I tried reading Anna Karenina by Dostoyevky once but remember getting utterly confused by the similarity of so many of the names, with the added complexity that at times characters were called by their middle names. Our next woman, Queen Athaliah appears in a similarly confounding section of the Bible where the characters have names that sound the same and most seemed to begin with the letter J (or A).
We have Joram, Jehoram, Jehosophat, Jehosheba, Jehoash, Jehoida and they live in Jezreel. It is further confused by the fact it is a time when the kingdom is split into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and at one stage the kings of both nations had the same name (Jehoram, but sometimes called Joram, in the same passage)!
Athaliah was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel and lived in around c. 841 – 835 BC. She was married to King Jehoram of Judah and it is likely that the marriage was intended to be a union to unite the two rival kingdoms: it doesn’t work out that way. Her husband was a brutal man who had killed his six brothers in order to obtain the throne. Her brother is the other Jehoram, the one that was King of Israel at the time (you can see it’s confusing!).
Athaliah and Jehoram have children but tragedy struck when a rival faction of rebels seeking independence raided their palace and captured her entire family, leaving only her youngest son, Ahaziah, who eventually succeeded his father to the throne. Ahaziah’s rule only lasted a year as he was assassinated during a state visit to Israel by Jehu (King of Israel) who not only orders the killing of Athaliah’s son but also her entire extended family. In a gruesome additional detail we are told that the heads of the 70 murdered royal princes were placed in a basket and sent as a grizzly package to King Jehu.
On hearing what had happened to her family Athaliah doesn’t seem to grieve their demise: she is more concerned for power. She proclaims herself Queen of Judah and executed all those who had any royal claim, even killing the women and children: it is a truly horrific period of Israel’s history.
Her sister Jehosheba managed to rescue one of Athaliah’s grandchildren (Joash) from her purge, and he is brought up in secret by a priest named Jehoiada. The priest instigated a rebellion and proclaimed the child King when he was only seven years’ old.
Queen Athaliah was furious when she saw what had happened.
…all the people of the land were rejoicing and blowing trumpets. Then Athaliah tore her robes and called out, “Treason! Treason!’.2 Kings 11.14
Her cries were useless. She was taken out and summarily executed at the gates of the palace.
‘..and the City was quiet, because Athaliah had been slain’.2 Kings 11.20
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23.32-34
Athaliah is the only women in this lent series about whom I’ve struggled to find a single thing that is commendable or likeable. She was brutal, power hungry, and attempted to wipe out the entire line of Judah. Her sister even had to hide one of her own grandchildren from her for fear that she would commit murder. The only defence is that Athaliah was born into a violent world where both parents were brutally killed and her husband was similarly violent. Perhaps this might give us some context for her actions, but it is important to remember that women can be thoroughly evil and that some terrible crimes have been committed by women not just against them.
On reflecting on her I realise that I find it easier to consider women who are abused, victimised and enslaved than those who are powerful, vengeful and cruel. I wonder why that is?
Next week we will be heading into Holy Week where we will reflect again on Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem, a journey which leads to his violent death on the cross. Whilst on the cross Jesus took all the pain, violence and suffering of the world onto himself and, surrounded by criminals, cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”.
Perhaps that is all we can do when faced with cruelty and violence in our world. We can pray for forgiveness. We can remember that Jesus died for the criminal and cruel as well as for those who nurture and care. And we can recognise that each one of us has the capacity to be cruel and violent as well, even if we aren’t quite as evil as Queen Athaliah!
This beautiful prayer was found in the clothing of a dead child at Ravensbruck concentration camp
Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering – our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let these fruits that we have bourne be their forgiveness. Amen