Although several Hebrew words are translated “queen,” they denote different statuses or types of royal women. The two primary terms are malkâ and gĕbîrâ. Malkâ seems not to have been used, even as a descriptive title, for any Judean or Israelite ruler's wife. Instead, the Bible commonly refers to the “king's wife” or the “king's mother” (1 Kings 1.11; 2.13, 19; Prov. 31.1). Malkâ may connote foreignness; the queen of Sheba, Vashti and Esther (wives of the Persian king: Esther 1.9; 2.22), and the abominated queen of heaven are all called malkâ. Gĕbîrâ seems to refer to the mother of the acknowledged heir to the throne or to the mother of the reigning king, hence “queen mother” (Maacah: 1 Kings 15.13; Jezebel: 2 Kings 10.13; Nehushta: Jer. 13.18). She may also be the chief wife (1 Kings 11.19; 2 Kings 10.13).

In a dynastic succession, heredity is the crucial factor. Almost every accession notice of a Judahite king includes not only his father's but also his mother's name (e.g., 1 Kings 15.2, 10). The queen mother's identity seems to have been relevant in establishing the legitimacy of the new Davidide. The gĕbîrâ frequently appears to come from a rich and well‐connected Israelite family. It has been suggested that important provincial power groups (“the people of the land”) had a vested interest in promoting a local woman to be the king's wife and subsequently pressuring the king to make her the gĕbîrâ.

With a power base of sorts behind her, a gĕbîrâ would have been able to exert some independent, if informal authority. Underlying Asa's removal of Maacah from being gĕbîrâ (1 Kings 15.13) was probably a power struggle between court factions. The formal notice of the demotion suggests its unprecedented nature; it also implies that the gĕbîrâ enjoyed not only prestige but tangible privileges.

Several episodes have led scholars to conclude that the queen mother had official status (1 Kings 2.13–25: Bathsheba; 1 Kings 15.13: Maacah; 2 Kings 24.15: Nehushta). But recent studies have pointed out, on the basis of extrabiblical parallels, that the queen mothers involved in these episodes were unusual in having maneuvered their own sons into power even though the son had no legitimate claim to the throne. In such cases the new king owed a debt to his mother that he could scarcely ignore, and the queen mother's power might grow even greater.

Besides marrying women from local families, Israelite kings, like their ancient Near Eastern counterparts, had an eye to advantageous alliances and often chose wives from neighboring royalty. Solomon's foreign wives are proverbial (1 Kings 11.1–8). Jezebel was the daughter of the king of Tyre (1 Kings 16.31), and her daughter Athaliah married Jehoram of Judah (2 Kings 8.18).

Kings' daughters generally receive little mention, although a Hebrew seal inscribed “Maadanah, daughter of the king” has come to light. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's wife (1 Sam. 18.20–27; 19.11–17; 25.44; 2 Sam. 3.13–16; 6.16–23) is exceptional, as is Athaliah's enterprising rebel daughter Jehosheba (2 Kings 11.12).

With their status and wealth, wives of rulers throughout the ancient Near East were often able to transcend the otherwise static boundaries determined by gender and society (see Women, article on Ancient Near East and Israel). In Mesopotamia, rulers' wives supervised their own households, administered palace industries, engaged in diplomacy, and participated in religious rituals apart from their husbands. This recalls the experience of the most documented biblical queen, Jezebel. She ran her own religious establishment (1 Kings 18.19) and used her authority to initiate and execute policy (18.4). She sent official messages (19.2; cf. Prov. 9.3), counseled her husband (1 Kings 21.5–7; cf. Esther 4.16–17; 6.14–7.6), and, although 1 Kings 21.8 says that she arranged Naboth's death in Ahab's name, elsewhere the wording may mean that the murder was committed on Jezebel's own authority (21.11, 14–15).

Occasionally women ruled independently in the ancient Near East. The queen of Sheba, who conducted economic negotiations with Solomon, may have belonged to a dynasty of queens who ruled in North Arabia, and during the Hasmonean period Salome was for a brief time queen of Judea (76–67 BCE). Ancient records, however, tend to look with disfavor on women who ruled in their own name, whether it is the Sumerian “king” KU.BAU (third millennium BCE), the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut (1486–1468 BCE), or Athaliah of Judah (843–837 BCE), whose six‐year reign (2 Kings 11.3) was the only break in the Davidic succession of Judahite kings.

In its attitude toward the historical queens of Israel and Judah, the Bible is either neutral (the royal accession notices), suspiciously laconic (e.g., Bathsheba and the wife of Jeroboam I), or decidedly negative (Maacah, Jezebel, Athaliah). Only Esther, in what is essentially a morale‐raising fiction, merits an unequivocally favorable portrayal. From a literary point of view, however, Sarah seems to be a positive paradigm for the gĕbîrâ, just as Abraham is a paradigm for David. The narrative's insistence (Gen. 17.19–21; 21.12–13) that Sarah, not Hagar, will bear the son of the promise (cf. Rom. 9.9), is reminiscent of the attention paid to the identity of the king's mother in the royal accession notices. The gospels of Matthew and Luke may reflect this when they stress Mary's role in bearing Jesus, another son of the promise and future king. The later tradition of Mary as the heavenly queen, however, derives not from biblical but from imperial Roman political vocabulary.

See also Kingship and Monarchy


Mary Joan Winn Leith