Why is it that this name is often associated with the following epithets: whore, slut, evil, harlot, seductress, scheming, manipulative, and murderess? How many of us have actually read that portion of the Hebrew Bible closely? I hadn’t until recently when I picked up Alice Ogden Bellis’ book, Helpmates, Harlots and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Bellis’ book is an eye-opening, feminist review of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible. The author employs the latest critical thinking in feminist literature while simultaneously reminding the reader of the realities of women’s lives in that era, as well as the fact that men wrote the bible.
Warning: If you are offended by feminist interpretations of biblical tales, don’t read the rest of this post.
Here’s the real deal about Jezebel: she was Queen of Israel and came from a different kingdom. She was an outsider, a daughter of the King of the Sidonians. An independent and strong woman, she brought her religion with her to the marriage. She worshipped Asherah (the goddess found in many cultures of that time) and Baal, the son of Asherah. Elijah, the prophet, told everyone to abandon their idols for Yahweh. At the time, Yahweh was a new concept, an invisible god, competing with a lot of other visible gods and goddesses.* Elijah called upon Yahweh to destroy the false prophets. This was in no small part because Queen Jezebel had already knocked off a bunch of Elijah’s followers. These were not forgiving people, nor were these accepting times. The power struggle between Queen Jezebel and Elijah was a fight to the death.
1 Kings 18:19 Now therefore send, [and] gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table. (The Blue Letter Bible http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=1Ki&c=18&t=KJV#19)
Only the prophets of Baal were destroyed–none of the “prophets of the groves,” i.e., the goddess, Asherah. Elijah declared himself and Yahweh the winner. But, Jezebel was one tough cookie. You had to be to survive in those times. When she saw her husband, King Ahab, was depressed because he couldn’t buy some land from two men, she arranged to have the men killed via the council of elders’ decree. (Some experts suggest she was not behind this move, that it was King Ahab’s action). Her husband got the vineyards and lands. Years later, after King Ahab dies, the son of one of the men she had killed for his vineyards became the new ruler. Elijah backed the new king. When Jezebel realized she was about to die, she put on her make-up and fine clothing, looked out the window at the mob below and spoke to them defiantly. Three eunuchs grabbed her, threw her to her death, and then she was trampled by a horse. When someone called for a decent burial, all they could find was her skull and a few bones. Elijah wanted this woman and her influence completely erased. He said to let the dogs feast on her. He also said:
1 Kings 9:37 And the carcass of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel; [so] that they shall not say, This [is] Jezebel. (The Blue Letter Bible http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=2Ki&c=9&t=KJV#30)
Elijah clearly did not want a martyr’s grave.
The early kings did not acquire their thrones and kingdoms by being nice. They took things by force and grew alliances through marriage, which is one of the reasons Jezebel was married off to King Ahab. She was the daughter of a powerful ruler. She was also a pawn in a biblical game of thrones. Yes, Jezebel was scheming, manipulative, and possibly murderous, because her husband’s throne was at stake. There is no evidence that she was a harlot, whore, slut or seductress. Was she evil? Were her actions any different from the men of the times? Or was she deemed evil because she was a woman? Take a moment to reflect on how King David sent Uriah to the front to be killed after Bathsheba became pregnant. Yet, David is still held up as a role model and Jezebel as a terrible example. In a patriarchy, women are not supposed to think, have power, or do anything except have male babies and obey their husbands. Have times really changed that much?
As I listened to the sound bites and followed the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy , it occurred to me that many of the same epithets used against Queen Jezebel were used against a modern woman, a learned woman, a law student. When all else fails, it seems, some men will call a woman a slut. So, what do you think of Jezebel? Horrible warning or good example of a strong woman living in tough times?
(* Raphael Patai, biblical scholar and author of The Hebrew Goddess writes about the archaeological support for the idea that Asherah and Yahweh were a divine couple who lived a peaceful and loving co-existence in the Temple of Solomon. But that’s another post for another time.)
PS: When I wrote DESIRE AND DECEPTION , I purposely chose the name Isabel for one of my heroines because of its similarity in sound to Jezebel. Here’s a link to the sexy book trailer for this erotic read.