Friday, 1 February 2013
Jezebel. Her name is synonymous with evil. She is corrupt, a manipulator of men. The Bible tale of Jezebel demonstrates the wickedness of women and how men, especially weak men, should be wary. Even more so, if they are in a powerful position. Like, Delilah, who betrayed Samson, Jezebel uses her beauty to seduce and ultimately bring down the male. And just like, Eve, Jezebel is disobedient to God’s Holy Commandment. Jezebel’s crime is that she worships foreign Gods, particularly, Ba’al, whose name is sacred in her home land of Sidonia. Our view of Jezebel puts her alongside other evil females: Lilith, Medea, Medusa, even Myra Hindley, murderess of the 20th century.
Sidonia is an ancient city and is situated in the modern day Middle East, in the Lebanon. It is on the Mediterranean coast, about 25 miles south of the capital, Beirut.
Jezebel and her followers violate the first and the second of God’s commandments.
1.Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2.Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
Among other perversions, the god Ba’al demands child sacrifice. Babies were sacrificed to the fire as burnt offerings to Ba’al.
The name "Jezebel" is often associated with a wanton or evil woman.According to some scholars, Jezebel has received such a negative reputation not only because she was a foreign princess who worshiped foreign gods, but because she wielded so much power as a woman.
The story of Jezebel is set in the turbulent period of the divided kingdoms, as various dynasties struggled for political power.
Jezebel became queen of the northern kingdom of Israel, ruling with her husband, Ahab. It was a rich kingdom, but plagued by religious quarrels.
Janet Howe Gains’ writes Jezabel’s story from a feminist perspective.
Jezebel’s marriage to Ahab was a political alliance. The union provided both peoples with military protection from powerful enemies as well as valuable trade routes: Israel gained access to the Phoenician ports; Phoenicia gained passage through Israel’s central hill country to Transjordan and especially to the King’s Highway, the heavily travelled inland route connecting the Gulf of Aqaba in the south with Damascus in the north. But although the marriage is sound foreign policy, it is intolerable to the writer of the Bible story because of Jezebel’s idol worship.
Considering her reputation, the writer of the Bible only mentions Jezebel briefly.
The Bible does not comment on what the young Jezebel thinks about marrying Ahab and moving to Israel. Her feelings are of no interest to the writer, nor are they important to the story’s didactic purposes.
We are not told whether Ethbaal consults his daughter, if she departs Phoenicia with trepidation or enthusiasm, or what she expects from her role as ruler. Like other highborn daughters of her time, Jezebel is probably a pawn, packed off to the highest bidder.
Jezebel is a stranger in a strange land, an assertive woman in a patriarchal society
When Jezebel enters the scene in the ninth century B.C.E., she provides a perfect opportunity for the Bible writer to teach a moral lesson about the evil outcomes of idolatry, for she is a foreign idol worshiper who seems to be the power behind her husband. From the Bible writer’s viewpoint, Jezebel embodies everything that must be eliminated from Israel so that the purity of the cult of Yahweh will not be further contaminated.
The Bible writer’s antagonism stems primarily from Jezebel’s religion. The Phoenicians worshiped a swarm of gods and goddesses, chief among them Ba’al, the general term for “lord” given to the head fertility and agricultural god of the Canaanites. Jezebel, as the king’s daughter, may have served as a priestess as she was growing up. In any case, she was certainly raised to honour the deities of her native land.
Jezebel does not accept Ahab’s God, Yahweh. Rather, she leads Ahab to tolerate Ba’al. This is why she is vilified by the Bible writer, whose goal is to stamp out polytheism. She represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the one extolled in characters such as Ruth the Moabite, who is also a foreigner. Ruth surrenders her identity and submerges herself in Israelite ways; she adopts the religious and social norms of the Israelites and is universally praised for her conversion to God. Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her own beliefs.
Perhaps Jezebel sees herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural pluralism, regional peace and economic prosperity.
