A few days ago I was blogging about the prophet Elijah and his conflicts with King Ahab of Israel. Now comes Janet Howe Gaines, an English professor at the University of New Mexico, with a sympathetic — well, at least evenhanded — portrayal of one of the most maligned figures in history, Ahab’s queen Jezebel.
As an English teacher, Gaines approaches the story of Jezebel in a way that captures my imagination. She summarized the main point of her 1999 book, Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages, in an article for Bible Review. It was picked up by the Biblical Archaeology Society’s website in 2010 and republished today.
“In recent years, scholars have tried to reclaim the shadowy female figures whose tales are often only partially told in the Bible,” says Gaines. “Rehabilitating Jezebel’s stained reputation is an arduous task, however, for she is a difficult woman to like.”
Gaines is right about that: Jezebel hasn’t had very good press through the ages.
In 1 and 2 Kings, the continuation of the story of Israel begun in Exodus and Deuteronomy, she’s accused of worshiping idols, killing off the prophets of the Lord and various, mostly unspecified, whoredoms and sorceries. In the book of Revelation, she’s accused of beguiling the servants of God “to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” And in popular culture through the ages, she’s been reviled as a harlot.
Even today, the Urban Dictionary records that Jezebel “encouraged idolatry and was ultimately killed by Jehu (we’ll get to him in a minute), and a Jezebel now is a “woman who is regarded as evil and scheming.” Sample sentences: “She’s such a Jezebel”; or this, “Look at her, flirting with the best dressed guy at the bar. What a Jezebel”; and this, “”She used to be my friend but she only wanted to be friends if I’d hook her up with my rich brother. Such a gold-digger Jezebel.”
Back in King Ahab’s Israel, the prophet Elijah didn’t find Jezebel very likable for much better reason. She wanted to kill him. And he reciprocated in full measure.
Jezebel brought the worship of the Phoenician fertility god Ba’al to the Kingdom of Israel. Instead of celebrating the joys of diversity, the prophets of Ba’al and the Israelite God, Yahweh, despised each other’s deities and tried to kill each other off. So Elijah, as Yaweh’s prophet, tells Ahab (in 1 Kings 21:20-24):
Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel … Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.’ Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”
Ahab is understandably upset by this, but it will come to pass exactly as Elijah prophesies. The writer, or writers, of 1 Kings, collectively known as the Deuteronomist (because he — or she or they — also wrote the book of Deuteronomy), helpfully adds:
(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. 26 He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)
The ninth century BCE just wasn’t a time for good ecumenical relations. At one point, in fact, Elijah has 400 prophets of Ba’al killed and Yahweh promptly sends rain to break a three-year drought.
“There is a definite double standard here,” Gaines drily notes. “Murder seems to be accepted, even venerated, as long as it is done in the name of the right deity.”
Gaines has other observations worth recording. She notes that Jezebel was the daughter of a neighboring Phoenician ruler who governed in what is now coastal Lebanon, and her marriage to Ahab was political.
“Like other highborn daughters of her time,” she speculates, “Jezebel is probably a pawn, packed off to the highest bidder.”
But, Gaines adds, Jezebel is one of the few women to have a speaking role in in the bible stories:
Unlike the many voiceless Biblical wives and concubines whose muteness reminds us of the powerlessness of women in ancient Israel, Jezebel has a tongue. While her verbal acuity shows that she is more daring, clever and independent than most women of her time, her withering words also demonstrate her sinfulness. Jezebel transforms the precious instrument of language into an evil device to blaspheme God and defy the prophet.
While there is ample evidence in the story that Jezebel could be just as murderous as the prophet Elijah, Gaines speculates that the hill country of Israel must have seems forbidding and alien to a princess from the Mediterranean coast:
Israel’s topography, customs and religion would certainly be very different from those of Jezebel’s native land. Instead of the lushness of the moist seacoast, she would find Israel to be an arid, desert nation.
Furthermore, the Torah shows the Israelites to be an ethnocentric, xenophobic people. In Biblical narratives, foreigners are sometimes unwelcome, and prejudice against intermarriage is seen since the day Abraham sought a woman from his own people to marry his son Isaac (Genesis 24:4). In contrast to the familiar gods and goddesses that Jezebel is accustomed to petitioning, Israel is home to a state religion featuring a lone, masculine deity. Perhaps Jezebel optimistically believes that she can encourage religious tolerance and give legitimacy to the worship habits of those Baalites who already reside in Israel. Perhaps Jezebel sees herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural pluralism, regional peace and economic prosperity.
