27 August 2010

Judah's Kings and Mama's Boys

I owe everything to Mom.

I can say that. Lots of men say that. Abraham Lincoln said it best: "All that I am or could ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother."

Like most men, I'm prone to credit my successes to Mom--"Hi Mom!"--and blame my limitations on my dad. But as I spent weeks poring over the Old Testament history of the First Temple, the blame for periods of idolatry and temple desecration just didn't seem to fit the blame-it-on-papa scenario.

The history of first-temple Judah lurches from periods of religious revival to gross idolatry, and there seems to be no explanation. For example, how can Judah go from the reign of Jehosophat, the hymn-singing warrior king, to idolatrous Jehoram? What can explain Hezekiah's son, Manasseh, who brought male prostitutes into the Temple and sacrificed his own son in the fire?

On the other hand, Abijah, the son of the committed pagan, Rehoboam, taunted his foes with the words, "God is with us; he is our leader. His priests with their trumpets will sound the battle cry against you" (2Ch 13.12). The grandson of Manasseh was Josiah, whose dedication to reform and the Temple outstripped even his ancestor David (2Ch 35.18). There seems to be no explanation, but there is.

I didn't figure it out till my 3rd time through 2nd Chronicles. I was checking my facts, looking for details, when I read, "Rehoboam appointed Abijah son of Maacah to be the chief prince among his brothers, in order to make him king" (2Ch 11.22). It suddenly dawned on me: almost every king's mother was listed.

In the stories of the royal mothers was a hidden history of Judah: a list of scandal, heroism and hedonism that brought the theological twists and turns of this short-lived nation into light. Things finally made sense. It wasn't hard at all to realize why Rehoboam could be evil and his son godly.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The Mom's the thing to prick the conscience of the King."

Throughout the 377-year history of Judah, a good rule of thumb went like this: if the mother was foreign, the king would worship idols; if the mother was Jewish (Levite in particular), then the king would lead revival.

Let's set this up with a table.


King’s Mother

Mother’s Family

Solomon (m)


Eliam the Gilonite (2S 11.3), a city in Judah

Rehoboam (p)


Ammonite (1K 14.21)

Abijah (g)


Absolom (son of David) (1K 15.2). Later she was deposed by Asa for building an Ahserah pole (2Ch 15.16)

Asa (g)

One of Abijah’s 14 wives

Jehosophat (g)


d.o. Shilhi (2Ch 20.31) Shilhim a town in the south of Judah

Jehoram (p)

Of the House of Ahab (2Ch 18.1)

Ahaziah (p)


Ahab and Jezebel (2K 8.26)



d.o. Jehoram, wife of Jehoida, priest (2Ch 20.11)

Amaziah (m)


Of Jerusalem (sounds like Jehoaddin) (2Ch 25.1)

Azariah (g)


Of Jerusalem (2Ch 26.3)

Jotham (g)


d.o. Zadok (priestly name) (2Ch 27.1)

Ahaz (p)

Hezekiah (g)


d.o. Zechariah, the priest murdered by Joash (2Ch 29.1)

Manasseh (p)


“my delight is in her” (2K 21.1)

Amon (p)


d.o. Haruz from Jothbah (2K 21.19) Jotbah is a desert place through which the Israelites wandered. Was she Bedouin?

Josiah (g)


d.o. Adaniah from Bozkath, a town in Judah (2K 22.1)

Jehoahaz (p)


d.o. Jeremiah from Zibnah, a town in Judah, one of the first conquered by Joshua (2K 23.31)

Jehoiakim (p)


d.o. Pedaich from Rumah, a town near Shechem (2K 23.36)

Jehoiachin (p)


d.o Elnathan from Jerusalem (2K 24.8). Elnathan plays several roles in Jeremiah: traveling to Egypt to persecute the prophet, Uriah (Je 12.22-23), and begging Jehoiakim not to burn Baruch’s scroll (Je 36.24-26)

Zedekiah (p)


d.o. Jeremiah from Zibnah (see above)

I don't have time--or a looming Ph.D.--to grant justice to all the women mentioned here, but I want to highlight a few stories that bring focus to Judah's mercurial devotion to Yahweh.

Solomon. There is much mentioned about Bathsheba throughout the Bible (including the New Testament). She was originally married to a foreign, Hittite man, Uriah. She was at the center of the Bible's most salacious sex scandal. She was a skilled political player, guiding her son through three claimants to David's throne. All of these would be mirrored in the long, successful career of her son, Solomon. He came by his love of foreigners honestly. His father had no foreign wives, Solomon had hundreds--and he honored the gods of each wife. Solomon left a mixed legacy as a religious leader, ultimately crippled by a voluminous appetite for sex/marriage/heterodoxy, yet he was never cowed by politics.

Rehoboam. His mother is nameless--as are all of Solomon's other 700 wives, including the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt (the only one mentioned specifically). All that we know of Rehoboam's mother is that she was an Ammonite princess, whose idol Solomon erected and no doubt worshiped at least once. Rehoboam's rule would be the first descent into paganism. The glorious Temple left by his father would be looted in year five of his rule.