What spurs Jezebel to action is unknown and unknowable, but the motives of the Bible writer comes 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 Bible writer, 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.”
The threat of Jezebel is so great that later in the same chapter, the mythic prophet Elijah summons the acolytes of Jezebel to a tournament on Mt. Carmel to determine which deity is supreme: God or Baal.
Whichever deity is capable of setting a sacrificial bull on fire will be the winner, the one true God. It is only then that we learn just how many followers of Jezebel’s gods and goddesses are near her at court. Elijah challenges them: “Now summon all Israel to join me at Mount Carmel, together with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). Whether the grand total of 850 is a symbolic or literal number, it is impressive.
Yet their superior numbers can do nothing to ensure victory; nor can petitions to their god. The prophets of Ba’al “performed a hopping dance about the altar” and “kept raving” (1 Kings 18:26, 29) all day long in a vain attempt to rouse Ba’al. They even gash themselves with knives in a heightened emotional state, hoping to incite Ba’al to unleash a great fire. But Ba’al does not respond to the ecstatic ranting of Jezebel’s prophets. At the end of the day, it is Elijah’s single plea to God that is answered.
Standing alone before Jezebel’s host of visionaries, Elijah cries out: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts backward” (1 Kings 18:36–37). At once, “fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones and the earth;...When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: ‘The Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is God!’” (1 Kings 18:38–39). Elijah’s solitary entreaty to Yahweh serves as a foil to the hours of appeals made by Baal’s followers.
Jezebel herself is absent during this all-male event. Nevertheless, her presence is felt and the Bible writer’s message is clear. Jezebel’s deities and the huge number of prophets loyal to her are powerless against the omnipotent Yahweh, who is proven by the tournament to be ruler of all the forces of nature.
Ironically, at the conclusion of the Carmel episode, Elijah proves capable of the same murderous inclinations that have previously characterized Jezebel, though it is only she that the Bible writers criticize.
After winning the Carmel contest, Elijah immediately orders the assembly to capture all of Jezebel’s prophets. Elijah emphatically declares: “Seize the prophets of Ba’al, let not a single one of them get away” (1 Kings 18:40). Elijah leads his 450 prisoners to the Wadi Kishon, where he slaughters them (1 Kings 18:40). Though they will never meet in person, Elijah and Jezebel are engaged in a hard-fought struggle for religious supremacy.
Here Elijah reveals that he and Jezebel possess a similar religious fervour, though their loyalties differ greatly. They are also equally determined to eliminate one another’s followers, even if it means murdering them. The difference is that the Bible writer decries Jezebel’s killing of God’s servants (at 1 Kings 18:4) but now sanctions Elijah’s decision to massacre hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets. Indeed, once Elijah kills Jezebel’s prophets, God rewards him by sending a much-needed rain, ending a three-year drought in Israel. There is a definite double standard here. Murder seems to be accepted, even venerated, as long as it is done in the name of the right deity.
After Elijah’s triumph on Mt. Carmel, King Ahab returns home to give his queen the news that Ba’al is defeated, Yahweh is the undisputed master of the universe and Jezebel’s prophets are dead. Jezebel sends Elijah a menacing message, threatening to slaughter him just as he has slaughtered her prophets: “Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them” (1 Kings 19:2). Here, Jezebel establishes herself as Elijah’s equal: “If you are Elijah, so I am Jezebel” (1 Kings 19:2 The queen’s meaning is unmistakable: Elijah should fear for his life.
These are the first words the Bible writers record from Jezebel, and they are filled with venom. 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 indeed shows herself as a person to be feared in the next episode. The story of Naboth, an Israelite who owns a plot of land adjacent to the royal palace in Jezreel, provides an excellent occasion for the Bible writer to propose that Jezebel is not only the foe of Israel’s God, but an enemy of the government.
