The dictionary I keep near my desk offers several definitions for the word “queen.”
Not all of them are relevant to our topic, but let’s look at those that are.
Note: This article is part of a series of article about queens in the Bible.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th Edition offers these relevant definitions:
- the wife or widow of a king
- a female monarch
- a woman eminent in rank, power, or attraction
Hebrew Words for Queen
There are 3 Hebrew words used in the Jewish bible that can be translated as queen:
- Malkah (Hebrew spelling: mem-lamed-kaf-hey)
- Gevirah (Hebrew spelling: gimmel-bet-yud-raish-hey)
- Sheigal (Hebrew spelling: shin-gimmel-lamed)
In addition, the Aramaic word for queen, malketa (mem-lamed-kaf-tav-aleph), appears two times in the book of Daniel.
In all of the Bible, only 3 women have the title of Malkah:
- Queen of Sheba
- Vashti (in the Book of Esther)
The title of Gevirah is more common. However, it’s clear in many instances that the better translation is “mistress” or “lady”, but not queen. Here are the women given the title of Gevirah / Queen:
- Nehushta – Mother of King Jehoiachin
The title Sheigal appears only two times. It’s not clear in both of them if it means queen.
Now let’s go into more detail about all of these titles and women. Also, at the end of this article I’ll write about 2 women who ruled but aren’t called “queen.”
Women Called Malkah / Queen
Queen of Sheba
Solomon succeeded his father David as king of Israel. The country and the region began an era of significant peace and prosperity.
The Queen of Sheba heard about King Solomon:
1 When the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s fame, because of the name of the Lord, and she came to test him with riddles.
The story of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon is recorded in 1 Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9.
These verses make it clear that she was the main ruler of Sheba and thus merited the title Malkah / Queen.
The given name of the Queen of Sheba is not recorded in the Bible.
The text does show us that she was a humble person.
She heard that King Solomon had great wisdom and understood that it was a gift from God. She had various questions so she came to King Solomon to learn the answers to her questions.
The idea that “she came to test him with riddles” doesn’t mean that the Queen of Sheba came with lots of brain teasers. Rather, she had difficult questions that she wanted answers to.
There is a more complete article about the Queen of Sheba here.
Vashti in the Book of Esther
Two women with the title of Queen / Malkah are mentioned in the Book of Esther.
Queen Vashti was the wife of King Ahasuerus. Her first mention in the Bible is as the host for a banquet for women.
9 Also, Queen Vashti made a banquet for the women, in the royal house of King Ahasuerus.
10 On the seventh day, when the king’s heart was merry with wine, he ordered …
11 To bring Queen Vashti before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was good to look on.
Queen Vashti’s husband summoned her to appear before him and the men at his banquet. The king was only interested in showing off her beauty.
Queen Vashti refused to appear before the king. For her refusal she was executed.
The text of the Book of Esther does not reveal why she refused.
There is a Jewish tradition that she refused to come because she broke out with tzara’at and was embarrassed to appear before the king.
However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (based on the text in front of us) makes an interesting comment about Vashti’s character. He notes that the Bible uses the same phrase (“good to look on”) to describe the beauty of Rivkah and Vashti.
He concludes, “However, it is still possible that Vashti’s appearance, too, was pleasing and graceful rather than actually beautiful. After all, her very refusal is indicative of nobility and a sense of decency and morality.” (His comment is from Genesis 24:16.)
I’ve written another article which gives more about Vashti.
Esther is the only Jewish woman in the Bible given the title Queen / Malkah.
Against her will, Esther was entered into a type of “beauty” contest to find a replacement for Queen Vashti.
16 So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, to his royal house in the tenth month, which is the month of Tevet, in the seventh year of his reign.
17 And the king loved Esther more than all the women, and she found grace and favor before him more than all the maidens, and he placed the royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti.
As the verses indicate, Esther gained the title of Queen because she became the wife of the king.
In the Book of Esther, there is little mention of Queen Esther acting as a ruler. At first she is reluctant to approach King Ahasuerus when Mordechai asks her to (see Esther 4:11).
Even after Haman was destroyed, it seems that it is Mordechai who wields more power than Queen Esther. For example, the king takes his signet ring from Haman and then gives it Mordechai (Esther 8:2).
Even so, the fact that Esther became queen gave her special access to King Ahasuerus that no one else in the kingdom enjoyed.
Here’s an article with more details about Queen Esther.
As mentioned above, Malketa is the Aramaic equivalent of Queen / Malkah.
