Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

Moby Dickens

One of the perks, or perhaps afflictions, of not having cable is missing the constant stream of current culture daily rushing by. When I hear others discussing the latest chic program I feel helplessly Bronze Age in the cell phone generation. Occasionally, when visiting family members who can afford to be fully wired, I catch glimpses of what the thousands of networks have on offer. During a visit to my mother’s house last year I caught an episode of Whale Wars. This reality program follows the exploits of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as crews attempt to foil whalers going about their daily slaughter. The truly disturbing part of the episode I watched was the enmity of the whalers towards these cetacean saviors — let alone their utter disregard for the intelligent creatures in our seas who have the misfortune of not having evolved opposable thumbs. Armed with weapons for disabling, and potentially killing, their species-conscious fellow homo sapiens, the whalers defiantly claim it is their right to destroy these gentle giants.

I confess to having been an advocate of our animal companions since I was a child. I used to contribute regularly to Greenpeace until the non-negotiable bills of adult life routinely began to outstrip my extremely modest income. These great creatures, the largest our planet has ever yielded, are seriously endangered because of the machinations of their only predators — us. Despite the fact that most whale products are not really necessary for economically deprived families, the gruesome harvest continues. Today’s newspaper carried the story of how the Sea Shepherd’s new ship, Ady Gil, was rammed and sheered in two by an angry Japanese whaling crew’s vessel.

In the light of all this, it may seem hypocritical to admit that my favorite novel of all time is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I cringe every time I read his descriptions of nineteenth century whaling, but I draw my comfort from knowing that Ahab’s nemesis is not a physical whale but an invisible, silent, immortal deity. As the tortured captain hurls harpoon after harpoon at the implacable god who caused him so much personal harm, no barb can ever kill Moby Dick. The echoes of Melville’s own subterranean cries against cosmic injustice reverberate so clearly through his prose that I simply can not put the book down once I start to read it over again. My heart goes out to the physical whales, however. They are the innocents being hunted by a predator they can’t stop as they are forced by nature to surface for air. In the cetacean version of Moby Dick, which surely must exist in some form of whale consciousness, they too are being relentlessly pursued by unfeeling gods.