In 1 Kings 21:2, Ahab requests that Naboth, his neighbour, give him his vineyard: “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it as a vegetable garden, since it is right next to my palace.” Ahab promises to pay Naboth for the land or to provide him with an even better vineyard. But at 1 Kings 21:3, Naboth refuses to sell or trade: “The Lord forbid that I should give up to you what I have inherited from my fathers!” The king whines and refuses to eat after Naboth’s rebuff: “Ahab went home dispirited and sullen because of the answer that Naboth the Jezreelite had given him...He lay down on his bed and turned away his face, and he would not eat” (1 Kings 21:4). Apparently perturbed by her husband’s political impotence and sulking demeanour, Jezebel steps in, proudly asserting: “Now is the time to show yourself king over Israel. Rise and eat something, and be cheerful; I will get the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you” (1 Kings 21:7).
Without Ahab’s direct knowledge, Jezebel writes letters to her townsmen, enlisting them in an elaborate ruse to frame the innocent Naboth. To ensure their compliance, she signs Ahab’s name and stamps the letters with the king’s seal. Jezebel encourages the townsmen to publicly (and falsely) accuse Naboth of blaspheming against God and the king. “Then take him out and stone him to death,” she commands (1 Kings 21:10). So Naboth is murdered, and the vineyard automatically escheats to the throne, as is customary when a person is found guilty of a serious crime. If Naboth has relatives, they are now in no position to protest the passing of their family land to Ahab.
Perhaps the biblical compiler is using Jezebel as a scapegoat for his outrage at her influence over the king, meaning that she herself is being framed in the tale. Traditionally thought to be a narrative about how innocent Naboth is falsely accused, the story could instead be an exaggeration of fact, fabricated to demonstrate the Bible writer’s continued wrath against Jezebel.
As a result of this incident, Elijah reappears on the scene. First Yahweh tells Elijah how Ahab will die: “The word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Go down and confront King Ahab of Israel who [resides] in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard; he has gone down there to take possession of it. Say to him, “Thus said the Lord: Would you murder and take possession? Thus said the Lord: In the very place where the dogs lapped up Naboth’s blood, the dogs will lap up your blood too”’” (1 Kings 21:17–19).
But when Elijah confronts Ahab, the prophet predicts instead how the queen will die: “The dogs shall devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).Poetic justice, as the Bible writer sees it, demands that Jezebel end up as dog food. Ashamed of what has happened and fearful of the future, Ahab humbles himself by assuming outward signs of mourning, fasting and donning sackcloth. Prayer accompanies fasting, whether the Bible explicitly says so or not, so we may assume that Ahab raises his penitential voice to a forgiving Yahweh. For once, Jezebel does not speak; her lack of repentance is implicit in her silence.
When Jezebel’s name is mentioned again, the Bible writer makes his most alarming accusation against her. Ahab has died, as has the couple’s eldest son, who followed his father to the throne. Their second son, Joram, rules. But even though Israel has a sitting monarch, a servant of the prophet Elisha crowns Jehu, Joram’s military commander, king of Israel and commissions Jehu to eradicate the House of Ahab:
“I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. You shall strike down the House of Ahab your master; thus will I avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of the other servants of the Lord” (2 Kings 9:6–7).
When Jezebel herself finally appears again in the pages of the Bible, it is for her death scene. Jehu, with the blood of Joram still on his hands, races his chariot into Jezreel to continue the insurrection by assassinating Jezebel. Ironically, this is her finest hour, though the Bible writer intends the queen to appear haughty and imperious to the end. Realizing that Jehu is on his way to kill her, Jezebel does not disguise herself and flee the city, as a more cowardly person might do. Instead, she calmly prepares for his arrival by performing three acts:
“She painted her eyes with kohl and dressed her hair, and she looked out of the window” (2 Kings 9:30).
