When they came for her mother the servants betrayed her and threw her from her bedroom window to the street below. Legs broken and helpless, the horses trampled her to death as she screamed for mercy.
The Queen Athaliah would not meet her death as her mother had. She would meet her death upright and unashamed. She did not wait for them to summon the courage to come to her. She came to them herself, dressed in her finest royal robes, her hair washed and brushed, and her crown upon her head.
She stood before the conspirators and showed them her face as they huddled shamefully beside the pillar and altar of their god. They blew their trumpets in the half-light of dawn, pretending they acted lawfully as they crowned the scared-looking child, and they proclaimed him as their king in the shadows.
It was a travesty, an insult to the crown. It was a betrayal of all the traditions of their people. How could a child of seven defend the land from its enemies, how could he ride at the head of the chariots and command the horsemen? How could a child participate in the sacrifices before the people and stand before the elders of the tribes in their council. How could a child of seven command the loyalty of the captains by the sheer majesty of his personal authority?
Of course a child could not do any of these things. These things that were so essential to that crown that the priests were hastily pressing onto his head. He was untrained, uneducated, powerless. The boy whimpered and blinked tears from his eyes, not understanding the harsh blare of the trumpets, or the forced cheers of the conspirators. But what did these skulking and scheming men care for such things. They were not thinking beyond today. They cared nothing for the land and the people. They cared only for their own comfort. They looked only towards the interests of the next day, and did not care to look beyond it.
Athaliah’s guards had deserted her, she had found them missing from their posts as she woke and walked the precincts, knowing something was wrong. She had found the gates unlocked, and the swords and spears missing from the armoury. And she had known what was happening. She had been half-expecting it for six years now, for the next blow to fall. Ever since she had heard the news that her world was ended, that the sun and moon and stars had fallen.
First her husband Yehoram, shot dead on the road outside his city by the commander of his army. Then the messenger, stammering and weeping, told her that they had murdered her mother, Izebel. She had been trampled like a dog and left bloodied in the street. Left to be eaten by animals while the King’s murderers feasted off her own plate served by her own eunuchs.
Then the final blow. The sun itself darkened and fell to the earth. Her son Ahaziah, murdered as he fled for his life. Shot to death just outside the gates of his city. He had been so close to safety, and yet he was just as dead as if he’d been a hundred leagues away.
Her child’s body had been brought to her by those still loyal to him, to be buried in the city of his fathers. He had been buried with great mourning, and all the people had wept and wailed, even the guardsmen and the priests. Those self-same priests now plotting the death of his mother. They had shed tears for her child alongside her, they had held her hands and knelt and pledged their loyalty and their love. They had told her with tears that they cared for her and wished only to support her. And now she was to be discarded in the service of their god.
She should have known they would. That was what people were like. She should have been under no illusions of the sincerity of their heartfelt oaths of love and support. They were just words, and words were cheap.
~ ~ ~
“Is it peace?” the soldier had asked as the Commander of the Army approached the valley of Shechem. His voice wavered before the cold eyes of the Commander. The iron-faced veteran officer had been fighting and dying at Gilead across the river and the soldier had not. The gulf between them terrified and unnerved him, for he knew the commander had seen death as the army bled out on the plain, that he had been changed over those long days underneath the blinding sun. And at that time while the Commander Yehu had been learning the lessons of death, the soldier had been guarding women and eunuchs in comfort.
“What have you to do with peace, fall in behind me,” the tongue of cold iron told him. And the soldier could do nothing but let the Commander pass in his chariot, and fall in behind him with the rest of Yehu’s soldiers as the Commander lashed his horses furiously and drove them forward, staring unblinkingly ahead like a madman.
“Is it peace?” the captain of the guard said, blocking the Commander’s path with his men, as the walls of the city towered distantly behind him. But he too had spent his days guarding children and slaves, resting his chin on the butt of his spear and dozing under the midday sun. And he quailed under the iron eyes of the Commander, who had killed men and watched men die for days without sleep or rest.
“What have you to do with peace, fall in behind me,” the heart of cold iron told him. And the soldier was helpless to do anything except let Yehu continue towards the city gates and fall in behind him with his men.
