In a moment of irritation I insisted that the historic Jezebel was not particularly wicked and was, if anything, a good wife. —Elijah Baley in Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel (1954)
She was a powerful, complex woman whose courage and dignity even her fiercest detractors would have no option but to acknowledge. —Leslie Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story (2007)
Marriage of State
The marriage was part of a foreign alliance. She was a Phoenician princess; he was the king of Israel. Their marriage sealed a political and economic pact between their two nations. Solomon had set the precedent sixty years earlier. He had married 700 princesses (and 300 concubines) in his program to secure geopolitical stability. And Solomon had gone one step further. To keep his foreign wives happy, he built shrines for their gods and even worshipped their idols himself. Ahab pushed it further still. He embraced Baal worship as a matter of state policy and understood its political advantages.
For the Phoenicians, Baal was the sun and the storm, the masculine side of Nature. Astarte, his feminine counterpart, was the fertility of man, beast, and field. The city-state took its legitimacy, authority, and vitality from its collaboration with these gods and their countless associate deities. Through politics and ritual, the Phoenician kings labored with Baal and Astarte to bring order out of chaos… fertility and life out of a lifeless, sterile world. Since Baal’s deity was wholly immanent within Nature, the Phoenician religion was wholly pragmatic. All that mattered in this game of ritual and politics was success. There could be no appeal beyond the State except through regicidal replacement and revolution.
This was the radical religion adopted by Ahab. By comparison, the older State-sponsored religion of the gold calves was “a light thing” (1 Kings 16:31). This was something different. Ahab’s new religion had no place for God and no room for His Word. Baal was an immanent power, Ahab his servant, and anything that stood in the way of this alliance had to go.
The New Bride
Scripture holds Ahab responsible for his marriage to an idolater, for his personal and political idolatry, and for his tacit consent to murder (1 Kings 16:30-33; 21:19ff). But Scripture also recognizes his Phoenician wife—her name was Jezebel—as his accessory and accomplice and charges her with crimes and sins of her own.
Jezebel, we are told, fed 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the grove (Asherah) at her table (18:19). She funded and encouraged Ahab’s new state religion. Far worse, Jezebel “slew the prophets of Yahweh” (18:13) and many of His other servants besides (2 Kings 9:7). She threatened to kill God’s prophet, Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). She also arranged for the judicial execution of the innocent Naboth so that her husband could acquire his vineyard (ch. 21). Later, we hear of her “whoredoms” and “witchcrafts” (2 Kings 9:22), but the reference seems to point to her idolatry and not her personal sexual virtues.
Her Final Scene
After Ahab’s death, God appointed one of Ahab’s captains, Jehu the son of Nimshi, to execute His wrath against the rest of Ahab’s house. First, Jehu slew Joram, king of Israel, and Ahaziah, king of Judah, who was visiting him. Then he turned his attention toward Jezebel and the palace.
When Jezebel heard that Jehu was coming, she “painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window.” As Jehu entered the palace gate, she called out reproachfully, “Had Zimri peace, who slew his master?” (Zimri was another regicidal revolutionary who held his throne for a single week.)
Jehu ignored the taunt and lifted up his face to the window. “Who is on my side?” he yelled. “Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out. Jehu said, “Throw her down!” They did. Her blood was splattered on the palace wall and on the chariot horses. Jehu urged his horses forward, and they trampled Jezebel into the pavement.
Later, after a good meal, Jehu reconsidered. He told his servants, “Go, see now this cursed woman, and bury her: for she is a king’s daughter.” They went to find her body, but they found only her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands.
Jezebel in the Apocalypse
Jezebel’s name appears once more in Scripture, this time in the Book of Revelation. The risen Christ calls a heretical teacher at Thyatira “Jezebel.” This woman, a self-proclaimed prophetess, was teaching Christians to “to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols” (Rev. 2:20). Apparently, this was part of a program to learn or experience “the depths of Satan” (v. 24). This New Testament Jezebel was urging tolerance and a broad-minded acceptance of all pagan practices as a way toward a deeper and more meaningful spirituality. We will return to this theme shortly.
Christian commentators and historians have been uniform in their hostility toward Jezebel, at least until quite recently. Alfred Edersheim’s (d. 1889) appraisal of the queen seems typical. He writes: “A clever, strong, bold, and unscrupulous woman, she was by conviction a devotee to the most base and revolting idolatry which the world has ever known…” (396). Edersheim describes her “reckless contempt of the rights and consciences of others” and her utter indifference to the means she might employ. He believed that her hatred for the worship of God, her attempts to utterly destroy whatever would not bend to her imperious will, as well as her hostility to all that was pious in Israel made her one of the most despotic and despicable characters in all of scripture.
