2 Chronicles 23: Coup and counter-coup

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In the last chapter, King Ahaziah died very early on in his reign, leaving no suitable heirs. His mother, Athaliah, took advantage of the situation and declared herself queen (attempting to slaughter the remaining members of David’s dynasty to secure her position). Only Joash survived, having been hidden by his aunt, Jehoshabeath.

Jehoshabeath happened to be married to Jehoiada, a priest, and so was able to hide Joash in the Temple. It isn’t explicitly explained how this worked – did Athaliah not know where he was because she, not being a priest, wasn’t allowed into the inner parts of the Temple? If this is the case, was it not a problem for Joash to be there? Alternatively, was she aware of him but would not defile the Temple by dragging him out?

Heck, even if she didn’t know that Joash was being kept in the Temple, she must have suspected that he would be taken there, since she knew who Jehoshabeath was married to. Yet she apparently did not search the Temple – rather odd behaviour for an idolater “in the way of Ahab” who was heavily motivated to make sure that the child was found and killed.

The most likely possibility that I can think of that doesn’t involve Athaliah respecting the sanctity of the Temple is if, as far as she knew, Joash was already dead. And perhaps he really was, and the Joash who was hidden in the Temple was an imposter produced by Jehoiada to justify his coup. After all, he’s definitely the cui who bonos the most, having raised Joash and undoubtedly having a great deal of influence over the soon-to-be boy king.

It’s a fun theory, anyway.

Getting the band back together

2 Chron. 23 mostly follows 2 Kgs 11:4-20, with most of the changes to increase (or add) the involvement of priests and the use of music. The scene opens in the 7th year of Athaliah’s reign, when Joash had been in hiding for six years.

Jehoiada gathers together a posse of military leaders: Azariah son of Jeroham, Ishmael son of Jehohanan, Azariah son of Obed, Maaseiah son of Adaiah, and Elishaphat son of Zichri. These commanders were not named in 2 Kgs 11.

Athaliah's Dismay, by Solomon Alexander Hart, c.1858

Athaliah’s Dismay, by Solomon Alexander Hart, c.1858

Another difference is that the 2 Kgs 11 coup has a strong military flavour to it, as Jehoiada only gathered together ” the captains of the Carites and of the guards” (2 Kgs 11:4). Here, however, the coup seems more inclusive, as Jehoiada gathers up Levites and family leaders as well, bringing them all to the Temple to present Joash. The implication seems to be that the boy had been, until this point, presumed dead, or at least missing.

Finally having someone to centre their coup around, the leaders make their plan. The plan, while still a little confusing, was clearer in the 2 Kgs 11 account: The guards Jehoiada brings in are to launch their attack when they either come on or go off duty, or perhaps take advantage of a changing of the guard to attack.

Here, however, the shift changing has to involve priests, Levites, and gatekeepers, and Jehoiada is very concerned about people coming into the Temple. Anyone who enters, perhaps in an attempt at retreat, is to be killed. Or perhaps his point is that the Temple is their bastion, and they are to cut down Athaliah’s soldiers as they attempt to enter. The Chronicler also wants to make sure we understand that Jehoiada is in no way attempting to “dismiss the divisions” (2 Chron. 23:8), perhaps indicating that he won’t just assign guards based on loyalty, but will rather seek loyalty from the guards who are already assigned.

One thing that interests me in this chapter is the way in which Joash is referred to. He is at times called “the king” (2 Chron. 23:7), long before he is any such thing, apparently making the point that Athaliah’s reign lacked legitimacy. At other times, however, he’s referred to as “the king’s son” (2 Chron. 23:11), indicating that he is not a true king finally given the crown he deserved all along, but rather deserving of becoming the king through his parentage. It may be a quibble, but I had fun looking at when each term is used. Joash is called king when Jehoiada and the others are planning the coup, but he becomes a king’s son when he is brought out for his coronation after the coup’s success. Like his legitimacy needed to be emphasized while things were still up in the air, but they could revert to more customary titles once loyalties were assured.

Treason! Treason!

Jehoiada arms the rebels with David’s spears and shields, which had been kept in the Temple. They hold a coronation ceremony for Joash and call out, “Long live the king!”

They make such a racket that Athaliah hears them, so she goes to the Temple to see what’s going on. When she finds Joash, with all the military captains rejoicing and all the trumpeters trumpeting, she rends her clothes and cries out, “Treason! Treason!”

