Jezebel

How one woman's power is portrayed as evil.

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Ahab dies a brave soldier’s death in Samaria (1 Kings 22); his son and Jezebel’s, Ahaziah, succeeds to the throne for two years, and then dies. His brother Jehoram succeeds him and is killed by Jehu, the new contender for the throne (2 Kings 9). Jezebel is killed by Jehu as well (2 Kings 9:31–37), as she regally awaits Jehu and her doom in the Jezreel palace, some palace officials drop her through the lattice window. By the time Jehu has finished eating and orders that she be buried “for she is a king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34), the dogs have already eaten most of her carcass—in keeping with Elijah’s prophecy.

An Evil Queen?

Jezebel is characterized as totally evil in the biblical text and beyond it: in the New Testament her name is a generic catchword for a whoring, non-believing female adversary (Revelations 2:20); in Judeo-Christian traditions, she is evil. The Bible is careful not to refer to her as queen. And yet, this is precisely what she seems to have been. Some early Jewish, albeit post-biblical, sources deconstruct the general picture: “Four women exercised government in the world: Jezebel and Athaliah from Israel, Semiramis and Vashti from the [gentile] nations” (in a Jewish Midrash for the Book of Esther, Esther Rabbah).

Clearly, Jezebel acted as queen even though the Bible itself refuses her the title and its attendant respect, not to mention approval. In the biblical text, Jezebel is contrasted with and juxtaposed to the prophet Elijah, to the extent that they both form the two panels of a mirrored dyptich. She is a Baal supporter, he is a God supporter; she is a woman, he is a man; she is a foreigner, he is a native; she has monarchic power, he has prophetic power; she threatens, he flees; finally he wins, she is liquidated. The real conflict is not between Ahab (the king) and Elijah, but between Jezebel (the queen in actuality, if not in title) and Elijah. Ultimately the forces of God win; Jezebel loses. It remains to be understood why she gets such bad press.

It seems reasonable that Jezebel, a foreign royal princess by birth, was highly educated and efficient. Also, although her son’s theophoric names have the element yah or yahu (referring to God) in them, she seems to have been a patron and devotee of the Baal cult.

It is not incomprehensible that, whereas Ahab devoted himself to military and foreign affairs, Jezebel acted as his deputy for internal affairs: the Naboth report comes back to her, as if the king’s seal was hers; she has her own “table,” that is her own economic establishment and budget; she has her own “prophets,” probably a religious establishment that she controls. All these point toward an official or semiofficial position that Jezebel held by virtue of her character, her royal origin and connections, her husband’s and later her children’s esteem, and her religious affiliation to the Baal (possibly also Asherah) cult.

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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.