Athaliah

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Athaliah (or Athalia) lived in the ninth century BCE and was the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, the rulers of the kingdom of Israel. Her story is told in II Kings ch. 11. 'Athaliah' is the spelling of her name in the King James Bible: her name in Hebrew is עֲתַלְיָה, ʻĂṯalyâ. The pronunciation, at least in Handel's Oratorio Athalia, is 'ath-ul-EYE-uh', IPA: /æ θə 'laɪ ə/.

Athaliah was married to Jehoram, king of Judah, (II Kings, ch. 8, v. 18) in an attempt to bring about peace between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and she ruled Judah with her husband for a number of years. On Jehoram's death Ahaziah, their son, became king, but Athaliah retained considerable influence as queen mother and, being like her mother Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal rather than of the Jewish God Jehovah, she used her influence to promote the worship of Baal. In 841, while visiting Israel, Ahaziah was murdered on the orders of Jehu, a fierce campaigner against the worship of Baal and the person responsible also for the murder of Ahaziah's grandmother Jezebel. Athaliah sought to secure her own position as sole ruler of Judah by ordering that all Ahaziah's children, i.e., her own grandchildren, be killed (ibid., ch. 11, v. 1); but one of these children, Jehoash, then no more than a year old, was saved by Ahaziah's sister, Jehosheba, and brought up in secret (ibid., ch. 11, vv. 2-3) as a worshipper of Jehovah (ibid., ch. 11, v. 17). When he was seven years old (ibid., ch. 11, v. 21), Jehoash was shown to the people and proclaimed king (ibid., ch. 11, vv.. 4-12). Athaliah, taken by surprise and finding herself without support, attempted to flee, but was captured and executed (ibid., ch. 11, vv. 13-16).

The story of Athaliah is the subject of the last tragedy, Athalie, of the French playwright Jean Racine (1639-1699) and of the English oratorio Athalia by G.F. Handel (1685-1759). (In the oratorio Jehosheba's name is anglicised as Josabeth, and Jehoash's as Joash.)