Abijah. How could Abijah have restored the kingdom to the God Party with a father like Rehoboam? His mother was Jewish, that may explain it. She was Macaah, the cousin of Rehoboam, the daughter of Solomon's first rival, Absolom. Her Jewish heritage may explain the kingdom's dramatic return to the God Party, but I should note that she was later punished by her grandson, Asa, for erecting an Asherah pole in Jerusalem. Alas.

Jehoram. Throughout the reigns of Asa and Jehosophat, the God Party dominated the court, but Jehoram's reign saw widespread idolatry. The answer lies north of the border. Under King Omri, Israel had leaped ahead economically. Jehosophat--the hymn-singer, lover of God--married into this dominant Israelite family. The mother of Jehoram isn't mentioned, but the Chronicler shows that she was probably a sister of King Ahab (2Ch 18.1), hence the turn to paganism.

Joash. The Pagan Party ruled through Jehoram and his son, Ahaziah, who married Athaliah, daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. After Ahaziah's death, Athaliah would become the only queen to sit on the Throne of David, serving six years. She went so far as to murder her grandchildren, but Joash survived. His aunt, Jehosheba, had married into the priestly class, and his uncle, Jehoida would train him, leading the revival that took place once this boy king had displaced his hated grandmother. No mention is made of Joash's mother.

I want to point out one scandal that marred the reign of Joash. Toward the end of his reign, the revival waned, paganism crept back into the court, and the Temple services weren't practiced. Zechariah (not related to the prophet), whose father, Jehoida, had been so instrumental in preserving Joash's life and putting him on the throne, prophesied against the king:

Then the Spirit of God came upon Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the LORD’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has forsaken you.’”

But they plotted against him, and by order of the king they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the LORD’s temple. King Joash did not remember the kindness Zechariah’s father Jehoiada had shown him but killed his son, who said as he lay dying, “May the LORD see this and call you to account.” (2Ch 24.20-22)

This episode isn't mentioned much. We are inclined to see Joash as the "good," boy king who cleaned the Temple of his grandmother's depredations. His life ended very differently, once the influence of the priests, through Jehoida, had waned.

The three kings that followed Joash--Amaziah, Azariah/Uzziahand Jotham--all had mothers who were simply "of Jerusalem" (see table). All happened to be God-followers.

Ahaz. There is no mention of the mother of Ahaz, Jotham's son, who plunged the Kingdom of Judah into an orgy of idolatry. He owed his throne to the Assyrian ruler, Tilgath-Pileser, so I'll blame that monarch for Ahaz's embrace of idolatry, rather than a mother.

His religious innovations included
  • building an altar in the Temple that was an exact replica of a pagan altar he had seen in Damascus
  • erecting bronze horses at the entrance to the Temple to welcome the sun
  • removing the bronze cattle that had supported the giant "sea" or basin that Solomon had built in the Temple courts
  • erecting a series of steps at the Temple entrance that would mark the progress of the sun--an homage to the sun god, and a device that would lead to a bittersweet healing for his son
Incidentally, as I was researching Ahaz, I came across this confrontation between this wicked king and the prophet Isaiah:

[Isaiah:]If you do not stand firm in your faith,

you will not stand at all.’”

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.9-14)

Most of the scriptures from Isaiah that Christians read at Christmas actually refer back to the hope that Judah had of a savior from this wicked, son-sacrificing king ("unto us a child is born" was also written in hopes of ending Ahaz's reign). His son would be...

Hezekiah. His mother was Abijah, a living link to Joash's treachery. She was the daughter of Zechariah, and her link to the priestly class indicates how Hezekiah could have quickly turned things around. She carried the flame of revival, probably strengthened by her father's murder.

Hezekiah married a woman with the prettiest name in the Old Testament: Hephzibah--"my delight is in her." Aside from the pretty name, nothing is known about her, no father, no home town (as is listed for others).

Her son, Manasseh, would surpass Ahaz in paganism and debauchery. Manassah, in turn, would marry Meshullemeth--one of the OT's ugliest names. She came from the desert town of Jotbah, outside the traditional borders of Judah. It makes me wonder if she was Bedouin. Her son, Amon, would also be pagan.

Josiah. The last good king of Judah was a very good king, indeed--surpassing even David and Solomon in his devotion to the God Party. His mother, Jedidah, came from a Judean town, which increases the likelihood that she was a God worshiper.

After Josiah's tragic death in 609 BC, things slipped away quickly. His son, Jehoash, son of the Judean mother, Hamutal, was quickly deposed by Pharaoh Neco. The remaining kings: sons and nephews of Josiah from mothers mentioned in the table above, owed their power to foreign kings, not to God or pagans--all of them would be pagan. Within 25 years, the kingdom was devoured by Babylon.

Moms Matter
I wouldn't call my research conclusive. I'll use a statistical term and call "relevant" the connection between royal marriages and the religious vigor of the Kingdom of Judah.

On the one hand, Solomon's voracious appetite for foreign marriage, Jehosophat's link to the Omri/Ahab family, and power politics brought about periods of idolatry and hedonism in Judah.

On the other hand, marriages within the kingdom--particularly the links to the priestly class that empowered Joash and Hezekiah--brought about revival.

It's time these hidden heroines and femmes fatale got recognized.

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