Jezebel (d. 884 BCE)

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Jezebel (d. 884 bce)

Canaanite princess and queen of the nation of Israel, ruling beside her husband King Ahab, whose values and beliefs brought her into violent conflict with those of her adopted country. Name variations: Jezabel. Pronunciation: JEZ-eh-belle. Date of birth unknown, sometime in the late 900s bce, in Sidon, on the eastern Mediterranean coast; died in 884 bce in Jezreel, in Israel; daughter of Ethbaal of Sidon (king of Tyre and priest of the goddess Astarte); mother unknown; married Ahab of Israel, date unknown; children: Ahaziah; Jehoram; Athaliah ; perhaps others.

Raised in Sidon and trained for queenship; given in diplomatic marriage to Ahab of Israel; sponsored Canaanite religion in Israel; reigned beside two sons after husband's death; murdered in coup d'état by usurper Jehu.

The name of Jezebel, queen of the nation of Israel in the 9th century bce, has been so closely identified with the reputation of its owner as the epitome of wickedness that it has come to inspire disgust, and even hatred, while its bearer has at times been perceived more as a symbol than an actual historical character. She was, however, a real woman.

Born a Canaanite princess, the young woman Jezebel was given in diplomatic marriage to King Ahab of Israel, in order to secure an alliance between Israel and Sidon, the Canaanite city-state that was her homeland. The name of Canaan was originally given to the region now covered by the countries of Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, but dotted in the 10th–9th centuries with city-states that each had its own ruler. Around 1000 bce, King David had conquered much of southern Canaan for Israel and Judah, but Sidon was one of the cities still held by the Canaanites along the Mediterranean coast.

The significance of the name Jezebel is not entirely clear, but it is thought to be a corruption of a religious phrase, meaning perhaps "Where is the prince?" or "The prince is!" The prince in question is the god Baal, the storm deity of ancient Canaan who was believed to die each year during the dry season, reviving with the rains of winter.

As the daughter of a king, Jezebel was trained for the destiny of queenship, learning the skills and values that were ultimately to get her into trouble with the religious authorities of Israel. For one thing, she grew up under the Canaanite system of laws related to property, in which all the land of the kingdom belonged to the king and queen, who could dole it out as they saw fit. It was a feudal style of government, much like that practiced later in medieval Europe, but conflicted strongly with the beliefs of the people of Israel, for whom all land belonged ultimately to God, who had given it in trust to tribes, clans, and families.

Whatever else tradition has said about Jezebel, and all of it negative, it records a courageous woman, with the dignity to face certain death with no loss of face.

—Peter R. Ackroyd

Jezebel also grew up with an understanding of the role of queen as a royal partner, to be shared with her husband and later, if the king preceded her in death, with a son and further descendants, as long as she lived. In Canaan, a widowed queen ruled, not as queen regent, nor queen mother, but as queen-for-life.

Jezebel was also faithful to her native religion. When she was brought to Israel's royal city of Samaria to marry and rule alongside King Ahab, she kept her childhood faith in the goddess Asherah and the god Baal. Though these deities may well have been worshipped in Israel, she raised them to the status of official deities.

Everything we know about Jezebel comes from a part of the Bible known by scholars as the Elijah-Elisha cycle, a series of narrations found in I Kings 17–II Kings 10, covering the careers of Elijah and Elisha, two important 9th-century prophets. Jezebel and Ahab are supporting players in the drama, mentioned only as they relate to the prophets. Still, there is much to learn about Queen Jezebel, if we remember the nature of the sources. For one thing, the literary composition is not homogeneous, but a piecing together of miracle stories and legends about the prophets, accounts of the wars of King Ahab, and political history that is probably a fairly accurate record of events during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel; and everything included within this editorial framework is meant to illustrate the evil nature, according to the eyes of God, of the northern kingdom of Israel.

In I Kings 18:31 we find the first mention of Jezebel, where text states that, as if everything else about King Ahab was not bad enough, he had married Jezebel; further, he set up an altar in a temple in Samaria for the worship of Baal, along with an image of Asherah, the deity worshipped as the mother of Baal.

