Tuesday, July 23rd | 17 Tammuz 5784

March 22, 2015 1:10 am

Queens of the Jews

× [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]

avatar by Brandon Marlon

Dahiya Kahina

Most of the queens in Jewish history are either unnamed or unknown beyond their names. Yet a number of female monarchs figure more prominently due to the dramatic lives they led or the turbulent times in which they featured. Some were wives of ruling husbands and others were queens regnant who held the reins of power themselves. Their biographies are related variously in Kings II and Chronicles II, in Esther, in Josephus’ The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities, and in Roman sources such as Juvenal’s Satires, Muslim sources including al-Maliki, Ibn Khaldun, and Ibn Hawqal, and ancient Ethiopian chronicles. Each personage is fascinating in her own right, as woman and as royal.
  1. Michal (c. 10th century B.C.E.) – The youngest daughter of King Saul (likely with Ahinoam), who fell in love with David and was betrothed to him after he slew 200 Philistines in battle, double the stipulated amount that Saul had set as the condition of their marriage. Although Saul’s older daughter Merav had been offered to David, she was given away to another. Michal helped David escape her father’s wrath by lowering him out of her window and deceiving the royal messengers sent to kill him. After David fled to the prophet Samuel in Ramah, Michal was given in marriage to Paltiel ben Laish, but later was restored to David in Hebron upon his demand. When Michal peered out a palace window and beheld an indulgent David leaping and dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem, she despised him and berated him for shamelessly exposing himself in public. David answered her sharply, reminding her of her father’s ouster and his own divine elevation. Michal remained childless. The marriage of Michal and David seems to have been at first sustained by love and loyalty before being strained by mutual disappointment.
  2. Bat-sheva, a.k.a. Bat-shua, Bathsheba (c. 10th century B.C.E.) – The daughter of Eliam (Ammiel), Bat-sheva was the wife of Uriyah the Hittite, then of King David, and the mother of King Solomon. From his palace rooftop, David witnessed the beautiful Bat-sheva bathing and ordered her brought to him. He impregnated her and sought to conceal the fact by sending Uriyah home to his wife to have intercourse. When Uriyah refused to part from his fellow soldiers, David had him placed on the front lines against the Ammonites, where he was predictably killed. David then married Bat-sheva, an act for which he was censured by Nathan the prophet. In all, Bat-sheva had 4 sons with David: Shimea (Shammua), Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon. It was probably Shimea, their firstborn, who resulted from his parents’ illicit affair and who perished from severe illness days after birth. With the prophet Nathan’s help, Bat-sheva secured the succession for her son Solomon instead of David’s eldest son Adonijah.
  3. Ataliah (r. 842-836 B.C.E.) – The daughter of Ahab and Jezebel (or else of Omri), wife of Jehoram of Judah, and sole reigning queen of Judah. Like her husband, she murdered all familial rivals upon her accession to the throne. Only her grandson Joash escaped her clutches thanks to his aunt Jehosheva (Ataliah’s daughter). Ataliah fostered the idolatrous worship of Baal-Melqart, and her reign was odious to the Judahites. She received condign punishment when her son-in-law, the stalwart high priest Jehoiada, proclaimed her grandson Joash as king in a coronation ceremony in the Temple. The despairing Ataliah tore her clothes and protested the act of treason, then was promptly led off and summarily executed at the horse gate of the royal palace. In the aftermath of Ataliah’s demise, the temple of Baal was destroyed and its priest Mattan slain.
  4. Hadassah, a.k.a. Esther (c. 475 B.C.E.?) – The daughter of Avihail, from the tribe of Benjamin. Orphaned at a young age, the Persian Jewess Hadassah was raised by her older cousin Mordechai in Susa (Shushan), the imperial capital. She was among the Persian maidens called to the palace by Emperor Ahasuerus (Xerxes I the Great) when he sought to replace his defiant wife Vashti. Hadassah means myrtle in Hebrew, and Esther might have been derived from its Median cognate, astra; otherwise, it may derive from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and may have been adopted by Hadassah either when she entered the imperial harem or exited it when elevated as queen. Plucked from obscurity, Hadassah initially concealed her Jewish origins from her royal consort. But when the Persian grand vizier Haman the Agagite (a descendant of the Amalekites) plotted to eradicate Jewry and obtained the imperial permission to execute his intention, Esther was confronted with the choice of advocating on her people’s behalf or preserving her silence and saving her own neck. Mordechai highlighted for her that her accession may have come about for just such a time and purpose. She resolved to reveal herself to her husband and accuse Haman at a pair of private banquets, and requested the observance of a 3-day fast by all Jews. Haman and his sons were hanged on gibbets and the enemies of the Jews were killed in their stead. With Mordechai’s aid, Esther saved the Jewish population of the Persian Empire. The traditional tomb of Esther and Mordechai is in Hamadan, Iran. There remain doubts about the historicity of the Scroll of Esther, with some critics considering it historical romance literature (much relies on the identification of Ahasuerus with Xerxes I, Artaxerxes I, or Artaxerxes II). Clearly historical is the Purim festival, attested in the Hasmonean era in Maccabees II.
