The Problem of Jehosheba: Reading One Biblical Character in Two Different Feminist Ways by Jill Hammer

Tucked away in II Kings 11 is the story of a mother-daughter feud that is personal, political, and ultimately fatal. Jehu, a charismatic military commander, is anointed by Elisha as the next king of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jehu kills the previous king of Israel, Jehoram, and also Jehoram’s mother Jezebel (yes, that Jezebel—the famous/infamous queen). As part of his violent rise to power, Jehu also kills Ahaziah, king of the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaziah’s death should mean that Athaliah (Atalya), who is queen mother of Judah as well as the daughter of Jezebel, cedes power to a new king and a new queen mother. Instead, according to the Book of Kings, Athaliah has the rest of the king’s sons and grandsons murdered, and seizes the throne for herself. 

All seems lost for the Judean line, except that Jehosheba (Yehosheva), wife of the high priest Jehoiada and sister of the murdered King Ahaziah, saves one of Ahaziah’s sons, along with the child’s wetnurse, and hides them both in the Temple. Jehosehba keeps the boy, Joash, and his nurse in the Temple until he is six years old. At that time, Jehosheba’s husband, the high priest, anoints Joash king, stages a coup, and executes Athaliah as a usurper. Jehosheba’s action saves the Davidic line. The collection of Jewish legends known as Otzar Midrashim lists Jehosheba as one of the righteous women of the Jewish people.

Jehosheba, princess of Judah, has always presented me with an interpretive problem. On the one hand, this character is clearly a biblical heroine. Jehosheba bravely stands up against Athaliah, a murderous queen who may be Jehosheba’s own mother. Though it’s also possible Jehosheba could be a daughter of a different wife of King Ahaziah, Jewish tradition tends to see Jehosheba as the daughter of Athaliah—and this daughter acts against her parent to save the baby Joash. It’s even possible that Jehosheba is turning down her chance to be her mother’s heir in order to enact this rescue.

Joash saved by Jehosheba

Like the daughter of Pharaoh, Jehosheba hides the vulnerable child until he is old enough to claim his inheritance. She risks her own life and breaches the Temple’s sanctity. Joash here is a kind of second Moses, and Jehosheba is a remake of Pharaoh’s daughter, known as Batya in later Jewish legend. 

One might also see Jehosheba as a priestess type, since she is the wife of the high priest, and according to Jewish law, that would make her a kohenet—a priestess or priestly woman, entitled to eat from the sacrificial food. The medieval Jewish scholar Abravanel adds that Jehosheba lives in the Temple and thus has an easier time hiding the child in a place where laypeople cannot go; many interpreters say she hid the boy and his nurse in the Holy of Holies itself. This suggests Jehosheba holds life sacred above all else.

Jehosheba and Athaliah

On the other hand, Jehosheba is part of a narrative in which the only good woman is the one who supports male-centered monarchy. Scholar Cat Quine calls Jehosheba a model of “perfect femininity”—“prioritizing the safety of the male…and retiring appropriately from the foreground of events.” Athaliah, the female monarch who has taken on a traditionally male role, is portrayed as usurping and monstrous—similarly to Jezebel who is also portrayed as murderous and unrighteous—while the motherly Jehosheba, who has no public role except as the wife of a powerful man, is portrayed as virtuous. As scholars Judith Maeryam Wouk and Kuloba Wagyanga Robert point out, we don’t know whether Jezebel or Athaliah were as bad as the biblical text makes them out to be—it is possible these female characters are demonized to promote a patriarchal narrative. Robert even points out that since Jehu has already killed “the brothers of Ahaziah,” the story that Athaliah killed the same people in a murderous rampage does not make sense. It could be that Athaliah was the last member of the House of Judah left who could take the reins of the kingdom—and that this was later portrayed by her enemies as an illegitimate seizure of power.

Meanwhile, the very fact that Yehosheva is not reported killed in the purge suggests that she could never be queen, even though she is the king’s daughter. A six-year-old boy is considered a more legitimate ruler than her. We might see Jehosheba as a character meant to valorize “good women” who accept and promote the authority of men. Thinking about her this way, I feel less excited about her character.

