Queen Mothers: the power behind the throne (or, Why Even Kings Can Be Guilt-Tripped)

In honor of the recent debt-fueled political shenanigans swirling around the nation, today we will move into the realm of political mothers: specifically, queen mothers. This title is reserved for the mother of the king during the Judean monarchies. There exists a great debate as to the extent of the queen mother’s authority and responsibilities; some believe she was second only to the king in power (Ahlström 62), some believe she represented the Canaanite goddess Asherah  in human form (Ackerman 400), some believe she had no official status whatsoever (Ben-Barak 34). There is general consensus, however, that the queen mother had some status, and moreover that certain queen mothers had a significant effect on the monarchy. Regardless of all other concerns (cultic status, official position) these women—Maacah, Nehushta, Hamutal, and Bathsheba—use their influence to advance their sons’ political power. Furthermore, each of these women are responsible for putting their son on the throne in place of his elder (and therefore more likely to succeed) brother.

 

Maacah’s influence comes from her relationship with the king, Reheboam. The Bible says, “Rehoboam loved Maacah daughter of Absalom more than all his other wives and concubines (he took eighteen wives and sixty concubines, and became the father of twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters). Reheboam appointed Abijah son of Maacah as chief prince among his brothers, for he intended to make him king” (1 Chr 11:21-22). This favoring of Abijah over both the first-born son and his twenty-six other brothers can clearly be linked to Reheboam’s preference for Abijah’s mother, Maacah. Thus, Maacah’s influence leads to political power for her son.

Nehushta’s power is even less overtly stated, although it may be inferred; her [youngest] son becomes king, and she appears to hold an official position when the court is exiled (2 Kgs 24:12), so it is likely she was behind her son’s ascension to the throne (Ben-Barak 31).

Hamutal similarly seems to have political sway; a daughter from a prominent Judahite family, her son is chosen by “the people of the land” (2 Kgs 23:30) in place of his elder brother, who is from a less acceptable mother (Ben-Barak 30).

 

The clearest, longest example of a queen mother using political power comes from King David’s most (in)famous wife: Bathsheba, with whom the king has an adulterous liaison, and then sends her husband to his death, and marries her. While the triangle between David, Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah is fascinating (2 Sam 11-12), it is not relevant to this discussion. What is relevant is Bathsheba’s role in her son Solomon’s ascension to the throne.

To set the scene: at the end of David’s reign, the once-powerful king has become weak. When granted a beautiful bedwarmer, Abishag the Shunammite, he cannot even prove his virility (1 Kgs 1:3). Taking advantage of the soon-to-be vacuum in power, David’s eldest son Adonijah declares himself king and throws a giant party, inviting “all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah” but not his brother Solomon or the prophet Nathan (1 Kgs 1:9-10). Nathan goes to Bathsheba and says, “let me give you advice so that you may save your own life and the life of your son Solomon” (1 Kgs 1:12). Following his counsel, Bathsheba goes to David and says, “My lord, you swore to your servant by the Lord your God, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne. But now suddenly Adonijah has become king, though you, my lord the king, do not know it” (1 Kgs 1:17-18). Nathan then enters and tells the king of Adonijah’s actions. After, David formally announces Solomon as his heir.

This scene is rife with political intrigue. Adonijah’s exclusion of his brother is a clear threat to Solomon and his supporters. Naturally Nathan and Bathsheba fear for their position, and possibly their lives. The real question is whether or not David had, in fact, sworn that Solomon would succeed him. At no point before this scene does the Bible mention such an oath. Does Bathsheba merely hold David to his word, or is she in fact manipulating an old man to protect her son’s future? The text doesn’t give a conclusive answer, but Bathsheba’s influence speaks volumes in either case. She (along with Nathan) is directly responsible for Solomon’s ascension to the throne. As one scholar puts it, “the succession to the throne in Jerusalem is arranged…in accordance with the will of the good God—and of Bathsheba” (Otzen 111).

Bathsheba’s influence does not stop once her son is king. Soon after David dies, Adonijah comes to Bathsheba to ask a favor: he wants to marry Abishag the Shunammite, David’s bedwarmer. Bathsheba agrees, and goes to petition Solomon on Adonijah’s behalf. She is met with respect: the king rises and bows to his mother, than seats her on his right hand, the place of honor. However, once she broaches Adonijah’s request, Solomon is furious, crying “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well!” (1 Kgs 2:22). Solomon promptly sends someone to kill Adonijah.

