Commentary on 2 Kgs 11:1-4, 9-18, 20
“We read one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Judah. Around 837 BC the wicked queen mother Athaliah seized power. The high priest Jehoiada led a revolution, put the young Davidic King Joash on the throne and renewed the covenant with God.” (Vatican II Missal)
If we thought Queen Jezebel was bad, we are hardly ready to read about Queen Athalia. She was a daughter of King Ahab but Jezebel was probably not her mother. Her influence on King Jehoram, her late husband, paralleled that of Jezebel on King Ahab.
When her son, King Ahaziah died at the young age of 22, she immediately moved to have all his children, that is, her grandchildren done away with so as to secure the throne of Judah (the southern kingdom) for herself. The royal family had already been reduced to a mere remnant. Jehoram, her late husband and the father of Ahaziah, had already killed all his brothers when he succeeded his father Jehoshaphat on the throne. King Jehu had slain another 42 members of the royal house of Judah, perhaps including many of the sons of Jehoram’s brothers. To top it all, the brothers of Ahaziah had been killed by raiding Arabs.
In the eyes of the author, this attempt to completely destroy the house of David was an attack on God’s redemptive plan – a plan that centred on the Messiah, which the Davidic covenant had promised and which depended on the continuation of the Davidic line to become a reality.
However, as we are told today, a sister of King Ahaziah managed to save one of the princes, Joash, and hid him first in the servants’ sleeping quarters together with his nurse. This would indicate that the child was not more than a year old and not yet weaned. There he remained in hiding while Athalia took over as ruler of the kingdom. This woman, Jehosheba, was the wife of Jehoiada the high priest, who will soon appear in the story, and it explains how she was able to keep Joash hidden in the Temple for six years.
Not surprisingly, Athalia in time became the object of a palace coup organised by the high priest Jehoiada. It happened in the seventh year of her rule. He made a pact with the captains of the mercenary soldiers who served as the palace guard. The Carians were mercenary soldiers from Caria in southwest Asia Minor who served as royal bodyguards. After both those on and off duty had sworn their commitment, they are secretly shown the young prince. They are then given detailed instructions on how to protect him.
They got together their men and were given weapons which David had captured in a former battle. David had probably taken the spears and gold shields as plunder in his battle with Hadadezer and then dedicated them to the Lord (see 2 Sam 8:7-11). This would explain why there were weapons in the Temple. They then surrounded the altar and the Temple. Joash, the king’ son, was brought out, anointed as king by Jehoiada and given some of the royal insignia. He was then acclaimed by the people gathered in the Temple for the Sabbath. “Long live the king!” they cried. This was clearly an act of rebellion and a coup d’etat.
Athalia discovered the rebellion too late. She saw the new king “standing by the pillar”. This was apparently one of the two bronze pillars of the portico of the Temple. With him were “all the people of the land”. It is likely that Jehoiada had chosen to stage his coup on a Sabbath during one of the major religious festivals, when many from the kingdom who were loyal to the Lord would be in Jerusalem. Athalia tore her garments and cried “Treason! Treason!”
Jehoiada then gave orders for her arrest. Any of her supporters were to be killed and she was not to be executed within the sacred confines of the Temple. As was the custom, she was put to death outside the city confines, near the ‘horse gate’ of the royal palace.
Jehoiada then had a double covenant made between the Lord and his people and between the new king and the people. It was a renewal of the Mosaic covenant declaring that Israel was Yahweh’s people and the king his vice-gerent. The years of apostasy, involving both the royal house and the people of Judah, necessitated a renewal of allegiance to the Lord at the time of an important new beginning for the southern kingdom.
Finally, the temple to Baal, its altars and images were smashed and Mattan, the priest of Baal, was put to death.
All the “people of the land”, that is, the country people, supported the return to the traditions of David and Yahweh. The city was forced to accept the situation.
Finally, right order had been restored between God and his people.