot him also!” And they sho ... View more

2Kgs 11:1-3

Athaliah Reigns over Judah
1Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah's mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family.2But Jehosheba, King J ... View more

A sovereign head of state, usually a king or queen.

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

2Kgs 11:1-3

Athaliah Reigns over Judah
1Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah's mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family.2But Jehosheba, King J ... View more

2Kgs 11:3

3he remained with her six years, hidden in the house of the Lord, while Athaliah reigned over the land.

2Kgs 8:26

26Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of King Omri of Isr ... View more

2Kgs 11:3

3he remained with her six years, hidden in the house of the Lord, while Athaliah reigned over the land.

2Kgs 11:4-12

Jehoiada Anoints the Child Joash
4 But in the seventh year Jehoiada summoned the captains of the Carites and of the guards and had them come to him in the house ... View more

2Kgs 11:13-16

Death of Athaliah
13 When Athaliah heard the noise of the guard and of the people, she went into the house of the Lord to the people; 14 when she looked, there ... View more

2Kgs 11:17

17Jehoiada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people, that they should be the Lord's people; also between the king and the people.

2Kgs 11:18-19

18 Then all the people of the land went to the house of Baal, and tore it down; his altars and his images they broke in pieces, and they killed Mattan, the prie ... View more

2Kgs 11:20

20 So all the people of the land rejoiced; and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been killed with the sword at the king’s house.

1Sam 11:15

15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and ... View more

2Sam 2:4

4Then the people of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.
When they told David, “It was the people of Jabesh-gilead who buried ... View more

2Sam 5:1-5

David Anointed King of All Israel
1Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh.2For some time, while Saul ... View more

1Kgs 1:33-40

33 the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord, and have my son Solomon ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. 34 There let the p ... View more

2Kgs 11:20

20 So all the people of the land rejoiced; and the city was quiet after Athaliah had been killed with the sword at the king’s house.

A comment, explanation, or interpretation given in the margins or over top of a text.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

related to the dynasty of Omri

rhetoric intended to oppose a specific position

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

2Chr 24:7

7 For the children of Athaliah, that wicked woman, had broken into the house of God, and had even used all the dedicated things of the house of the Lord for the ... View more

1Kgs 16:31-32

Ahab Marries Jezebel and Worships Baal
31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, he took as his wife Jezebel ... View more

1Kgs 18:19

19Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat ... View more

2Kgs 11

Athaliah Reigns over Judah
11 Now when Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family. 2 But Jehosheba, Ki ... View more

2Kgs 10:1-28

10 Now Ahab had seventy sons in Samaria. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria, to the rulers of Jezreel,[a] to the elders, and to the guardians of the ... View more

2Kgs 11:2

2But Jehosheba, King Joram's daughter, Ahaziah's sister, took Joash son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king's children who were about to be kille ... View more

royal, related to kings

2Kgs 8:18

18He walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as the house of Ahab had done, for the daughter of Ahab was his wife. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lo ... View more

2Kgs 8:26-27

26 Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he began to reign; he reigned one year in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Athaliah, a granddaughter of King Omri of Is ... View more

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