Israel’s monarchy arose in very specific historic circumstances in a particular geographic region.
In the ancient Near East, most nations were monarchies ruled by a king. In addition, most cultures practiced polygamy; so a given king often had several wives. This posed problems. First, whom should the people honor as queen? But more important, whose son should receive the right of succession to the throne?
In most Near Eastern cultures, these twin problems were resolved by a single custom. The woman ordinarily honored as queen was not the wife of the king, but the mother of the king. There was an element of justice to the practice, since it was often the persuasive (or seductive) power of the mother that won the throne for her son. The custom also served as a stabilizing factor in national cultures. As wife of the former king and mother to the present king, the queen mother embodied the continuity of dynastic succession.
The office of the queen mother was well established among the gentiles by the time the people of Israel began to clamor for a monarchy. For Israel had not always been a kingdom. In God’s plan, God was to be their king (1 Sam 8:7). But the people begged the prophet Samuel to give them a king: “We will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:19-20). God, then, allowed the people to have their way, but for His glory: Israel’s monarchy would providentially foreshadow the kingship of God’s own Son. Israel’s kingdom would be a type of the kingdom of God.
Historically, this played out as the people looked around them for models of governance. Remember, they wanted a king in order to be “like all the nations.” Thus, following the models of the neighboring lands, they established a dynasty, a legal system, a royal court—and a queen mother. We find this in Israel at the beginning of the Davidic dynasty. David’s first successor, Solomon, reigns with his mother, Bathsheba, at his right hand. Israel’s queen mother, or gebirah (great lady), appears, then, throughout the history of the monarchy, to the very end. When Jerusalem falls to Babylon, we find the invaders taking away the king, Jehoiachin, and also his mother, Nehushta, who is given precedence, in the account, over the king’s wives (2 Kgs 24:15; see also Jer 13:18).
Between Bathsheba and Nehushta there were many queen mothers. Some worked for good, some didn’t; but none was a mere figurehead. Gebirah was more than a title; it was an office with real authority. Consider the following scene from early in Solomon’s reign: “So Bathsheba went Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right” (1 Kgs 2:19).
This short passage packs implicit volumes about Israel’s court protocol and power structure. First, we see that the queen mother was approaching her son in order to speak on behalf of another person. This confirms what we know about queen mothers in other Near Eastern cultures. We see in the epic of Gilgamesh, for example, that the queen mother in Mesopotamia was considered an intercessor, or advocate, for the people.
Next, we notice that Solomon rose from his throne when his mother entered the room. This makes the queen mother unique among the royal subjects. Anyone else would, following protocol, rise in Solomon’s presence; even the king’s wives were required to bow before him (1 Kgs 1:16). Yet Solomon rose to honor Bathsheba. Moreover, he showed further respect by bowing before her and by seating her in the place of greatest honor, at his right hand. Undoubtedly, this describes a court ritual of Solomon’s time; but all ritual expresses real relationships. What do Solomon’s actions tell us about his status in relation to his mother?
First, his power and authority are in no way threatened by her. He bows to her, but he remains the monarch. She sits at his right hand, not vice versa.