Sunday, June 5, 2016

I Kings 21.1-21: Jezebel

In the 1995 version of the film "Sabrina", Julia Ormond's Sabrina refers to Linus Larrabee's brother and says, "Nobody's as handsome as David. Not even David." The same might be true of Jezebel: Nobody's as Jezebel as Jezebel. Not even Jezebel. Some people are content to let the character retain the harlotry and brazenness that has been lacquered onto her character through centuries of interpretation. Others are rethinking and reanalyzing to see if that varnish is deserved. However you read her character, this woman is a mover and shaker in the Hebrew scripture readings for Proper 6C/Pentecost+11 (I Kings 21:1-21).

And she was of much interest to a group of English artists in the second half of the 19th century. The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are heavy on detail, history, myth and symbol. There is a well-established type of "Pre-Raphaelite woman", and the women around this group of painters are worthy subjects of interest in their own right, finding places as wives, models, lovers, muses, artists and friends. It is not surprising that the PRB would find the character of Jezebel an interesting subject - as they did Guinevere, Francesca, Beatrice, the Virgin Mary and others.

Thomas Matthews Rooke painted several episodes from the story of Jezebel, creating from them a single composition. Framed episodically, almost like panels in a comic strip, the compositions are continuous narration of the story, under the large title of Ahab's Covetings. The episodes shown here in color are (top left) Jezebel promising the sulking Ahab that she has a plan for getting the vineyard he wants, (top right) Elijah announcing the punishment for Ahab and Jezebel as they stand by Naboth's dead body and (bottom left) Jezebel being thrown (literally) to the dogs and (bottom right) a full view of the work.

One of the unusual aspects of these images is that in each episode someone (or more than one someone) has turned their back to the viewer. Ahab turns toward the wall as he lies on his bed sulking. Jezebel turns her back to Elijah in Naboth's vineyard. And, finally (truly finally), Jezebel is pushed from the window with her back to us. Ahab's back is turned as he sulks over being thwarted in his plans for vegetable gardening. He has no respect for the law of inheritance when it comes to the land. He simply wants what he wants. Jezebel acts as would a ruler of Phoenicia (where she was brought up), simply organizing a way to get what the king wants. In doing so, she disregards the law of Israel and shows that she has no regard for Naboth's life or reputation. Ultimately, of course, the problem isn't whether we as the viewer see their faces or their backs. The problem is that Ahab and Jezebel turn their backs on Yahweh.

(Top) King Ahab's Coveting: Jezebel and Ahab. 1879. Russell-Cotes Museum, Bournemouth, England. (Middle) Elijah, Ahab and Jezebel with Naboth (Bottom) Jezebel Thrown to Her Death by Two Eunuchs. 1879. Russell-Cotes Museum. Bournemouth, England. For Russell-Cotes, see:

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