December 20, 2007

Book review: "Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen," by Lesley Hazleton

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Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen
By Lesley Hazleton
Doubleday / ISBN: 978-0-385-51614-3

So are you familiar already with the story of Jezebel? It appears in both the Jewish bible (Tanakh) and the Christian one (Old Testament, Books of Kings), based extremely loosely on the real woman who served as one of the queens of Israel back in ancient times. As the traditional legend goes, Jezebel was originally a pagan Phoenician, married off by her father to Israel's King Ahab for political reasons; it was her meddling ways, according to Jewish and Christian scripture, that led the king away from worshipping the One True God (Yahweh) and to instead focus on the Phoenician "heathen" god Baal. Eventually, however, the power couple was finally confronted by one of the most important early prophets of the Jewish religion, the poverty-embracing, desert-roaming Elijah; it was he who predicted the downfall of Israel because of Jezebel's influence, he who first called her the "harlot queen." And thus, traditional lore has it, did Israel indeed fall to the Assyrians roughly around 900 BC, and thus was Jezebel's body literally eaten by dogs after her death, and thus has her name itself become synonymous over the years with the wanton heretic hussy, using her body and her wily sexual charms to ridicule everything that Good True Christians hold dear.

Jezebel, by Lesley Hazleton

But there's a problem with this story, or so claims psychologist, Hebrew scholar and Middle East journalist Lesley Hazleton, which is that it simply isn't true; as she details in her new "speculative nonfiction" book Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, the story itself wasn't even written until 300 years after her death, by a group of Judeans who had never even been to Israel, at a time when Judea itself was under the looming threat of extinction just like had been Israel's fate several centuries earlier. So yes, in other words, there was a political agenda attached to the writing of Kings, a plea from that generation's faithful to take heed of the pagan hoards at Judea's borders; and there was no better way to get that message across than through an alarmist retelling of the Jezebel myth, painting her as a singular creature of evil when in fact she was no particularly worse or better than any of the other Middle Eastern queens of her time. And not only that, but that the very definition of the word "harlot" has changed profoundly since ancient times, with the original authors of Kings meaning nothing sexual at all when first using it themselves. And not only that, but that the prophet Elijah was not really a savior but in actuality Judaism's (and therefore Christianity's) very first radical fundamentalist, the start of an ugly tradition in those religions that in our modern age has brought us televangelists, abortion-clinic bombers, and people obsessed with the Rapture and subsequent Apocalypse.

Yeah, I know, it's a lot of challenges to traditional Western religious thought that Hazleton is throwing out in a slim 215 pages, a fact that the religiously faithful (or at least Jews and Christians) should be aware of going into this book -- that Hazleton's Jezebel uses factual history, archeology, language analysis and other rational means to question nearly every aspect of the traditional myth, and to show how there was just so much more modern political strife that went into the writing of the Scriptures than most of us modern people even understand. But at the same time, this is not exactly a rallying book for those who wish to worship Jezebel from a new-age, pagan, Wiccan standpoint either; as Hazleton rightly points out, ancient royalty were not exactly the kindest people in the world, and indeed Jezebel herself was rightly guilty of some of the crimes against humanity in which she is accused in the bible (as was every other queen and king of every other region back then). And let's not forget that it's a fascinating history and travel book as well, for those of us not bringing religious baggage to it, a highly entertaining journal of Hazleton's trips to the various ancient sites mentioned in Kings, as well as a look at how the modern holy war going on there right now is affecting such ancient sites.

Now I should admit right off the bat that I am no religious expert at all; I was raised as a Southern Baptist in the American Bible Belt, an area of the world that is 95-percent white Protestants, a place where people are discouraged from questioning anything found in the bible, are discouraged from even researching other religions, and in fact I didn't even meet my first Jewish person until I was a college student (and who was in fact Los Angeles stand-up comedian David Robinson, who taught me all kinds of useful stuff about his proud people that I thought at first was him BSing me just because he could, like for example that the "K" in a triangle found on boxes of Hydrox cookies meant that they were kosher, something I insisted at first was a cruel joke David was trying to play on me, so that I would embarrass myself in the future in front of other Jews). I went into this book knowing nothing about the lost tribes of Israel, about the strange relationship between Israelis and Judeans in ancient times, or even the Jezebel story as it's traditionally told; and that was an interesting perspective to have, to tell you the truth, given that Hazleton herself lives and breathes these subjects, with her among all the other things mentioned also being a regular reporter for Time magazine on these issues.

