Jezebel Queen of Israel
19th-century painting by John Liston Byam Shaw
|Died||c. 842 BC|
|Children||Ahaziah, Jehoram, and Athaliah|
According to the Biblical narrative, Jezebel, along with her husband, instituted the worship of Baal and Asherah on a national scale. In addition, she violently purged the prophets of Yahweh from Israel, damaging the reputation of the Omride dynasty. For these offences, the Omride Dynasty was annihilated, with Jezebel herself suffering the gruesome death of defenestration.
Jezebel is the Anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew אִיזָבֶל (‘Îzeḇel,, 'Izevel,'Izavel). The Oxford Guide to People & Places of the Bible states that the name is "best understood as meaning 'Where is the Prince?'", (Hebrew: אֵיזוֹ בַּעַל ‘ēyzō ba’al) ritual cry from worship ceremonies in honor of Baal during periods of the year when the god was considered to be in the underworld.
She is introduced into the Biblical narrative as a Phoenician princess, the daughter of Ithobaal I, king of Tyre (1 Kings 16:31 says she was "Sidonian", which is a biblical term for Phoenicians in general). According to genealogies given in Josephus and other classical sources, she was the great-aunt of Dido, Queen of Carthage. As the daughter of Ithobaal I, she was also the sister of Baal-Eser II. Jezebel eventually married King Ahab of Samaria, the northern kingdom of Israel.
The wedding ceremony of Ahab and Jezebel is recorded, according to Near Eastern scholar Charles R. Krahmalkov, in Psalm 45. This marriage was the culmination of the friendly relations existing between Israel and Phoenicia during Omri's reign, and possibly cemented important political designs of Ahab. Jezebel, like the foreign wives of Solomon, required facilities for carrying on her form of worship, so Ahab made a Baalist altar in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. Geoffrey Bromiley points out that it was Phoenician practice to install a royal woman as a priestess of Astarte, so thus she would have a more active role in temple and palace relations than was customary in the Hebrew monarchy.
Upon coronation as queen, the official royal support for Yahwism had weakened. Temples and altars dedicated to Baal were built, elevating Baal to a national status. Jezebel additionally used royal provisions to fund the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, during a severe famine in Samaria. Meanwhile, Yahwism was systematically purged. Altars dedicated to Yahweh were torn down and desecrated. Many prophets of Yahweh were killed, leaving only 100 survivors. Obadiah, a pro-Yahwist figure in Ahab's royal court, secretly protected these survivors in a cave. Elijah notes that the Israelite community, due to the increasing influence of Baal worship, was divided over whether to worship Baal or Yahweh.
He decided to put an end to this controversy by inviting Jezebel's prophets of Baal and Asherah to a challenge at Mount Carmel. The challenge was to see which god, Yahweh or Baal, would burn a bull sacrifice on an altar. Jezebel's prophets failed to summon Baal in burning the bull sacrifice, despite their cries and cutting themselves. Elijah, however, succeeded when he summoned Yahweh, impressing the Israelites. He then ordered the people to seize and kill the prophets of Baal and Asherah at the Kishon River. After the prophets were slain, Jezebel swore to have Elijah become like her prophets (i.e. killed), even if it meant embracing divine judgement upon herself if she failed to do so. Elijah fled for his life to the wilderness, where he mourned the devotion of Israel to Baal and lamented about being the only Yahwist worshiper left.
