Zoheleth, by J. Francis Hudson
In many ways Zoehelth, by J. Francis Hudson, reminds me of Gods And Kings by Lynn Austin. This is not a pleasant reminder. Both are relatively popular (Zohelth less so) Christian historical fiction accounts that claim fidelity to the Bible but take substantial licenses. Both feature characters who struggle with their faith in trials, and (perhaps most offensively to me) both of them take an almost sadistic glee in describing the degradation of abused young people who happen to be important characters. Lynn Austin chooses to focus on godly King Hezekiah, while J. Francis Hudson chooses godly King David during his worst time.
For the life of me I cannot figure out why biblical ‘historical fiction’ novelists seem to enjoy writing about rape and child abuse so often. Here, both Tamar and the book’s eponymous narrator Zoheleth have dark histories of rape and abuse, along with the nightmares and PTSD and feelings of undesirability that follow. I know these feelings very well, and I find it very offensive when authors seem to continually mine this theme for vicarious thrills on the part of the audience, to glory in the degradation of the human body in the face of evil. In this novel, that includes a graphic and unpleasant portrayal of the rape of Tamar by Amnon as well as its portrayal of Ziba, Saul’s servant, as an abusive pedophile.
The novel is serviceable in its plotting, but as biblical historical fiction it has some serious weaknesses. One of them is a seemingly magical belief in the intuitive capabilities of believers, as well as a hostility and ignorance of the biblical standards of cultic purity, as the author makes her disdain of the biblical account in Chronicles obvious even as she uses it as a source of the names of her own characters. The author is one of the many people who seeks to downplay one nature of God’s character–namely His law, to seek to justify His mercy. By showing little knowledge of biblical law, the author makes David out to seem even more confused and incompetent than he was (and that needs little help as a father), while grossly misunderstanding the importance of both form and meaning to God.
That said, despite those major flaws, the work is not without value, so long as one does not take it as genuine truth, but only light and superficial fancy, regardless of the author’s lofty ambitions. It is interesting (and fairly accurate), that forgiveness is necessary to release the hold that our mistakes and suffering has over us. It would have been better had the author chosen less inflammatory ways of making it appear so, without making Bathsheba appear to be a serial adulterer or making Absalom into an incestuous wastrel. It is possible to write a thrilling biblical historical novel without engaging in ad hominem attacks and shameless melodrama, but to do so one has to be a far better writer than either Lynn Austin or J. Francis Hudson, sadly.