Defending the Harlot Queen

Lesley Hazelton seeks to rehabilitate the image of Jezebel, one of history’s most reviled women whose name has been synonymous with treachery and vice



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, October 1, 2007


Jezebel, Jezebel you shameless “painted harlot” -- thy name is one with vice, treachery and depravity. Wanton lust, too.


But should it be?


The Bible holds Queen Jezebel in such contempt that next to her other scandalous trollops like Delilah appear to be misguided paragons of virtue. If, that is, you take the Biblical account of “the harlot queen” at face value. Lesley Hazelton doesn’t. Building on renewed scholarly interest in the Phoenicians and painstakingly parsing scriptural phraseology, the Seattle-based author provides a cogently revisionist account of this much-maligned woman.


A daughter of the Phoenician king Ethbaal given in marriage to King Ahab of Israel, Jezebel is labeled a harlot and sorceress in the Bible (2 Kings 9:22) and would become a perennial bête noir of the righteous. Her ignoble end was thundered down in warning at putative religious deviants from medieval church pulpits, and Shakespeare used her name as a slur. Later, in the eponymous 1938 movie Bette Davis personified Jezebel as a headstrong and spiteful Southern belle.

The Bible depicts Jezebel as an evil, headstrong heathen. Was she? (This image: coffin portrait of a 2nd century woman)


To rescue her from everlasting infamy, such a fabled villain surely needs a plucky iconoclast for an apologist. Hazelton fits the bill. A British-born Jew and onetime convent student who professes to daydreaming once of becoming both a (Reform) rabbi and a nun, Hazelton obtained a degree in psychology from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a city where she lived and taught in the 1960s and 70s. While there, she issued a feminist’s challenge to Israel by arguing in “Israeli Women: The Reality behind the Myths” (1978) that contrary to their popular image as men’s valiant equals, the country’s women were mere playthings in a male chauvinistic society


Still, it’s not as if an ancient queen of Israel who died 3,000 years ago were in as urgent need of an image makeover as Israeli women today.


Or is she? “Contemporary resonance” is a phrase cherished by blurb writers and duly reappears on the jacket of “Jezebel.” Yet this time it goes beyond a mere sales pitch. Hazelton, author of a 2005 re-interpretative biography of Mary, the mother of Jesus, attempts to do more than chart an informed and passionate apologia for Jezebel (which has already been done by scholarly journals); she also traces the origins of today’s menacing religious extremism back to the epic face-off between Jezebel and the prophet Elijah. One stood for progressive pluralism, the other for fundamentalist fanaticism, she argues.


And her hero isn’t Elijah. In Hazelton’s reading, the prophet, far from being the saintly wonderworker of later Jewish tradition, was a nasty piece of work — an uncouth, raving fanatic cloaked in foul, untanned pelts, who lived on carobs, issued odious curses and wasn’t above mass murder. Elijah, she writes, was the prototype for “every ‘pro-life’ minister... every extremist imam... every fanatical rabbi.”


When fire-and-brimstone preachers like him anoint themselves enforcers of God’s putative will and judgment, Hazelton notes, religious faith degenerates into an excuse for their twisted form of narcissistic idealism, turning today’s extremism into as much an existential threat as it was in Jezebel’s time three millennia ago. “Extremist Jews and Muslims may hate each other, but they are mirror images,” she writes. “They subordinate the core values of Judaism and Islam to their radical view of the world....”


Talk about radical. Jezebel’s mangled body is famously left for ravenous feral hounds in fulfillment of Elijah’s curse that “dogs shall eat Jezebel... so that [her] carcass shall be as dung upon the face of the field in Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23; 2 Kings 9:37). The Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation, meanwhile, rails against “that woman Jezebel... [who] seduces my servants to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:20), further paving the way for her name to become synonymous with lewd promiscuity — a name that, ironically, meant “woman of god” (Baal) in her native Phoenician. “The enormous cultural weight of the Bible,” Hazelton says, “projects 3,000-year-old stereotypes deep into modern consciousness.”


