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Jezebel was a much-maligned woman, but Dane Gordon wonders if she really deserved such a bad name.
Jezebel is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is not a complimentary definition: “Name of the infamous wife of Ahab, King of Israel, hence, a wicked abandoned woman, or a woman who paints her face.” Webster’s Dictionary states that Jezebel introduced Baal worship, which she didn’t, persecuted Elijah, instigated the murder of Naboth, and made her name a term of reproach, hence, a wicked or bold woman. Roget’s Thesaurus includes her with such opprobrious substantives as tart, strumpet, harlot, whore, trollop, trull, harridan and slut. The tradition continues. The dust jacket of Van’t Veer’s My God is Yahweh (1980) refers to Ahab’s “Wicked wife Jezebel,” and in his book Van’t Veer writes “In Jezebel the hatred of the satanic kingdom opposed to God manifests itself… in unparalleled measure.”
Because my experience with people has taught me that no one is totally good or totally bad, I am intrigued by the unvaryingly harsh treatment of this woman. What, I wonder, was she really like?
Jezebel was the daughter of Ittobaal, King of Tyre. She became a part of biblical history when Omri, King of Israel, arranged a marriage between her and his son Ahab (I Kings 16:31). But a combination of unusual political and religious factors in Israel, together with Jezebel’s own character, made this marriage far from ordinary.
The religion of Yahweh, so long the established faith of the people of Israel, had suffered a series of reverses. The rival religion of Baalism, referred to repeatedly from the time of the Judges until the mid-ninth century, could be regarded less as an example of apostasy than of the enduring character of religious beliefs much more ancient than Yahwehism. After the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah, and with alternative religious centers at Dan and Bethel, nothing remained to check a strong drift to Baalism except for the influence of the prophets. They urged the kings to suppress the devotees of Baal with fire and sword. Yet their methods, even if divinely inspired, were so primitive, savage and counterproductive that they brought about the very situation which they wanted to prevent. One more round of bloody murder in the name of God, this by Zimri, the then king, disgusted the troops in the field so much that they acclaimed their commander, Omri, as king (I Kings 16:8-29). Zimri then committed suicide and after a four year struggle against a rival claimant called Tibni, Omri became the unchallenged ruler. Omri’s accession was significant, because for the first time in Israelite history a monarch took the throne independently of the religious establishment. The efforts of the prophets had led to a king who was probably a Canaanite, probably a worshipper, if of any deity, of Baal, and who may have been looked upon as a hero who had saved the country from a discredited religious fanaticism. It was quite the opposite of what those prophets had intended to achieve, and it must have filled them and their supporters with despair.
Nonetheless, Omri’s policy appears to have been to live and let live. He did not seek vengeance on the families of Zimri and Tibni, although there were undoubtedly relatives of both men who would gladly have seen him deposed. Nor does he seem himself to have been against Yahwehism, but he was against religious fanaticism. He had experienced the politically evil consequences of that. His may have been a policy of toleration predating that of Cyrus by several hundred years, or it may have been that as a Canaanite, and so as a polytheist, he saw nothing wrong in allowing different religions to co-exist.
Two circumstances thwarted what was in certain respects commendable statesmanship. One, that Yahweh was and is intransigently exclusive. Unlike almost all ancient religions Yahwehism could not brook any competition. Yahweh was the one and only God, and that God was a jealous God. The covenant religion couldn’t co-exist in any way with any other.
The other circumstance which thwarted Omri’s policy of dual religion was the personality and the intense religious faith of Jezebel. Brought up as a Baalist in Tyre, she broke with the normal practice of her own faith and adopted a religious position as exclusive and as unyielding as Yahwehism.
It was normal in the ancient world for the foreign wife of a monarch to worship her own deities in her adopted country, with her own religious entourage and her own chapel. Jezebel went much further; she supported at her table 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. Even if these numbers were exaggerated, they far exceeded what a queen would require for her private devotions. One way to describe this is to say that Jezebel had a missionary zeal, but I believe she was also shrewd enough to see that there was a real opportunity for Baalism to become the state religion of Israel.
The four year civil war with Tibni (who may have been the Yahwehists’ candidate for monarch), the fact that many ordinary people, like the widow of Zarephath, remained faithful worshippers of Yahweh, and the presence of many prophets of Yahweh throughout the country, may have convinced Jezebel that to achieve the dominance of Baalworship in Israel, she would have to break the leadership of Israel’s covenant religion. So once her husband Ahab had become King, she decided to take direct and brutal action against the prophets of Yahweh by killing them (I Kings 18:4).
The massacre was apparently widespread and continuing, for the surviving prophets had to hide. Obadiah, the king’s comptroller, hid a hundred of them (I Kings 18:4). We cannot tell whether Ahab knew about this. He may have suspected and done nothing, which would be consistent with his ambivalence. It is likely that Ahab did not want Baalism to become dominant any more than he wanted Yahwehism to become dominant. But what had been a deliberate policy with Omri was weakness and indecision with Ahab, and Jezebel took full advantage of it.
