By: Martha Shelley
Publisher: Ebisu Publications
Publication Date: 2010
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: May 2010
Jezebel, as we learn in 1st and 2nd Kings, was a Phoenician princess married to Ahab, king of the northern Hebrew kingdom at the time when the David and Solomon’s strong kingdom (founded a century earlier) had been weakened and split in two. We get only one side of her story in the Jewish Bible. Under her influence, Ahab “reared up an altar for Baal [and] made a grove, and Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger him than all the kings of Israel that were before him. … And Elijah the Tishbite … said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain.... (1 Kings 16:31-33, 17:1). Jezebel has several of the Hebrew prophets killed, and there are wars—look at the same lands today: some things never change. The second book of Kings tells about her death. As she’s looking out a window to find out if her son has come home from the wars, she is pulled out and murdered. “And they went to bury her: but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands. Wherefore they came again, and told [Jehu, the rival king]. And he said, This is the word of the Lord, which he spake by his servant Elijah …, saying, … dogs [will] eat the flesh of Jezebel (2 Kings 9: 35-36).
Thus did the name of the princess become synonymous with uppity women. Evil women. We still see this in pop culture. Jezebel, the 1938 film starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda, set in the antebellum South, shows how a “headstrong” (i.e., sexy and willful) Southern woman not only orders a red dress but also causes the death of her husband. Frankie Laine’s 1951 hit song (and maybe Jezebel lingerie, too) likewise reinforce the scandalous image attached to the name.
Elijah the Tishbite was a Hebrew prophet who appears not only in the Jewish Bible and the Talmud, where he continually preaches against Baal, but also in the New Testament (Matthew and Mark, where Jesus is seen to be standing on a mountain and talking to Elijah and Moses) and the Qur’an (where he is still preaching against Baal). Elijah also visited Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church. Although the Hebrew prophets were supposed to stand up for widows and orphans, they actually spent nearly all their time haranguing the people and putting their own angry words into the mouth of their jealous god. (They were jealous because their storm god was younger and less powerful than the older weather god, Baal.) One famous story about Elijah tells how, when he was being teased by some boys about his bald head, he sicced a bear on them. Elijah raised the dead and ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot accompanied by a whirlwind. To this day, observant Jews say that Elijah observes all circumcisions, and they also set a place for him at the Passover Seder. This is because it is believed that he will announce the imminent coming of the Messiah.
All this “history” comes after the end of The Throne in the Heart of the Sea. In her delicious and well-researched novel, Martha Shelley writes what actors call the back story of these two famous characters of the Old Testament, plus an apprentice physician and scribe named Tamar. (There are two Tamars in the Bible, but the character in the novel is neither of them). Here all three are teenagers, and in her plot Shelley carefully plants the seeds of their adult lives and characters. Jezebel is the spoiled daughter of King Ittobaal of Tyre, who builds the new city that comes to be called the “throne in the heart of the sea.” Like princesses of all lands and times, Jezebel has to make a political marriage; although she is courted by a handsome Assyrian prince, she marries the Israeli prince. Elijah is a perpetually angry young man who drinks too much, believes that he is cheated out of everything he ever owns or deserves, repeatedly loses his temper and resorts to violence, and, through some extraordinary plot twists, falls in love with Jezebel. He comes to her wedding and tries to murder Ahab. As the story ends, the future queen is happily married and the future prophet is already fancying that his god is telling him how to get revenge.
This novel is fun to read because the author avoids the stilted dialogue we often get in historical novels by making her 9th century BCE characters speak modern, idiomatic American English (though it’s occasionally disconcerting). The chapters open with quotations from books of the Bible and other classical sources. At the beginning of the novel are three maps of the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. These are useful, but the map of the island city of Tyre does not show us the palace or the temples of Anath and Asherah where Tamar and Jezebel live. The map of Jezebel’s world does not show a town important to the plot and does show numerous locations in Israel that are not mentioned in the novel. The third map, Tamar’s journeys, likewise does not show places key to the plot, like the home of the dispossessed Halupu people. (They lived at the confluence of the Euphrates and Hubur rivers.) These omissions are not the author’s fault. The novel concludes with a useful glossary; a table comparing the Canaanite, Babylonian, and Roman calendars; and an Afterword, in which Shelley writes:
Elijah’s partisans wrote the story in the Bible and, I believe, slandered Jezebel. The annals of Tyre were destroyed. What remains are the histories of their neighbors, some archeological evidence, and what we can surmise from the customs of modern Levantines. I have assembled my tale from these. It is fiction, but no more so than some of the Biblical tales. It is what might have been (p. 334).
Quill says: It’s good to see the lands at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from the perspective of those who worshipped the goddesses and gods who preceded Yahweh. It’s interesting to read the back stories of familiar Biblical characters.