So the other, misunderstood Jezebel, please stand up.


She does in “Jezebel.” Hazelton’s book is a delightful, if needlessly polemical romp through the antiquities, seamlessly weaving into the ill-fated queen’s arresting biography strands as diverse as ancient cosmetics and canine cults. The time-honored “hair of the dog” morning-after remedy, we learn for instance, hails from the Phoenician prescription of placing dog hairs on a hangover-sufferer’s forehead.


* * *


The Bible often treats non-Israelites as extras in the grand narrative of divinely guided Israelite destiny, and little in it about the Phoenicians redounds to their credit. This seems unfair given that without their influence the Hebrew Bible could hardly have been written. It was the Phoenicians who invented the modern alphabet, revolutionizing writing by supplanting unwieldy Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiforms. The Hebrews borrowed the Phoenicians’ 22-character script; even the word “bible” derives from Byblos (today Jbeil in northern Lebanon), the Greek name for the Phoenician city through which Greece imported Egyptian papyrus scrolls and where writing’s legendary inventor, Taautos (Thoth for Egyptians), was believed to have been born.

The much-maligned queen gets her comeuppance in an illustration by the 15th century Dutch painter Evert Zoudenbalch


The Phoenicians were also the world’s first cosmopolitans. Bearers of a sophisticated mercantile civilization, the seafaring ancient mariners dominated Mediterranean trade routes, navigating as far as the Indian Ocean by rounding Africa two millennia before Vasco de Gama. Jezebel was born in Tyre, the ancient world’s Singapore — a small island city-state that struck it rich by adroitly riding the wave of international maritime trade. Tyrian purple — a dye produced from the glands of mollusks found along the rocky shores of Lebanon — would forever become associated with royalty; it also featured prominently in the Israelite High Priest’s vestments. Meanwhile, Jezebel’s grandniece, Princess Elishat (Elissa for Greeks; Dido for Romans) of Tyre, would go on to found Carthage, the bane of classical Rome, in today’s Tunisia.


There was just this one snag that made Phoenicians pariahs in the eyes of the Bible’s authors: they were fervent polytheists — as was Jezebel. The Phoenicians likely also practiced infant sacrifice. (Scholars theorize that the otherwise perplexing story of the Binding of Isaac may have been meant as divinely sanctioned condemnation of that practice.) Tyre’s civic deities were Baal, Astarte (Asherah), Melqart (later called Hercules) and — brace yourself — the high god El, one of Yahweh’s own designations, which survives in suffix form in such modern names as Gabriel (“Strength of God”) and Daniel (“God Is My Judge”).


So there you have it: Israelite monolatry (proto-monotheism whereby one supreme god among many is worshipped alone) was probably a reductive approach to the flamboyant Canaanite pantheon by incorporating the myriad traditional aspects of several regional deities into a single, all-powerful tribal divinity. A Phoenician harvest festival even served as a template for the Jewish Sukkot, Hazelton notes. Yet “as in Islamic countries today,” she writes, heavy foreign influence “inspires envy and resentment, a mix that finds its most volatile expression in religious principle.”


That brings us to harlotry. For Israel’s prophets, no sin was worse than religious pluralism — or in Hosea’s words, to “go whoring after” foreign deities. With Yahweh lovingly designated as Israel’s “husband,” idolatry became equated with adultery, and seductresses came to symbolize not merely loose morality but sacrilegious treachery. And the reviled archetype was Jezebel, who brought legions of priests for Baal and priestesses for Astarte to Israel.


Yet a bawd she was not. If anything, the Bible shows her doting on her husband, King Ahab. “Her concern for [his] mood and health makes her more of a Yiddishe mama than a fount of evil,” Hazelton argues. And if that meant appropriating a headstrong farmer’s ancestral plot Ahab wanted (in the famous story of Naboth’s vineyard), so be it.


