Prophecy is history/22 - The Bible asks to enter its stories, choosing which side we are on
By Luigino Bruni
Published in Avvenire 03/11/2019
«For thus they have found written in their Law: a king you will lay upon you (Deut. 17:15) and not a queen»
David Franco-Mendes, The punishment of Athaliah
The sad story of Queen Athaliah offers us the opportunity to reflect on the many pages of her (and human history) that were not written by the victims and on the need to save, first and foremost, those pages and the pages of those who have no voice.
Ideal communities are often born from the work and word of the prophets. Charismatic movements, religious congregations, but also political, cultural movements, associations, are born because one or more people, with prophetic gifts, create them and make them grow. Then around these "special" people, other people begin to gather, called upon by the same voice, conforming to their charismatic personalities and recognizing that the founders should have a different and unique role. However, these communities founded by prophets are not the only ideal or spiritual communities in existence, there are others, born around pacts and rules. These collective realities are not created by prophets but by a set of rules lived and handed down from generation to generation.
The spiritual movement of the second half of the twentieth century has almost exclusively only known communities founded by prophets, while in past centuries it was more common for spiritual communities to be created around a set of rules. The personality and charisma of the founder were equally important, but more so were the actual rules, because they allowed the individuality of the founder to be passed onto the balance and sustainability of life in the community, hence these community rules often came from already existing ancient rules systems (Benedictine, Augustinian ...). In these type of communities, the model or example to follow is not constituted by the person of the prophet but by the rules, which do not coincide with any one person's life, yet inspire, and shape that of everyone. When a new member arrives in these communities, the pact and the promise consist in conforming their life to the community and its rules, not in imitating the founder or the charismatic leader, as, in fact, happens in prophetic centred communities. History tells us that the rule-communities are more resilient and long-lived than the prophet communities.
«When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family. But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of Ahaziah, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes, who were about to be murdered. She put him and his nurse in a bedroom to hide him from Athaliah; so he was not killed. He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of the Lord for six years while Athaliah ruled the land» (2 Kings 11,1-3). After the cycle of the bloodthirsty king Jehu, the second Book of Kings moves to the kingdom of the South (Judah) and shows us a queen, bloodthirsty like Jezebel, whom the Hebrew (Masoretic) text presents to us as her mother (2 Kings 8,18). Athaliah, a woman of the Northern dynasty, interrupts the Davidic succession in Judah. It is then restored thanks to a child who was saved from death by another woman. The great history of salvation hangs on the fragile thread in the shape of a child - like Moses, like Emmanuel, like Jesus. This child becomes the object and subject of an insurrection against Queen Athaliah, orchestrated by Jehoiada, a temple priest of Jerusalem.
Queen Athaliah realizes that something important is happening in the temple. When she goes there, she suddenly understands: «Athaliah tore her clothes and cried out: "Treason! Treason!"» (2 Kings 11,14). The priest Jehoiada immediately reveals his intentions. He has her men chase her to his house: «They put their hands on her and she reached the palace through the entrance of the Horses and there she was killed» (2 Kings 11,16).
For the theology and economy of the tale, the story of the bloodthirsty Athaliah ends here. Order is restored, Jehoash, an (alleged) successor of David, now reigns in Jerusalem again. The priestly school that drafted the latest version of the Book of Kings had achieved its theological and narrative purpose, but we cannot stop there. If we want to try a less ideological look on those sad centuries that are so far in the past, we must dig deeper into the text.
Victims do not tell their own stories. The discarded, the crushed, the expelled cannot give their version of the facts. In the ancient world, women were not the ones who wrote the stories of which they were the protagonists or mere extras. And if they wrote them, they would most probably tell us different things, very different from the ones we’ve read. Because when males tell stories of power where the protagonists are women, they often project their own dynamics, diseases and words on them, things that real women do not really care for or want, except when they are forced to become like males. Women who have had and have roles of power and responsibility in essentially male dominated organizations know this typical kind of resistance and suffering well. They sometimes become so intense and long lasting to lead them to abandon those leadership roles. There are still not enough women in institutions and businesses even today, and not only because women are unable to access leading-roles entirely administered and managed by males. Some do not wish to reach the top to work in such foreign and hostile places, while some who do reach the top end up renouncing because of the excessive suffering and sacrifice. The good battles of feminism today and tomorrow will have to focus not only on the quotas of women in places of power, but also in the anthropological and relational transformation of those places thought and inhabited by only men into places that are liveable and possible even for women. This work, which requires a great cultural and theoretical investment in economic and managerial sciences, is becoming more urgent by the day.
