Athaliah is usually considered the daughter of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel. Athaliah was married to Jehoram of Judah to seal a treaty between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and to secure his position Jehoram killed his six brothers. Jehoram became king of Judah in the fifth year of Jehoram of Israel's reign. (2 Kings 8:16) Jehoram of Israel was Athaliah's brother (or possibly nephew).
Jehoram of Judah reigned for eight years. His father Jehoshaphat and grandfather Asa were devout kings who worshiped the Lord and walked in His ways. However, Jehoram chose not to follow their example but rejected God and married Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab in the line of Omri. Jehoram's rule of Judah was shaky. Edom revolted, and he was forced to acknowledge their independence. A raid by Philistines, Arabs and Ethiopians looted the king's house, and carried off all of his family except for their youngest son, Ahaziah.
After Jehoram's death, Ahaziah became king of Judah, and Athaliah was queen mother. Ahaziah reigned for one year from the age of 22 (2 Kings 8:26) and was killed during a state visit to Israel along with Jehoram of Israel. Jehu assassinated them both in Yahweh's name and became king of Israel. He had Athaliah's entire extended family in Israel put to death, ending the Omri dynasty in Israel.
For her part, Athaliah seized the throne of Judah and ordered the execution of all possible claimants to the throne, including the remnant of her Omri dynasty. However, Jehosheba, Ahaziah's sister, managed to rescue from the purge one of Athaliah's grandsons with Jehoram of Judah, named Jehoash, who was only one year old. Jehoash was raised in secret by Jehosheba's husband, a priest named Jehoiada.
As queen, Athaliah used her power to establish the worship of Baal in Judah. Six years later, Athaliah was surprised when Jehoiada revealed that Jehoash lived and proclaimed him king of Judah. She rushed to stop the rebellion, but was captured and executed.
The text above regards Athaliah as the daughter of Ahab and his wife Jezebel. This is consistent with most Bible commentaries. However, there are several Scriptures that, when combined with chronological considerations, have led some scholars to hold that she was Ahab's sister, not his daughter. The relevant Scriptural texts that can be cited to support the brother-sister relationship are the following.2 Kings 8:26, and its parallel passage 2 Chronicles 22:2, say that Jehoram of Judah married a "daughter" of Omri, Ahab's father. The Hebrew word "daughter" (bath) can mean daughter, granddaughter, or any female descendant, in the same way that ben can mean son, grandson, or any male descendant. Consequently, some modern versions translate that Athaliah was a "granddaughter" of Omri. But the books of Kings and Chronicles give far more attention to Ahab than to Omri, and so it is notable that in these verses it is not Athaliah's relationship to Ahab that is stressed, but her relationship to Omri. This would be reasonable if Omri were her father. The immediately following verses also discuss Ahab, again raising the question of why her relationship to Omri is mentioned, instead of to Ahab.2 Kings 8:27 says that Jehoram of Judah, Athaliah's husband, was related by marriage (hatan) to the house of Ahab. The word hatan commonly is used to specify a father-in-law or son-in-law relationship. If Jehoram was Ahab's son-in-law, the expression that would be expected here would be "son-in-law" (or relative by marriage) to Ahab, not to "the house of Ahab." If Athaliah was Ahab's sister, not his daughter, then there is an explanation for the additional phrase "house of."
The support for Athaliah being Ahab's daughter comes from two verses, 2 Kings 8:18 and its parallel 2 Chronicles 21:6. These verses say that Jehoram of Judah did wickedly "because he married a daughter of Ahab." This would seem to settle the question in favor of the daughter relationship, with one precaution: the Syriac version of the 2 Chronicles 21:6 says "sister of Ahab" instead of daughter. This textual support for Athaliah being the sister of Ahab is usually regarded as weak enough to justify translating bath in 2 Kings 8:26 and 2 Chronicles 22:2 as "granddaughter," thus bringing the various passages about Athaliah into harmony: she is presented as Omri's granddaughter and Ahab's daughter.
The chronological considerations brought forth by scholars who advocate the sister-theory have to do with determining the earliest age at which Athaliah could have been born, and then showing that this is too late for Athaliah to be Ahab's daughter, but not too late if she was his sister. This brings up the question of who her mother was. It is often assumed that her mother was Jezebel, the only wife mentioned for Ahab in Scripture, but an argument from silence about other wives cannot be conclusive. There is no evidence that she was the daughter of Ahab’s chief wife, Jezebel. Athaliah might have been the daughter of another of Ahab's wives.
