"Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen" by Lesley Hazleton Doubleday, 258 pp., $24.95 With "Jezebel: The Untold Story of...

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“Jezebel: The Untold Story

of the Bible’s Harlot Queen”

by Lesley Hazleton

Doubleday, 258 pp., $24.95

With “Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen,” Seattle author Lesley Hazleton again proves herself to be a writerly risk-taker. This former journalist — whose last book was titled “Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother” (Bloomsbury, 2004) — takes on subjects so obscured by time and contradictory religious beliefs as to make traditional biography all but impossible.

Hazleton has found a similar challenge in Jezebel, whose name, she says, is unfairly synonymous with an immoral, promiscuous female. The resulting book is one full of energetic switchbacks between history, imaginings, personal recollections of the Middle East, careful biblical translation and contemporary slang. (“Jezebel was framed, that much is certain.”) Enjoyment of the book will rest squarely on the reader’s comfort level with such sinuousness.

Jezebel’s story appears in 1 Kings and 2 Kings of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament, and in the Christian New Testament’s Book of Revelation. This ninth century B.C. princess from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre was wed to Israelite King Ahab in a politically expedient marriage, where her polytheistic beliefs made her a harlot in the eyes of the hard-to-ignore prophet Elijah. His curse on her for eschewing the Israelites’ one God becomes reality; she dies a horrible death, torn apart by dogs.

Hazleton fleshes out the story to be a grand opera of “evil schemes and underhanded plots, war and treason, false gods and falser humans, and all with the fate of the entire nation at stake.” Throughout, she challenges us to see the story in ultramodern terms, arguing that it is the original blame-the-victim case and a crucial lesson for us in this time of war and torture carried out in the name of God and freedom.

The story revolves around Jezebel’s “policy of cosmopolitanism and detente” vs. Elijah’s “absolutism and confrontation.” It is liberal against conservative, “the defeat of pragmatism by ideology” and, to Hazleton, nothing less than the foundation of modern radical fundamentalism. This sets up a tough, perhaps impossible task for a writer: Bring to life a very short biblical story, making a compelling case for its message in today’s world. To do so requires knowledge of ancient societies and the nuances of their complex languages, history and religions, along with a willingness to reject much accepted wisdom found in those disciplines. When one knows a bit about the author, it is not surprising that she took on the task.

Trained as a psychologist and a journalist, the British-born Hazleton has described herself as “a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun, an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery though no affinity for organized religion.” She covered the Middle East for Time magazine and other publications; she writes about ancient, tribal cultures from a fiercely feminist perspective.

The frequent moves between fiction, history, reportage and insights into human behavior can result in a bit of reader whiplash and will distract those expecting the flow of a book such as Anita Diamant’s novel “The Red Tent,” to which Hazleton’s “Jezebel” has been wrongly likened. Ultimately, the chief importance of Jezebel’s story (perhaps any biblical story re-examined) is its ability to matter to the present reader, and here Hazleton’s central conviction trumps any parsing of her approach.

Her demand that we use Jezebel’s vivid story as a means to understand “the dangers of blind zealotry and the terrible hypocrisy of those who kill in the name of God” is passionately presented and perfectly timed.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

is a writer living in Portland.