Rehabilitating Jezebel

Elijah the Prophet wasn’t such a gentle old soul

The mission of Lesley Hazleton, in Jezebel, the Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen (Doubleday, $24.95), is the rehabilitation of the reputation of Jezebel, Phoenician princess, wife of Ahab, King of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century B.C.E.

Hazleton — journalist, political writer, and author of several books about the Middle East today — brings her investigative skills to the task of breathing life into the locations and events depicted in Kings 1 and 2, the biblical books that tell of the rise and fall of the northern Israelite kingdom. Hazleton addresses the image of Jezebel as harlot, fornicator, and shameless hussy, and correctly understands that the infidelity Elijah accuses Jezebel of committing is not a physical or sexual betrayal, but, rather, infidelity to the God of Israel through worship of her native gods. In the process, Hazleton imagines Jezebel as a fiercely proud, powerful noblewoman whose polytheistic values clash with the strict monotheism of her arch-enemy, the prophet Elijah.

Hazleton begins each section with a close reading and analysis of the Hebrew text, which she re-translates herself. Then she brings to bear her vivid imagination to recreate the inner lives of these all-too-human biblical characters. Finally, the biblical story is contextualized by her eye-witness visits to the geographical sites named in the Bible. These passages of descriptive imagination bring the lurid story told in Kings right into our modern sensibility. For example, she writes of encountering horrifying feral dogs on her search for Elijah’s birthplace: “They blocked the track, snarling ferociously, wild-eyed and jittery. The car shuddered under the assault. In front of me, open jaws spattered drool on the windshield. To one side, fangs loomed inches from my eyes… . I only started shaking as I drove away, when I realized I no longer had any doubt that this was where Elijah was born.” Later, when Hazleton discusses the imprecation hurled by Elijah at Jezebel, that dogs would lap her blood, the reader has a chilling sense of the fearsomeness of that curse.

This is an extremely engaging and well-researched book — a difficult balance that Hazleton manages very well. An expert on the ancient Near East might have quibbles with some of her readings; still, with its evocation of the biblical landscape by exploring modern vistas, and its re-framing of the ancient political conflicts that are still relevant in today’s Jewish discourse, this book brings a difficult biblical story to radiant life.

Diane M. Sharon is a member of the faculty in Bible at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY. She is the author of a book and many articles dealing with the Hebrew Bible, comparative religion, and women’s studies.