Preliminary Notes On A Study Of The Importance Of The Maternal Line In Biblical History

As I laid awake in bed this morning from another bout of insomnia that kept me from even my usual modest achievement in sleep, I was determined not to let the insomnia go to waste, and I was led to ponder an area of study that is not commonly undertaken, and that is the importance in the Bible of maternal relatives.  Most readers of the Bible are familiar with the lengthy genealogies that show relation on the paternal side, and these passages of scripture are among the most commonly skimmed and skipped over among Bible readers.  However, the ubiquity of these connections, and the fact that we are inclined to think of Israel merely as a patriarchal society, tends to blind us to the importance of ties through the maternal line.  What I wish from you, dear reader, is some kind of indication that this is a line of study that you would wish for me to undertake, as it is likely to require many hours of research and writing.  Your views, comments, and sharing of my blog posts are likely to make a difference as to whether I begin and the extent I continue this sort of line of inquiry, as I do not wish to write into a black hole of silence in this matter.

What are some of the more obvious ways that we can gather the importance of relationship through the maternal line in biblical history?  Let us begin with a brief synopsis of the story of Joash taken from 1 Kings 11:1-3:  “When Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the royal heirs.  But Jehosheba, the daughter of King Joram, sister of Ahaziah, took Joash the son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king’s sons who werebeing murdered; and they hid him and his nurse in the bedroom, from Athaliah, so that he was not killed.  So he was hidden with her in the house of the Lord for six years, while Athaliah reigned over the land.”  The mother of Ahaziah was Athaliah, of the house of Ahab.  The daughter of King Joram of Judah (there was, confusingly, a king on Israel at this time with the same name), Jehosheba, was married to the high priest at the time, Jehoiada.  In this one story, famous enough that the French playwright Racine made an excellent play about it, we see a power struggle based on two different sets of relationships on the maternal side.  The marriage alliance between the line of David and the doomed line of Ahab leads to a great deal of death and suffering, and the near extinction of the main line of David, while the marriage alliance between the House of David and the high priesthood leads to the preservation of that line through the line survivor of the main royal branch of David, Joash.  In this moment of high drama, the battle is between two women who have very different wills, one of whom wants to wipe out the promised line because the line of Ahab has been overthrown in Israel and wiped out, and the other who serves God and wishes to preserve the Davidic line.  We know who wins, but more detail can be provided if this is a line of inquiry that others would appreciate.

Thinking about this led me to ponder some other ways in which there is importance placed within scriptures on the connections of the maternal line.  A particularly obvious example of this is what the Bible has to say about the family connections of Jesus Christ.  We see some context in Luke 1:35-38:  “And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren.  For with God nothing will be impossible.” Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.”  So we see that Mary and Elizabeth were relatives, close enough relatives that Mary could visit Elizabeth for a few months.  Of particular interest here is what their relationship meant.  Like the situation with Joash we looked at briefly before, it was through these women that there was a strong connection between the priestly line of Aaron and the royal line of David.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph, who (see Matthew 1) was of the line of David through Jehoiachin.  Mary herself (see Luke 3) was of the line of David through his son Nathan.  Yet Elizabeth, a close relative of hers, was married to Zechariah, a devout priest.  Even after the line of David was no longer on the throne, for whatever reason it was thought desirable that there should continue to be marriage relationships between that line and the priesthood, to tie together the legitimate ruling dynasty with the priestly dynasty.

What would be the incentive for such connections to be made through the maternal line?  In normal circumstances, the fact that sons were expected to inherit the family land meant that it was through daughters that families could be most easily tied together with other families.  As the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 36 makes plain, the marriage options of female heirs were strictly limited in order to preserve the tribal inheritance of Israel.  Where this was not a problem, though, women were free to marry in order to connect people to the royal line.  We know that David was connected to the Saulide ruling house of Israel through his marriage to Michal, by which Saul sought to tie his conspicuously talented servant to him.  We can also see through our reading of 1 and 2 Kings that the House of David kept records of the mothers of the kings and not only the fathers, and that Queen mothers had a high degree of respect and honor, something that we can see in several stories–like that of Bathsheba in 1 Kings 2 and, in a more negative light, in Maachah the mother of Abijam and the grandmother of Asa, whose idolatry led her to be deposed from that position (see, for example, 1 Kings 15).  The Bible gives, therefore, a clear indication of the importance of ties through the maternal line and at least some indication of the purpose of these ties–to bind people together in service to civil and religious authorities, and it even gives indications of the high degree of honor such women were held in and how their role of authority could be used for good or for ill.

Knowing how my writing projects tend to increase into massive scope [1] fairly rapidly, I thought it would be worthwhile to see if people wanted me to write at length about such matters, as I can think already of at least a dozen biblical posts that would relate to different aspects of relationship through the maternal line as described in scripture and how those ties bound people together.  To give additional detail here as I close this particular brief note, my proposed organization is first to give a series of analyses of passages relating to this phenomenon and other reflections on cases where we know this phenomenon to have been in operation (see, for example, Jesus’ half-siblings through Mary), and then, after a sufficient number of posts have been provided, to draw more general conclusions about this phenomenon.  Having no particular agenda except an exploration of what the Bible says, I would prefer to keep this study as exegetical as possible and not to limit the scope of the implications, but rather to let the Bible research follow where it will.  It has been my experience, at least, that such Bible studies are far more interesting when one does not go in with a great deal of speculations that one wishes to prove but rather finds an interesting thread that connects a great many Bible stories together and simply follows that thread wherever it goes.  Thus I propose to do here, if you all wish to read it.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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