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.
Yet clearly he will honor her requests—not out of any legally binding obligation of obedience, but rather out of filial love. By the time of this particular scene, Solomon clearly had a track record of granting his mother’s wishes. When Adonijah first approaches Bathsheba to beg her intercession, he says, “Pray ask King Solomon—he will not refuse you!” Though technically Solomon was Bathsheba’s superior, in the orders of both nature and protocol he remained her son.
He relied on her, too, to be his chief counselor, who could advise and instruct him in a way, perhaps, that few subjects would have the courage to follow. Chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs provides a striking illustration of how seriously a king took the queen mothers counsel. Introduced as “the words of Lemuel, king of Massa, which his mother taught him,” the chapter goes on to give substantial, practical instruction in governance. We’re not talking about folk wisdom here. As a political adviser and even strategist, as an advocate for the people, and as a subject who could be counted on for frankness, the queen mother was unique in her relationship to the king.
The Key of David
Without the Davidic matrix we cannot begin to understand the coming of Jesus Christ. For His Davidic ancestry was essential not only to His self-understanding but also to the expectations of His contemporaries, and to the theological reflection of His first followers, such as Saint Paul and Saint John. The Messiah would be David’s son, yet also God’s son (see 2 Sam 7:12-14). The everlasting king would come from David’s house, from David’s “body.” When the “male child” came to rule the nations, He would rule as a Davidic king, with a rod of iron, as David himself had sung.
Yet this typological relationship would not cease with the fact of kingship; it would include many of the small details of the monarchy. As David established a holy city in Jerusalem, so his ultimate successor would create a heavenly Jerusalem. As David’s first successor reigned beside his queen mother, so would David’s final and everlasting successor. The Davidic monarchy finds its perfect fulfillment in the reign of Jesus Christ—and there was never a Davidic king without a Davidic queen: the king’s own mother, the queen mother.
Only with this Davidic key can we unlock the mysteries, for example, of the wedding feast at Cana. Mary approaches her son to intercede for the people—just as Bathsheba spoke to Solomon on behalf of Adonijah. Mary counsels her son about the matter at hand; yet she counsels others to obey Him and not her. Jesus, then, speaks to His mother as her superior; yet He defers to her suggestion—just as one might expect a Davidic king to grant the wish of his queen mother.
This same key of David also unlocks the mysteries of the “woman” of the book of Revelation. She is crowned with twelve stars—representing the twelve tribes of Israel—because she will bear the Davidic king. She is threatened by the dragon because the serpent’s allies, the house of Herod, would set themselves against the reign of David’s house and David’s successor.
Finally, the Davidic monarchy completes the connection between the original Adam and Eve, who failed, and the New Adam and New Eve, who succeeded and won redemption for the human race.
In Genesis we see that Adam was created first and was given dominion, or kingship, over the earth. Yet he was never intended to reign by himself: “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone'” (Gen 2:18). So God created Eve, Adam’s helpmate and queen. They are to share dominion. When Adam awoke to find her, he said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23), a phrase that, significantly, appears elsewhere in the Bible—when the tribes of Israel declare David their king. In acclaiming the youth, they say: “We are your bone and flesh” (2 Sam 5:1). Thus, Adam’s words take on greater significance: they are a royal acclamation.
In Genesis, after Adam exults, the author comments: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife” (Gen 2:24). Ancient commentators puzzled over this text, for many reasons. One was that, in the ancient cultures, it was the woman who left her family at marriage; yet here it is “a man.” Most puzzling, however, is Genesis’s reference to father and mother in this context, since Adam had no father or mother. In citing this text from Genesis, Saint Paul acknowledges that this is a profound mystery, but he solves the mystery in the same breath: “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph 5:32). It is Jesus Who would leave Father and mother to be united to His bride, the Church.
Creation’s initial monarchy would not achieve God’s purpose—nor would the Davidic monarchy—but something later would. A New Adam—Jesus—would reign, as had been foreshadowed in the garden and in the courts of Solomon. The New Adam, the new Davidic monarch, would reign with His bride, the New Eve, and she would be a real historical woman, whom Revelation would identify with the Church. She would be mother of the living. She would be advocate of the people. She would be queen mother. She would be Mary.
Dr. Scott Hahn is a former Protestant minister and now an internationally recognized Catholic theologian and apologist. He is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of several books. The above article is an excerpt from Hail, Holy Queen, Doubleday, 2001.