It is significant to understand what Jezebel was giving up, moving from her city on the coast to Ahab's capital in the mountains of Samaria. To the cosmopolitan Canaanites of Sidon and Tyre, Israel was probably considered a backwater at the time, and it has been suggested that the marriage was an attempt on Ahab's part to bring Canaanite civilization to his kingdom. Although he supported Jezebel in the worship of her deities, it is also clear that Ahab himself worshipped the God of Israel.

It is clear, as well, that Jezebel participated in the rule of Israel with her husband's consent. While some scholars have held the view that Ahab was either spineless and weak, or so captivated by the sexual charms of his wife that she overcame his better judgment, there is considerable evidence that both Ahab and Jezebel considered her active role in the kingdom as proper behavior. Some confirmation comes from other Canaanite cultures, such as the northern city of Ugarit, where records have survived of a mutually reigning king and queen, although the kingdom was destroyed long before Jezebel's time. Other evidence occurs in the Bible itself, where I Kings 18:19 records that 400 prophets of Baal, and 450 of Asherah, ate at Jezebel's table, meaning that she herself supported them, providing for their daily needs. This is an indication that the queen had her own court with her own agricultural lands and merchants.

Throughout the Biblical account, Jezebel and Ahab are remembered as acting together. Although Jezebel tends to be blamed alone, in the popular imagination, for hunting down and persecuting the prophets of the God of Israel, especially Elijah, Ahab's own manhunt for this prophet is described in I Kings 18:7–14. On the other hand, in places where we might expect Ahab to be mentioned alone, Jezebel is frequently named with him. In I Kings 22:52, describing the ascent of their son Ahaziah to the throne, the verse says that he "walked in the way of his father and mother"; elsewhere in the Bible such formulaic judgments on rulers mention only the king's father. After Ahaziah's brief reign, his brother Jehoram, who succeeded him, is more positively judged, but also in light of both parents as his predecessors. This same king, requesting the help of the prophet Elisha in battle, is told to "go to your father's prophets or to your mother's."

One of the most famous stories about Queen Jezebel involves a contest between Baal and the God of Israel to ascertain who could bring rain in a time of drought. The prophet Elijah proposed the challenge, to see which god could bring fire to consume the sacrifice placed on an altar. According to the story, the 450 prophets of Baal danced around the altar for hours, with Elijah taunting and mocking them by suggesting that the god was away from home, or busy with some other matter, or even asleep. Such insults would have been strongly felt by believers in the deity, since Baal was the god of thunder, storms, and the agricultural fertility that resulted from the rains, and one of his titles was "Rider on the Clouds." Then the Bible records that Elijah, acting alone, pours water around the altar and prays to his God, after which fire, perhaps in the form of lightning, comes down and consumes the sacrifice, followed by rain. Then to complete his performance, Elijah slaughters all the prophets of Baal and thus incurs the exceeding wrath of the queen, who puts out an order for his death, forcing Elijah to flee into the wilderness.

Another story explores the conflict between Israel and Jezebel regarding land ownership. One day, King Ahab expressed a desire to own a vineyard near his palace which belonged to a man named Naboth. Naboth refused to sell it to him, citing his family's commitment to retain the ancestral land. Ahab understood the law but sulked about the matter; it was Jezebel who then schemed to obtain it, since Ahab would not. To do so, she had Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy and treason and sentenced to death, so that Ahab could claim the land. In doing so, she wrote letters in her husband's name and used his seal, involving elders and nobles of the city in the conspiracy that ended with Naboth being stoned to death. For this act, both Jezebel and Ahab were denounced by Elijah.

Two things should be remembered about this story. First, it was written by the queen's detractors, so prejudice is likely to be involved. Second, Jezebel's motives, if not her methods, are understandable in terms of her own cultural background. She may even have considered her actions an appropriate response to insubordination. To her way of thinking, for the king's subject to be unwilling to sell the land to the king for a better vineyard (the generous offer made by Ahab) could be considered treason. Further, her use of Ahab's seal was probably not a usurpation of the king's authority. As his royal partner, she is likely to have been entrusted with the use of it on official matters.

Jezebel reigned as queen for ten years after the death of her husband, ruling with Ahaziah first, and then with Jehoram. According to II Kings 9, her violent death was brought about indirectly by the prophet Elisha, who commissioned a man named Jehu to avenge the murder of certain prophets of the God of Israel. Jehu's task included cleansing the kingdom of iniquity by slaughtering the royal household and taking over as ruler himself. He assassinated Jehoram and had all the male relatives of the king murdered.

