Jewish Queens: From the Story of Esther to the History of Shelamzion
Once upon a time a Jewish queen ruled the land. And her name was not Esther. Her name was Shelamzion Alexandra.
Most people have never heard of Queen Shelamzion Alexandra. She reigned in the first century BCE, sixty years after the Hasmoneans achieved independence from the Seleucid Empire and a few decades before King Herod. Some may have stumbled upon the street named after her in downtown Jerusalem, but otherwise, she is generally only briefly mentioned, marginalized, and almost written out of the historical record. In preparation for Purim and the reading of Megillat Esther, the story of this forgotten Jewish queen is worth recounting.
Who was Queen Shelamzion Alexandra?
Queen Shelamzion Alexandra reigned as queen of Judea from 76 to 67 BCE. Her reign lasted less than a decade but still longer than a two-term presidency. She oversaw a peaceful and prosperous period. Like many Jews today, she had two names, one Hebrew and one Greek.
Shelamzion became sole heir to the Hasmonean kingdom when her husband, King Alexander Janneaus (King Yannai in rabbinic sources), who reigned from 103–76 BCE, died. She had two grown sons (Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II), but she decided not to step aside for them; perhaps she foresaw that the rivalry between the younger and older son would not end well. Nevertheless, this must not have an easy decision for her; just one generation before her, the wife of the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus was starved to death by her son when she tried to remain queen. But Shelamzion remained queen and lived up to her name, maintaining the peace of Zion with a strong army, careful diplomacy, and the support of the Jews of ancient Israel and beyond.
Historical and legal precedents for Jewish Queens
In Shelamzion’s period, there were no precedents for powerful queens in Judea—not unless one counts Jezebel, the most notorious queen in Israelite history, or her daughter Athalia. Kings David and Solomon had many wives, some more influential than others, but they are never represented as ruling in their husbands’ stead.
No biblical law specifies that only men can reign, although hundreds of years after Shelamzion’s reign, the rabbis of would interpret Deuteronomy 17:14, which states “You will set a king over you” as “a king, not a queen” (Sifre Deuteronomy 157).
Queen Shelamzion in Rabbinic Memory
Nonetheless, in the very same document in which the rabbis rule out the possibility of Jewish queens, the rabbis remember Queen Shelamzion Alexandra quite favorably.
Commenting on Deuteronomy 11:13-14, which describes rain falling in its season as a reward for keeping the commandments, Sifre Deuteronomy writes (42):
רבי נתן אומר בעתו מלילי שבת ללילי שבת כדרך שירדו בימי שלמצו המלכה.
Rabbi Nathan states, “‘In its season’ – from Shabbat night to Shabbat night, the way [rains] fell in the days of Queen Shelamzion.”
In other words, Rabbi Nathan observes that in the days of Queen Shelamzion, the people actually obeyed the commandments—they were all good for a change!—and God rewarded the Israelites with plentiful rain from heaven. They were in no way penalized for being ruled over by a queen rather than a king.
Those were the good old days, the rabbis say, the days of Queen Shelamzion.
A Supporter of the Pharisees
What did this queen do? The ancient Jewish historian Josephus provides some details.
She was particular in her observance of national traditions and would banish from power anyone who deviated from the sacred law (Josephus, Jewish War 1:107).
Whereas her husband had persecuted the Pharisees, in her reign as solitary queen, Shelamzion was particularly supportive of the Pharisees, promoting their vision of Judaism and perhaps ensuring their popularity for generations to come (Josephus, Jewish War 1:110).
Typical of his time period, Josephus was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in charge of political affairs but admits that
she proved to be a shrewd and capable administrator, and by regular recruiting doubled the size of the army… besides strengthening her own country, she inspired in foreign monarchs a healthy respect (Josephus, Jewish War 1:110).
Notably, Shelamzion maintained peace through defensive measures and diplomatic outreach rather than outright acts of aggression.
Josephus tells us that she was loved by the masses of the Jewish people (Jewish Antiquities 13:407). Immediately upon her death, her sons fought over the throne, eventually inviting in Rome, and Judea never regained full independence until the modern state of Israel.