“Is it peace, Yehu?” the King asked finally, confronting him personally at the gates of his own city, with his own son standing at his side and his palace guard upon their horses. Both Kings, father and son, wore their crowns of gold, and tried to stand tall before the Commander and his train of armed men. The old King too had seen death, and watched blood pour out like rain on the barren dust. He too had killed and died under the too-bright sun. He too had watched his army wither and waste before the hosts of the enemy. But the sight had given the King no iron in his own eyes, only water. No iron in his own heart, only dust and ashes. His heart was hollow and the wound in his side was too deep. He could still feel his flesh flinch back from the spear that had made it. He could feel it was too deep, too deep by far.
“What peace can there be, “the Commander answered, his voice empty of emotion. “What peace can there be so long as the whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Izebel continue”. And the wound in the King’s side ran a little deeper, and the King broke and hauled on his reins, and cried out to his son, his voice too high, “Treason, Ahaziah!” and his chariot wheeled about, panic in the eyes of his son and his horses.
And the chariot turned, but too slowly. And Yehu drew his bow, and knocked an arrow, calmly, unhurriedly. And he barely had to aim as the King turned his back and lashed the horses to flee. And his arrow took the King in his back, between his shoulder blades, and the man slumped over the reins, and the horses whinnied in terror. And the body slumped heavily to the floor of the chariot and fell from the platform. And his son grabbed the reins, not even looking back in his terror and fled with his men from the city and his Kingdom.
“Kill him as well,” Yehu told his men. And his captain took a team and gave chase. And Yehu entered the city unopposed.
And Izebel, mother and grandmother of kings, dressed and adorned herself, and washed and brushed her white hair, and stood tall and unbowed in her window and looked down upon her son’s murderer as he rode into the square before the palace. “Is it peace, Nimshi, murderer of your master,” she asked coldly. And the parallel with the famous usurper stung the Commander, for Nimshi of old had received his just rewards only seven days after his own coup against his king, burned alive at his own hand.
And at Izebel’s accusation Yehu’s eyes narrowed, the iron in his soul growing hot for the first time that day. “Who is on my side,” he roared, “Who?” And the eunuchs of the palace, terrified and desperate, were spurred into action and rushed forward, grabbing hold of the elderly queen, and they wrestled her to the edge of the balcony, and hurled her from it.
Izebel had not died when she landed, screaming in the dust. She did not die under the first horse’s hooves when Yehu demanded that the horsemen push forward to ride over her. Nor did she die finally under the second or the third horse. She did not stop screaming for a long time.
Athaliah guessed they genuinely believed it when they said they loved her. Even while they met in secret to discuss their betrayal among themselves, they must think of themselves still as good and loyal people. But how long had they been plotting this, hiding this child in their inner rooms, while to her face professing their love and loyalty with their tears and wringing hands? A long time, she knew. Such betrayal did not happen overnight. It was founded on years of talk and work. What did love mean for people, she thought, if they could do this to someone they professed to love?
So she faced them then, in her royal robes at the doorway of the Temple of Shalom’oh, the House of Yahweh. She faced the priests, their leader Yehoyada, the palace guardsmen, the frightened child Yehoash. The House of Yahweh was half-lit with candles in great candlesticks made of solid silver. Rich curtains of fine cloth and expert embroidery hung full length from the ceiling to the ground. The floor was laid with huge planks of golden cederwood, and every doorpost and support beam was dressed with silver and gold. The great altar and the pillar of Yahweh were huge and majestic. The pillar was a towering column of aged wood, and the altar, a single great uncut rock heavier than twenty men could lift, rested upon four great plinths lifting it above the stone platform where the fire of Yahweh burned night and day. It was a sight of splendour and majesty, of mercy and loving-kindness. But it meant nothing unless people revered the God it represented.
And so she took hold of the folds of the cloth of her robes, richly woven, more precious than anything else she owned. And with a great cry of rage she tore her clothes, splitting the cloth with a furious anger that poured out from her arms and her heart and her throat, and poured out like liquid fire from her tongue.
“Treason!” she roared, the depth of emotion in her voice ringing the accusation out over their forced cheers and lacklustre trumpeting. And they stopped their back-slapping and self-congratulation, and turned to see her, standing in the doorway.
Athaliah would not let them hide from the truth of their actions. They would not be able to ignore what they were about to do, or pretend they were not betraying her and their principles both. They would not be able to say afterwards that she did it to herself, or fled and left the throne empty, needing to be filled. They would not be able to say afterwards that they hadn’t meant it like that, or that they had no choice, or they only wanted to help her by making the child a co-regent.
