For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 11. II Kings 8:26 informs us that Athaliah was the daughter of Omri, who started the Northern Israelite dynasty that included his son, King Ahab. But she was technically the daughter of Ahab, for II Kings 8:18 states that Joram, the king of Judah, was married to Ahab’s daughter, and Joram was the husband of Athaliah. So the word “daughter” can mean grand-daughter, as “son of David” can refer to David’s descendants, not just his immediate offspring. Athaliah was the daugher of King Ahab, and the grand-daughter of Omri. Her marriage to Joram was most likely the result of an attempt to create an alliance between Northern and Southern Israel.
Joram rules Judah for eight years and dies, and he is succeeded by his son, Ahaziah. In II Kings 9-10, Ahaziah and his brothers are killed in Jehu’s massacre, which Jehu conducts as he takes over the throne of Northern Israel. When Athaliah hears that her son, Ahaziah, is dead, she resolves to exterminate the rest of the line of David.
Why did Athaliah attempt this? Was she lashing out against Yahwism—the religion that Jehu championed when he conducted his purge and killed her son—by seeking to elimate the pro-Yahwist line of David? Did she want more power? When Ahaziah ruled, she was the Queen-Mother, which was a powerful position in its own right. But perhaps she wanted to be more than the Queen-Mother: she desired to be the absolute ruler of Judah! Some of her motivations may have been selfish, in that she sought power for herself. But maybe she also wanted to uphold the dignity of the house of Omri, which Jehu had just slaughtered. The house of Omri no longer ruled in Northern Israel, but perhaps it could remain a force in Judah, if Athaliah could hold on to its throne.
But couldn’t the children that Athaliah had with Joram continue the line of Omri? Why did she feel compelled to take an extreme measure, of slaughtering the entire line of David?
What’s ironic is something that Walter Bruegemann points out: that Athaliah actually continued the mission of Jehu, the man who had killed her son. Jehu killed Ahaziah and his brothers, and Athaliah sought to murder the other Davidides. But, whereas Jehu was seeking to eliminate Northern Israel’s pro-Baal orientation through his purge, Athaliah wanted to continue the Baal-cult that she had helped to establish in Judah. So their acts were similar, but their motivations were different.
Then there’s another suggestion that Bruegemann makes: maybe Athaliah was just plain crazy!
In any case, as Athaliah conducts her massacre, there is also an attempt within Judah to preserve the Davidic dynasty, by hiding a child named Joash. Jehoidah the priest is the leader of this conspiracy. Another participant is a woman named Jehosheba, who actually stole Joash and hid him from Athaliah. Jehosheba herself was a daugher of King Joram and a sister of Ahaziah, so she was a part of the royal family.
Was Athaliah her mother? On this, there is disagreement. Mordechai Coogan argues that she was, for the fact that II Kings 11:2 calls her the sister of Ahaziah indicates that she was his full-sister: she wasn’t just the daughter of Joram, but she was also the sister of Ahaziah, meaning that Athaliah (Ahaziah’s mom) was her mother. Coogan cites Genesis 34:25, in which Simeon and Levi refer to Dinah as their sister. Simeon, Levi, and Dinah are all the offspring of Jacob, but Dinah is their sister, one who has the same mother as they do, not just the same father. Similarly, Coogan maintains, II Kings 11:2’s statement that Jehosheba was the daughter of Joram and the sister of Ahaziah means that she had the same father and the same mother as Ahaziah, indicating that Athaliah was her mother.
Others contend, however, that Jehosheba was Ahaziah’s half-sister. One reason is that II Chronicles 22:11 states that Jehosheba was the wife of Jehoida, the priest, and some biblical expositors don’t think that a priest would marry the daughter of an idolatrous woman like Athaliah. Also, Josephus, in Antiquities 9 (141), states that Jehosheba was Ahaziah’s sister by the same father. Josephus may believe that II Kings 11:2 refers to Jehosheba as the daughter of Joram and the sister of Ahaziah to indicate that she and Ahaziah had the same father, but not the same mother. After all, the text says that she was the daughter of Joram; it does not say that she was also the daughter of Athaliah! So one side thinks that II Kings 11:2’s statement that Jehosheba was the daughter of Joram indicates that she was Ahaziah’s half-sister, while the other side holds that its statement that she was the sister of Ahaziah means she was his full-sister. In the former scenario, Athaliah is her mother; in the latter, she is not.
Why did Jehosheba take part in the conspiracy to preserve the Davidic line? Perhaps her compassion towards baby Joash or her devotion to God played a significant role. Maybe her loyalty to her husband, Jehoida, was a factor. Some ascribe to her and Jehoida sinister motives, as if they were part of some palace intrigue to control the throne.
There are soldiers and guards who are with Jehoida, as well as a group called “the people of the land” (v 18), who tear down Athaliah’s temple to Baal. Who are these “people of the land”? As Coogan observes, they later set up Josiah and Josiah’s son, Jehoida, as the kings of Judah, protecting the Davidic line (II Kings 21:23-24; 23:30). Ezekiel lambastes them for exploiting the poor (Ezekiel 22:29). They may have been the elite of Judah. And yet, the term “people of the land” can also refer to humanity in general (as in the Yehawmilik inscription from Byblos), or to everyone in a particular country, both Israelites and non-Israelites (Genesis 23:7; 42:6; Exodus 5:5).
Whether “people of the land” in II Kings 11:18 means an elite, or representative samples of Judah’s population, why would they want to overthrow Athaliah? Maybe they felt that she was a nut, and they were uneasy about being ruled by her. Or they were comfortable with the house of David. Or they decided to be faithful to the LORD, as rarely as such an impulse came upon them. The people of Judah may have held on to some vestiges of Yahwism, even as Athaliah promoted the worship of Baal. Jehoida was still the priest, and II Kings 11:5-9 refers to the Sabbath, indicating that it was still a recognized institution, even when Athaliah was reigning. Athaliah may have sought to incorporate Baalism into Judah, but she couldn’t eliminate the worship of the God of Israel.
These people may have had a variety of motivations behind their conspiracy—religious, humanitarian, political, and personal. But they tried to honor God along the way. Jehoida said that Athaliah was not to be slaughtered in the Temple of God, presumably because he wanted to guard the sanctity and dignity of God’s house. Jehoida didn’t make the mistake of Solomon, who disrespected God’s sanctuary when he ordered Joab to be murdered while Joab was clinging to the altar (I Kings 2; see I Kings 2: Mentoring the Wise, A Fresh Start, God’s Plan B). Such a callous disregard for God for the sake of getting rid of his political opponent may have set the stage for the bad decisions that Solomon made later in his life: dishonoring God by marrying foreign women and upholding the worship of their gods.
Jehoida was not like Jehu, who eliminated Baalism, only to dishonor God by upholding Jeroboam’s sanctuaries (although, if Jehu saw those as sanctuaries of God, then maybe Jehoida and Jehu had similar motivations—to eliminate Baalism and to uphold the worship of the God of Israel). Jehoida wanted his revolution to result in the honor of God, and not to be the replacement of one despot with another power-hungry monarch.
We can get power, but what do we do with it?