A friend of mine often posts photos of her baby granddaughter on Facebook. “Beautiful eyes!” we ring in. “Adorable!” we say. With dozens of other women across the country, I am now a cyber auntie, feeling the joy so evident in my friend’s soul.
And that’s the way it should be—for grandmothers hold open the door to both future and past. They know about mortality. They understand cancer and heart attacks and grief. They know that one day their chair at the family table will be empty. They hope their children and grandchildren will remember and honor them, but more important, they trust the little ones will bring joy and light and faith to this world—especially because they will not be here.
That is also why it is so staggering, deep in the pages of the Bible, to find the story of Athaliah, once the ruler of Judah (and the only woman to rule the country), who ordered the murder of her grandchildren. That’s right. The murder of her grandchildren. All except one, who was spirited away for safekeeping…and thank goodness he was. The others? Done in by the one who should have protected them at all costs—even with her life.
Extreme national turmoil and a violent family of origin describe Athaliah’s place in the world. Most biblical researchers name her as the daughter (some say sister) of the notorious King Ahab.* Some say she was also the daughter of infamous Queen Jezebel—and as Jezebel and Ahab were husband and wife, that would be the logical conclusion. Like her pagan mother, Athaliah, too, was a worshipper of Ba’al.
In about 867 B.C.E., after years of fighting, the ten northern tribes of Israel (Israel) and the two southern tribes (Judah) found themselves united around a fragile peace treaty. To seal the deal, King Ahab of Israel gave his daughter Athaliah to Jehoram, the king of Judah. Such a move may or may not have been Athaliah’s desire. Unfortunately, she had no say.
Jehoram may or may not have been kind to her—and we’re guessing he wasn’t. We do know something of his personality, and it’s not impressive. Here’s the clue: once named king, he killed his brothers to solidify his hold on power. Not exactly good husband material.
After fifteen years of marriage, Jehoram died. Ahaziah, their 22-year old son, became king, and Athaliah became queen mother. Unfortunately, during a visit to Israel, Ahaziah was assassinated by Jehu—the same warrior that compelled Jezebel to fall to her bloody death and be eaten by palace dogs. Jehu also found Athaliah’s extended family members in Israel, and had them killed.
When the word of the carnage reached Athaliah, she seized the crown of Judah. And as she did so, she had her descendants executed, presumably to consolidate her power. Thankfully, Ahaziah’s sister managed to escape the carnage, and spirited away one-year old Jehoash, Athaliah’s youngest grandson.
When the boy turned seven, he was brought out of hiding and crowned king. A palace coup, joined by soldiers on all sides of the queen’s residence, spurned a mob outside her windows. When Athaliah heard the words, “God save the king!” she ran outside and shouted two words: “Treason! Treason!”
Minutes later, she was put to death.
What to make of this tragic story? Violence begets violence, and Athaliah’s actions are symbolic of both the savage culture that surrounded her and her despotic family of orgin. Royal families slaughtering their own to consolidate power is not unknown. (Consider Richard the Third and the princes in the Tower of London.)
Or one might consider this just another “evil woman” story—for women leaders are often judged more harshly then men, and Athaliah, was after all, the sole female ruler of Judah. Yet Deborah ranked quite high as judge of Israel before the monarchy years, and is universally beloved.
Athaliah did not know God. Nor did she appear to know love. But that does not excuse her actions. She murdered her grandchildren. Tragically, her soul had become as hard as ice. She is part of the legion of those in this world who are simply evil, who have no heart nor conscience. She was indeed Granny the Ripper, a black hole in which there was no light.
Yet she still had free will. There comes a time when we must walk away from those parts of ourselves and the culture around us that are not life-giving, that do not reflect God’s love.
Athaliah over-fixated on what could go wrong: dangers, threats and angst. Over fixating on the threats in our world—negativity, violence, what-have you—can also make our own hearts bitter, our vision dark, our perspective full of hate…and finally our actions empty, malevolent, even violent.
And perhaps that is why we instinctively take joy in grandmothers and their babies. As they put their trust in the future, we see what they see: joy, light, love, laughter, innocence.
St. Paul understood. Out of his own darkness—isolation, beatings, imprisonment and poverty—came these words:
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8
Think about these things. Think about these things.
Photo Credit: Special thanks to the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton.
Text adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Published by Forward Movement, 2014.
*Athaliah’s origins are cloaked in mystery. Some Bible scholars believe that Athaliah was not part of the Davidic bloodline, and thus had to be removed from the monarchy at all costs. Yet as the daughter (or sister of King Ahab), she was indeed a descendant of David.