This word appears just 2 times in the entire Bible, both in the same verse.
9 Then King Belshazzar became very frightened, and his color changed, and his dignitaries were perplexed.
10 The queen [Aramaic – malketa], in response to the words of the king and his dignitaries, entered the banquet hall; the queen [malketa] raised her voice and said, “May the king live forever! Let your thoughts not frighten you, and let your color not change.
The event recorded in Daniel 5 is when King Belshazzar saw a hand writing on the wall of the banquet hall.
Most Jewish commentators write that this unnamed woman was the wife of King Belshazzar. Others say that she was his mother or grandmother. That would put her in the category of Queen Mother.
In either case, she has the title queen due to her relationship with the king, not because she was the main ruler of a country.
Women Call Gevirah / Queen
God stirred up opposition to King Solomon when he started being less careful to fulfill God’s will.
One of the people who rebelled against King Solomon was Hadad from the royal family of Edom. Hadad fled to escape from King Solomon and came to live in Egypt.
19 And Hadad pleased Pharaoh very much so that he gave him in marriage the sister of his wife, the sister of Tahpenes, the queen [Hebrew: gevirah].
20 And the sister of Tahpenes bore him Genubath his son, whom Tahpenes weaned in Pharaoh’s house, and Genubath was in Pharaoh’s house among Pharaoh’s children.
These 2 verses mention a woman named Tahpenes who is described as the queen with the Hebrew word “gevirah.”
As verse 19 makes clear, Tahpenes has the title of Queen / Gevirah only because she is the wife of Pharaoh.
Maacah was the mother of Asa who became king in Judah.
9 And in the twentieth year of Jeroboam, king of Israel, Asa ruled over Judah.
10 Forty-one years he ruled in Jerusalem and his mother’s name was Maacah the daughter of Abishalom.
11 And Asa did what was just in the eyes of God, as had done David his father.
12 And he abolished the adulterers from the land, and he removed the idols that his fathers had made.
13 And also Maacah his mother he removed from being queen [Hebrew: gevirah], for she had made a frightful image for an Asheira and Asa cut off her image and burnt it in Kidron Valley.
Why did Maacah have the title of Queen / Gevirah? Because she was the king’s mother. In this instance, the word “gevirah” is best understood as Queen Mother.
Asa removed from his mother the title Gevirah / Queen Mother because she was one of the people promoting idol worship.
The next to the last king of Judah before the destruction of the First Temple was Jehoiachin ben Jehoiakim, also called Jeconiah.
Jehoiachin was 18 years old when he became king, and he reigned for only 3 months. His mother’s name was Nehushta (see 2 Kings 24:8).
15 And he [Nebuchadnezzar] exiled Jehoiachin to Babylon, and the king’s mother [Hebrew: eim] and the king’s wives, and his officers and the dignitaries of the land, he led in exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
The prophet Jeremiah includes this admonition to the king of Judah:
18 Say to the king and to the queen mother [Hebrew: gevirah], “Sit in a low place, for your greatness has come down, the crown of your glory.”
Who are the king and queen mother? Rashi explains Jeremiah is referring to King Jehoiachin and his mother Nehushta. In this verse Jeremiah honors her with the title Gevirah / Queen Mother.
In one more place Jeremiah grants Nehushta the title of Gevirah / Queen Mother.
2 After Jeconiah the king and the queen mother [Hebrew: gevirah] and the officers, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the craftsmen and the gate sentries had left Jerusalem.
Women called Sheigal
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Hebrew noun “Sheigal” appears only 2 times in the entire Bible.
There is also a Hebrew verb with of the same root: shin-gimmel-lamed. According R. Samson Rafael Hirsch, the verb has a “vulgar connotation, and therefore it is read as [root] shin-kaf-bet whenever it occurs.” (His commentary on Psalms 45:10.)
R. Hirsch understands that the noun does not have the same negative connotation.
Here’s the first time the noun appears:
10 The daughters of kings will visit you; the queen [Hebrew: sheigal] stands at your right [bedecked] with golden jewelry from Ophir.
This psalm is about the marriage of a king and a queen. Some state that the king is the future messiah. Rabbi Hirsch understands it as a more ordinary king.
The other place where the Hebrew noun sheigal occurs is Nehemiah 2:
6 And the king said to me – and the queen [Hebrew: sheigal] was sitting beside him – “How long will your trip take, and when will you return?” And it pleased the king, and he sent me, and I gave him a time.
