Helena Zlotnick, «From Jezebel to Esther: Fashioning Images of Queenship in the Hebrew Bible», Vol. 82 (2001) 477-495
Only three royal couples in the HB are seen in direct communication. Of these, two, namely Ahab and Jezebel, Ahasuerus and Esther, contribute unique insights into the interpretative and redactional processes that cast later narratives around themes of earlier stories, and both around the figure of a queen. In this article I explore the hypothesis that the scroll of Esther was shaped as a reversible version of the Jezebel cycle. With the aid of narratives of the early Roman monarchy, a sensitive and sensible reading of the biblical texts relating to Jezebel and Esther demonstrates the constructive process of an ideology of queenship. Underlying both constructs is a condemnation of monarchy in general.
relative, reminds Esther of her position at the court solely to prompt her to use it in spite of danger to her life in obeying his order. Neither Ahab nor Esther, of course, requires the admonition. But the reminders also imply an admission of Mordechai’s own helplessness and of Ahab’s inability to deal with the situation. As the action shifts into the hands of the two queens the scroll is still careful to entrust the initial urging into the hands of a male relative, thereby ‘correcting’ the Dtr history that had cast Jezebel as the prompter and the actor.
A choice of seminal gestures and phrases in the scroll’s description of critical preliminaries appears to recall, somewhat perversely but accurately, the earlier narrative. When Esther hears that Mordechai has been seen donning mourning clothes at the gate of the palace she orders an inquiry into this seemingly inexplicable and apparently inexcusable public display (Esth 4,1-5). Jezebel addresses her grief-stricken and fasting spouse in a similar mode, likewise implying that his behavior is uncalled for. At the heart of the familial encounters on the eve of a crisis are two difficult phrases that emphasize the addressee’s status. ‘Who knows? Perhaps you have attained royalty for just such a time as this?’ (Esth 4,14)8. Jezebel addresses Ahab with a similarly pregnant question: ‘Do you now govern Israel?’ (1 Kgs 21,7). In both instances a rhetoric of timeliness is intended to spur the protagonists to action. Mordechai succeeds in coercing Esther to act; Jezebel becomes an actor rather than a prompter.
Structurally, the later narrative also encodes the making of Esther as a queen in a sequence that echoes Jezebel’s queenly progress. In the wake of the fateful exchange between Esther and Mordechai Esther, like Jezebel after her interchange with Ahab, appropriates control over the course of events. She issues an order to summon the Jews of Susa for a three-day fast (Esth 4,16). In the reconstructed order of events in 1 Kgs 21 Jezebel acts along precisely the same lines: she summons the council of the elders in Naboth’s town and calls for a fast (21,9). In both cases the queen effectively transfers the gestures (fasting; mourning) that launch fatal encounters between kin (Ahab/Jezebel; Mordechai/Esther) to a wider circle of the public, thereby opening the door to an outbreak or a resolution of a crisis.