Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen

The Bible

Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen

by Lesley Hazleton

(Doubleday, $24.95)

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The Bible’s Jezebel came to an ugly end. Thrown from a balcony, trampled by horses, and devoured by dogs, the middle-aged queen has had few good days since. For almost 3,000 years, her name has been a slur, a synonym for “harlot.” But her supposed crimes, says journalist Lesley Hazleton, had nothing to do with sexual promiscuity. Instead, she was a polytheist Phoenician princess who had the temerity to bring her religious beliefs with her when, at 15, she married the king of monotheistic Israel. This didn’t go over well with the Prophet Elijah, the real power behind the crown. Elijah prophesied a holy war and got it. Decades of bloodshed later, his forces prevailed.

Hazleton’s “provocative” new book turns the tables on the story’s two antagonists, said Carolyn See in The Washington Post. Her Jezebel, before that haunting demise, is a model of the “tolerant, learned, sophisticated” culture the author ascribes to all Phoenicians. Her Elijah is a fanatic who “engineered the destruction of Israel” in pursuit of religious purity. Proving that Jezebel was no sexual reprobate is easy enough, said Sarah L. Courteau in The Wilson Quarterly. Previous scholars have pointed out that “harlotry” was simply the Bible’s eye-catching way of saying “idol worship.” Hazleton goes too far, though, in attempting to paint Jezebel as a perfectly sympathetic heroine. First, Hazleton too easily excuses Jezebel’s apparent willingness to shed others’ blood for her own beliefs. Leaving nonfiction behind completely, she then weaves in speculative passages in which we see Jezebel as a teenage bride hopelessly misunderstood by her new subjects and “homesick for the sea.”

Hazleton could have built her case for Jezebel on more defensible grounds, said Tibor Krausz in The Jerusalem Report. She accuses Elijah of masterminding a theatrical insurgency, when she might have simply noted that the authors of the Bible’s Book of Kings had strong motives to exaggerate both Elijah’s power and Jezebel’s wickedness. To really enjoy this book, said Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett in The Seattle Times, a reader has to accept Hazleton’s “whiplash” transitions between earnest scholarship and willful imaginings. But the author has made the central drama of the original Bible story matter again, and for many, that will be reward enough.

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