The strength of her character and of her personal beliefs turned a serious situation for Yahwehism into a life-threatening one. Manasseh ruled for forty-five years, but less attention is given to the enormities of his rule than to the conflict between Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel. The biblical record includes little about her, but what it does reveals a personality of force, intelligence and courage. It does not underestimate the formidable nature of the adversary who confronted the prophets Elijah and Elisha and threatened to end the worship of Yahweh. Two incidents illustrate this.
The first is the contest on Mount Carmel between Baal and God (I Kings 18:17-19:3). After silence from Baal, God swept down upon the mountain and devoured his sacrifice in a great sheet of flame. But that wasn’t enough for Elijah. He rounded up the prophets of Baal and killed them. Jezebel was enraged. She didn’t fear God, but she did care about her prophets. She sent Elijah a coldly threatening message, “Let the Gods do to me and more also if you are not dead like them tomorrow,” and he ran for his life.
The second incident involves a small farmer who owned property adjacent to that of the King (I Kings chapter 21). The King wanted to buy it, but Naboth wouldn’t sell. It was his ancestral land and he had the right not to sell even though a king wanted it. Ahab was upset. We read that he went to bed and wouldn’t eat. That is how Jezebel found him.
When she heard the story she was contemptuous. “Are you the King or not?” she asked. She had Naboth framed and stoned to death. Then she went to the King and told him that he could have the land. Naboth was dead.
The murder of Naboth, for such it was, was accepted so unquestioningly by Naboth’s neighbors that one suspects they were afraid to protest. But Elijah, who had recovered himself, did protest with one of the most savage curses to be found in the Old Testament. Dogs would lick up the King’s blood and eat Jezebel’s flesh. A dog was the lowest of creatures to the Jews. Elijah’s curse was therefore a grim insult that more than matched Jezebel’s threat to him.
Jezebel’s death occurred a few years later. The young prophet sent by Elisha announced that God had chosen Jehu, an army officer, to be king and to destroy Omri’s dynasty. It was a method which the prophets employed numerous times to maintain Israel’s purity of faith. Jehu embarked on an orgy of killings: of the kings of Israel and Judah and of their relatives and friends. He then turned his attention to Jezebel. She knew he was coming to kill her, but she showed no fear. We read that she painted her face and fixed her hair and then looking down at Jehu from her balcony she spoke to him in a cool and imperious way:
“Is it you, you Zimri, murderer of your master?” (II Kings, 9:31)
Zimri, the King immediately before Omri, had reigned for just one week before committing suicide. Jehu, inflated by his own importance, must have been strung by that. He immediately ordered her attendants to throw her down, which they did. Could they have refused? He then rode over her and trampled her to death, and went for a meal. When he returned he saw that dogs had eaten her down to the skull and bones.
Since then Jezebel’s name has become a term of reproach. But is that just? She was vicious, but so was Elijah. She didn’t stop at murder to support her religious beliefs. Neither did Elijah and neither, indirectly, did God. Her sin was less what she did than what she believed. She was a woman of faith, but of the wrong faith, and so she has become a synonym for abuse, a lost woman, lost in the colloquial sense of loose and depraved, which is quite simply slander, and lost to biblical scholarship.
But the record of her life may have an importance beyond the events just described. It could be taken as a test case in a more open-minded approach to the Old Testament as a whole. What would happen if we applied here Kierkegaard’s comment in his ‘Concluding Unscientific Postscript’?
If one who lives in the midst of Christendom goes up to the house of God, the house of the true God, with the true conception of God in his knowledge, and prays, but prays in a false spirit; and one who lives in an idolatrous community prays with the entire passion of the infinite, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol: where is there most truth? The one prays in truth to God though he worships an idol; the other prays falsely to the true God, and hence worships in fact an idol…”
If we use this measure Jehu, the champion of the Lord, would be a false believer, a worshipper of idols, while Jezebel would have faith in the true God. We might consider this as a way of evaluating the worship of the Canaanites, the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians. After all, did not Amos say to the Israelites: “ ‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?’ says the Lord. ‘Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?’ ” (Amos 9:7)
Perhaps in attempting to challenge stereotypes and to reassess the quality of Jezebel’s life and faith we might be led to challenge other stereotypes and so to reassess other parts of the Old Testament.
But a study of Jezebel as she is presented in I and II Kings is rewarding in its own right. She and Elijah were two of the strongest personalities in the Old Testament; both were committed to what they believed, and what they believed was, in each case, rooted in an ancient tradition. It was an ideological conflict unmatched until the much later clash between the Jews and the Hellenized Greeks of the second century. That was the extent of the danger she posed to Israelite religion, which might be the only justification for the bloody way in which the conflict was finally resolved. But Jezebel was not defeated; her convictions were not changed, she was just killed.
© Prof Dane R. Gordon 2001
Dane Gordon is Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York. One of his books is The Old Testament in its Cultural, Historical and Religious Context (UPA).