  5. Shalom Zion, a.k.a. Salome Alexandra (r. 76-67 B.C.E.) – The wife of Judah Aristobulus then of his half-brother Alexander Yannai. She was involved in the death of her brother-in-law Antigonus for his alleged plot against the life of her husband. Still, the Pharisees were enamored with her and praised her peaceful rule. Hundreds of political prisoners languishing in dungeons and thousands of political exiles seeking refuge in foreign countries were granted liberty and welcomed back by the queen. Under the leadership of her brother, Shimon ben Shetach, the Pharisees rose to prominence. The queen placed her several fortresses—except for Hyrcania, Alexandrion (Alexandrium), and Machaerus (Mikhvar) — at the disposal of the Sadducees in order to protect them from reprisals by the resurgent Pharisees in Jerusalem.She doubled the size of the army and provisioned border citadels. She also installed her eldest son Hyrcanus II as high priest, and sent her other son Aristobulus II to relieve the siege of Damascus by Ptolemy Menneus. Shalom Zion possessed extensive foreign connections and was respected by neighboring monarchs. Around 70 B.C.E., the advancing Armenian king Tigranes II the Great claimed 10,000 Judean captives but was prevented from occupying Judea by means of the queen’s peace treaties and gifts. Shortly thereafter the queen fell ill. Towards the end of her reign, civil war broke out anew when Aristobulus, who patronized the Sadducees, gathered a large mercenary force and sought to usurp his mother’s rule. Shalom Zion died before she could counter this uprising, leaving her sons to contend for power.
  6. Miriam the Hasmonean, a.k.a. Mariamne, Mariamme (r. 37-29 B.C.E.) – The beautiful daughter of Hasmonean cousins, Alexander and Alexandra, and the great-granddaughter of Shalom Zion. Miriam became the second wife of Herod the Great. Her mother arranged her engagement to Herod in 42 B.C.E; the pair wed in 37 B.C.E in Samaria, and had 3 sons and 2 daughters. Hers was a tragic and unhappy marriage. She disdained the Herodians who had usurped Hasmonean rule over Judea, and often clashed with Herod’s mother Cypros and his sister Salome. Herod’s passionate love for Miriam gave rise to extreme possessiveness and jealousy. When Herod departed Judaea to visit Marc Antony, and later Octavian, he left orders with Miriam’s minders to put her to death in case he never came back. When Herod returned from Rhodes, Salome alleged that Miriam intended to poison him (this may well have been calumny, but may also have been truthful, as Miriam had ample motive to avenge her relatives murdered by her tyrannical husband). Herod had her accused before a tribunal composed of his allies, which sentenced her to death. She was led to the place of execution and died calm at the young age of 28. Herod named one of Jerusalem’s lofty towers after her. Of Miriam’s 3 sons, one died in his youth and the others, Aristobulus IV and Alexander, were executed by Herod in 7 B.C.E. Her daughters were named Salampsio and Cypros.
  7. Helena of Adiabene (d. 56 C.E.) – The sister and wife of King Monobaz I of Adiabene, and mother of Izates and Monobaz II. Although likely of Hellenistic origin, Helena was influenced by a Jewish merchant named Hanan (Ananias) and converted to Judaism around 30 C.E., spending the latter part of her life in Jerusalem where she built herself a palace. She had her sons educated in Jerusalem. Helena developed a reputation for munificence by purchasing grain and dried figs from Alexandria, Egypt and Cyprus to alleviate the famine afflicting the capital in 45 C.E., and by endowing gifts to the Temple, including a golden candlestick and an engraved golden plate. According to the Talmud, Helena vowed to become a Nazirite for 7 years if her son Izates returned safely from war, and when this transpired she dutifully fulfilled her oath. Helena died in Adiabene—a district in northern Mesopotamia—but her remains and those of Izates were conveyed by Monobaz II to Jerusalem for burial in the pyramidal mausoleum, now known as the Tombs of the Kings, that Helena had erected in the northern area of the city. An inscribed sarcophagus discovered there in the 19th century was identified as that of Helena.
