Five women, five situations, five outcomes. Where did these stories come from? Outside of their Old Testament origin, much of their basis lies in the development of my first female character: Delsey. From a damaged and sometimes shallow, albeit lovely girl to a mature woman capable of real love and self-knowledge but driven by tragedy and challenge, Delsey’s metamorphosis informed me. While none of the five resemble her in character or actions, they all have her blood.
The first, Amalie, in fact walked the same streets as Delsey but her tale is based on the Biblical story of Esther. Most readings of that Old Testament story leave off the final verses, where it becomes apparent that Esther – and her uncle Mordechai – prevented one genocide by launching another. Readers also tend to gloss over the fact that Esther was originally part of a parade of young women sent to provide for the king’s sexual gratification. She apparently excelled at this as it led to her becoming Queen. Esther’s sensuality, however, is important to the story only that by exploiting a male weakness she is granted access to the power of the throne. In Amalie’s case, a modern reader would not accept the death of tens or hundreds of thousands, as in the Biblical story, but at least there is a kind of parity. About the same number of ‘good-guys’ died as did evildoers. Amalie’s sexual prowess is perhaps comparable to that of Esther, as it leads to a similar elevation.
The second story revolves around the world’s first true feminist: Queen Jezebel. This woman has been reviled chiefly due to her unwavering devotion to the goddess of her birth and rejection of one that others tried to thrust upon her. The Abrahamic faiths all celebrate those who cling to the God of Abraham, but one who is born to and follows a different path is to be held up for scorn. When that person happens to be a powerful woman who defies a male-dominated cult, she is to be feared and her name besmirched for all eternity. In this tale, the Queen herself is given the stage so that she can explain all this, using her own words.
Athaliah, the daughter of Jezebel and a queen in her own right, is the central character in the third story. Set in the late 1980’s with her as the CEO of an automobile importer, she is the most tragic figure of the five. Caught in the crossfire between her parent company’s hubris and the realities of the hyper-competitive North American marketplace, she finds that her earlier “purge,” the cashiering of employees she deemed suspect, eventually haunts her. Allowing a murderous colleague to proceed unchecked does not produce the results she hoped for, and she is eventually destroyed – falling just as her namesake does.
The fourth story was penned during the closing days of the rancorous Clinton – Trump electoral debacle at a time when emotions were high and the outcome uncertain. Lest the reader sense that the story – that of David and Bathsheba, set in the White House – was about Donald Trump exclusively, on this I demur. While I fear Trump, I fear even more the forces he has set loose, and the long-term repercussions they hold for the United States. Odysseus was unable to return the whirlwind to Aeolis’ sack – will our luck be better? Who will come forward next? I must add that the response I received from a long-time critique partner who is a strong Trump supporter told me that my characterization drew blood. Telling of the Biblical story often does not include an understanding of General Joab, which I hold to be critical to grasping either the older story, or mine.
When the name “Ja’el” is mentioned, most people respond with “who?” She is only mentioned obliquely in the fifth and final story, but her act is central to the story itself, set in early colonial New England a century before the American Revolution. The instinctive act of Martha may have changed the course of history, but her motive at the critical instant was self-preservation, both of herself and her family. In the original story – believed to be one of the oldest in the Bible – Ja’el played a supporting role to that of another woman, Deborah, and is more described in song than in text.
To these women, sex is frequently used not as an end but as a means. Esther becomes Queen; Bathsbeba achieves a role perhaps superior to that. As gebirah she has unfettered access to the king – her own son. We do not know whether Athaliah followed this precedent, but not every princess given over in marriage to a king became queen – most were relegated to the harem. Jezebel was chaste, but had huge sway over King Ahab, her husband. Some commentators have suggested that Ja’el’s act had sexual overtones, but on that point I remain unconvinced: One must read her story in context.
The common thread unifying these telling’s, beyond their Old Testament foundation, is that like Delsey, each woman is presented with a challenge and given no opportunity to weigh alternatives. Men are obviously confronted in like manner but have achieved a resulting batting average that does not exceed that of women. In each story the central woman has male counterparts with which they must contend, some with condescending attitudes and others who admire and respect the women around them. In that we have indeed moved forward, since in the days of Jezebel and Bathsheba few women were seen as more than chattel.