Josephus’ final words about Shelamzion are that despite her deviation from proper feminine behavior, she “had kept the nation at peace” (Jewish Antiquities 13:432).
Shelamzion and Esther as Heroines
One advantage to welcoming Shelamzion back into Jewish memory is making space for a role model of diplomacy and peace. Warrior-kings tend to figure largely as models of leadership in the Western imagination. Perhaps there is room for a role model of the leader who advocates peace, piety, and diplomacy as well.
In Megillat Esther, we encounter another heroine who maneuvers royal protocol to save her people. Queen Esther risks her own life when she goes to the king’s chambers uninvited: “If I must die, so be it,” she says (Esther 4:16).Once there, she does not plead for help but carefully petitions the king, setting in motion a plan to undermine Haman and save the Jewish people.
The recitation of Megillat Esther during the topsy-turvy holiday of Purim can distract us from the serious side of this story and Queen Esther’s example. Along with Queen Shelamzion Alexandra, Queen Esther shows that skills at the negotiating table should be just as valued as skills in the field of war.
And lest you think I am making an argument about gendered skills (i.e., what women do vs. what men do), the following from the late biblical scholar Tikva Frymer-Kensky is noteworthy:
[T]here is no “woman-speech” in the Bible: the form of women’s argumentation, the nature of their logic and rhetoric are the same as men’s…. Both men and women can talk, argue, flatter, convince, and persuade.
With these two queens, the Torah and Jewish history model another way of being successful in the world, both for men and women.
The Relationship of Megillat Esther
and Queen Shelamzion
Torah and history converge in a remarkable way in the life of Shelamzion. If her queenship was unprecedented in the second temple period, it was not unprecedented in the Jewish imagination—Queen Esther had made it possible to imagine a Jewish queen positively.
Decades ago, the historian Elias Bickerman drew attention to a marvelous coincidence: a postscript in the Greek translation of Esther tells us that in 78 or 77 BCE, just one year before Queen Shelamzion began to rule by herself, Megillat Esther was translated into Greek and sent to the Jewish communities of ancient Alexandria. According to the colophon to Greek Esther, a delegation of Jews from Jerusalem went to Egypt with the translation of the story of Megillat Esther and asked the Jews of Alexandria to begin celebrating the festival of Purim.
It is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, in which we can see one of the times when Jews were connecting to each other from Jerusalem to the Diaspora and establishing the holidays that we take for granted today.
As Tal Ilan has suggested, this moment is also crucial because it shows us that “the decision to promote the book of Esther could well be associated with the coronation of Shelamzion Alexandria” and that it may “have been part of a larger literary campaign designed to promote the leadership of women through dialogue with other contemporary points of view… which were hostile to the idea of women in power” (as Josephus was, for example). Queen Shelamzion Alexandra certainly stood to benefit from Esther’s precedent. Esther may or may not have reflected the historical reality of the Persian period, but her story provided a model for a new reality in Shelamzion’s lifetime.
Celebrating Purim with Jewish Queens
The festival of Purim and the satirical setting of Megillat Esther may cause us to minimize the unusual story it preserves: the story of a young woman succeeding against all odds in foreign territory. Similarly, Shelamzion had to succeed against all odds to maintain her queenship. The story of the underdog, of the weaker winning against the stronger, is the quintessential biblical and Jewish theme, but it is not often that Israel is figured—literarily or in reality—as a woman and still praised as pious, divinely appointed, and beloved.
When we celebrate Purim, may we laugh with Esther and Mordecai, but also remember Queen Shelamzion Alexandra, praise her example, and wish that Eretz Israel may experience those heavenly rains of peace again in our time.
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March 18, 2016
October 14, 2020
Dr. Mika Ahuvia is assistant professor of Classical Judaism at the University of Washington and currently holds the Marsha and Jay Glazer Endowed Chair in Jewish Studies. She received her Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University. Her dissertation is titled, Israel Among the Angels and she recently published an article titled, “Darkness Upon the Abyss: Depicting Cosmogony in Late Antiquity.”
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