September 15, 2010 Volume 24, Number 10
What do you say to a painted lady?
By Rob Alloway | ChristianWeek Columnist
"When Jezebel heard about it, she painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out at a window" (2 Kings 9:30).
It is an epic tale that starts in the year 874 BC and does not really end until the spectacular death of the queen mother some 30 years later. While you may not know the complete story, the characters remain as iconic symbols, often imaginative distortions of their original roles.
There is King Ahab, whose dynasty suffers the same vicious end that awaits the doomed whaling captain of the same name. There is Elijah, for whom a place is set at every Passover feast and who remains the enigmatic forerunner of the Messiah. At his command drought sweeps the land for seven years. It ends only after a dramatic and public contest at the crest of Mount Carmel between himself and the 450 priests of the pagan god Baal. The priests' mass execution makes the Kishon River run red with their blood.
Elijah's exit from the story is worthy of any Cirque du Soleil performancea fiery chariot swoops down and scoops him up to heaven while Elisha, his successor, catches his cloak and by so doing, becomes twice as powerful as his mentor. Elisha's miracles are astonishingpowerful, almost random acts of both kindness and punishment: lost axeheads that float, dead children raised to life, poisonous stews mysteriously made safe to eat, leprosy cured and taunting children suddenly eaten by bears that come at his command.
There is Jehu, the legendary charioteer who murders two Jewish kings on the same day, permanently ending any hope of reunification. It is a saga full of betrayals, battles, shifting alliances, child sacrifices, incantations, curses, magical ravens, jars of oil that never run out, rivers that appear overnight. To read it is to feel as if you have somehow entered literature that might just as well be a lost Tolkienian manuscript where anything is possible. Altogether the story takes up one-third of the history of the Kings (1 Kings 16 to 2 Kings 10).
And at the centre of it all is Jezebel. The Great Harlot. A shameless, scheming whore, whose name is so permanently linked to sexual promiscuity that you will still find her selling a line of panties and garter belts on eBay. It is a titillating caricatureseductive foreign queen, face covered in the "war paint of the night" the patron saint of prostitutes.
Except that nothing in the actual story supports this reputation.
The daughter of the Phoenician King of Tyre, she enters the tale through her marriage to the Israelite king, Ahab. It is a political marriage between the world's leading trading state and a modest land-bound kingdom that was Israel. Sophisticated, educated and thoroughly cosmopolitan, one can only guess at her initial shock at the provincial backwater to which she has been exiled.
Ahab does what he can do make her comfortable. He builds a temple for her favourite goddess and supports a huge entourage of priests, artisans and courtiers that have accompanied her. They are, at one level, immigrants entering the land, bringing with them their own faith traditions. Ahab does not abandon his own faith. The three children she bears him are all given Yahwist names. There is no record of marital infidelity. On the contrary, parts of the story portray a loyal, if not ruthless, wife who stops at nothing in advancing the interests of her husband.
So why do the holy writers use such imagery? To what does the metaphor of whoredom point?
Religious pluralism. It is the logical response to peaceful relations within a multicultural society where accommodations must be made and differences respected. In modern parlance, we call this tolerance, and Canadians are especially good at it. But to the ancient writers, it was heresy that had to be challenged and exposed in the most powerful language possible. For to sexualize religionto cast religious infidelity in sexual terms is to make your point with desperate intensity.
Jezebel: the educated, reasonable voice of religious pragmatism where the alternatives looked suspiciously like radical fundamentalism.
Our Bible called her a harlot. When we next meet her in our streets, what might we say? But be careful. She is probably our neighbour.
Rob Alloway has written three award winning collections of Old Testament stories: Balaam's Revenge (1999), Babylon Post (2005) and The Left Hand of God (2008).