Melachim Bet

We just can't stop learning! ...The Bekiut Nach class of 5766 in a quest to complete Nevi'im Rishonim

Monday, August 07, 2006

Chapter 11 - Rav Steinsaltz on Athalia

Chapter 11 describes the reign of Queen Athalia who presumed the throne after the death of her son, and then killed the entire royal family. Unbeknown to her, Yoash, a little baby, and a male heir to the monarchy, is secretly kept away from harm and lives in secret until he can presume the throne.

In his book Biblical Images (Based on the Galei Tzahal radio lecture series – Nashim BaTanach) Rav Steinsaltz discusses Athalia. First he notes that Athalia rules specifically in the Kingdom of Yehuda:

"Queen Athaliah's rule was possi­ble …only because she ruled in the Kingdom of Judah, where a single dynasty had reigned for many years, and where there had not been a single real revolt or serious attempt to overthrow the royal dynasty. Thus, Athaliah, who in fact had no real claim or right to rule, could, in the absence of other claimants to power, govern the state for six years-a fairly long period. In the Kingdom of Israel, on the other hand, there would have been no possibility of a woman retaining power for any length of time. In that unstable state, even the legitimate kings were fairly likely to be toppled by others."

There is also the question of timing:

"There is another aspect to Athaliah's "case." If she had come to power a few years earlier, it would have been claimed that the queen was getting political help and support from the members of the ruling house of Israel, to whom she was related. The surprising thing is that Athaliah took up the reigns of government after her family and her power base in the Kingdom of Israel were destroyed to the last man. At such a time, there should have been a popular response against foreign rule (it should be remembered that Athaliah may have been Jezebel's daughter and, in any case, was not from Judah but from Israel and was thus, from every viewpoint, a foreign transplant). Nevertheless, despite all these strikes against her, Athaliah maintained control of the government for a considerable length of time. Her removal from power was the result of a conspiracy in the highest circles of the-kingdom, and not as the result of a popular revolt."

But what motivated Athalia? Rav Steinsaltz raises a single thesis:

"On the one hand, it is clear that Athaliah, like Jezebel, was not just a strong personality but a woman who yearned to rule; a woman with a real ambition, an intense passion for power... Her passion was simply for power itself, and this drive of hers was so strong that it caused her to carry out a series of extreme acts, even to the point of destroying the royal heirs. The strange and inexplicable element in all this is: Why did Athaliah destroy the royal progeny? … she tried totally to destroy the children of the royal house in order to acquire full control and power without fear of any contenders to her throne and with no need to hide behind someone else. "

And he continues:

"She did not even make any serious political or religious changes within the country. She became simply a manifestation of this one drive: to rule."

"As long as her son was alive, she remained somehow within the human sphere, not only because he was the rightful king, but also because of her emotional contact with the child. She hungered for power and probably wielded real power, but she did not yet need all its external trappings. The downfall and destruction of her father's house was the event that broke Athaliah's last ties with the rest of humanity. What remained was simply this one drive: the lust to rule."