Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women


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Her name was Shelamzion Alexandra. Most people have never heard of Queen Shelamzion Alexandra. She reigned in the first century BCE, sixty years after the Hasmoneans achieved independence from the Seleucid Empire and a few decades before King Herod. Some may have stumbled upon the street named after her in downtown Jerusalem, but otherwise, she is generally only briefly mentioned, marginalized, and almost written out of the historical record.

Her reign lasted less than a decade but still longer than a two-term presidency. She oversaw a peaceful and prosperous period. Like many Jews today, she had two names, one Hebrew and one Greek. She had two grown sons Aristobulus and Hyrcanus II , but she decided not to step aside for them; perhaps she foresaw that the rivalry between the younger and older son would not end well.

Nevertheless, this must not have an easy decision for her; just one generation before her, the wife of the Hasmonean King John Hyrcanus was starved to death by her son when she tried to remain queen. Nonetheless, in the very same document in which the rabbis rule out the possibility of Jewish queens, the rabbis remember Queen Shelamzion Alexandra quite favorably. In other words, Rabbi Nathan observes that in the days of Queen Shelamzion, the people actually obeyed the commandments—they were all good for a change!

They were in no way penalized for being ruled over by a queen rather than a king. Typical of his time period, Josephus was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in charge of political affairs but admits that. Notably, Shelamzion maintained peace through defensive measures and diplomatic outreach rather than outright acts of aggression. Immediately upon her death, her sons fought over the throne, eventually inviting in Rome, and Judea never regained full independence until the modern state of Israel. One advantage to welcoming Shelamzion back into Jewish memory is making space for a role model of diplomacy and peace.

Warrior-kings tend to figure largely as models of leadership in the Western imagination. Perhaps there is room for a role model of the leader who advocates peace, piety, and diplomacy as well.

Along with Queen Shelamzion Alexandra, Queen Esther shows that skills at the negotiating table should be just as valued as skills in the field of war. And lest you think I am making an argument about gendered skills i. With these two queens, the Torah and Jewish history model another way of being successful in the world, both for men and women. Torah and history converge in a remarkable way in the life of Shelamzion.

If her queenship was unprecedented in the second temple period, it was not unprecedented in the Jewish imagination—Queen Esther had made it possible to imagine a Jewish queen positively. Decades ago, the historian Elias Bickerman drew attention to a marvelous coincidence: a postscript in the Greek translation of Esther tells us that in 78 or 77 BCE, just one year before Queen Shelamzion began to rule by herself, Megillat Esther was translated into Greek and sent to the Jewish communities of ancient Alexandria. It is a remarkable moment in Jewish history, in which we can see one of the times when Jews were connecting to each other from Jerusalem to the Diaspora and establishing the holidays that we take for granted today.

While Alexander was away conquering new territories, the Pharisees were growing restless. Not only was Alexander the High Priest calling himself an earthly king, he was also using a clearly Greek name. Popular discontent boiled over at a festival in which Alexander was pelted with citron fruit while performing a sacrifice in the temple.

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Enraged, Alexander turned his troops loose on the rioters and killed 6, of them. Alexander then left for an expedition against Nabatea in the Negev desert. Here he was wounded in an ambush, and returned to Jerusalem to recuperate. But Alexander had already gone too far. Crowds in Jerusalem gathered and chanted for him to commit suicide. The Jewish king fled to the hills.

As a result, he withdrew to Syria and the Pharisees turned again to fighting Alexander. Alexander Jannaeus feasts while Pharisees are crucified in Jerusalem in this 18th Century engraving. Full blown civil war between Hellenized Jews and Pharisees now came to Judea with newfound savagery. After capturing the city of Bethome, Alexander had Pharisee supporters crucified in Jerusalem while he feasted, and then had the throats of their wives and children slit while they watched. Thousands of Jews died in the conflict. The civil war left Salome Alexandra trapped in the middle.

Who was Queen Shelamzion Alexandra?

Her brother Simeon was likely one of the rebel leaders, and her husband his sworn enemy. Her personal religious convictions aligned her with the Pharisee faction. By 79 BC, Alexander was in poor health brought on by alcoholism, yet he still led his army into the field in person. Alexandra rushed to his deathbed from Jerusalem. Alexander instructed her to take power after his death and make peace with the Pharisees.

He then died at age Alexandra became reigning queen at age Alexander was calculating, even on his deathbed. He realized that the kingdom could not survive further civil conflict without being swallowed whole by its more powerful neighbors. He also realized that Alexandra, with her strong family links to the Pharisees and popularity with the masses, would be able to make peace where he could not.

She first concealed his death until the troops had captured Ragaba.

Shimeon ben Shatah, Rabbi

She then returned to Jerusalem, her power solidified by a military victory, and met with the leaders of the Pharisees. Political reconciliation was achieved: Alexandra took the throne, the Pharisee leaders gave speeches in Jerusalem re-defining the legacy of Alexander as a righteous king an irony that was likely not lost on those present at the same place where Alexander had Pharisees crucified and Alexander received an elaborate funeral.

Queen Alexandra appointed her eldest son Hyrcanus as High Priest because she expected him to play a decidedly non-political role. Alexandra rebuilt the army from its disasters at the end of the reign of Alexander by hiring a corps of foreign mercenaries. Foreign nations sent members of their royal families as hostages rather than risk being invaded. The only major foreign threat was from the rapid expansion of the empire of Tigranes of Armenia, who reached the borders of Judea. This caused Alexandra great alarm and she sent numerous gifts and ambassadors to dissuade Tigranes.

In the end, the Roman invasion of the Armenian homeland caused Tigranes to turn back before conflict broke out. The borders may have been secure, but the domestic political situation was anything but tranquil. As part of the deal Alexandra struck with the Pharisees, the Pharisees gained great power and influence over the domestic politics of the state. The Pharisees began pressuring Alexandra to arrest the men all leading Hellenized Jews who took part in the crucifixions during the civil war. Log out of ReadCube. Shimeon ben Shatah was, according to rabbinic literature, a Jewish sage dating to the reigns of the two Hasmonean monarchs — Alexander Jannaeus —76 BCE and his wife and successor, Salome Alexandra 76— The full text of this article hosted at iucr.

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Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women

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Josephus Greek audio, Jewish War Bk 1 Ch 5, 76-67 BC, Queen Alexandra.

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Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women
Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women Silencing the Queen: The Literary Histories of Shelamzion and Other Jewish Women

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