The bloody tale of Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah’s rise to power has been used as a model to speak out against female leadership. Time and time again I have heard theologians, bloggers, preachers, and teachers refer to Athaliah’s attempt to assassinate her grandchildren to remain in power as clear evidence that women should not be leaders. Athaliah, they assert, is a typical picture of a woman in leadership: power hungry, blood thirsty, and downright unqualified for any leadership position.
So when God led me to another queen of Israel who ruled in the first century BC, I knew I had to share her story to the world. I spent a year and a half researching this Jewish queen, Salome Alexandra, and another year and a half writing her story.
I have a Jewish paternal line, so I spent a number of years in a Jewish synagogue, where I learned about my favorite Jewish festival, Hanukkah. Hanukkah is celebrated annually to mark the victory of the Jewish Maccabean family over the cruel Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes. Hanukkah is the ultimate celebration of light overcoming the darkness, and the ultimate portrayal of victory for those who believe in the One True God of the Bible. This feast is also mentioned in John 10:22.
The Maccabean revolt took place in the 160s BC, after Alexander the Great but before the Romans conquered Israel (between the Old and New Testaments). The Maccabees, members of a family also called the Hasmoneans, freed the tiny nation of Israel from the Greeks, and their family became the rulers of the land. Sadly, they quickly slipped in to the pagan ways of the nations around them and became cruel rulers.
Salome Alexandra was a Hasmonean, born almost twenty years after her family had taken leadership over the land. She grew up privileged, educated, and incredibly strong. She excelled in her studies of God’s Holy Law and in political affairs, so much so that her uncle, King John, and his wife chose her to marry their son Alexander, a hot-tempered teenager who would soon become the king. Alexander turned out to be a wicked man and slaughtered anyone who stood in his way. The people of Judea hated him, and while he was away fighting wars, Salome governed the kingdom. The Jewish historian Josephus said that her people loved her because she gave them hope. They respected her to the same degree that they hated her husband Alexander.
A turning point came when her husband, ill and dying, declared her as his successor, even though their two sons were old enough to take the throne. It was an unprecedented move, never done before in the history of Israel. Her reign challenged the idea that women cannot lead but ought to be submissive. She was a great military, political, and religious leader, and her reign was a one of great prosperity.
While her husband lay dying, Salome joined the army of Israel, which was engaged in a battle with a foreign army at the fortress of Ragaba. Salome and her forces emerged victorious after a bloody battle. At the age of sixty-two, she showed herself to be a mighty warrior and a force to be reckoned with. She was strong and she was capable.
Salome used her political prowess to protect her nation from war. She forged an alliance with another female ruler of the ancient world, her close friend Cleopatra of Egypt. She strengthened Israel’s weak and ravaged borders, increased the size of its army, and built strategic fortresses. No one dared to attack her nation while she ruled as queen.
Instead, she pursued a reign of righteousness, seeking to undo the pain of the past. The Pharisees and Sadducees were already at odds with one another, as her husband had been a devoted Sadducee and persecuted the Pharisees. Salome sympathized with the Pharisees, so she created greater equality between the rival factions. She allowed the Pharisees to re-establish the judicial council of justice, called the Sanhedrin, and installed her eldest son as High Priest. Meanwhile, she placed her younger son, a Sadducee, in power over the army, allowing the Sadducees to retain power and influence.
Her achievements were so meritorious and her reign so prosperous that the Jewish oral law, called the Talmud, says this about her reign:
The rains would come down from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve, until the wheat became like kidneys, the barley like olive pits, and the lentils like golden denarii. The sages gathered some of them and put them aside for the coming generations. (Ta’anit, 23a; Sifra, ḤuḲḲat, i. 110)
Wheat as big as kidneys? Barley like olive pits, stored away for generations to come? This reference reminds me of the manna stored in the jars that Moses told Aaron to set aside for future generations in Exodus 16:33.
How have I eaten from this great miracle and how have I drunk from the rains that fell in Salome’s day? This was what I wondered as I sat down to write her story. God was giving me the story so that I could share a greater truth with the body of Christ and with his daughters—women who have a sword in their hands but have been told they cannot use it because they are the wrong gender.
Arguments against women’s leadership based on Athaliah’s reign are undone by Salome Alexandra’s. Her reign was an oasis in Israel’s history; she was ruler like David, a woman who by the rabbis’ own admission, ruled in a golden age. She was tough, gifted, and powerful, so much so that even her abusive husband could not stand in the way of God’s anointing and desire to place a woman on the throne. She ruled over a failing country, and through prayer and love, she restored it to a paradise of milk and honey. God blessed the land with rains because she steered her people back to him. That’s the power of a godly leader, and there are no limitations on that.
When I speak about her, I am often asked, “Where has she been all these years?” My answer? She has been hiding in plain sight, but her story is coming to the fore for such a time as this. God is reminding us of stories like Salome’s and Junia’s because God is building an army of men and women who are fighting for the souls of the lost and of the broken.
Salome’s legacy is not dead. It was dormant, but it is speaking to you and to me about a queen who was loved, accepted, and adored; godly, chosen, gifted, and anointed. Her story leaves me with hope and courage. Her legacy should be something we point to when we are challenged, something we appreciate deeply and take inspiration from. We are like Salome in that we are facing an ever darkening world, but we have the daily chance to be bearers of light and to change our world for the better. I pray that we will overcome the mindsets that bind women, so that God can unleash us! May it be so!