I read this article a year ago, but it stuck with me and I thought I would share it.
How Bad Was Jezebel by Janet Howe Gaines
Briefly mentioned throughout the Books of Kings, Jezebel appears as a whore, an enemy of god, and the most evil woman in the Bible. Is this reputation justified? Author Janet Howe Gaines takes a closer look at the text. [Note: The article (and this post) discusses the Bible as a historical document, rather than the revealed word of god.]
The Story in Brief
According to the biblical account, Jezebel was the Phoenician wife of Israel’s King Ahab. Jezebel’s people did not worship Yahweh and the queen continued to worship her ancestral gods, particularly Ball. The king followed her lead and idol worship flourished in Israel. Eventually, the prophet Elijah called a tournament between the followers of Ball and Yahweh to see which deity could light a sacrificial bull on fire. Despite the best efforts of the faithful, Ball did nothing; Yahweh however, obliged. When the king delivered the news to Jezebel she stood her ground, threatening to have the prophet killed. In another episode, the queen defied the Torah, exercising guile and absolute power in a land dispute. Caught in the plot, she remained unrepentant. Eventually the king died and Jezebel’s enemies led a coup to rid themselves of the queen and her family. Faced with certain defeat Jezebel remained defiant, making herself up and waiting in full view of her enemies. When they reached her they threw her down from the tower whereupon dogs ravaged her corpse. Yahweh’s authority was reestablished.
An Alternative Interpretation
Gaines focuses important attention on the Biblical authors and how their perspective distorts our view of the historical Jezebel. Biblical historians group 1 and 2 Kings into the “Deuteronomist” tradition, whose authors/editors aimed to “explain Israel’s fate in terms of apostasy.” From these authors’ perspective, the Israelites arrived in the promised land but erred in their ways, provoking God’s wrath. Idol worship would have been the most egregious of these errors. As a foreigner and a woman who worshiped other gods, Jezebel presented a convenient symbol of wrongdoing and evil for the biblical authors.
The modern reader might see Jezebel as a strong woman preserving her cultural identity. Throughout the account she has many followers and her threat against Elijah shows her as “more daring, clever and independent that most women of her time.” She has sufficient influence to boss the king around, make Elijah flee in fear, and drive her enemies to murderous revolt just to be rid of her. The biblical authors did not appreciate such female strength and depicted her behavior as evil. Recognizing this bias, cracks appear in the traditional interpretation:
1) Detailed stories of Jezebel’s plots stretch the bounds of credulity. For example, the reader must believe that Jezebel was terribly evil and universally hated, but also that all the noblemen joined in her plot to undermine a local peasant.
2) The “whore” label likely derived from the writers’ connection between “harlotry and idol worship.” In biblical contexts, “lusting after false ‘lords’ can be seen as either adulterous or idolatrous.” Other than the claims of her enemies, the biblical account offer’s no evidence of infidelity on Jezebel’s part.
3) The authors also interpret Jezebel’s defiant last hours as a whorish attempt to seduce her enemies. Their account deliberately mirrors stories of female idols or other evil women dying shameful deaths. In contrast, Gaines suggests a more empowered a view of Jezebel “donning the female version of armor as she prepares to do battle . . . When she dies, she wants to look her queenly best. She is in control here, choosing the manner in which her attacker will last see and remember her.” She remains in control to the very end, taunting her enemies and never surrendering.
The moral of the story? Perhaps Jezebel was not the whorish and wicked woman portrayed by the biblical authors. Perhaps she was a powerful queen, maligned by religious enemies.