Signpost for Sunday 12th June, 2016: 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3.
This week attention is on the women – two women separated by nearly 900 years of history and by the full range of the social order. One a queen, daughter of a king, wife of a king, haughty and powerful, ruthless and proud – the other a “sinner”, the lowest of the low, but rejoicing in her forgiven state and overwhelmed by her love for Jesus. She is not named, but the prescribed reading gives us the names of four women “and many others” who provided for Jesus and his disciples out of their own resources.
The two women are linked by our modern day concept of their sexual misconduct. The second woman was almost certainly a prostitute. These days we might be concerned as to what in her upbringing had led her to such a life. In her own time she was considered beyond the pale, yet experienced God’s overflowing forgiveness and acceptance. The first woman’s name is applied to this day to anyone perceived as a seductress, but she is misjudged on this score. She certainly used her charms for evil purposes, but nowhere in the (book of) Kings account does she behave sexually. She might even come across as a somewhat over-zealous wife. Her harlotry is in her determination to replace Israel’s implacable monotheism with the polytheism of her Phoenician heritage.
Today’s O.T. reading is the well known story of Jezebel’s heinous manoeuvres to acquire Naboth’s vineyard for King Ahab. Ahab offered a better vineyard, or money, in return, which to us may seem reasonable but does not take into account the fact that the Israelites were forbidden by Yahweh to part with their ancestral inheritance. Ahab, an Israelite himself albeit far from faithful, petulantly understands, but it is beyond Jezebel’s comprehension and she interferes, with disastrous results.
A book “Jezebel” written by Lesley Hazleton (obviously a most interesting woman herself, a British-American agnostic Jew) jumped into my hands from the library shelf when I was pondering Signpost last week. She wonders, quite apart from the fact that the Jezreel Valley was and still is no place for vines, why anybody would want to turn a well-established vineyard, the biblical symbol of beneficence and well-being, into a simple herb garden. Herbs were principally used for healing – the best-known healing divinity throughout the Middle East was the Mesopotamian goddess Gula – could the “herb garden” be a euphemistic scribal shorthand for a temple to Gula, to be built by Ahab as another gift to Jezebel? “This is no mere plot of land with vines on it”, says Ms Hazleton. “The vineyard is Israel itself, in fidelity to Yahweh. In biblical metaphor, when Ahab says that he wants to uproot the vineyard, what he really wants is to uproot Israel, to pull it out of its covenant with Yahweh”.
Ms Hazelton admires Jezebel for her bravery, her dignity, her loyalty to her gods and her sheer queenliness, particularly the way in which she prepared for her inevitable death by dressing royally and posing herself calmly and haughtily in a window awaiting Jehu’s arrival (2 Kings 9:30). She finds fault with the great prophet Elijah, but never questions his fanatical loyalty to Yahweh. Certainly the enmity between those two makes for superb reading.