The most impactful ruler of ancient Israel might not have been King David, but a queen by the name of Alexandra Shlomzion. For a long time, this powerful queen had been forgotten from history, but with the unearthing of the Dead Sea scrolls, the legacy of Shlomzion resurfaced. Shlomzion is the sole woman among just eighteen people to be written in the uncovered scrolls, conveying just how influential of a woman she was.
Shlomzion was born into the Maccabee family, a lineage of Israelite heroes most famous for their role in defeating the Assyrians in the story of Hanukkah. Shlomzion experienced a unique upbringing and experiences that put her in the position to be an exceptional woman. She married King Alexander Yannai at the late age of twenty-nine. During a time when women were married off in their adolescence as objects of sexuality and reproduction, this distinguished Shlomzion from other women of her time and allowed her different opportunities for self-development. Her late marriage gave her ample time to develop into a strong, powerful woman and evolve into an independent, free thinker.
Alexandra Shlomzion ruled during the end of the Hasmonean Period, a time ripe with strife between the two sects of Jews: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadduccees descended from the priesthood and were an elite class that secularized and assimilated into Hellenistic culture. The Pharisees, on the other hand, represented the common people who preserved the Mosaic and Halachic laws of Judaism and eventually evolved into the post-Temple Rabbinical Judaism seen today. At this time in history, the Sadducees collaborated with the Hasmonean dynasty, persecuting the Pharisees, especially under the rule of Shlomzion’s husband.
Her husband, King Alexander Yannai, was disliked among the people because he contributed to the persecution of the Pharisees. On his deathbed from wounds sustained in battle, Yannai appointed Shlomzion as ruler, even though their sons were of ruling age. At sixty-two years old, Shlomzion was the first woman in the history of ancient Israel to be declared heir to the throne. Shlomzion’s reign is attributed to as a time of “plenty” by the Talmud; her politics led Israel into its Golden Age (Ta’anit, 23a; Sifra, Hukkat, i. 110).
Shortly after her inauguration, Shlomzion turned around the fate of the falling dynasty. Shlomzion recognized the importance of internal peace in the kingdom and repaired ties with the Pharisees by giving them domain over the religious and political affairs of Israel. According to historian Kenneth Atkinson, this was formative in Shlomzion’s ability to gain political respect. She aligned herself with the Pharisees because of their reputation for piety: “Men willingly accepted [Shlomzion] as Judea’s monarch, even though she was a woman, because they realized that she and the Pharisees were not hypocrites but truly devout observers of Jewish law” (Atkinson, 206). Shlomzion’s protection of Jewish law by uplifting the Pharisees earned her popularity throughout the kingdom.
At the same time, Shlomzion protected the Sadducees from the Pharisees’ revenge spree by giving the Sadducees control over the military. This newfound balance brought peace within the kingdom.
Shlomzion is a key feminist figure in Hebrew history, both for her role as a ruling woman and her activism for women’s rights. She established major reforms such as education for girls and the Ketubbah, which granted women protections in marriage.
Shlomzion was a strategic, unifying, and reformative ruler who led Israel into an era of prosperity. It was her womanhood, specifically, that made her such an effective ruler. Compassion, often seen as a feminine quality, was the secret to Shlomzion’s success. Her compassion and tolerance for all of her subjects, Pharisee and Sadducee, man and woman, established stability and prosperity within the kingdom. When Shlomzion died, conflict broke out between her sons, causing the monarchy to become insecure and eventually fall into the hands of the expanding Roman empire, making the last and most successful king of Israel a woman.
Because female rulers were few and far between in the ancient world, a societal woe that persists today, it is important to reflect on the success of Shlomzion as a reminder of the capabilities and potential of women. The world needs more tolerance and female rulers like Shlomzion. It is time for another Shlomzion to bring peace and harmony to our modern age.
“The Last Queen of Judea” by What’s Her Name podcast.
Atkinson, Kenneth. Queen Salome: Jerusalem’s Warrior Monarch of the First Century B.C.E. McFarland & Co., 2012.