Jezebel: Princess of Sidon, Queen of Israel

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published on 18 January 2012

Jezebel was the Phoenician Princess of Sidon (9th century BCE) whose story is told in the Hebrew Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament) in I and II Kings where she is portrayed unfavorably as a conniving harlot who corrupts Israel and flaunts the commandments of God. Recent scholarship, which has led to a better understanding of the civilization of Phoenicia, the role of women, and the struggle of the adherents of the Hebrew god Yahweh for dominance over the worship of the Canaanite deities Astarte and Baal, suggest a different, and more favorable, picture of Jezebel as a woman ahead of her time married into a culture whose religious class saw her as a formidable threat (phoenicia.org). The historian and biblical scholar Janet Howe Gaines notes this new interpretation in scholarship, writing

For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women. This ancient queen has been denounced as a murderer, prostitute and enemy of God, and her name has been adopted for lingerie lines and World War II missiles alike. But just how depraved was Jezebel? In recent years, scholars have tried to reclaim the shadowy female figures whose tales are often only partially told in the Bible. 

Although she has been associated with seduction, depravity, and harlotry for centuries, a more accurate understanding of Jezebel emerges as one considers the possibility she was simply a woman who refused to submit to the religious beliefs and practices of her husband and his culture. Her name has been claimed to mean, `Where is God?’ or, alternately, `Where is The Prince’ and even `Not Exalted’. All these claims come from sources antagonistic to Jezebel, however, and make little sense when one considers her father was King Ethbaal of Sidon, a Phonecian High Priest, who would hardly have given his daughter a name which literally meant she was not exalted, nor one which asked a question he already knew the answer to ("Where is God?" or "Where is the Prince?"). It is far more likely that her name means `Daughter of Baal’ or, as one would say today, `Daughter of God’. The fact that her name has been interpreted in a negative light is symptomatic of the way she has been regarded since the narrative of I and II Kings was first written, but, as Gaines suggests:

There is more to this complex ruler than the standard interpretation would allow. To attain a more positive assessment of Jezebel’s troubled reign and a deeper understanding of her role, we must evaluate the motives of the Biblical authors who condemn the queen. Furthermore, we must reread the narrative from the queen’s vantage point. As we piece together the world in which Jezebel lived, a fuller picture of this fascinating woman begins to emerge. The story is not a pretty one, and some—perhaps most—readers will remain disturbed by Jezebel’s actions. But her character might not be as dark as we are accustomed to thinking. Her evilness is not always as obvious, undisputed and unrivaled as the Biblical writer wants it to appear.

Phoenician women enjoyed enormous liberty and were considered the equals of males. Both men and women presided over religious gatherings as priests and priestesses and, as daughter of a High Priest, Jezebel would have naturally been initiated into the priesthood. Her on-going conflict with the Prophet Elijah chronicled in I Kings has been interpreted by some as simply an impossible clash of cultural understanding as the Israelites were not accustomed to a strong female ruler and Jezebel was not used to second-class citizen status (phoenicia.org). Her actions may not always have been the most prudent and, sometimes, they were simply very wrong (as in the case of Naboth) but can be seen as the way in which a Phoenician princess would handle a situation without regard for the cultural norms of her husband's culture.

Jezebel was married, by contract, to King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a means to cement an alliance between that city and her home state of Sidon. As Gaines notes, there is no way of knowing whether she was pleased with this arrangement but, most likely, she was simply a political pawn in her father's game. Upon arrival in her new home, she almost immediately came into conflict with the religious class by importing her own priests and priestesses and setting up shrines and temples to the gods of her own understanding and beliefs. Her seemingly rebellious attitude toward the religion of her husband upsets the prophet Elijah who opposes her from the first. Their conflict escalates to the point where Elijah challenges Jezebel's priests of Baal to a duel on Mount Carmel. He will call on Yahweh to light a sacrificial bull on fire on an altar and Jezebel's priests will call on Baal; whichever deity is able to light the bull will win the challenge and be acknowledged as the true God. 

In order to draw the attention of their god, the 850 priests of baal “performed a hopping dance about the altar”(I Kings 18:26). They also called on his name to hear their petitions and send fire to the altar. All day they danced and prayed and yet no answer came. Elijah, sitting nearby watching them, mocks the priests and asks where their god is. Perhaps, he suggests, Baal is too busy off somewhere eating or having sex or engaging in some other pleasure which prevents him from answering their prayers. 

Once they have given up, and Elijah rises for his turn, the writer of I Kings makes it clear which deity is the true one by having Yahweh answer Elijah's prayer immediately: “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!’” (I Kings 18:38–39). Elijah has won his challenge and his god is proven to be the only true God, ruler of the heavens and earth. As this god's champion, it seems it is up to Elijah to now impose his god's will on the people of Israel. Gaines writes:

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 Deuteronomist criticizes. After winning the Carmel contest, Elijah immediately orders the assembly to capture all of Jezebel’s prophets. Elijah emphatically declares: “Seize the prophets of Baal, 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 fervor, 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 Deuteronomist 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.

When Jezebel hears of what Elijah has done, she threatens his life and he flees the land. This is hardly the end of their power struggle, however. In I Kings the writer of the book reports how Jezebel orchestrates the murder of the landowner Naboth (slyly using Ahab’s signet ring unlawfully to seal the messages sent) in order to give Ahab his vineyards. Ahab had demanded that Naboth sell him the vineyards since he, Ahab, was king and the vineyards close to his palace. When Naboth refused, Jezebel had him framed for treason and executed. This is all reported as though Jezebel was duplicitous in her dealings in using Ahab's ring to sign Naboth's death warrant.  Recent archaelogical discoveries, however, reveal she had her own ring and, accordingly, authority as a monarch to take what actions she deemed necessary (Science Daily). While there is no doubt that the murder of Naboth was unjust, to a queen used to having her own way, it may have seemed simple policy to remove a subject who refused the will of the monarchy. 

Her story concludes as Elijah returns from exile and seizes  upon Naboth's unlawful death as proof of Jezebel's wickedness.  Ahab dies their second son, Joram, takes the throne and, at this point, Elijah’s successor, Elisha, moves the Israelite General Jehu to revolt. Joram is murdered by Jehu and Jezebel is assassinated by two eunuchs (at Jehu’s command) by being thrown from her window to the street below. The famous scene from II Kings 9:30-33 in which Jezebel applies make-up before her death, which has traditionally been interpreted as her attempt to seduce Jehu to spare her life, and has largely led to her reputation as a `whore’, is now believed by some scholars to be the appropriate action of a Princess of Sidon and Queen of Israel, preparing for her end with dignity as a monarch and true priestess of her gods.

Whether Jezebel is to be considered along the lines of her traditional image, or in the light of new interpretations of the Bible and ancient history, is of course the choice of each individual. A careful examination of the text, however, keeping in mind the narrative focus and purpose of the writer of I and II Kings,  may give a reader cause to re-think the popular image of the `wicked' queen Jezebel and her various schemes. 



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