The traditional interpretation is that Jezebel primps and coquettishly looks out the window in an effort to seduce Jehu, that she wishes to win his favour and become part of his harem in order to save her own life, such treachery indicating Jezebel’s dastardly betrayal of deceased family members. According to this reading, Jezebel sheds familial loyalty as easily as a snake sheds its skin in an attempt to ensure her continued pleasure and safety at court.
Applying eye makeup (kohl) and brushing one’s hair are often connected to flirting in Hebraic thinking. Isaiah 3:16, Jeremiah 4:30, Ezekiel 23:40 and Proverbs 6:24–26 provide examples of women who bat their painted eyes to lure innocent men into adulterous beds. Black kohl is widely incorporated in Bible passages as a symbol of feminine deception and trickery, and its use to paint the area above and below the eyelids is generally considered part of a woman’s arsenal of artifice. In Jezebel’s case, however, the cosmetic is more than just an attempt to accentuate the eyes. Jezebel is donning the female version of armour as she prepares to do battle. She is a woman warrior, waging war in the only way a woman can. Whatever fear she may have of Jehu is camouflaged by her war paint.
Her grooming continues as she dresses her hair, symbol of a woman’s seductive power. When she dies, she wants to look her queenly best. She is in control here, choosing the manner in which her attacker will last see and remember her.
Sitting at her window, Jezebel is seemingly rendered powerless while the active patriarchal world functions beyond her reach 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.
“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.
To demonstrate his authority, Jehu orders Jezebel’s eunuchs to throw her out of the window:
“They threw her down; and her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled her. Then [Jehu] went inside and ate and drank” (2 Kings 9:33–34).
In this highly symbolic political action, the once mighty Jezebel is shoved out of her high station to the ground below. Her ejection from the window represents an eternal demotion from her proper place as one of the Bible’s most influential women.
Jezebel’s body is left in the street as Jehu celebrates his victory. Later, perhaps because the new monarch does not wish to begin his reign with such a disrespectful act against a woman, or perhaps because he realizes the danger in setting a precedent for ill treatment of a dead ruler’s remains, Jehu orders Jezebel’s burial:
“Attend to that cursed woman and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34).
Jezebel is not to be remembered as a queen or even as the wife of a king. She is only the daughter of a foreign despot. This is intended as another blow by the Bible writer, an attempt to marginalize a formidable woman. When the king’s men come to bury Jezebel, it is too late:
“All they found of her were the skull, the feet, and the hands” (2 Kings 9:35)
Jehu’s men inform the king that Elijah’s prophecies have been fulfilled:
“It is just as the Lord spoke through His servant Elijah the Tishbite: The dogs shall devour the flesh of Jezebel in the field of Jezreel; and the carcass of Jezebel shall be like dung on the ground, in the field of Jezreel, so that none will be able to say: ‘This was Jezebel’” (2 Kings 9:36–37).
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.
With the rise of historical-critical methods for interpreting the Bible over the past 200 years, other views of Jezebel have been proposed.
For example, Middle East expert and author Lesley Hazleton, in the historical novel Jezebel: “The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen,” portrays her as a cultured, cosmopolitan ruler defending herself against a fundamentalist Elijah.
In his book, The Caves of Steel, science fiction grand master, Isaac Asimov describes Jezebel as a faithful wife who conscientiously promotes her faith in keeping with social conventions of her time. Asimov further speculates in his two-volume Guide to the Bible that Jezebel dressed in all her finery at the time of her murder (2 Kings 9:30-37) not because she was a harlot as the Bible tells it, but to show dignity and royal status in death.
Considering what we know of her historical context, Jezebel is a product of her times when it was common for ambitious people to seize power and use it ruthlessly. Jezebel suffers the misfortune of being remembered only in propaganda written by her religious and political opponents.
Jezabel is the “other”; women like her are to be feared. She is also a warning to women living in a patriarchal society. Keep your mouths shut. Follow the rules. Remember your place.
Jezebel’s story is told in the Biblical Old Testament. I Kings, Chapter 21.
To read Janet Howe Gains’ essay in full, click here