Jehoiada doesn’t want her killed in the Temple, however, so he has the captains drag her outside first before they kill her.

After that, there’s another covenant ceremony with the people, and they finish up the day by tearing down the Temple of Baal and murdering its priest, Mattan, before its altars. They then bring Joash to his palace, from which he had escaped six years previously, and set him on the throne. Just a usual Sabbath, really.

We are told that Jehoiada then sets up the guards and Levites in the way that David had instructed and in accordance with the laws of Moses.

2 Kings 11: Athaliah’s brief reign

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EDIT: I have been tricked by too many Ah- and Je- names. In my initial writing of this post, I mistakenly identified Joash as Athaliah’s son, rather than as Ahaziah’s.

When Jehu kills Ahaziah, he creates a power vacuum in Judah – one that Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, takes advantage of. To secure her hold on the country, she murders her late husband’s entire family. All except for Jehosheba and Joash (a shortening of Jehoash). Jehosheba is the daughter of Jehoram, sister to Ahaziah. Her nephew, Joash, is Ahaziah’s son.

When Athaliah came after the dynasty members, Jehosheba hid her little nephew and his nurse in a room, saving the child. She kept him with her for six years, hidden “in the house of the Lord.” Not to get into spoilers, but 2 Ch. 22:11 tells us that Jehosheba was the wife of the high priest Jehoiada. It seems likely, then, that her nephew was being raised in her household, perhaps in an apartment attached to the temple complex.

In the meantime, Athaliah ruled Judah. This is a somewhat amusing turn of events since Athaliah was born into Ahab’s dynasty (likely his daughter or sister – 2 Kings 8:26). So while Jehu was purging the dynasty from Israel, he provided the opportunity for it to take control in Judah!

Coup and counter-coup

After six years in hiding, it was time for Joash’s triumphant return.

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour's Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Athaliah, as depicted in Antoine Dufour’s Vie des femmes célèbres, c. 1505; in the Dobrée Museum, Nantes, France

Jehoiada called several guard captains (including the captains of the “Carites,” which may be a variation of “Cherethites,” as mentioned in 2 Sam. 20:23) to the temple. There, the high priest showed them the prince, revealing that he still lived. It seems odd that his continued existence would have gone unnoticed – did Athaliah forget about her own grandson when she went on her murderous rampage?

Or perhaps he was known to have escaped, but not where he was hiding. Or, my favourite theory, he was an imposter and Jehoiada hoped to control the country through a puppet king, young enough to be controlled.

Jehoiada organizes the captains, forming a plan of attack. There’s much mention of the Sabbath, which seems to imply that the coup is meant to take place on that day (perhaps while there is a change of guard, resulting in two companies being nearby instead of only one). Either way, the captains agree and follow the priest’s directions. They bring Joash out and perform a coronation ceremony.

Queen Athaliah hears the noise they are making and emerges to find her seven-year-old grandson, surrounded by arms-men, wearing a crown. She tears at her clothes and screams out, “Treason! Treason!” Which, of course, it is. (And, yes, she’s murdered every member of the previous dynasty that she could get her hands on, but so has every other dynasty founder we’ve seen so far – including David, though his actions were painted a pretty colour of apologism).

Jehoiada calls for the queen to be brought outside the temple and murdered, along with anyone loyal to her. Murder is just fine, but he doesn’t want it happening inside the temple.

The priest then makes a covenant between God, the new king, and the people. While it is blessedly not given in detail this time, it’s clear that this is the same sort of covenant that we saw Moses, Joshua, and David all swear. Which makes sense, since David’s dynasty was interrupted by Athaliah and now needs a sort of re-launching.

Before they can bring the new king to his palace, however, they have one more task: The destruction of the local temple of Baal (and murder of its high priest, Mattan, before its altars). They say that a Dothraki coronation without at least two deaths and a temple burning is considered a dull affair.

In a final verse, we learn that Joash was only seven years old when the crown was put on his head. An interesting little note here, this verse (2 Kings 11:21) is the first time that his name is spelled out, Jehoash. This would seem to indicate that the information about his age at ascension came from a different source from the story of the events surrounding it. Or, perhaps, as a chronicle detail, it was meant to be written more formally.