The Jezebel Letters: Religion and Politics in Ninth-Century Israel.
Eleanor Ferris Beach's new book about Jezebel, the ninth-century BCE Israelite queen, contributes to the growing body of research into the roles women fulfilled in ancient Israelite society. Beach, who teaches biblical studies at St. Ambrose University, received her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and has worked on several archaeological projects. That she writes in a popular style, creating a fictitious archive of personal correspondence, detracts from the book's scholarly value--but makes it accessible to the non-specialist. So, too, does the author's website, with its FAQ's and Study Aid questions designed with the non-academic reader in mind. Beach presents Jezebel as a creative social and political force in ninth-century Israel, who used her intelligence and ingenuity to improve the lives of Israelites, Phoenicians, and Judaeans alike.
The Jezebel Letters addresses several issues pertinent to the reconstruction of ninth-century Israel and its neighbors. Most important is the role of women, and here Beach counters traditional ideas about ancient women as passive and powerless. Foregrounding Jezebel, Beach explores the position of the royal woman and presents an interesting, if controversial, reconstruction of the ways in which she functioned within the king's court. According to the Bible, Jezebel was a villain infamous for subverting justice, perverting religion, corrupting Israel's king Ahab (her husband), and contributing to the downfall of the Dynasty of Omri (her father in-law). Beach takes an alternate perspective, writing that "[t]he destiny of kings is shaped as much by strategies in the women's quarters as by tactics on the battlefield" (p. 139). Utilizing research by Susan Ackerman and others, which explores the role of gevira or queen mother in Israel and Judah, she has the protagonist capitalize upon familial connections with Phoenicia (as the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre) and Judah (as the mother of Atalyah, who married a Judaean king and then ruled independently for a brief period of time). Whether the ancient gevira exerted as much authority as does Beach's Jezebel is uncertain. Where Beach depicts the gevira as kingmaker, the Bible emphasizes the role of the prophet.
Other aspects of The Jezebel Letters are intriguing, as well. Highlighting Israel and Judah's separate trajectories, it places them within the political configuration of the ninth-century Levant and emphasizes their many complex interactions. Indeed, the contextualization of the many small city-states and nations of the region, interacting with each other and reacting to the growing Assyrian menace, is one of the strengths of this book. Beach's reconstruction of Jezebel as a mediator among rulers from three nations is speculative, but the complexity of international affairs that this reconstructed role underscores is authentic.
Similarly intriguing is the fact that The Jezebel Letters privileges Israel over the biblically favored Judah. The Bible speaks with the voice of Judaeans, Jerusalemites, Davidic loyalists, and Temple priests. Here, though, the story is presented from the perspective of the northern nation, its capital Samaria, its kings non-Davidic, its religion not Temple-based. Beach goes further, portraying Jezebel as the protector of not only her own Tyrian and Israelite royal families, but also of the Jerusalemite House of David.
The Jezebel Letters effectively evokes a sense of time and place. Its epistolary device allows the author to present details of daily life that are often neglected in traditional histories. Particularly effective is Beach's evocation of the natural setting in which Israelites and their neighbors lived, and the ways in which those varied ecological niches supported varied subsistence communities. Urban and rural centers, including Samaria (the capital of Israel), Jezreel (the royal summer palace), and Jerusalem (the capital of Judah) also figure into the narrative.
The book incorporates ancient documents, and they provide historical grounding for the fictional narrative. The primary resource, of course, is the Hebrew Bible, especially passages from I-II Kings and I-II Chronicles. The former is our primary source for information about Jezebel; the latter a recapitulation and reformulation of her story written somewhat later. Beach indicates that neither is first-hand or eyewitness. Rather, both express ideologies formulated by later communities unsympathetic to the northern nation of Israel. Beach also includes biblical psalms that she attributes to Canaan or to the northern nation of Israel, which she contends would have been familiar to members of the House of Omri. In addition, she includes other ancient texts, such as the Mesha Inscription and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, to familiarize the reader with nations, kings, and forms of written communication within Israel's broader geopolitical sphere.
Despite the Bible's condemnation of Jezebel--and Ahab--as corruptors of Israel's (allegedly) monotheistic Yahwistic religion, The Jezebel Letters spends little time in outright discussion of the religions of ninth-century Israel and Judah. The competition between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Asherah and Baal at Mt. Carmel is presented, but elsewhere religion is approached obliquely. References to worship practices (such as the marzeah) and to the many deities worshipped (including Baal Shamen, Yahweh, Asherah, and Hathor) give something of the flavor of ancient religion and the many ways in which the divine was incorporated into everyday life and interpersonal relationships. At the same time, Beach explores the relationship between religion and politics, examining the manipulation of religion by people in positions of power.
To foster a smooth narrative flow, Beach uses endnotes to present archaeological or other substantiation, to further develop concepts she has introduced, and to make the reader aware of ideas that differ from those she presents in her reconstructions. She presents her rationale for those points at which she deviates from the biblical text, such as when she has Jezebel live out her life in Dor rather than die in Jezreel (see II Kgs 9:30-37). The book also includes maps, illustrations, a glossary of names and foreign words, a list of works cited, and suggestions for further reading. In this way, those with scholarly interests and those who wish to pursue various topics are able to do so.
At times, the plot of The Jezebel Letters is overly dense, as the author endeavors to account for a complex and lengthy biblical story. The writing is stilted, perhaps a result of the epistolary style and the desire to emulate archaic language. While these factors mean that the book is not always easy reading, they do not detract significantly from its overall value. The Jezebel Letters is a useful addition to a new kind of literature that focuses on the individual in biblical times, whether through fiction writing (such as The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant) or historical reconstruction (such as David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, by Baruch Halpern). It presents a thoughtful alternative account of the life of a fascinating biblical character and does so in a creative way.
Beth Alpert Nakhai
Arizona Center for Judaic Studies
University of Arizona
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|Author:||Nakhai, Beth Alpert|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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