People who don’t read Scripture are missing out on a lot of good stuff, from a merely historical/political perspective. Want to know just how vile and violent people can be? It’s all there in 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles. Consider this little bit from 2 Kings 10. Jehu was a military commander in Israel who managed to kill both Jehoram, the king of Israel and the son of Ahab and Jezebel, and Ahaziah, the king of Judah, whose mother was Jehoram’s sister Athaliah. Both of the slain kings were of the house of Ahab more or less directly, a son and grandson.
Back in Samaria, where Jehoram had reigned, there were living 70 sons of the house of Ahab. Those sons had legitimate claims on the throne and were therefore a threat to Jehu. Thus:
Now there were in Samaria seventy sons of the house of Ahab. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria: to the officials of Jezreel, to the elders and to the guardians of Ahab’s children. He said, 2 “You have your master’s sons with you and you have chariots and horses, a fortified city and weapons. Now as soon as this letter reaches you, 3 choose the best and most worthy of your master’s sons and set him on his father’s throne. Then fight for your master’s house.”
4 But they were terrified and said, “If two kings could not resist him, how can we?”
5 So the palace administrator, the city governor, the elders and the guardians sent this message to Jehu: “We are your servants and we will do anything you say. We will not appoint anyone as king; you do whatever you think best.”
6 Then Jehu wrote them a second letter, saying, “If you are on my side and will obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me in Jezreel by this time tomorrow.”
Now the royal princes, seventy of them, were with the leading men of the city, who were rearing them. 7 When the letter arrived, these men took the princes and slaughtered all seventy of them. They put their heads in baskets and sent them to Jehu in Jezreel. 8 When the messenger arrived, he told Jehu, “They have brought the heads of the princes.”
Then Jehu ordered, “Put them in two piles at the entrance of the city gate until morning.”
9 The next morning Jehu went out. He stood before all the people and said, “You are innocent. It was I who conspired against my master and killed him, but who killed all these? 10 Know, then, that not a word the Lord has spoken against the house of Ahab will fail. The Lord has done what he announced through his servant Elijah.” 11 So Jehu killed everyone in Jezreel who remained of the house of Ahab, as well as all his chief men, his close friends and his priests, leaving him no survivor.2 Kings 10: 1-11
See the little trick there? Scholars say the double meaning in English is also present in Hebrew: the ‘heads’ of the sons could be the men in charge of their upbringing; the leaders who received the letters interpreted Jehu’s demand more literally. The ambiguity allowed him to disavow having ordered the murders of all these sons, many of whom would have to have been children, ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ style.
But, of course, that’s what he really meant. He didn’t need a conversation with the men raising those kids – he needed those boys dead. He then follows up by having all those men killed – the sons would have been being raised by ‘all his (Ahab’s) chief men, his close friends and his priests.’ New king with shaky claims to the throne? Everybody associated with the previous regime gets to die.
And it hardly stops there: Athaliah, mother of the late king Ahaziah, Ahab’s daughter and Jehu’s sister, now finds herself in an awkward position in Judah: she’s the Queen Mother of a dead king; everyone of her house in Samaria has been murdered; Jehu would likely want her dead as well. If one of her grandsons – the logical heirs – were to ascend to the throne of Judah, they might kill her off as a gesture of good-will toward Jehu, who has an army. Worse, her own family in Judah has some claim to the throne of Israel, being descendants of the legitimate king Ahab. Jehu might attack Judah and kill them all off just to keep things tidy.
So, you’re the mom or grandmother of a bunch of children, whose very existence puts you in a precarious life or death situation. What do you do?
Kill them all, of course:
11 When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she proceeded to destroy the whole royal family.2 Kings 11:1
But she missed some:
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. 3 He remained hidden with his nurse at the temple of the Lord for six years while Athaliah ruled the land.2 Kings 11:2-3
Joash was an infant when his aunt Jehosheba hid him away. Jehosheba happened to be the wife of the priest Jehoiada, which made hiding Joash in the temple more convenient, I suppose.
Of course, after hiding him for six years, the priests along with the temple guard present him as king – and Athaliah gets dragged from the temple and executed. Thus, the Lord’s vengeance (conveniently aligned here with Machiavellian political expediency) is brought to completion: the house of Ahab is destroyed (with the exception, one supposes, of Jehosheba). Also, the line of David, present in Joash through his father, survives.
There’s a lot more political murder and mayhem in Israel and Judah during the time of the two kingdoms – 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles are full of intrigue and assassinations. When history is conceived of as the deeds of great men, it is mostly a lot of political murder and mayhem, everywhere from China to Aztec Mexico, and everywhen from as long as records exist.
We are not like this, no sir! We’re moderns. Ever since the French Revolution, we have improved from murdering all real and potential rivals and putting conquered cities under the ban to rounding up and executing millions of our fellow citizens or starving them to death. Jehu and Athaliah are total pikers, squeamish little girls, compared to Stalin and Mao. Hell, the H-Man himself is not really in the running for G.O.A.T in the ‘murdering you own citizens/subjects’ H.O.F.
The point, if any: don’t ever underestimate the level of violence and horror power-hungry people will be willing to commit, if that’s what it takes to hold onto power. Don’t project your own hesitancy or quaint morality onto the kind of ambitious men who rise to power.
The minor tragedy here: Athaliah is a pretty name! Yet, where outside a Melville novel would anyone dare name somebody that?