The argument is made that the Ahab/Jezebel marriage was an affair of state that would only have occurred after Omri, Ahab's father, was firmly in control of his kingdom, and Ithobaal, Jezebel's father, was firmly in control of Tyre and Sidon. Omri and Ithobaal were both usurpers; neither was the member of a royal family before they took the throne, and so it is not reasonable that, before they became kings, an Israelite general would seek out a priest of Astarte in the kingdom of Tyre and Sidon to get a wife for his young son Ahab.
According to F. M. Cross's chronology of Tyrian kings, as calculated from the records of Menander of Ephesus, Ithobaal killed Phelles and became king of Tyre in 878 BCE, two years after Omri became undisputed king of Israel. If the marriage had taken place in the first year of Ithobaal's reign, then, assuming their first-born was Athaliah and that she was born in the following year, Athaliah would have been born in 877E BCE at the earliest. She would have been 36 years old in 841 BCE when her son Ahaziah came to the throne. Ahaziah was 22 years old at this time, according to 2 Kings 8:26, so Athaliah would have been 14 when he was born, under this scenario. However, even today in the Middle East, child marriage is not uncommon, and girls as young as 9 may be married. Therefore, it would not necessarily have been unusual for a girl to have had a child at 14 .
The calendars for reckoning the years of kings in Judah and Israel were offset by six months, that of Judah starting in Tishri (in the fall) and that of Israel in Nisan (in the spring). Cross-synchronizations between the two kingdoms therefore often allow narrowing of the beginning and/or ending dates of a king to within a six-month range. For Athaliah, the Scriptural data allow the narrowing of her accession to some time between Nisan 1, 841 BCE and the day before Tishri 1 of the same BCE year. For calculation purposes, this should be taken as the Judean year beginning in Tishri of 842/841 BCE, or more simply 842 BCE. Her death occurred at some time between Nisan 1 and Tishri 1 of 835 BCE, i.e. in 836/835 BCE by the Judean calendar. At this time of rapprochement between the two kingdoms, Judah was using Israel's "non-accession" method of reckoning the years, so that she was deposed in her "seventh year" (2 Kings 11:4), after being monarch for six actual years (2 Kings 11:3).
William F. Albright has dated her reign to 842–837 BCE, while Edwin R. Thiele in the third edition of his magnum opus dates her reign from 842/841 to 836/835 BCE. However, a starting date of 842/841 for Athaliah is one year before the date of 841/840 that Thiele gave for the death of her son, Ahaziah, a conflict that Thiele never resolved. The present article accepts the one-year adjustment to Thiele's dates for Ahaziah given by later scholars that is explained in the Rehoboam and Ahaziah articles, thereby reconciling Thiele's dates for Athaliah with those of her predecessor. These dates are also compatible with cross-synchronisms between Ahaziah and Athaliah and the northern kingdom.
In 1691, French tragedian Jean Racine wrote a play about this Biblical queen, entitled Athalie. The German composer Felix Mendelssohn, among others, wrote incidental music (his op. 74) to Racine's play, first performed in Berlin in 1845. One of the most frequently heard excerpts from the Mendelssohn music is titled "War March of the Priests" ("Kriegsmarsch der Priester").
In 1733, the musician and composer Handel composed an oratorio based on her life, called Athalia, calling her a "Baalite Queen of Judah Daughter of Jezebel." Baal was the fertility god of the Canaanites, whom the ancient Israelites often fell into worshipping in the Old Testament.
Athaliah is a villain in the biblical novel In the Shadow of Jezebel by Christian Author Mesu Andrews.
Though she is not presented favorably in the Bible, "Athaliah" or "Atalia" is attested, though infrequently, as a female first name in contemporary Israel. This is derived partially from a search for Hebrew parallels with such (etymologically unconnected) European names as Ottilie, Odile and Ophelia, as well as with some Yiddish names. Also, some Israeli feminists advocate "reading the Bible backwards" and favoring the names of women characters whom the male compilers of the Bible regarded negatively.
A woman with this name is the main protagonist of the 1984 Israeli film Atalia.