Guest post by Matilda Hadcock, Undergraduate of History, Christ Church, Oxford
The end of Jezebel’s life was a tragic one: she was pushed out of her window and fell to her death, then her body was eaten by dogs. Only her skull, feet and the palms of her hands remained.
This was said to have been God’s plan all along, revealed to the prophet Elijah. God had condemned the King of Israel, Ahab, including all his descendants and his wife in the curse:
Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.’1 Kings 21,23
Some people would argue that Jezebel deserved the end she received – as a harlot, pagan and temptress she should have expected nothing less. Others see Jezebel as a feminist icon – she lived the life she wanted and had no qualms about tarnishing her reputation; she probably would have glorified in her death. Neither interpretation leaves enough room for nuance.
The story of Jezebel is far from pleasant, and neither is it whole. Her story is told in pieces in the Bible, as is usually the way, through the men in her life. She is depicted as a wicked woman, but what else might her story tell?
There are two dictionary definitions of ‘Jezebel’. The first is in reference to her historical and biblical status as the Phoenician wife of Ahab, who pressed the cult of Baal on the Israelite kingdom and was finally killed in accordance with Elijah’s prophecy. The second is more descriptive: a jezebel is an impudent, shameless or morally unrestrained woman who gets her own way through deception. Along with sexual immorality, Jezebel is associated with vanity, worshipping false gods, and the female vice of seduction.
These common associations require some myth-busting.
Jezebel was the daughter of a Phoenician king, Ithobaal I, but she moved to Israel on her marriage to King Ahab. It was, as ever, a political marriage, the culmination of friendly relations between Israel and Phoenicia. Jezebel is blamed for introducing the nature god Baal-Melkart into Israelite society, thus confusing the Israelites about which was the true religion.
In fact, it was custom for Ahab to set up an altar for his wife to pray at, in the tradition of her home religion. The worship of Baal may well have been the only reminder of home that Jezebel had in Israel. The accusation that she prayed to false gods is only one perspective; at the time and in her mind, she must have been devout and loyal in her faith.
When Elijah orchestrated the killing of the priests of Baal, Jezebel was distraught. She threatened Elijah with death, bravely declaring:
So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them [ie. dead] by this time tomorrow.1 Kings 19.2
Violence is common in the Old Testament, and Jezebel is not unique in her use of brutality. She stood up for what she believed in, asserting her queenly power in perhaps the only way that she knew would carry meaning.
Regarding her sexual immorality, there is no evidence in the Bible that Jezebel was unfaithful to her husband. She provided him with children, and cared for him. When Ahab got angry because he could not have the plot of land he desired, it was Jezebel who sought him out and calmed him. Ahab threw himself on the bed and turned his head away:
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?”1 Kings 21,5
She seems to have been doing her best to be a good wife and Queen.
In the scene before her death, Jezebel appears at the window, looking down on Jehu, the new King of Israel. Jehu had been appointed by Elijah’s successor, Elisha. He had usurped and killed Joram, Ahab and Jezebel’s son, in order to remove the religion of Baal from the region.
Jezebel, in the last moments of her life, was looking down on the man who had killed her husband and her son. She is reported to have dressed up when she heard he was coming. Some interpret this to mean that she was attempting to seduce Jehu, acting indecently as ever. The alternative is that she put on her make-up and her royal garments in one last show of authority as the old Queen and mother of the rightful King. She was in a vulnerable position: she may have known she was about to die and the political situation was certainly not favourable. Rather than seeing her outfit as vanity and the work of a temptress, perhaps it should be considered as the last-ditch attempt of a grieving mother to maintain some dignity and pride.
But Jezebel was said to have been condemned by God. Why? She acted violently and hurt other people, apparently intentionally. In order to please her husband, Jezebel had the innocent commoner Naboth stoned to death. He had wanted to keep the vineyard belonging to his ancestors, but Jezebel fraudulently used Ahab’s seal to secure Naboth’s murder, pretending that he had blasphemed. This was an evil act, which her situation cannot excuse.
Prophets of Yahweh were massacred, and ultimately, Jezebel worshipped deities other than God. She was a false worshipper and did not heed His covenant. Elijah had attempted to spread God’s word amongst the Israelites and, however aggressively he had done so, she had responded in kind, threatening his life.
It is hard to know where Jezebel stands as a woman in the Judeo-Christian narrative. The understanding of Jezebel as a sexually and morally dubious character should not be believed so easily – it has been developed culturally, often for literary and cinematographic purposes. But neither should she be let off the hook. According to the Book of Kings, Jezebel really was a nasty piece of work, in league with her equally horrible and untrustworthy husband, Ahab.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood labels the seedy, misogynistic, patriarchally-run nightclub‘Jezebel’s’. Offred’s best friend, Moira, works there as a prostitute, and whilst the reader expects anti-establishment feminism, the nightclub comes to represent disappointment, weariness and loss of hope.
Perhaps this is reflective of Jezebel’s life? She lived in a time of political and religious turmoil, she was married to a seemingly wicked man, and she witnessed the murder of priests of her religion and one of her sons. Few people in the Old Testament are truly and immediately ‘good’. Whilst Jezebel cannot be considered a symbol of righteousness and virtue, not all of her actions deserve condemnation. She might not have been ‘good’, but we should be wary of reducing her to a figure of evil.
A prayer of repentance:
If my soul has turned perversely to the dark:
If I have left a sister or brother wounded along the way;
If I have preferred my aims to thine;
If I have been impatient and could not wait;
If I have marred the pattern drawn out of my life;
If I have cost tears to those I loved;
If my heart has murmured against thy will,
O Lord, forgive.