Biblical writers saw Jezebel as a perfect fit for Ahab — he’s labeled the wickedest of Israel’s evil kings (1 Kings 16:30). This may seem odd from a modern historical perspective. Whereas Biblical tradition credits David with the creation of the Hebrews’ seminal state, archaeological evidence testifies that it wasn’t until well over a century later -- in the mid-9th century BCE reign of the Omrite dynasty -- that a onetime smattering of village chiefdoms had reached such population density and level of statehood as to become a regional powerbroker in its own right. And that was in Ahab’s northern Kingdom of Israel with Samaria as its capital. On a contemporary Assyrian monolith “Ahab the Israelite” is cited as leading a formidable army of charioteers against Shalmaneser III at a battle on the Orontes (in today’s Syria) in 853 BCE.


So isn’t this a guy ancient Israelites should have been proud of?


Not if you were a Deuteronomistic historian. The story of Jezebel and Ahab is interspersed throughout “Kings” (not finalized until five centuries after their time) in what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History. Namely, the heavily folkloristic chronicle of Israel’s history from Conquest to Exile (running from Joshua to Kings 2) was reedited around the time of the Babylonian exile (perhaps by the priestly scribe Ezra) so as to offer an overarching theological commentary on the nation’s turbulent history in view of Deuteronomy’s uncompromising monotheism. Frequent national calamity became interpreted as God’s will and resulted from deviations from His Law, with the recurrent commentary “[he] did what was right/evil in the sight of the Lord” either acquitting or convicting Israel’s kings of culpability based on their fidelity or infidelity to Yahweh. And Ahab was deemed the worst of the whole deviant lot. “Kings” gloats at his murder by Damascene foes (“dogs licked up his blood... according to the word of the Lord”; 1 Kings 22:38).


Curiously for a secularist reading, Hazelton interprets such scriptural pronouncements (perhaps for the sake of narrative consistency) as actual “fatwas” by Elijah carried out to the letter by proxies — as opposed to being retroactively inserted literary devices by redactors in order to bring recorded events in line with their grand, disloyalty-to-Yahweh-brings-inevitable-downfall theme. From a modern humanistic perspective, Elijah and his successor, Elisha (who has scores of Israelite children torn to pieces for the “crime” of mocking his baldness) were hardly admirable characters. Yet those were savage times with savage customs, and Hazelton’s Jezebel, a rare beacon of moderation and restraint, seems to be based more on backward projection than independent contemporary evidence about her, which is practically nonexistent outside the Biblical narrative.


* * *


It’s amid loss and heartache that Jezebel truly comes into her own. After Jehu, a military commander, stages a coup, kills her son, King Joram, and dashes off to deal with her too, the queen mother, now a granny, dons her regal best and sits in a palace window, there to await him. Vain to the end, isn’t she! That’s not it, Hazelton stresses. Jezebel’s makeup is her “war paint”: “she will face [her death] with dignity... every inch a queen.”


When the usurper charges into the courtyard, Jezebel calls down to him (2 Kings 8:31): “Have you come in peace, your master’s murderer?” He hasn’t. Jahu orders her thrown from her window; she’s trampled to death by horses. While Jahu feasts in celebration, feral dogs outside are busy fulfilling prophesy. On a contemporary Assyrian monument, Jehu is depicted groveling at the feet of King Shalmaneser III for mercy, a mere year after Jezebel’s death, his place in history, too, going to the dogs.


Jezebel’s murder, Hazelton posits, was the harbinger for myriad future victories of religious extremism inspired by the Biblical tradition over what the ancient queen stood for — pluralism and pragmatism. Her book’s real strength is its trenchant message: when religious ideology is allowed to triumph over basic humanistic values, the result often is a holy book-thumping, totalitarian nightmare — theocracy a la the Taliban. And what does the story of Jezebel teach the devout if not that to murder “infidels” in His name is to do God’s work?


“In this era of renewed militant prophecy,” Hazelton concludes, we must be vigilant of “the dangers of blind zealotry and the terrible hypocrisy of those who kill in the name of God.”


Jezebel would agree.

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