In defense of Jezebel

The book is at its best alongside the few pages in I and II Kings that mention Jezebel.

jezebel 88 (photo credit: )
jezebel 88
(photo credit: )
• By MORTON I. TEICHER Jezebel By Lesley Hazelton Doubleday 272 pages; $24.95 This fascinating illustration of revisionist history at its best is most advantageously read alongside the few pages in I and II Kings that mention Jezebel. Based on those laconic references, her own translations, the archaeological evidence, her travels to the places named and, perhaps most of all, her fertile imagination, Lesley Hazelton has reconstructed the story of Jezebel. Instead of being a nasty character, Jezebel, according to Hazelton, is a worthy opponent of the prophet Elijah, depicted by Hazelton as a militant murderer. To build up Jezebel and to tear down Elijah is a daunting task, but Hazelton goes a long way toward achieving her objective. She brings impressive credentials to the mission she has set for herself. In 1978, she wrote a book on Israeli women that debunked the image of their equal status and in 2005, she rewrote the life of Mary, mother of Jesus. Hazelton studied at Hebrew University and lived in Israel for a number of years, writing for Time, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Nation, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. It is not until I Kings 16:31 that Jezebel is mentioned as the wife of King Ahab and the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Phoenicians. Although the Bible says nothing more about this marriage, Hazelton spells out its commercial nature. As a trading state, the Phoenicians used the wedding to gain access to other markets through this new association with Israel. Hazelton also says that Jezebel "traveled in style," describing her extensive entourage, including priests and priestesses who eventually came to a bloody end. In I Kings, Elijah enters the scene and tells Ahab, who has "vexed the Lord," that there will be no rain "except at my bidding." According to Hazelton, Elijah's dictate is based on his anger about Jezebel's priests and priestesses as well as the "ostentatious luxury" he sees, but this rationale is not supported by the biblical narrative. She depicts Elijah in hateful terms so different from the prophet we sing about at the Seder, where we fill a cup of wine in his honor. For Hazelton, Elijah is a fundamentalist zealot who is the model for today's extremists, fanatics and bigots. He wore "pelts, still ripe with the blood of the animals they'd come from." His curse of drought is designed to punish the Israelites and to "shock them back into the truth faith." The relief from his staggering curse takes place on Mount Carmel where Elijah wins a monumental victory over the priests of Baal, orders that they be killed and brings rain. He is banished by Jezebel but this only sets the stage for his final triumph over her. Hazelton goes on to recount the story of Naboth's vineyard, coveted by Ahab and obtained for him by Jezebel through arranging for its owner to be killed. In a somewhat strained interpretation, Hazelton claims that this is the ancient counterpart of the modern struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over the holy land. In the biblical story, God sends Elijah to the vineyard to tell Ahab that he will be destroyed and that disaster will come to his son. Elijah adds that Jezebel will be devoured by dogs. All this does indeed come about. Both the Bible and Hazelton go on to tell about Ahab's death, his being succeeded by Azariah and then by Joram while Elisha takes on the prophet role of Elijah. It is Elisha who, in a small section of II Kings, arranges for Jehu, an army commander, to be anointed king. Jehu then kills Joram and comes to Jezebel's palace, where he stops below her balcony and orders the eunuchs to throw her down. She is trampled by the horses and eaten by the dogs. Jehu rules for 28 years but the northern kingdom is weakened and eventually disappears, becoming the 10 lost tribes. Hazelton concludes that Jezebel lives on through her grandniece, Dido, founder of Carthage, and by the adaptation of her name to Isabella, including the Spanish queen who authorized the Inquisition. But most of all, claims Hazelton, she lives on in "everyone who sees clear-eyed the dangers of blind zealotry." Whether or not she has succeeded in rehabilitating Jezebel is an open question, but she has certainly presented a powerful argument against theocracy and for humanitarianism. The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.