Written by Elna K. Solvang Reviewed By Brian Kelly

The subject of this American dissertation is the roles which the royal women of Judah (wives, mothers and daughters of the king) performed within the social space the occupied. The centre of interest is the power dynamics of the dynastic household, ‘an extended family operation requiring leadership and cooperation across gender and generations’.

The study begins in a comparative vein re-examining the monarchies of the ancient Near East. This is a rather impressionistic discussion that ranges widely in geography (Egypt, Ugarit, Mari, Assyria, Sumer) and history (from the third millennium bc to the first), and it may be questioned what generalising conclusions we can validly draw from the extant materials of this extensive region and period. The leitmotif of this section seems to be that the queen mother of the ANE played a vital role in negotiating the succession of the dynastic heir. Chapter 2 explores the ‘space’ royal women were assigned within ancient palace life (leading even to a tangential discussion of 16th century Ottoman harems!). Since this first part of the book is presumably prolegomena for understanding the second part, the ‘royal women of Judah’, perhaps a more focused discussion on Israel’s neighbours, c. 1000–586 bc, would have been more immediately useful. The diverse character of this section means the two parts of the book do not hang together very well.

Part 2 of this book is of more direct interest to students of the Bible. Here, Solvang presents extended discussions of ‘three royal women of Judah’: Michal, Bathsheba and Athaliah (though surely the first two belong to ‘Israel’ rather than ‘Judah’?). In the first case, the author proposes a new (and to my mind, pretty unconvincing) exegesis of the famous altercation between David and Michal (2 Sam. 6), arguing that the whole incident redounds to David’s discredit and exposes him as ethically and spiritually vacuous. The discussion here centres on the theme of ‘honour and shame’, but a better subject for this would have been another royal daughter, Tamar (2 Sam. 13). Bathsheba is then considered in her role as ‘chief wife’ of David and queen mother to Solomon, in which capacities she had some sway over the question of dynastic succession (though perhaps not always with a sure touch). There is some speculation about Abishag’s role in the household, but we are left uncertain as to what this was. Does sokenet really mean ‘administrator’ (141)? The sexual elements in the story seem pretty clear. Athaliah is next discussed as undoubtedly the strongest and most destructive royal woman in Judah’s history; though it is clear that her reign is also an aberration in the history of the Davidic covenant. The discussion here is largely a paraphrase and commentary on 2 Kings 11, with little on the specifically feminine interest of this narrative.

Solvang’s conclusion is that royal women were ‘necessary actors’ within the household because the royal household was the centre of government and rule exercised through the dynastic house. Thus, women’s roles within the family were the bases for their ‘political’ activity. Put this way, the point is not particularly contentious, given that in a hierarchical, patriarchal world it fell to kings to wage wars, dispense justice, and order the public administration of their kingdoms. This book can be seen as a feminist reclamation (not revision) of ancient history, drawing attention to the roles of royal women within the spheres of marriage and family. The book makes a number of allowances to modern liberal scholarship. Yahweh is de-gendered throughout, and whether the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ really is history is left doubtful (8). This diminishes any claim to be taking about real people rather than a narrative invention.

Brian Kelly