She cried out, “Treason!” louder and more bitterly a second time, and the cold fury of it made some of them take a half-step back in fear. She took hold of her clothes again, and with a great cry born of hurt and bitterness she tore the bright-dyed robes lengthways from top to bottom, and let the pieces fall from her shoulders, the symbol of royalty itself utterly ruined and despoiled.
The people of Israel had thrown her beloved mother from her own bedroom window. They had slaughtered her adored son as he fled. Then, when Yehu asked, they had murdered all her cousins and aunts in their beds or in their rooms as they knelt and wept and begged for mercy. They had taken the heads of children and piled them at the feet of the usurper, to gain his favour. A full seventy heads had been brought and laid at his feet. For there was no mercy in the hearts of people, not when they saw the glimmer of power and favour before them. Or even just to be left alone, not having to face the discomfort of disobedience.
And behind Yehu and his killers the prophets of Yahweh had unwaveringly praised them all. They called Yehu a man of Yahweh, blessed and anointed by God. All the great prophets and priests of Yahweh ignored his character and his crimes, the violence and murder he had encouraged and commanded. The ones who had condemned Achab and Izebel for their violence eagerly celebrated Yehu for his greater violence. They ignored everything about the Usurper except that he opposed their rivals and supported them instead. They fell over themselves to take whatever he chose to eke out to them and eagerly prostrated themselves and poured out the blessings of their god in return. And they willingly abandoned all their principles for the Usurper’s paltry favouring of their sect. Yet in the end Yehu disappointed them also, for he cared nothing for their god, only for what their god could give him.
Athaliah remembered her mother, a woman of great vision and strength, a partner to her father. She remembered him as the King, Achab son of Omri – Omri who had won the country back from the ruin of Nimshi. It had been her grandfather Omri who had won the civil war, and united the north. But it was her father Achab who had built an empire, and united the two thrones of the north and the south with his marriage alliance; pledging his daughter Athaliah, Princess of Israel, with Yehoram, the son and heir of the King of Judah.
Achab had been the one who had built the impossible coalition between all the squabbling kings of Canaan, and led them out, riding at their vanguard, to do battle against the immeasurable host of the King of the East. No one had ever fought the King of the East and lived. But her father had fought him to a standstill for three days until the Great King was forced to withdraw, too bloodied to urge his men forward once more. And then, victory clawed from the jaws of the lion, Athaliah’s father had returned to a kingdom still firmly at peace under the regency of her mother.
It had been a powerful partnership, Achab and his Queen Izebel. From the beginning of Achab’s reign, with his Queen ruling the palace in the King’s stead, Achab had been free to campaign yearly among the lands of their enemies, conquering everything from Dan to Bathsheba. He bestrode the land from north to south, from east to west, accepting the tribute and the fealty of countless kings from the deserts of Edom in the south to the mountains of Aram in the north. In a stunning victory half of Moab across the river fell under his staff and sceptre. He built implacable fortress cities to watch over them and he settled his people among them as their lords.
And while her father brought kings and lords under his sway, Athaliah’s mother had united the people under their gods, centralising the sprawling anarchy of quarrelling cults constantly at each others’ throats, legitimizing them and ordering them so that they served the land and the people and not their own interests. She had enforced good order among them, so that those who were peaceable prospered, and those who were violent and rebellious were suppressed.
The land had been blessed under her careful administration. She had built a national industry out of the cottage vineyards and small-holder olive-growers. Her work had resulted in so much additional wine and oil that the caravans from the east and the south and the ships from the western sea brought back such gold and silver that the palace treasuries overflowed and wealth poured out upon the land.
New cities were built, towns expanded, farms and flocks increased, temples and palaces newly built and adorned in splendour, great gardens planted, and new storehouses burst with grain. Promising sons were recruited from their unpromising farms, and trained in skills of saw, smith, and sword, and encouraged to exercise their talents in trade, craft, and learning. The brightest were brought into the palace and taught letters and numbers. They became administrators, sent out to bring good order and firm justice to every town and settlement within the King’s writ.
But the factions of rivalrous prophets who had been suppressed muttered amongst the people that Izebel was a witch and a foreigner. And those who thought they deserved a greater share of the wealth criticised their neighbours for their prosperity, and called them degenerates for their luxurious clothes and large houses. And they too muttered against Athaliah’s mother, and called her a debauched whore and a dangerous sorceress.