And for what it's worth, you really don't have to know anything about these subjects to enjoy Jezebel, although I admit it helps to have ready access to Wikipedia and some ancient maps while reading it; Hazleton here has definitely penned a general-interest book, just like so many great historical non-fiction books these days are. Well, hooray for that! I've said this at the CCLaP site before, but I'll say it again; that we are living in a real golden age right now for entertaining historical and other nonfictional manuscripts, a time when scholarship combined with an explosion of media is producing a greater and greater amount of crossover projects between academia and the general public. Now granted, such a thing in this case is going to drive the academes out there a little nuts; for example, one of the devices Hazleton employs here in Jezebel is the academically controversial one of "historical narrative," by which she writes in almost a short-story fictional style from the viewpoint of Jezebel herself, about what life must've been like for her back then. It's a style that makes the story come more alive for the general reader (or so the argument goes), but a big no-no among traditional academes about the "proper" way historical nonfiction accounts should be authored; it's something that will either naturally please you or naturally irk you, based on whether you get more of your historical information from dissertations or the Discovery Channel.

Oh yes, and then there's the small matter of Hazleton calling into question an entire chapter of traditional Jewish lore and legend, a thing I found fascinating as an atheist with nothing at stake in the answer, but something sure to shock and anger those who (for example) believe in a literal reading of the scriptures. Hazleton has her own agenda here, in fact, one that she sorta owns up to throughout the manuscript; she just doesn't like radical fundamentalists, no matter what religion they are, and like so many of us is highly frustrated these days over how many fundamentalists seem to be in powerful governmental positions right now all over the globe. As she so deftly shows through historical example, ancient records, archeological digs and more, ultimately the fundamentalist view of the world is a nihilistic one, stretching all the way back to Elijah himself, a mindset that won't be satisfied unless the world is in a perpetual state of war, subjugation and chaos, and even better when you throw in slavery and a couple of plagues for good measure.

In fact, this may be the most controversial theory put forth by Hazleton of all; that when all is said and done, if Jezebel represents anything, it's the relatively modern idea of moderate peacetime pragmatism, bolstered by a quasi-polytheistic society interested in pursuing détente with its neighbors. (So in other words, most of the regions of the ancient Middle East worshipped one god above all others [the Israelis Yahweh, the Phoenicians Baal, etc], yet all of them acknowledged that the other tribes' gods existed as well, and even built sorta "spiritual embassies" for them at their own city-states.) Under such a system in Israel under Ahab and Jezebel's real rule, a permanent peace lasted for nearly half a century, a stretch of time without war that was nearly unheard of in those days; according to Hazleton, it was actually Elijah and the other fundamentalists who brought about the downfall of all this, by insisting on a world of monotheism and resulting constant bloody warfare. And you know what they say, that history is written by the winners; and it was the fundamentalists in this case who won out over the moderate polytheistic pragmatists, which is why the book of Kings is written the way it is, and why we think of Jezebel in the way we now do.

Like I said, from a historical and theoretical aspect it's a fascinating book, although as you can see it's one bound to cause controversy as well, depending on who you are; it should be kept in mind before tackling it yourself. And then finally, like I said, Jezebel is also going to appeal to any modern backpacker out there, especially ones who like to hike through the various troublespots of the world; because as part of her research for this book, Hazleton actually traveled through some very dangerous parts of the Middle East, to visit all these ancient sites that were so important to the story of Jezebel in those days. It's in these sections where Hazleton really shines as a creative writer; the way she symbolically describes the supposed birthplace of Elijah, for merely one great example, by relating the story of a pack of feral dogs that now live there among the abandoned ruins, and how they attacked her car when she tried to make the pilgrimage herself. As a recorder of these events, Hazleton becomes not only a historian but also a travel guide and modern political commentator; one of her biggest points throughout, after all, is to highlight the pain and heartache so many people still have in the region, over this fundamentalist-led holy war still going on there thousands of years after it started.

It's a book I encourage you to pick up, but one I also encourage you to have an open mind towards while reading; a real page-turner that will often challenge your conventional beliefs about history, but by always using facts and logic to do so. And I'll tell you this as well, that I'm now looking forward to tracking down Hazleton's older books, and seeing if they're as good as this one too.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about Jezebel: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:18 PM, December 20, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |