Jezebel

How one woman's power is portrayed as evil.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, and wife of Ahab, king of Israel (1 Kings 16:31), in the mid-ninth century B.C.E. She was undoubtedly the chief wife of Ahab and co-ruler with him. It is implied that she was the mother of Ahab’s son and successor Ahaziah (1 Kings 22:53) and alternately implied and stated that she was mother of the next king, Jehoram (2 Kings 3:2, 13; 9:22). Ahab had other unnamed wives as well and many unnamed sons (1 Kings 20:3, 5, 7; 2 Kings 10). Hence, whether Jezebel had other children or, specifically, was Athaliah’s mother is unclear.

The extent of Jezebel’s power is evidenced by the necessity for Jehu, the founder of the next royal dynasty in Israel, to murder her before his rule can be established (2 Kings 9:30–37)—even though her royal husband and sons are, by now, dead. The biblical text insists that she is evil through and through.

Jezebel's Power

Jezebel is the enemy of God’s prophets: she “killed the prophets of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:13). On the other hand, there are “the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). Elijah kills Jezebel’s prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). As a result, she swears that she will kill him (1 Kingns 19:3). He takes her threat seriously and flees to the south, beyond the Israelite territory. His fleeing indicates Jezebel’s power in the realm.

Another indication of her power is the story of Naboth (1 Kings 21). Ahab wishes to buy Naboth’s vineyard, which is adjacent to the royal complex in Jezreel. Naboth refuses to give or sell it, claiming its status as nontransferable ancestral land. Ahab is depressed by this but cannot do anything. Jezebel, who sees the matter as a test case of monarchic power (1 Kings 21:7), finds a way. She writes to the elders and dignitaries of Jezreel, asking them to bring two false witnesses to claim that Naboth has cursed the king and God.

Such behavior signifies treason; Naboth is stoned to death, and his property reverts to the king. Although the letter is ostensibly signed with the king’s seal (1 Kings 21:8), the report comes back to Jezebel (1 Kings 21:14). She tells

Ahab that he can inherit Naboth’s land, and he does so. Elijah protests to Ahab, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” (1 Kings 21:19); he prophesies that Ahab’s male descendants will die prematurely, his dynasty will perish, and that the “dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).

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Athalya Brenner

Athalya Brenner is professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She holds a B.A. from the University of Haifa, an M.A. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a Ph.D. from the University of Manchester, England, and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Bonn, Germany.