First of all, the name: Athaliah means, "YHWH is exalted". Unlike Jezebel, Athaliah was not an idolater. It is not difficult to ascertain that the narrative structure of the history of Ahtaliah is artificially constructed to make it very much resemble that of her "mother" Jezebel. It is a story constructed to "mirror” the other one. Just as Jezebel had exterminated the prophets of YHWH, Athaliah exterminates the royal family; there a prophet Obadiah had hidden and saved a hundred prophets from the extermination of Jezebel (1 Kings 18.13), here a woman (Ioseba) hides and saves a child from Athaliah’s massacre. Jezebel looked out the window to see the new usurper king (Jehu) and was killed, Athaliah appeared in the temple ("looked") and was also killed. We are not then forcing the meaning of the biblical text too much if we say that Athaliah's cruelty is essentially a "theological" cruelty, a literally built wickedness by those who had as their main intent to restore Davidic continuity, erasing the parenthesis represented by a foreign queen of the North, of the enemy family of Omri. Athaliah was a woman of the north, who found herself queen as a result of political alliances. She was the only woman to become sovereign in the history of the Kingdom of Israel. She was a widow and a usurper king of the North had murdered her son. We cannot even begin to imagine what the life of a woman, queen and widow, was like back in the day, in that world of males. How many and what pressures, threats, violent looks, blackmail she had to sustain. If those pages in the Book of Kings, had been written by her Athaliah, or one of her sisters, perhaps they would have told us that Athaliah did not kill any child, because the slaughters of the innocents are a typical specialty of males and their literary fantasies.
We know, and have said so many times, that the Bible includes splendid pages about women. The story of Athaliah, however, is not one of them. That queen of the North was, in all probability, eliminated by a conspiracy of the priests of the temple - and we cannot exclude the possibility that this cry "treason, treason" is among the few original words left in the text. Athaliah was an uncomfortable person in Judah, because she was originally from the North and even more so because she was a woman. It may well be that Athaliah was changed and perverted by power to the point of becoming like the male kings and thus really giving that order to slaughter the innocent. I do not believe it; instead, I think that we must read the story of Athaliah with the same pietas with which we read the story of a victim, not with the disdain with which we read the vicissitudes of the executioners. Because the Bible is not a book of historical chronicles. It is a text that always asks us to enter into the stories we read, to make our choice, to tell which side we want to be on. In general, almost everyone is firmly on the side of the editors of the text, and therefore with the priest Jehoiada, and with him they condemn Athaliah, the bloodthirsty one. Almost all.
In his splendid tragedy Athalie (1691), Jean Racine makes the queen have a dream in which the child Joash appear to her and then pierces her with a sword. One of her advisers, who comes to know of the dream, urges Athaliah to kill the child. But she calls the child, talks to him, is struck by his intelligence, and does not kill him. That clemency, that mother's pietas, mercy, towards a child, later decreed his death. Sometimes, artists, especially older ones, end up giving the Bible and its characters that humanity which its original editors did not always possess. And if we want to save the Bible from its less luminous and sometimes very dark pages, we must read it in the company of these artists, who, without moralizing, helped it to become better.
Before and after the death of Athaliah, Jehoiada the priest celebrates the re-established covenant, and does so in two phases. Before the killing of Athaliah, «Jehoiada brought out the king’s son and put the crown on him; he presented him with a copy of the covenant and proclaimed him king. They anointed him, and the people clapped their hands and shouted, “Long live the king!”» (2 Kings 11,12). The child, now consecrated king, is given the "testimony" (edut), perhaps a copy of the Law of Moses, the sacrament of the covenant and of the promise. There are no prophets in the scene, there is no Elisha; everything takes place in the temple in the name of the alliance. In the Bible, the moments of foundation are often marked by the action of the prophets. Sometimes, as in this case, it is instead a pact that consecrates some decisive passages in the life of people and communities, beginning with the Covenant with YHWH celebrated by Abraham and Moses. Then, after assassinating Athaliah, «Jehoiada then made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people that they would be the Lord’s people. He also made a covenant between the king and the people» (2 Kings 11,17). The new agreement is concluded. And to the writer this pact is much more important than the blood of Athaliah, it is more important than everything.
«All the people of the land rejoiced, and the city was calm, because Athaliah had been slain with the sword at the palace» (2 Kings 11,20). The city "remained quiet". We, however, cannot "remain quiet or calm" in front of a woman "killed with the sword at the palace". Theology and the economy of the story are not enough for us. We have a duty to try to save Athaliah, because if we do not do this spiritual exercise while we read these pages, we will hardly try to save the many Athaliahs that continue to be condemned only because they are women, only because they are victims.
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