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.
Lest, however, these close analogies inspire unwary readers with either sympathy towards Jezebel or hostility to Esther, the latter narrator carefully parts the ways of the two queens. Jezebel disappears, physically, from subsequent proceedings. Her invisible presence, however, is constantly referred to in the text. By contrast, Esther appears in all her regal splendor in the inner palace court as she implements the first part of her plan to save the Jews from extinction. She is fully visible, unlike Jezebel, but her intentions are concealed from the beholder. Esther is also beautiful, a familiar attribute of matriarchs in the HB. Jezebel lacks a face and a figure, as though she is made of an evil spirit alone. Moreover, readers are aware of Jezebel’s aim from the start as she sets out to fulfil her husband’s wish. Her method of achieving it soon becomes apparent. In the scroll neither husband nor its readers are familiarized with Esther’s schemes to deliver her promise.
II. The Two Faces of Queenship
Casting an Esther as a Jezebel carried, potentially, dangerous connotations. The hostility of biblical narrators to queens who, like Jezebel, usurp the role of kings in a manner that highlights the limitations of kingly power and the breakdown of male authority within the home is undisguised. It finds an amplified echo in the annals of the early Roman monarchy (6th century BCE) which chart the career of two queens, Tanaquil and Tullia, who bear curious similarities to the biblical female monarchs. Because Roman authors are considerably more expansive than biblical narrators they provide valuable insights into the process that molded queenly images in antiquity.
In the hindsight of several centuries, the history of early Rome emerges in the pages of the historian Livy (57-14 BCE) as a family narrative dominated by the ambitions of its female members and punctuated by their sense of honor and shame9. Of these, Tullia, like Jezebel, is a daughter of a king (Servius Tullius). Her husband, Tarquinius (Superbus), is likewise a son of a monarch (Tarquinius Priscus) who, however, had designated another man, a non-relative, as his successor. To win the stakes in the complicated game of succession