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Why is thy spirit so sad that thou eatest not bread ?” “ Because" (he replies) “I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money, or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard.” “ And Jezebel his wife said unto him, dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel ! arise, and eat bread, and let thy heart be merry, I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."
So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the nobles, and to the elders, that were in his city dwelling with Naboth. And she wrote in the letters, saying, “ Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people,” &c. &c. &c.*
The crime of Jezebel was enormous, and though Ahab, in profiting by it, shared the criminality, he wanted the hardihood and decision which urged his guilty wife to perpetrate the deed. Her equal in guilt, he was her inferior in device and courage.
But still the greatest error attributed to Jezebel was her resistance to the Jewish priesthood : for she was the daughter of the king of Tyre, and, professing the religion of her fathers, had her own temple raised, by Joab's permission, with her own priests, to the number of four hun. dred. All these were massacred by the state hierarchy of Judah, with her husband Ahab's offspring, and her own damsels, together with many of Ahab's great men, and his kinsfolk, and his priests, all of whom were put to death, until none “ were left remaining.'
This was an awful retribution. Jehu, the instrument of this priestly vengeance, the anointed usurper of her husband's throne, the destroyer of her family, of her friends, her kindred and her partisans, excused his outrage by the prophecy of Elijah, by whom the death of the proud Jezebel herself was predicted, even to its minutest and most ferocious detail.
Throughout all the history of this bold and bad woman, she appears to have been superior in firmness of purpose to the weak and vacillating man to whom she was united, and upon an equality in courage with the bad man against whom she was opposed.
* 1 Kings, chap. xxi. This is one of the earliest instances of female letter-writing on record.
Her genius, her prowess, and her misfortunes were in. herited by her ill-starred daughter Athaliah, by her mar. riage, Queen of Judah. A further illustration of the intel. lectual powers and lofty aspirations of women, (though misdirected by adverse circumstances, and fatally influ. enced by the dark state of society in which she flourished) Athaliah was not, like her mother, a Tyrian princess, “the daughter of a strange land.” She was a Hebrew, the daughter of Ahab, king of Israel ; and, in order to estimate, if not to justify her character and actions, it is necessary to recall the leading points of the times, in which she played her awful part.
The kingdom of Solomon had been rent asunder at his death, and divided into two states, Judah and Israel.
The kingdom of Judah was composed of the two tribes, Benjamin and Judah, (and its kings were descended from David.) Their capital was Jerusalem, the residence of the priestly Levites, the pretorian bands of Judaism. Since by the law none could offer sacrifice to the Lord, but in the temple built by Solomon, and consecrated by the priesthood, the legitimate worship could only subsist in Judah, the seat of all orthodoxy. From the most remote parts, the faithful were obliged to visit this glorious monument of spiritual greatness, for the prescribed celebration of all religious feasts and festivals. There, only, were they permitted to offer sacrifices, and not “ on the high places;" and there they brought their tributes, to increase the magnificence of the most powerful and gorgeous hierarchy, that ever reigned over the minds and actions of men.
But a large part of the faithful were far out of Judah; and the ten tribes which had deserted the house of David, and revolted from Reboam, to become the subjects of the king of Israel, must have been little better than schis. matics, or idolators. Certainly no little toleration must have been admitted in Israel, when the queen Jezebel was allowed to raise an altar in its capital to Baal the god of the Tyrians, to surround it with delicious groves and gardens, and to establish her own prophets and her own priesthood in Samaria.
At this altar worshipped also Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. But when the young apostate Jewess, brought up in her mother's faith, became the wife of Joram, king of the orthodox Judah, and had the art, or persuasion, to pervert her husband (the seventh descendant from David), the hope of the Jewish hierarchy, the son of the most devoted of their flock (the pious Jehoshaphat),—the consequence was widely different. 6 Joram (says Josephus), not content with imitating the impiety of the kings of Israel, his predecessors, learnt from Athaliah, his wife, to pay to her strange gods sacrilegious adorations; and, though, owing to the promises made to David, God did not exterminate him and his race," no such promise protected Athaliah, or her father, (Israelites and apostates, like Joram). No vengeance, therefore was spared that could afflict and outrage the unfortunate Queen of Judah, until the extermination of her family, prophesied by Elijah the prophet, was fully and fearfully accom. plished.