Nehemiah is asking King Artaxerxes for permission to travel to Jerusalem. He mentions in passing that at the time he asked, the queen was sitting next to the king.
The Bible does not reveal to us anything else about this queen.
Women Who Ruled
Jezebel – Wife of King Ahab
Even though Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab she is never honored with the title of Queen. This is even more surprising since in many aspects she was a more dominant figure than her husband.
30 And Ahab son of Omri did that which was bad in the eyes of God more than all before him.
31 And it was insignificant for him to follow the sins of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, and he took as a wife Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of the Zidonians and he went and worshiped the Baal and prostrated himself to it.
1 Kings 18
4 And it was when Jezebel cut off of the prophets of God, that Obadiah took one hundred prophets and hid them fifty men in a cave, and he nourished them with bread and water.
There are many details in 1 Kings about the evil deeds of Jezebel. However, it’s not the purpose of this article to discuss her entire life.
Rabbi Hirsch (Collected Writing, Volume 8, page 66) makes this comment about Jezebel:
The man Ahab, or rather Jezebel, who ruled over both Ahab and his kingdom, sought to sweep away everything that recalled the God of “ancient Judaism.”
Rabbi Hirsch clearly sees Jezebel as being the dominant member of this royal couple.
13 And Jehu found the relatives of Ahaziah, king of Judah, and he said, “Who are you?” And they said, “We are Ahaziah’s relatives, and we have come down to greet the sons of the king and the sons of the queen mother [Hebrew: gevirah].”
In this verse who is the king and who is the queen mother they are referring to?
It’s possible they mean Ahaziah and his wife (her name was Zibiah of Beer Sheva). However, both Rashi and Radak explain that they were coming to visit Ahab and Jezebel and their relatives.
If so, then we do find one place in the Bible where Jezebel is called Gevirah / Queen. However, this title is used by this group of people, but not used independently by the author of the book of Kings.
I’ve now published a more complete article about Jezebel.
Athaliah – Mother of Ahaziah
The book of Samuel records that the Jewish people asked Samuel the prophet to appoint a king to rule over them.
The first Jewish king was Saul. From the time of Saul until the destruction of the First Temple, only one woman was the monarch. Her name was Athaliah and she reigned over Judah for 6 years.
Athaliah was the daughter of Ahab and granddaughter of Omri, two kings of Israel.
She became the wife of Jehoram and the mother of Ahaziah.
1 And the inhabitants of Jerusalem made Ahaziah his [Jehoram’s] youngest son king in his stead, for the troop that had come from the Arabians to the camp had slain all the first ones, and Ahaziah, the son of Jehoram the king of Judah reigned.
2 Ahaziah was forty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem, and his mother’s name was Athaliah the [grand]daughter of Omri. …
9 And he [Jehu] sought Ahaziah and they seized him, and he was hiding in Samaria, and they brought him to Jehu, and they slew him, and they buried him, for they said, “He is the son of Jehoshaphat, who sought the Lord with all his heart,” and the house of Ahaziah could not muster up strength for the kingdom.
10 And [when] Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah, saw that her son was dead, she rose and destroyed all those of royal descent of the house of Judah.
Athaliah was able to kill all but one of Ahaziah’s sons. Ahaziah’s sister saved Jehoash and hid him from Athaliah.
Athaliah reigned for 6 years in Jerusalem. In the 7th year there was a rebellion. Athaliah was killed and Jehoash was crowned king in her place.
Besides being guilty of murder, Athaliah was also guilty of promoting idol worship.
7 For the wicked Athaliah and her sons had breached the Temple; and also all the hallowed things of the house of God had they used for the Baal idols.
It seems that the sons mentioned in this verse must have been her children by another man.
Despite being the ruler over Judah for 6 years, Athaliah is never granted the title of Queen in the entire Bible.
Who is a Queen?
Only one Jewish woman (Esther) is given the title Queen / Malkah. She was granted this title in the kingdom of Persia because she was married to the king.
We do not see that any of the wives of the Jewish kings are honored with the title of Queen / Malkah.
Three women (2 Jewish, 1 non-Jew) in the Bible have title of Gevirah / Queen. (There are some other women who are called “gevirah,” but it’s clear in their cases it means “mistress” or “lady.”)
In the case of the 2 Jewish women, Maacah and Nehushta, Gevirah really means Queen Mother.
The 2 Jewish women who actually ruled, Jezebel and Athaliah, are not honored with the title Malkah. This is probably an indication that they were not legitimate rulers over the Jewish people.