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Book Review: Jezebel
Author: Lesley Hazleton
Pages: 272 pp
Price: $14.95 (paperback) / $11.99 (ebook)
Hazleton's Jezebel has been on my To Read list for nearly a year. I'm sorry I kept getting distracted, and only now turned my attention to it. As much as I enjoyed the book, though, it was not an easy read. I already knew the end, and I was dreading it.
A mixture of biography, historiography, anthropology, literary analysis, gender studies, and comparative religious studies, Jezebel is a fascinating and thought-provoking read. Hazleton studies not just the woman herself, but also employs Jezebel as a lens through which to examine shifting attitudes by/towards women and female sexuality (mostly from the point of view of men), and the conflict between polytheism and monotheism.
Hazleton's bias in favor of her title subject is obvious from the very beginning, but she makes no attempt to hide that bias. She is not, however, blind to Jezebel's very human flaws and personality quirks. This is not a hagiography: this is an analysis of a strong-willed, flamboyant, and ruthless Queen whose character has been maligned for millennia in the writings of the victorious (male) monotheists whom she opposed.
Unlike far too many writers, Hazleton does not limit herself to just the Biblical text (and her translations will no doubt surprise those raised on a steady diet of the King James Bible). Rather, she draws upon archaeological evidence, literary research, and psychological insight to create a four-dimensional portrait of the woman, her family, her enemies, and the world in which they lived, battled, and died. There is no off-hand dismissal of Jezebel's Phoenician origins, and the polytheistic culture in which she was raised. Rather, Jezebel's devotion to her Gods -- notably Astarte, Anat, Ba'al Hadad, and Gula -- lies at the heart of her actions and her response to the zealotry of Yahweh's prophet, Elijah.
Consider, for example, the famous scene in which Elijah -- having just slaughtered four hundred-plus priests of Ba'al Hadad -- runs ahead of Ahab's chariot to the city of Jezreel.
Then Elijah comes running in through the main gate of Jezreel, soaked in rain, covered in mud, ahead of Ahab's chariot, and Jezebel hears the news: her priests slain, every one. [...] To massacre hundreds of priests of another faith? She could hardly believe it if she had not heard it of anyone other than Elijah. But as he stands panting below her balcony in the main courtyard of the palace, his sopping clothes running red with the blood of her priests, she can see the frenzy in his eyes. [...] She does not go into shock. She does not despair. She does not weep or mourn or waste time in recriminations against Ahab for not protecting her priests. Not Jezebel. She acts, and she does so with all the force of regal fury. She strides out onto her balcony, lifts her arms high to the heavens, and lets the rain stream down her face as she proclaims [...] "So may the gods do to me, and more so also, if I do not take your life for theirs by this time tomorrow. If you are Elijah, I am Jezebel." (p.78-79)
As Hazleton notes, Elijah cannot deny the power of the Queen's oath. He is terrified.
She has put her own life on the line -- "so may the gods do to me" -- and in so doing, she has placed him in thrall to her gods. If he stays, he will die. The man of Yahweh is now literally devoted -- promised as a votive offering -- to the Phoenician gods. For all his denial of them as false, if he acknowledges the force of her oath and flees, he will acknowledge their power and, by doing so, betray his own god Yahweh. (p. 80)
In contrast to Jezebel, Elijah does not comes across well. At all. His successor, Elisha, comes across even more poorly. Unlike Jezebel -- educated, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and pragmatic in her politics -- the two prophets of Yahweh are zealous, narrow-minded, uncouth rabble rousers. And, in perhaps one of the greatest ironies found in the Hebrew Testament, that very zealotry is what ultimately led to the downfall of Israel and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. By plotting to overthrow the dynasty of Ahab and Jezebel and set aside their pragmatic detente with neighboring states, Elijah and Elisha caused their nation to become weak and isolated -- perfect pickings for Assyria and, later, Babylon.
Even more ironically, Hazleton posits that exile in Babylon is what gave birth to Jewish monotheism; true monotheism, not the monolatry of earlier generations. Separated from the land of their God, the Jews in Babylon had to come up with some way of holding on to Him and their covenant. Thus were born not just the sacred writings of the Jews, but also the idea of a universal God, distinct from any one piece of land. (Does this mean that Nabu-Kaduri-Usur II [more famously, Nebuchadnezzar] is indirectly responsible for monotheism, at least in the West?)
As I noted above, part of my reluctance to read this book arose from the fact that I knew Jezebel's ultimate fate. Or thought I did. Hazleton does not end the story with Jezebel's death. Instead, she continues it, noting how the Queen has lived on in literature, mythology, iconography, and even names and languages. Isabella, for example, is the Spanish version of her name, which came to be thanks to the Phoenician colonists who established Carthage and its western Mediterranean empire. And Carthage -- this bit is neat -- was founded by Jezebel's great-niece Elitha; better known by her Greek name, Dido.
Jezebel is a sometimes uplifting, sometimes infuriating, but ultimately fascinating read. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Biblical studies, women's studies, or the conflict between monotheism and polytheism.
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