The agent of this dreadful prediction, the cruel and treacherous Jehu,* " slew all that remained of the house of Ahab, and all his great men, and all his kinsfolk, and his friends, and he left him none remaining-none in Israel !" One, however, there was in Judah, who had survived parents, brothers, son, friends, who knew that the dogs had eaten the flesh, and lapped the blood of her mother, in the streets of her own capital, and that the heads of her brothers (“s of the king's sons”) had been sent in baskets, by Jehu, to Jezreel, and that the perpetrator of these deeds of blood, the murderer of her family, (upheld by the powerful hierarchy of her own Jerusalem,) was seated on her father's throne.t
2 Kings, chap. ix. x. + Jehu, after he had collected all the worshippers of Baal by a stratagem, murdered them in cold blood. The translator of Josephus, in the heads of bis chapters of the ninth book, thus sums up the murders committed by Jehu, after his anointment:~"Jehu killed with his own hand Joram, king of Israel, and Ochosias (the Ahaziah of Scriptures), king of Judah (the brother and son of Athaliah), and put to death Jezebel, seventy sons of Ahab, all the relatives of this prince, forty-two relatives of Ochosias, nearly all the priests of Baal, the god of the Tyrians, to whom Ahab had raised a temple.” Jehu, however, permitted the Israelites to worship the gold calf; but, in consideration of his having
This remnant of a once numerous and powerful family, was Athaliah, Queen of Judah, the widowed and childless sovereign of Jerusalem, a woman of powerful passions and indomitable spirit, who, “ when she saw that her son Ahaziah was dead, (murdered with the rest), arose and destroyed the seed royal,” and “ continued to reign over Judah”—to reign miserable and wicked, and wicked be. cause she was miserable. But she reigned not long: the rescue of the infant Joas from the infuriated Athaliah by his aunt, the wife of the High Priest Jehoiada, still saved the race of David for the great destiny prepared for it. The infant Joas, consigned to the most secret recesses of the temple, concealed and educated among its impenetrable mysteries, was suddenly brought forth, when he had attained his eighth year; and, being surrounded by a military priesthood, and by the chiefs of a powerful conspiracy, was presented to the people as the sole remaining scion of the house of David, and as the legitimate king of Judah.*
Joas was crowned and anointed in the temple, amidst the shouts of “ God save the king;” and these shouts brought Athaliah from her palace to the temple, by that royal way which the fated queen had still a right to pass. Her sudden apparition at the moment when the victim, who had escaped her power, was crowning in the midst of her own rebel subjects, in the midst of “ priests and princes," and her piercing shriek of “ Treason ! treason!” are incidents of the highest dramatic order. The instant command of the High Priest (Jehoiada) for the death of the solitary and bereaved woman, who then presented herself boldly in the midst of her armed enemies, the order that the “captains of the hundreds, and the officers of the host should have her forth without the ranges” (for the priest hath said, “let her not be slain in the house of the Lord”) “and that he that followeth her should kill her with the sword,”—these, with her murder, which instantly followed, near the torrent of Cedron, are traits that render the story one of those grand tragedies of fact, which fiction but faintly imi. tates, and never surpasses.
punished the worshippers of Baal, God promised, by the mouth of the prophet, that his posterity should reign over Israel till the fourth generation.”—Josephus, book ix.
* Joas, thirty years afterwards, stained the steps of the altar, at which he was consecrated, with the blood of Zachariah the High Priest, son and successor of Jehoiada. This sacrilege brought down the wrath of the Lord against the Jews; and it is traditionally assumed that, from that time, the responses of the Deity in the sanctuary were no longer heard.
Athaliah, immortalized by her high, though misdirected, energies (the source of all that is great in good or powerful in evil,) has furnished the most polished genius of modern ages with one of his finest subjects for dramatic representation. But the courtly poet has enfeebled all that was most forcible in the narrative ; and pandering to the passions of the royal and orthodox audience for which he wrote, has turned the truth, the philosophy, and sublime scriptural poetry of Athaliah's eventful epopee into a medium of servile homage to the reigning powers of his own time, and to the pharisaical pride of his great patroness, * by whose order it was written.
* Madame de Sevigné (always right, because always true to nature), predicted that Athaliah would not maintain that eminence with posterity, which it had enjoyed in the court of Louis XIV. Time justified her prediction, which, however, was often disputed and denied. Racine, not satisfied with the flagorneries offered in his sacred drama of “ Atalie,” to princes and prelates, has in his preface drawn a parallel between the young king Joas, the descendant of David, and the young Duc de Maine, ihe child of a double adultery. “ Je puis dire ici que la France voit en la personne d'un prince de huit ans et demi, qui fait aujourd'hui ses plus chères delices, un exemple illustre de ce que peut dans un enfant un heureux naturel, aidé d'une excellente éducation ; et que, si j'avais donné au petit Joas la même vivacité, et le même discernement qui brillent dans les reparties de ce jeune prince, on m'aurait accusé avec raison d'avoir peché contre les règles de la vraisemblance.”—Preface d'Atalie.- Racine.
Athaliah, though considered by many writers as the finest tragedy of the French theatre, and though Voltaire in a letter to Maffei said of it, "La France se glorifie d'Athalie; c'est le chef-d'æuvre de notre théâtre, et de notre poésie,” was coldly received by the Parisian public, who designated it “un sujet de devotion propre à amuser les enfans.” Three years after the death of Racine, and when Athalie was forgotten, Louis XIV., at the instigation of Madame de Maintenon, got it up at Versailles, when it was played by the princes, princesses, and ladies of the court. The Regent Orléans afterwards commanded the actors of the Français to perform it.