When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family of the house of Judah. But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Jehoram, took Joash son of Ahaziah and stole him away from among the royal princes who were about to be murdered and put him and his nurse in a bedroom. Because Jehosheba, the daughter of King Jehoram and wife of the priest Jehoiada, was Ahaziah’s sister, she hid the child from Athaliah so she could not kill him. He remained hidden with them at the temple of God for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.
-2 Chronicles 22:10-12 (NIV)
A king of Judah, Ahaziah, comes to power at the death of his father, Jehoram, a powerful monarch who had eliminated any potential rivals. His mother, Athaliah, is the matriarch of the dynastic family from another kingdom, Israel, and Ahaziah follows advice from her and her handpicked counselors. He encourages the worship of false gods. He gets entangled in a foreign war, and is assassinated within a year of his accession.
Athaliah gets to work immediately. She starts killing potential claimants to the throne, until seemingly no one is left to take over the kingdom. Then, with no rivals, she seats herself on the throne. Things don't look too good for Judah, or the dynasty of King David, or the promise of God to build a royal house from David’s descendants.
And that’s when our hero enters the picture.
Her name is Jehosheba. What we know about her is that she’s the daughter of King Jehoram and sister of King Ahaziah. Athaliah, the new Queen, didn’t even consider her a threat, I guess. Or maybe, as she’s the wife of a priest, she doesn’t dare touch her. But Jehosheba has a secret. Her brother’s infant son, Joash, is alive. Jehosheba saved him at the last minute from Athaliah’s executioners and took him to the temple, where she and her husband keep him safe for seven years. Then they crown him and acclaim him king, launching a rebellion that ends in Athaliah’s death, the destruction of paganism in the kingdom, and the return of a descendant of David to the throne.
In an improbable twist for the politics of the time, two women are at the center of the story.
One is a woman who uses others to gain power for herself. The other is a woman who uses what power she has to be a part of God’s work in her world. Athaliah believes she can bend her world to her will if she just has a large enough scepter and secure enough footing. Jehosheba uses the degree of power she has, not to control her world, but so that God might have his way in it through her.
In our world, as in Jehosheba’s, there are powerful people who want more power, who believe that politics is a zero-sum game and who go as far as they deem necessary to get stronger and make their rivals weaker. They may call it public service, but the real goal, to one degree or another, is to bend the world to their will. There’s very little service involved, received by a very small proportion of the public.
We’ve really come to expect this. The problem is that it infects the rest of us too. The reasons for the division and struggle in our nation between races, genders, religions, ethnicities, classes, and so on are numerous and hard to trace out, but at the risk of being too reductionist it’s fair to say that the guiding narrative is the desire to control our worlds. If we can just gain a little more power, a little more influence, and silence or discredit those on the other side, then we can get our personal agendas pushed through. This drive for power is nothing new, and it’s found in every place where human beings are found.
This story subverts the usual narrative. It’s those without power, the priest’s wife and her infant nephew, who end up making the most ripples. It’s those who eschew the easy power grab and take the long view of things who carry the day. Make no mistake, Jehosheba is no sweet, gentle, subservient, Ancient Near East version of June Cleaver. She knows when it’s time for the soldiers to swing the swords. But she also knows she doesn’t need to scorch the earth for God to show up and do his work. She knows that, however powerful Athaliah may be, she’s stronger if she pursues the will of God and gives him room to work.
I’m reminded by this story that those who have power need to exercise it with discretion, compassion, and an eye for the work of God in the world. Power can be dangerous because we too easily see it as a blunt instrument we can use to control our worlds, instead of a way to care for the powerless and serve the purposes of God. I was reminded of this danger not too long ago by a woman who shook her head and said with sadness, “Men have all the power in the church.” And we have to confess, don’t we, that in comparison to the rest of society men do have a disproportionate amount of power in most churches. And that there are times that men have used that power in ways that hurt women. Yes, even in church.
So it’s time for the church to recognize, if we haven’t, what has always been true. Frequently, it has been the women among us who have preserved the work of God, who have done the work that ensured the passing on of the faith. They’ve likely done it in your church in homes and children’s classrooms. (Who taught you your first Bible story, or first song about Jesus? Who first prayed with you?) Women have always taught in the church (even when they haven’t been allowed to on Sunday morning). They’ve always led in worship. (Even if they've had to do it from their seats.)
And maybe it’s time for those of us who have most of the power in the church, the men, to include women in every way we can. I know there are biblical texts that complicate the picture. But there are other ways to read those texts, and other texts to read alongside them that might give us a more complete perspective. At the very least, we must be as sure as we can that we aren’t restricting women because of the way those who came before us read the Bible. And, if we aren't sure, should we be rejecting from the gatherings of the church the contributions and gifts of more than 50% of the people of God? In his name?
Well, in any case, may we acknowledge and thank God for the Jehoshebas in our midst, those who work quietly and outside the main channels of power so that God might have his way in the world through them, who know that the way to change the world is not to join the struggle for more power, but to nurse and raise to maturity the purposes of God.
“The city was calm,” the text reports after Jehosheba’s work was finished.
May we leave our communities quieter and calmer by being about God’s work in our worlds.