These biblical queens played crucial roles in the rise and fall of ancient Israel

Some were heretics and others heroes, but these royal women all took center stage in some of the most important stories in the Old Testament.

Bathsheba, Jezebel, Athaliah, and Esther are all associated with different eras of Jewish history and their tales serve as reminders of Jewish people's covenant with YHWH. Esther, pictured here in a 19th-century painting by Jean-François Portaels, has a scroll of her story that is read every year at Purim.
Bridgeman/ACI

Beginning with Eve, Hebrew scriptures and the books of the Old Testament provide key insights into ancient attitudes toward the role of women. Wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and leaders—Sarah, Hagar, Rachel, Leah, and Deborah—are important figures in the journey of the Hebrew tribes that culminates in their people’s settlement in Canaan (modern-day Israel and the Palestinian territories). The women who come after them—when their people unite, divide, and are exiled—have high-profile roles in stories about their struggles as a people. As queens and leaders, these female figures take on larger symbolic meanings, whether as role models, dire warnings, or bastions of hope.

Bathsheba, wife to one king and mother of another, is queen during a golden age, the kingdom of David. After Moses leads the descendants of Abraham out of captivity in Egypt, he makes a covenant with God and agrees to follow his commandments; in return the Hebrews will be given the land of Canaan. After facing a barrage of threats, they settle there and eventually unite under a king named Saul, whom tradition places around 1020 B.C. Under him, Israel becomes powerful, creating a conundrum: With kingship comes not only power but also corruption.

(Should women rule the world? The Queens of ancient Egypt say yes.)

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