The Jezebel Letters: Religion and Politics in Ninth-Century Israel, by Eleanor Ferris Beach. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005. 220 pp. $19.00.
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 conrributing 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. …