Breaking Faith

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, October 19, 2007

JEZEBEL

The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen

By Lesley Hazleton

Doubleday. 258 pp. $24.95

Some incredibly interesting books have been written about God in recent years. Jack Miles's "God: A Biography," Gregg Easterbrook's "Beside Still Waters" and Jonathan Kirsch's "God Against the Gods" all attempt, in one way or another, to figure out how the God so many of us worship turned out the way "He" is. These books are less works of devotion than of curiosity. Although each is very different, the authors seem to be peering through a window blurred by glare, shielding their eyes with their hands, trying to see into a cosmic darkened room.

Miles's dazzling scholarship chronicles how God, the curmudgeon of the Old Testament, turned into the radical peacemaker of the New. Easterbrook, in a marvelous chapter on the Sermon on the Mount, lays out how Jesus really was the divine mind-blower of his time and perhaps eternity. Kirsch's work takes another tack -- how the crowded, comparatively easygoing panoply of pagan gods was attacked and overcome by the wrathful, jealous Hebrew One-God, soon to be followed by the One-God religions of Christianity and Islam, each of them claiming to be the one true faith, which -- as we know -- has led to no end of bickering, bloodshed and sorrow. (And this conflict, in the beginning at least, was by no means universal. It took place among humans in Europe and the Middle East who clustered around the Mediterranean Sea. Most of Africa and Asia and certainly North and South America with their separate civilizations weren't even part of the pageant.)

Please -- nobody send me irate e-mails! I'm just talking about books and the fact that, for instance, as late as the 9th century B.C., there were still plenty of folks who worshiped Baal and Astarte and any number of other divinities, and who were fairly tolerant of whatever gods might be around. Which is where Lesley Hazleton's provocative "Jezebel" comes in. Although this volume sports a deliciously seductive cover, it is, in fact, a work both academic and speculative, taking as its underlying material the war between paganism and the God Yahweh, and how Yahweh won.

"Jezebel" consists of a close reading of the Book of Kings in the Old Testament, which, among other things, tells the story of how King Ahab of Israel (as opposed to its poorer southern neighbor, Judea) took it upon himself to marry the 15-year-old Princess Jezebel from the city-state of Tyre, just a stone's throw away in geography (an island off the shore of what is Lebanon today) but a universe apart in terms of belief systems. Tyre was a great seaport, bursting with people from everywhere in the known world, and still a pagan society, worshiping many gods; Tyre was tolerant, learned, sophisticated. Over in Israel, Ahab ruled only at the approval of the One-God Yahweh, and His word was handed down by Elijah, a dour prophet. When Ahab married Jezebel and when he later spared an enemy army in battle, Elijah became filled with rage, accusing Ahab, and particularly Jezebel, of harlotry, which meant not physical adultery but "selling out," much as we say that talented writers "prostitute" their art to Hollywood today. "Israel was selling its soul, not its body," Hazleton writes. "This was abomination. This was treason. This was harlotry." And Ahab's God was jealous.

Because of Ahab's misdeeds and the bad influence of Jezebel, who had brought with her a retinue of priests devoted to Baal and Astarte, Elijah prophesied three years of drought. But prophesying drought in Israel is like doing so in Southern California. The odds are certainly with you. Chaos and high drama ensued.

Rereading the Book of Kings, you see that most of the miracles have to do with people simply getting enough to eat. This was a society under tremendous stress. Despite this book's title and the jacket copy, there isn't much about Jezebel in Kings, but the author manages, with a good deal of success, to get inside her mind. Hazleton pours common-sense feminine scorn on Elijah, who -- as she sees it -- engineered the destruction of Israel, plotting the deaths of Ahab and his sons and managing it so that Jezebel was murdered, too, and thrown to the dogs, unburied, her reputation so bruised that even now she stands for "bad girls" everywhere. Elijah, at least in Kings, does seem like a nut job, but in the years since he's -- ironically -- been seen as a caring soul in each of the three "one, true" religions. The overall impression left by "Jezebel" is disheartening. They're still at it, over there at the far end of the Mediterranean, and this volume helps explain why those warring factions can't seem to ever find peace.

Sunday in Book World

¿ Iraq's terrible violence, then and now.


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