And in the end, when Izebel’s husband and her son was dead, and she was old and powerless they had come for her alike, both those who had prospered under her rule and those who hadn’t. Those who had received her largesse, poured into their outstretched hands spat on her corpse and cursed her name just as fiercely as the rest. Those whom she had raised to positions of great authority, who had knelt and given oaths of loyalty to her person and her children in their god’s name. They too had thrown her from her own bedroom window and trampled her into the dirt as she lay screaming.
And they had all left her there in her blood and her shame while they sat at her table and filled their bellies with her food. And all of them together had raised up her murderer in her place, and called him a man of God, and pledged their love to him just as earnestly and sincerely as they had pledged their love to her.
What would these people do, Athaliah wondered, when they raised their bewildered child-king up and stuck him on his stolen throne, his little legs dangling from the seat? They would loot the place of course, they would cut their own taxes, they would neglect their responsibilities, they would abandon all tedious protocols of duty and care, and raise friends to positions of power who were utterly unsuited to the position. For, she knew well, that is what people do, when nothing is there to stop them.
Athaliah knew that they said they served their god. She knew they would tell each other this was God’s will. They would find words from this god that would legitimise their actions. They would drag a prophet from his place to discover if God was on their side, and if he did not serve, they would find another, and another until they found one that would. They would close their eyes and clasp their hands and seek their god’s face until they found what they were looking for all along. They would pray and wail and tear their clothes until they found a reason to do what they were always going to do anyway.
And when they found something that they could use to justify their actions they would insist that they had no choice in the matter. They would tell each other they had to serve their god, that they were only obeying his will. They would say it wasn’t them, it was God who said that she had to die.
They would see nothing wrong with betraying their claims of love, oaths made in their god’s name to love and support her for ever. They would see nothing wrong with casting those oaths aside so that they could betray and cast her aside in that same god’s name.
And she knew they would still see themselves as loving, loyal subjects. They would still believe that their god would reward them for this.
Athaliah tore her clothes, and threw her accusations in their faces, for that was all she could do. And they stepped back in shock, but only for a moment. Then they stepped forward, faces hardened, angry now at her for her outburst.
They were angry that she felt angered by their actions. For were they not simply doing their god’s will, as best they could. They were in the right, and so she must be in the wrong. How dare she stand there and accuse them, they thought, when they were trying so hard to follow God’s will. How dare she try to stop them from doing what they knew to be right. How dare she be hurt by what they had no choice to do.
And so they rushed forward, Yehoyada and the elders giving the order, and all the rest obeying without question. They grabbed her, and they dragged her bodily from their presence, and they carried her away to the horse’s entrance by the King’s House.
Athaliah saw some of them watching stern-faced, like her tutor used to do when he had to discipline her, as though they thought this was for her own good. And she saw some of them turning away, saddened that it had come to this, but doing nothing to stop it. She knew they genuinely believed they still loved her, even as they let their leaders force her to her knees.
And she would not bow and beg, as though she was sorry for who she was. She looked up at them all with fierce and furious eyes. If they were to do this then she would not demean herself to make it easier for them.
And their leaders gave the orders and they killed her, and they left her body there in the horse’s entrance for the dogs. And then the guardsmen went out and slaughtered all those who had stayed loyal to their queen and their oaths.
And all the conspirators walked away to the Temple to pray for God to forgive them for their sins. But not for this one. Because as sad as this sorry episode was, it was still God’s will that it be done. And what could they, mere humans, do against God’s will.
So they raised their child-king to the throne. And the priests and the conspirators took what they could take. And they neglected their duties, and they raised up fools and friends of fools to make them elders over the people. And so, inevitably, when the enemy came there was no one to stop him.
And the enemy besieged the city, and killed many of the people. And the child-king, untrained and impotent, could do nothing except strip God’s Temple of His treasures to pay the enemy to withdraw.
And so the enemy left with all the riches of the Temple in his train, and the priests were left preaching in a barren house, to a depleted and dejected people.
And so the priests, unable to blame themselves, blamed the dead queen for all these troubles, and they blackened her memory and told each other she had put her own children to the sword to keep her throne. And all the people cursed the name of Athaliah for her impiety and her disloyalty to God. And they prayed sincerely and earnestly that God might forgive them for Athaliah’s sin.