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Biblical Royal Mothers

Royal mothers in polygamous ancient Near Eastern dynasties had not only to produce an heir: they created political alliances, offered wisdom, and secured the status and wellbeing of their children.

Naqia-Zakutu and her son King Esarhaddon

Monarchies are constructed, connected, and maintained through familial relationships. Royal women of the ancient Near East included daughters, wives, sisters, mothers, and widows. The use of relational language, such as “wife of” and “daughter of” to refer to royal women was far more common than titles such as “queen,” “princess,” or “queen mother.” Relational language is also dominant in the Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther.  

The category of royal mothers includes women who are not mothers of a king. Among such biblical royal mothers are the daughter of Pharaoh who adopted Moses as her son (Exod 2:5-10) and David’s wives Ahinoam, Abigail, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah (2Sam 3:2-5). There are royal mothers who kill, royal mothers who mourn the deaths of their children, and royal mothers who change the course of history. 

Most biblical references to royal mothers occur in the announcements in the books of 1 and 2 Kings that a new king has begun to reign. These announcements appear for all the kings of Judah except two (Jehoram and Ahaz), from the division of Israel into two kingdoms (922 B.C.E.) until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (587 B.C.E.). The announcements indicate the relationship of the new king (typically a son) to the previous one, the name of the mother, the number of years the king ruled, and whether or not the king “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” (for example, 2Kgs 15:3). The regular mention of the king’s mother stands out in comparison to the announcements regarding the kings of the northern kingdom (Israel) and other ancient Near Eastern king lists. These announcements underscore the position of the royal mother in the dynastic system as providing continuity between the king whose reign has concluded and the new king. Since the announcements also include an assessment of whether or not the king’s reign conformed to divine standards, royal mothers are included in this judgment.

Royal women also connect the dynasty to peoples and places in the nation and beyond. The mother of King David’s firstborn son, Amnon, was Ahinoam of Jezreel, and the mother of his second son, Chileab, was Abigail of Carmel in southern Judah. David’s third son, Absalom, was the “son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur” (2Sam 3:3). This international connection proved fortunate for Absalom, who fled to Geshur for three years after killing his half-brother Amnon. The mother of Rehoboam, King Solomon’s heir, was also a foreigner, Naamah the Ammonite.

Royal mothers provided life instruction for their sons and daughters. The wisdom of Prov 31:1-9 is identified as words King Lemuel’s mother had taught him. Royal mothers (such as Athaliah) could also be implicated in an heir’s doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2Kgs 8:27).

A royal mother was active directly and indirectly in securing the status and future well-being of her children. Marriages needed to be arranged between royal or prominent families in the country or neighboring nations (a diplomatic strategy reflected in the marriages of King David mentioned above). A king’s eldest son might have the best—but not the only—chance of succession.

An essential part of keeping safe and attaining the throne was cultivating loyalties. In an ancient Near Eastern example, Zakutu (also known as Naqia), the widow of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, legitimated the reign of her son Esarhaddon, who became king ahead of his brothers after their father’s murder. When her grandson Ashurbanipal eventually ascended to the throne, Zakutu imposed a loyalty pact “with Assyrians high and low,” requiring them to report any conspiracy against Assurbanipal. Likewise Bathsheba, mother of King David’s son Solomon, secured Solomon’s appointment as David’s heir ahead of his brother Adonijah in 1Kgs 1:11-31.

  • Elna K. Solvang

    Elna K. Solvang is a professor in the Religion Department at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN. She is the author of A Woman’s Place Is in the House: Royal Women of Judah and Their Involvement in the House of David (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003) and of essays examining women’s agency in ancient royal households and in the Hebrew Bible.