According to the Biblical account, as Jehu arrived at Jezreel, Jezebel greeted him from the window of an upper story, decked out in her royal glory, taunting him as the murderer of his lord the king. She was then pushed from the window by her servants and trampled by the hordes below. There is something amazing in this last act, as she stands regally at the window, taunting the usurper who has slaughtered both her son and her son-in-law, who was king of the neighboring kingdom of Judah. Knowing that all was lost, that all her other male relatives would soon be dead, that all her female relatives would probably become captives of the new king, she may have thought herself better off dead. The story goes on to say that Jehu had his supper before arranging for the burial of the dead queen, and when his servants went to attend to the body, it had been almost entirely eaten by dogs. According to II Kings 9:10, this event fulfilled a prophecy made by Elisha.

Jezebel has often been ridiculed for painting her face and doing her hair before facing certain death. Rather, it is possible to admire her indomitable spirit and dignity; she always remembered that she was queen and went to her death dressed and arrayed accordingly. Further, it has been suggested that she may have hoped still to rally the people against Jehu, and to do so she would have needed to appear in a royal guise.

There are a number of reasons why Jezebel earned such a despicable reputation. One is that a queen who worshipped multiple deities could not be tolerated at a time when Israel was struggling to enforce and popularize the radically new concept of one god. While most nations gladly welcomed the inclusion of foreign gods and goddesses, accepting their worship as an addition to their own native religions, the zealots of Israel would not tolerate such behavior. Jezebel was condemned as an idolater.

Additionally, she did not fit traditional ideas of how a woman should behave. She was indeed violent, and she wielded power openly. However, she was no more violent than her nemesis, the prophet Elijah, who is reported to have killed 450 prophets of Baal on one afternoon, or the usurper Jehu, who took over the throne in a bloody coup and killed all the members of the ruling family. Violence seen as historically acceptable when carried out by male figures can be considered outrageous when carried out by females. In I Kings 21:25, Ahab is the one blamed for doing evil, "urged on by his wife Jezebel." But throughout history, she has carried the weight of the blame.

Also throughout history, women who wield sexual power to their own advantage have typically been called Jezebels. This may be the most far-fetched slander against the queen, but there are a number of reasons for it. First, it is typical to accuse any powerful woman of obtaining her power by sexual influence. The truth, however, was that Jezebel had power because she believed she deserved it as a queen and as a daughter of a king. A misreading of Biblical language may be another cause. In the verse where Jehu greets King Jehoram just before killing him, the usurper declares that there can be no peace "as long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue." In the Bible, it is common practice for the word "whore" to be used to symbolize idolatry, as opposed to sexual promiscuity; in the case of this queen, history has latched onto the sexual meaning. And finally, because it is recorded that the queen dressed in her finest to face her death, she has been perceived as a "painted lady," or fallen woman.

In short, the record of her life was written by those who saw her as an idolater, a doer of evil, and a killer of true prophets. The editor of that record had a single overweening purpose, which was to show that the kings of ancient Israel were evil one and all, and their kingdom therefore deserved the destruction that would arrive not long after Jezebel's time.

sources:

Ackroyd, Peter R. "Goddesses, Women and Jezebel," in Images of Women in Antiquity. Edited by Averil Cameron and Amelie Kuhrt. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1983, pp. 245–259.

Avigad, N. "The Seal of Jezebel," in Israel Exploration Journal. Vol. 14, 1964, pp. 274–276.

Brenner, Athalya. The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative. Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1985, pp. 20–28.

Christensen, Duane L. "Huldah and the Men of Anathoth: Women in Leadership in the Deuteronomic History," in SBL Seminar Papers. Vol. 23, 1984, pp. 339–404.

Yee, Gale A. "Jezebel," in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3. Edited by David Noel Freedman. NY: Doubleday, 1992, pp. 848–849.

suggested reading:

Camp, Claudia V. "Jezebel (I Kings 16–21; 2 Kings 9)," in The Woman's Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Kings. Edited by Carol A. Newson and Sharon A. Ringe. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1992, pp. 103–104.

Frost, S.B, "Judgment on Jezebel, or a Woman Wronged," in Theology Today. Vol. 20. January 1964, pp. 503–517.

Eleanor Amico , freelance writer with a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Studies, has taught Biblical studies