  8. Berenika, a.k.a. Berenice II, Julia Berenice, Bernice (28-after 81 C.E.) – The daughter of Agrippa I and Cypros, and younger sister to Agrippa II. The beautiful and wealthy Berenika married often. Her first husband, Marcus Julius Alexander, son of the Alexandrian alabarch, soon died. Berenika then had two children with her uncle Herod of Chalcis, Berenicianus and Hyrcanus. Widowed a second time, Berenika moved in with her brother Agrippa II, at which point rumors of their incestuous relations circulated. She then married the Cilician king, Polemon II of Pontus, but soon abandoned him and returned to her brother, stoking the rumors. Berenika and Agrippa were in Caesarea to welcome the new Roman governor, Porcius Festus, and participated in the trial of Paul the Apostle. Berenika went to fulfill a Nazirite vow in Jerusalem when the new procurator, Gessius Florus, provoked a riot; she begged him to desist from bloodshed, but he was inexorable. Berenika fled to safety in her palace. She and Agrippa complained to the Syrian legate Cestius Gallus about Florus, and Berenika stood by her brother when he addressed Jerusalemites in his unsuccessful attempt to dissuade them from rebellion against Rome. The palaces of Berenika and Agrippa were demolished by a riotous rabble, and the siblings escaped to Galilee where they went over to the invading Romans under Vespasian. Vespasian held Berenika in high regard, and was convinced by her intercession to spare Justus of Tiberias, a Jewish historian and rival of Josephus, from execution. Berenika became the lover of Vespasian’s son Titus, who was many years her junior, and after the revolt was quelled joined him in Rome in 75 C.E. where she lived with him on the Palatine Hill. They were expected to marry, but Titus was dissuaded from making her empress of Rome due to Vespasian’s misgivings and the Romans’ intolerance of the Jews. Titus reluctantly separated from her; after Vespasian’s death she tried to reunite with Titus, who dismissed her. She may have formed connections in Athens, but nothing further is known of her later life.
  9. Shushandukht, a.k.a. Gasyandukht (c. 5th century C.E.) – The daughter of a Resh Galuta (Jewish exilarch), Shushandukht became the wife of Yazdgird I and the mother of Bahram V (Bahram Gur) and Shapur IV. In some ways a second Esther, Queen Shushandukht enhanced the position of Jews in the Sassanid imperial court. She founded the sizeable Jewish district of Yahuddiyeh in Isfahan, as well as Jewish colonies in Susa and Shushtar. She is further associated with the Jewish communities of Hamadan (Ecbatana) and Khwarezm. Her husband and son Shapur were both murdered by Sassanian noblemen before her son Bahram, a Jewish shah, ascended to the throne. It has been conjectured that her tomb is that of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan.
  10. Dahiya Kahina, a.k.a. Dihya (r. 690s?-702 C.E.) – Queen of the Jerawa (Jarua) and Aures tribes of Berbers, who were converts to Judaism. She ruled an area in North Africa then known as Numidia (southeast Algeria), and led the indigenous resistance against the invading Umayyad Muslim army of Hasan ibn al-Numan, forcing them to retreat to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Libya). She ruled for a period of at least 5 years between the Aures Mountains and the Gadames oasis, and gained a reputation as a harsh monarch, especially after implementing a counterproductive scorched earth policy. She wielded both religious and political power (Kahina is a title like Cohen, indicating her role as a priestess and soothsayer), and is credited with an interest in ornithology. When the strengthened Arabs under Musa bin Nusayr invaded anew in the early 7oos, she fell in battle near Tabarka. Her sons Bagay and Khanchla were converted to Islam and joined the Muslim army in its conquest of Iberia. The Kahina was buried in Khenchela, Algeria, which was formerly the Roman colony of Mascula.
  11. Gudit, a.k.a. Judith, Yodit, Gwedit (r. circa 960-1000 C.E.) – A fearsome warrior queen who reigned for forty years and founded a dynasty that bore her name. Gudit revolted against Aksum (Axum), the capital of Christian Ethiopia (Abyssinia), and destroyed churches and monuments, as well as the Debre Damo monastery that at the time was housing the Aksumite heirs. She eradicated all but one of the Aksumite dynasty, which had reigned for centuries, and instead founded the Zagwe dynasty which ruled for 300 years. According to one Ethiopian chronicle, Gudit converted to Judaism after marrying a Syrian prince, Zenobis, who was Jewish.

Some ancient sources claim that the Syrian queen Zenobia of Palmyra (3rd century C.E.) converted to Judaism, but this is unhistorical. Queen Ifra Hormizd of Persia (late 3rd/early 4th centuries C.E.) appears several times in the Talmud but, like Zenobia, inclined favorably towards the Jewish community of her realm without being impelled to become a proselyte.

Overall, these eminent queens displayed profound concern for their Jewish subjects, whether in Israel or in the foreign lands they ruled. They were prepared to intercede even at great personal risk on behalf of the Jewish People, as in the case of Esther and Berenika, and displayed abundant generosity, as with Helena and Shushandukht. Sometimes the queens, such as Michal and Miriam the Hasmonean, were characterized by bitterness resulting from unsatisfying marital circumstances. They could be adept at diplomacy, like Shalom Zion, or skillful in warfare, like Dahiya Kahina and Gudit. Like their counterparts the Jewish kings, the Jewish queens’ lives were colorful, eventful, and meaningful.

Share this Story: Share On Facebook Share On Twitter

Let your voice be heard!

Join the Algemeiner


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.