Before looking at Bathsheba’s part in this fateful encounter, it is helpful to discuss why Solomon reacts so violently to his half-brother’s request. After all, Adonijah had thought he would be king; is it so much for him to ask for a beautiful wife as a consolation prize? Yes. Various references in the Bible make it clear that to sleep with the king’s concubines is tantamount to claiming the throne (e.g. 2 Sam 16:20-22, where David’s first son Absalom sleeps with his father’s harem to legitimate his rebellion). While the status of Abishag is a little vaguer, since she was never in fact a sexual partner to David, it is hardly a stretch to read into Adonijah’s request a plan to reestablish his claim to kingship. Solomon, reading it as such, acts immediately to destroy the threat to his throne.

But what is Bathsheba’s role? Opinions vary. Some believe that she was an unwitting player, simply trying to make peace between the brothers. Hennie J. Marsman, however, finds this “unlikely…On the contrary, she probably knew very well what she was doing. She may have cunningly used Adonijah’s request to meet her own goal, i.e., that her son be king without the threat of any competition of his elder brother” (364). This portrait of the queen mother is drastically different from the rather naïve image some favor. If Marsman’s interpretation is correct, then Bathsheba brilliantly, even ruthlessly, manipulates both Adonijah and Solomon, spinning the situation so that in the end her son’s claim to the throne is unquestionable. She sees an opportunity to protect her child, and immediately acts upon it, condemning Adonijah to death as a result. She thus sets a precedent for queen mothers to influence the ascension and power of younger sons, which will be followed generations later by Hamutal, Nehushta, and Maacah.

 

The next post will look at women who use divine assistance to ensure their children’s future.

 

 

 

Works Cited

Ackerman, Susan. “The Queen Mother and the Cult in Ancient Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112 (1993): 385-401 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.wm.edu/stable/3267740>

Ahlström, G. W. Aspects of Syncretism in Israelite Religion. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup: 1963

Ben-Barak, Zafrira. “The Status and Right of the Gĕbîrâ.” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (1991): 23-34 <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.wm.edu/stable/3267147>

Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007

Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2003

Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer, eds. Women in Scripture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000

Otzen, Benedikt. “The Promoting Mother: a Literary Motif in the Ugaritic Texts and in the Bible.” In History and Traditions of Early Israel, ed. André Lemaire and Benedikt Otzen, 104-114. Leiden; E.J. Brill, 1993

Comments

  1. Gabriel Manion says:

    I’ve been reading a lot of your posts, and this one caught my eye because of the specific biblical references you used. As a Catholic, I’ve seen a lot of conflict over the role of women in the church, as they are currently somewhat restricted in how they can participate. These bible passages caught my eye as depicting strong women presences in a text the Catholic church (and other Christian churches) use all the time. My question is: what is the overwhelming portrayal of women in the bible, and what impact do you think that has had on the course of Christian religions? (Kind of a broad question, sorry! Just interested me)

  2. Rebecca Turner says:

    Thank you for reading and commenting! I would love to be able to answer your question with any semblance of authority, but I’m afraid I simply don’t have have the breadth of knowledge to do it justice. I certainly have extremely little academic knowledge about Christian tradition; maybe after I take Christian Origins next semester I’ll be able to answer that!

    With that caveat: from what I have read and studied so far, it does not appear that there is one overarching portrayal or opinion of women. Some are praised, some are condemned, many are dismissed. The patriarchal bias of the text and the culture must not be denied or dismissed; there is a lot of ugliness and brutality towards women (e.g. the story of the Levite’s concubine in Judges) and women who possess power equal to men are unacceptable (e.g. Athaliah, who was a queen mother and ended up ruling on her own for six years, but then is murdered). In a lot of stories, the text acknowledges the necessity of women, but only while under the supervision of men. Some of the most interesting women, who are powerful on their own merits, are discussed in tantalizing snippets without conclusive results (like Miriam, Moses’ sister, who is the first prophet).

    Basically, as a feminist reading these texts I look for the ways women achieve success within the context of their surrounding cultures and the accompanying limitations. That probably doesn’t answer your question fully, but it’s the most I can say with the knowledge I currently possess.