Or perhaps not. Again, it was not exactly a time of good ecumenical relations. And the Deuteronomist isn’t about to cut her a break:
What spurs Jezebel to action is unknown and unknowable, but the motives of the Deuteronomist come through plainly in the text. Jezebel is a bold and impious interloper who has to be stopped. From her own point of view, however, she is no apostate. She remains loyal to her religious upbringing and is determined to maintain her cultural identity.
According to the Deuteronomist, however, Jezebel’s desire is not merely confined to achieving ethnic or religious parity. She also seems driven to eliminate Israel’s faithful servants of God. Evidence of Jezebel’s cruel desire to wipe out Yahweh worship in Israel is reported in 1 Kings 18:4, at the Bible’s second mention of her name: “Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord.”
In the end an Israelite general named Jehu, who has been anointed as an agent of divine judgment against the house of Ahab, kills Jezebel’s son, who has succeeded Ahab as King of Israel, and confronts Jezebel at her palace in Jezreel, the capital of Israel. Gaines says, and I have to agree, it is “her finest hour.” She doesn’t flee the city. Instead, she gives Jehu a tongue-lashing. It’s worth quoting in detail:
Sitting at her window, Jezebel is seemingly rendered powerless while the active patriarchal world functions beyond her reach.7 But a more sympathetic reading of the situation suggests that Jezebel has determined the superior angle from which she will be viewed by Jehu, thus giving the queen mastery of the situation.
Positioned at the balcony window, the queen does not remain silent as the usurper Jehu arrives into town. She taunts him by calling him Zimri, the name of the unscrupulous predecessor of Omri, Jezebel’s father-in-law. Zimri ruled Israel for only seven days after murdering the king (Elah) and usurping the throne. “Is all well, Zimri, murderer of your master?” Jezebel asks Jehu (2 Kings 9:31). Jezebel knows that all is not well, and her sarcastic, sharp-tongued insult of Jehu disproves any interpretation that she has dressed in her finest to seduce him. She has contempt for Jehu. Unlike many Biblical wives, who remain silent, Jezebel has a distinct voice, and she is unafraid to articulate her view of Jehu as a renegade and regicide.
As predicted, Jezebel is killed and her body is thrown to scavenging dogs. But Gaines can’t help but thinking the Deuteronomist isn’t quite able to denigrate Jezebel’s final moments, and I can’t help but agree with her again:
While the Biblical storyteller wants the final images of Jezebel to memorialize her as a brazen hussy, a sympathetic interpretation of her behavior has more credibility. When all a person has left in life is the way she faces her death, her final actions speak volumes about her character. Jezebel departs this earth every inch a queen. Now an aging grandmother, it is highly unlikely that she has libidinous designs on Jehu or even entertains the notion of becoming the young king’s paramour. As the daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law and grandmother of kings, Jezebel would understand court politics well enough to realize that Jehu has far more to gain by killing her than by keeping her alive. Alive, the dowager queen could always serve as a rallying point for anyone unhappy with Jehu’s reign. The queen harbors no illusions about her chances of surviving Jehu’s bloody coup d’état.
And I have to agree with Gaines’ overall assessment. I can’t imagine the Deuteronomist could have known in the ninth century BCE that he was writing up a proto-feminist, but I think that’s exactly what he did:
Every Biblical word condemns her: Jezebel is an outspoken woman in a time when females have little status and few rights; a foreigner in a xenophobic land; an idol worshiper in a place with a Yahweh-based, state-sponsored religion; a murderer and meddler in political affairs in a nation of strong patriarchs; a traitor in a country where no ruler is above the law; and a whore in the territory where the Ten Commandments originate.
Yet there is much to admire in this ancient queen. In a kinder analysis, Jezebel emerges as a fiery and determined person, with an intensity matched only by Elijah’s. She is true to her native religion and customs. She is even more loyal to her husband. Throughout her reign, she boldly exercises what power she has. And in the end, having lived her life on her own terms, Jezebel faces certain death with dignity.
Citation: Janet Howe Gaines, “How Bad Was Jezebel?” Bible Review, Oct. 2000. Reprinted in Bible History Daily, Biblical Archaeology Society, 2010 and Aug. 18, 2020. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/how-bad-was-jezebel/