Still Edersheim has this to say in guarded praise of Jezebel: “Yet, strange as it may sound, there is something grand about this strong, determined, bold woman, which appears all the more strikingly from its contrast with her husband. Jezebel was every inch a Queen—though of the type of the Phoenician Priest–King who has usurped the throne by murder.” Edersheim has Jezebel’s father in mind, a priest of Astarte who, according to Josephus, got his throne through by murdering his king.
Jezebel has often been criticized for her overdoing her makeup! But Isaac Asimov, both in his science fiction novel, Caves of Steel, and in his Guide to the Bible (1968) argues that Jezebel’s last acts were not seductive, but royal. She meant to present herself to Jehu in all her royal dignity and glory. She would end her life as she had lived it… as a queen.
And Edersheim agrees: “She knew she must die; and she would die as a princess of her race, and a queen. After the Oriental fashion, she put paint on her eyes and ‘tired her head’” (485). The eyeshade was stibium or antimony. In a mixed metaphor, God promises to adorn His bride with the same sort of black eyeshade (Isa. 54:11). Those who have found fault with Jezebel for her use of eye makeup have missed the point.
Other writers have tried to rewrite Jezebel’s story far more radically. For, as Elizabeth Fletcher points out, “[t]he worshippers of Yahweh were the ones who wrote the story and of course they tell the story to emphasize the power of their own god Yahweh” (Women in the Bible, 1997). Fletcher continues: “Jezebel was powerful, a woman and a foreigner. These qualities made her a target for the prophets of Yahweh. In the end, she backed the wrong gods. She ruled with arbitrary power, which went against the Israelite ideal of kingship. But she was a woman of tremendous ability and intelligence, strong-willed, courageous, and loyal.”
Janet Howe Gaines even wants to see Jezebel as a force for good: “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” (Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel, Bible Review, Oct 2000). Gaines complains that scripture condemns Jezebel’s slaughter of God’s prophets, but applauds Elijah’s slaughter of Baal’s. “There is a definite double standard here,” she says. She has even more to say against scripture’s presentation of Jezebel: “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.”
Finally, Lesley Hazleton in Jezebel, The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen (Doubleday 2007) praises Jezebel’s pragmatic and tolerant spirit. She sees that spirit “standing tall and defiant in the face of fanaticism and intolerance” (216). She speaks of Jezebel’s death as “the defeat of pragmatism by ideology,” the failure of “pragmatic pluralism” (6). For Hazleton, Jezebel’s real flaw was “the arrogance that led her to underestimate the dangers posed by the ascent of radical fundamentalism—the dangers we face in today’s world, with the same disastrous potential.” For “her story is the founding template for the clash between pluralism and tolerance on the one hand and fundamental fanaticism on the other” (12).
The End of Tolerance
Jezebel’s defenders commit at least three errors. First, they distrust and reject the biblical history of Jezebel and scripture’s evaluation of her character and actions. They do this even though the only other scrap of historical information we have about Jezebel says her father was a priest of Astarte and a murderer.
Second, they claim to be able to read the story of the real Jezebel between the lines of the biblical narrative. The Jezebel they find there is sympathetic, well intentioned, and religiously tolerant. After all, she was clearly a strong and competent woman and a dedicated pluralist (polytheist). And we all know that pluralists are loving and tolerant people, right?
Third, Jezebel’s defenders assume that Yahweh and Baal are both fantasy and that the religious war fought out in Israel was over empty words and ideas… not over metaphysical realities. “Backing the wrong gods” has no eternal consequences if all gods are lies. But if God is real, then pluralism is the delusion, and a most damning one at that. If God is who He says He is, then pragmatic pluralism, whether ancient or modern, is the road to hell. And the plea for tolerance is merely an excuse to silence the real God and make way for a purely immanent god, one who will be truly pragmatic and beyond all absolutes and all criticism. (Is this sounding familiar?) The tolerance of pluralism always leads to the radical intolerance of the State. Dissent actually gets “jack-booted” in the name of tolerance. Sadly ironic and tragically Orwellian.
It is true that the winners write the history books. Scripture, however, is more than a history book. It is the word of the living God. As such, it presents Ahab and Jezebel in all their strengths and all their sins. It tells us about a war that continues to our day, a war of pragmatic pluralism and statist politics raging against the living God and His servants. It also tells us how to win that war. We would do well to listen.