So is Jehosheba a hero, or a sellout? Perhaps we can’t resolve the question. Either of the readings I’ve presented could be regarded as a feminist reading of this enigmatic character: Jehosheba the lifesaving priestess, or Jehosheba the betrayer of female power.  Some days I feel pulled to admire Jehosheba. Who can’t relate to a daughter who stands up to her oppressive mother, and saves a baby? Other days I feel like Jehosheba is a straw figure positioned to hide what really happened to Judah’s only woman ruler in biblical days. And there are, of course, other readings I haven’t thought of, that may further complicate this picture. (For example, what is the perspective of the wetnurse who gets caught up in all this?) In the end, the story of Jehosheba reminds me both of how difficult it is to interpret text and history—and of how many possibilities are present within the record of the past. 

Sources

II Kings 1

I Chronicles 22

Otzar haMidrashim, Baraita of Rabbi Pinchas ben Ya’ir 1

Abarbanel on II Kings 11:2:1

Hayyim Joseph David Azulay on II Kings 11:2

Jill Hammer, “Queen Mothers and Matriarchs: How the Role of the Gevirah Helps Us Understand Mothers in Genesis,” in G’vanim, vol. 4, no. 1 (2008), p. 13-29.

Cat Quine, “Bereaved Mothers and Masculine Queens: The Political Uses of Maternal Grief in 1-2 Kings,” in Open Theology, vol. 6 issue 1 (2020), 407-422.

Kuloba Wagyanga Robert, “Athaliah of Judah (2 Kings 11): A Political Anomaly or Ideological Victim?” in Looking Through a Glass Bible, eds. A.K.M Adam and Samuel Tongue (Brill, 2014), p. 139-152.

Judith Maeryam Wouk, “Jezebel and Ethical Decision-Making,” Presentation, American Academy of Religion, March 19-21, 2021.

10 thoughts on “The Problem of Jehosheba: Reading One Biblical Character in Two Different Feminist Ways by Jill Hammer”

      1. I couldn’t

        Yes ….although I grew up with the Bible I left it behind about forty years ago but it still manages to stun me….religions have a powerful effect on humans regardless of conscious belief or lack there of and more and more I see that this legacy of violence which continues to increase has its origins in books like the Bible. It begs the question maybe it’s time to move away from these teachings?

        Like

        1. I don’t believe violence began with books like the Bible– rather, the Bible reflects the violence of its time, just as our cultural artifacts reflect the violence of our time. I personally prefer to receive the Bible as a complex phenomenon that has good and bad and everything in between.

          Like

          1. You have a point – humans are violent in the culture of patriarchy which dominates all these books and the cultures we live in except for those of Indigenous peoples. And yet – i take a both and approach here – violent books like the Bible help incite more violence – how do we get away from this reality? By the way your scholarship is superb!

            Like

  1. What I love about this post is that there are no clear-cut answers, which is so true in life. How often do we all do things that could be interpreted in different ways and about which we ourselves may be conflicted? To me, this makes this a much more human story than those of people who are clearly sheroes or villains. The way you interpret it is also a great model — looking at as full a context as possible — of how to think about our own and others’ actions as we seek to determine what to do or consider what has already been done. Thank you for sharing it!

    Like

    1. Carolyn–yes, exactly–we ourselves are always struggling with the multiple interpretations of our own and others’ behavior. The many ways we read Jehosheba also reflect the many ways we might read ourselves. Thank you for commenting!

      Like

  2. This was most interesting, Jill. I don’t know anything about Jehosheba, but my research into the Bible indicates that Jezebel was a Goddess worshiping priestess, and it was for this that she was reviled. Her husband, Ahab, put her to death for her treachery by being torn apart by dogs. (This comes from Robert Graves) Melville makes Ahab the antihero of MOBY DICK, where his pursuit of the white whale, can be see as an ultimate quest to destroy nature, which fortuitously destroys him instead. The tale is told by Ishmael, the ultimate Biblical outsider, the lone survivor of this debacle, who is rescued by a ship called Rachel, the Biblical feminine.

    Like

  3. This is wonderful, Jill. Now I am wondering how this passage slipped by me. It took your eye and mind to dig out all the dimensions you share here! todah rabbah.

    Like

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: