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May 30, 2008


It's my turn now!

You've already learned about Lilith... now check out the fourth installment of Chiquita's guest bloggy goodness: Jezebel.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the evilest woman of all? Try Jezebel. History can’t produce a bad girl with a reputation more persistent and, well, bad than Jezebel. You pretty much have to look to made-up women to find a more hated and reviled woman (like Lilith).

Bad Girls in Art is about exactly that: bad girls in art. But not too many artists have tried their hand with Jezebel throughout history, so today I’m talking about a bad girl who should have been immortally represented in art, and incidentally, also paying homage to my co-host who’s been awesome about letting me tell you all about art and bad girls.

These images are not actually Jezebel, but just examples of how she might have appeared:

What do we know about Jezebel? Without pulling out your Bible or Wiki-ing the topic, most people understand that she was responsible for killing prophets and wearing makeup. When you think about other women in the Bible who’ve committed crimes (Judith, for one; she murdered a man—oh, wait, he was the general in charge of the battle against her own country? That makes everything okay), it seems somewhat unusual that she has become the most hated woman in history.

Her name has become an insult, synonymous with 'hussy' or a shameless woman — for example, Jim Carrey called Swoosie Kurtz “Jezebel” in Liar Liar; the 1939 film Jezebel starred Bette Davis as a headstrong, spoiled woman whose actions cost her the man she loves; many movies have featured evil characters named Jezebel. (She has also been the subject of countless songs). [Jezebel (Wikipedia)]

Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab, the guy the prophet Elijah kept going back to over and over with prophecies about the fall of Israel if they didn’t stop committing this sin or that sin. Ahab was capable of some pretty cruel things, but according to 1 Kings:

But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up. And he behaved very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. [1 Kings 21:25-26]

The Biblical story was written from the view point of several prophets—Jezebel was used as an example of how idol-worshiping led to very nasty ends. In the Hebrew religion, only one god was tolerated, and that god was Yahweh; Yahweh was so intolerant of other gods that even a pagan queen who grew up with different gods was supposed to give them up or be eaten by dogs.

The 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]

One of the main purposes of the entire Deuteronomistic History, which includes the seven books from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, is to explain Israel's fate in terms of its apostasy. As the Israelites settle into the Promised Land, establish a monarchy and separate into a northern and a southern kingdom after the reign of Solomon, God's chosen people continually go astray. They sin against Yahweh in many ways, the worst of which is by worshiping alien deities. The first commandments from Sinai demand monotheism, but the people are attracted to foreign gods and goddesses. When Jezebel enters the scene in the ninth century B.C., she provides a perfect opportunity for the Bible writer to teach a moral lesson about the evil outcomes of idolatry, for she is a foreign idol worshiper who seems to be the power behind her husband. From the Deuteronomist's viewpoint, Jezebel embodies everything that must be eliminated from Israel so that the purity of the cult of Yahweh will not be further contaminated. [Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel]

So, maybe the story of Jezebel might have been used as propaganda for a religious cause?

Jezebel was the daughter of a Phoenician king; what’s not covered in the Bible is the fact that in the Phoenician kingdom, the monarch has absolute authority. In the Israelite kingdom, however, the king’s authority only went so far. King Ahab made some feeble attempts at reconciling the main religion of his land and his wife’s religion, since she wasn’t going to give up her beliefs for what she probably thought of as a god with a stick up his ass.

Jezebel’s parents were high priests in the worship of Baal, in Sidon. Jezebel herself was probably a priestess of Baal. She was trained to lead and to command. Brought up as a Phoenician, she saw it as her duty to guard the worship of Baal and Asherah. She believed these gods regulated the fertility of the country she now lived in and ruled. [Women in the Bible]

Jezebel does not accept Ahab's God, Yahweh. Rather, she leads Ahab to tolerate Baal. This is why she is vilified by the Deuteronomist, whose goal is to stamp out polytheism. She represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the one extolled in characters such as Ruth the Moabite, who is also a foreigner. Ruth surrenders her identity and submerges herself in Israelite ways; she adopts the religious and social norms of the Israelites and is universally praised for her conversion to God. Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her own beliefs. [Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel]

When Ahab started to worship Baal (her god), he also set up a temple, effectively pissing off his countrymen. Understandably, conflict arose. Especially since she went a little too far in assimilating her own gods and beliefs into her new country; if she was hoping to teach tolerance to the xenophobic, ethnocentric Hebrew people, she miserably failed.

According to the Deuteronomist, however, Jezebel's desire is not merely confined to achieving ethnic or religious parity. She also seems driven to eliminate Israel's faithful servants of God. Evidence of Jezebel's cruel desire to wipe out Yahweh worship in Israel is reported in 1 Kings 18:4, at the Bible's second mention of her name: 'Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord.' [Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel]

So that’s two strikes against Jezebel so far: she worshiped foreign gods and she killed prophets of the Lord.

Here’s how the prophets were killed: Elijah decided to teach Jezebel a lesson about whose god is greater; he challenged her to a contest in which a sacrificial bull was placed on an altar and whoever’s god lit the bull first was the true god. She summoned 850 of her priests (400 for Asherah and 450 for Baal), and when two bulls were placed on separate altars waiting for fire, her priests began calling on the names of their gods to set their bull on fire. Nothing happened.

“Fill four waterpots with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice and on the wood.” Then he said, “Do it a second time,” and they did it a second time; and he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. So the water ran all around the altar; and he also filled the trench with water. And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and executed them there. [1 Kings 17:11 NKJ]

This kind of makes what happened next a little more understandable.

Jezebel sends Elijah a menacing message, threatening to slaughter him just as he has slaughtered her prophets: 'Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them' (1 Kings 19:2). [Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel]

Is it possible Elijah overstepped his boundaries?

The two strikes now explained, let’s look at the third: Naboth’s vineyard. According to the tale, a man named Naboth owned a lovely vineyard next to the palace, and Ahab wanted it for a vegetable garden. However, neither money nor a better vineyard elsewhere was acceptable to Naboth, who’d inherited it from his father and father’s father and so on (you know how those Biblical dudes wax poetic about all those begats!). Ahab fell into a manly funk, “lay down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” [1 Kings 21:4], and proceeded to irritate Jezebel, so she told him she would take care of the problem. Using his seal, she wrote letters to the elders and nobles living in Naboth’s city ordering them to hold a council and have two people lie about him blaspheming God and the king. They did, and Naboth was stoned. So Ahab got his vineyard.

Recently, a seal that was discovered in 1964 was confirmed to be Jezebel’s. It was thought that it belonged to someone of royalty, maybe even her, but the name inscribed on it was a misspelling of her name until archaeologists realized a piece of the seal was broken off, probably the piece with the rest of her name. With a royal seal of her own, Jezebel didn’t need Ahab’s—she could exert her own influence in her own name. Of course, the writers of 1 Kings Chapter 21 weren’t concerned with that; here, they’re showing her being sneaky, duplicitous, wicked and cowardly. And, of course, not acknowledging that she was a powerful woman, because powerful women in Israel weren’t a good thing.

I’m not the only one who scoffs at this tale:

The Bible maintains that 'the elders and nobles who lived in [Naboth's] town ... did as Jezebel had instructed them' (1 Kings 21:11). If the trickster queen is able to enlist the support of so many people, none of whom betrays her, to kill a man whom they have probably known all their lives and whom they realize is innocent, then she has astonishing power.

The fantastical tale of Naboth's death -- in which something could go wrong at any moment but somehow does not -- stretches the reader's credulity. If Jezebel were as hateful as the Deuteronomist claims, surely at least one nobleman in Jezreel would have refused to assist in the nefarious scheme. Surely one individual would have had the courage to expose the detestable deed and become the Deuteronomist's hero by spoiling the plan.

Perhaps the biblical compiler is using Jezebel as a scapegoat for his outrage at her influence over the king, meaning that she herself is being framed in the tale. Traditionally thought to be a narrative about how innocent Naboth is falsely accused, the story could instead be an exaggeration of fact, fabricated to demonstrate the Deuteronomist's continued wrath against Jezebel. [Jezebel, Phoenician Queen of Israel]

So far, three strikes; do you still think she’s the wickedest, nastiest bitch to have ever walked the Earth?

Now we get to the good part: her death. Everybody knows this part, even if you aren’t familiar with the rest of the story. After Naboth’s death, Elijah found his way back to Ahab’s door, God having told him to tell Ahab how he’s going to die. Curiously, when he showed up, Elijah told Ahab how Jezebel’s going to die, instead.

“And concerning Jezebel the Lord also spoke, saying, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’” [1 Kings 21:23]

Ahab tore his clothes apart, weeping and repenting, but there’s no report of Jezebel’s saying anything. Why should she repent? She may not have even done everything she’s alleged to have done. Ahab’s show impressed Elijah, and God told him to tell Ahab that because he was convincing enough, He’d wait until his son got to the throne to turn his kingdom topsy-turvy.

Sure enough, Ahab died in battle with his kingdom intact and his son Joram became king (after his older brother also dies).

In a weird twist of the story, Elisha (notice that? Elijah went to heaven and his chief pupil, Elisha, took over) did something strange: even though there was a ruling king, he appointed a different guy to rule. The way they did this in Biblical times if God didn’t like who was ruling was for a prophet to go to whomever God wanted and he’d pour oil over his head. I’m still not sure how it passed for an official ceremony with the people of Israel, but in this case, the new guy was Jehu, Joram’s military commander. For Jehu’s new career to be legit, he had to get rid of the ruling family—every single member. After killing Joram, he turned his sights on Jezebel. She knew he was coming so she prepared to meet him by putting on all of her finery and regalia. Over the centuries, a lot of fuss has been made about her putting on makeup, but once again, a simple glance back at life in the day and remembering who she was can shed some light on why she did this. Jehu was a usurper, and had murdered the anointed king of the land. She was a rightful queen, even if she did commit some of the above misdeeds, and she wanted him to know who he was dealing with. Whatever indignities awaited her after her death, she was going to save up every last shred of dignity left to her. She could have fled, but she chose to remain and face her death.

When Jehu showed up, she said:

“Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of your master?” [2 Kings 9:31]

He looked up and after asking who was on his side, had two or three eunuchs throw her down. (Interestingly, every account of this story isn’t more exact as to the number of eunuchs present—it’s always “two or three.”)

The Death of Jezebel by Gustave Doré

Jezebel Killed by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

Jehu went inside to eat and drink, and after a while ordered his men to go outside to bury her, since she was the daughter of a king, but by that point, all that was left of her after the dogs were done was her skull, feet and the palms of her hands.

Jehu's Companions Finding the Remains of Jezebel by Gustave Doré

History has maligned this woman, and unfortunately we can never be sure how much of the Biblical accounts against her were truth or fiction; however, it helps to have an open mind.

Throughout the centuries, Jezebel has been attacked as a whore, and her name has been used to describe a woman of promiscuous behavior. But there is nothing in Jezebel’s story to suggest that she was ever unfaithful to Ahab. In fact, she seems to have been fiercely loyal to him and her sons, even in adversity.

Jezebel was powerful, a woman and a foreigner. These qualities made her a target for the prophets of Yahweh. In the long run, 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. [Women in the Bible]

For even more information on Jezebel:

Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen

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