After an unspecified amount of time had passed, since Ahab was notably rebuked by an unnamed prophet for letting Ben-Hadad survive (Ben-Hadad planned to capture Ahab's "wives", including Jezebel, as plunder after besieging Samaria), he visited Naboth's residence. The residence was located near the royal palace in the city of Jezreel. Wishing to acquire Naboth's vineyard so that he could expand his own gardens, Ahab requested to purchase Naboth's vineyard, in exchange for a better quality vineyard or financial compensation. Naboth declined, which he justified by informing Ahab that his vineyard was ancestral property. Ahab returned to his palace, sullen and depressed by Naboth's response. Jezebel decided to "cheer" him up by arranging Naboth to be entrapped and later, executed on the (false) charges of blasphemy against God and the king. After Naboth was executed outside the city, his corpse was licked by stray dogs. Jezebel then informed Ahab that he could successfully seize possession of Naboth's vineyard. Nonetheless, Elijah condemned Ahab for committing theft and murder. As punishment, God decreed Ahab's death and the annihilation of his royal line. Jezebel's death was also decreed, with her corpse to be devoured by dogs.
Three years later, Ahab died in battle. His son Ahaziah inherited the throne, but died as the result of an accident and Ahaziah was succeeded by his brother, Joram. Elisha, Elijah's successor, commanded one of his disciples to anoint Jehu, commander of Joram's army, as king, to be the agent of divine punishment against Ahab's family. Jehu killed Joram, and his nephew Ahaziah (the king of Judah and son of Athaliah, who was possibly the daughter of Jezebel). He later approached the royal palace in Jezreel to confront Jezebel.
Knowing that Jehu was coming, Jezebel put on make-up and a formal wig with adornments and looked out of a window, taunting him. Bromiley says that it should be looked at less as an attempt at seduction than the public appearance of the queen mother, invested with the authority of the royal house and cult, confronting a rebellious commander. In his two-volume Guide to the Bible (1967 and 1969), Isaac Asimov describes Jezebel's last act: dressing in all her finery, make-up, and jewelry, as deliberately symbolic, indicating her dignity, royal status, and determination to go out of this life as a queen.
Jehu later ordered Jezebel's eunuch servants to throw her from the window. Her blood splattered on the wall and horses, and Jehu's horse trampled her corpse. He entered the palace where, after he ate and drank, he ordered Jezebel's body to be taken for burial. His servants discovered only her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands—her flesh had been eaten by stray dogs, just as the prophet Elijah had prophesied. Edwin R. Thiele dates Jezebel's death around 850 BC.
According to Israel Finkelstein, the marriage of King Ahab to the daughter of the ruler of the Phoenician empire was a sign of the power and prestige of Ahab and the northern Kingdom of Israel. He termed it a "brilliant stroke of international diplomacy." He says that the inconsistencies and anachronisms in the biblical stories of Jezebel and Ahab mean that they must be considered "more of a historical novel than an accurate historical chronicle." Among these inconsistencies, 1 Kings 20 states that "Ben-Hadad king of Aram" invaded Samaria during Ahab's reign, but this event did not take place until later in the history of Israel. The two books of Kings are part of the Deuteronomistic history, compiled more than two hundred years after the death of Jezebel. Finkelstein notes that these accounts are "obviously influenced by the theology of the seventh century BCE writers". The compilers of the biblical accounts of Jezebel and her family were writing in the southern kingdom of Judah centuries after the events and from a perspective of strict monolatry. These writers considered the polytheism of the members of the Omride dynasty to be sinful. In addition, they were hostile to the northern kingdom and its history, as its center of Samaria was a rival to Jerusalem. According to Dr J. Bimson, of Trinity College, Bristol 1 and 2 Kings are not "a straightforward history but a history which contains its own theological commentary". He points to verses like 1 Kings 14:19 that show the author of Kings was drawing on other earlier sources.
A seal from the 9th century BCE, discovered in 1964, has a partially damaged inscription of "YZBL" which could have once read, "belonging to Jezebel". However, there are some issues with this theory. Whereas on the seal it appears the inscription begins with the letter yodh, Jezebel's name starts with an aleph, which is lacking on the seal; furthermore, the possessive lamedh which would translate to the prerequisite "belonging to (…)" is also missing from the seal. However, it is entirely possible these letters simply could have been located where the seal is damaged. Regardless, scholars do not agree on whether the seal is evidence for the historicity of the biblical character. Some scholars have said that the size and intricacy of the seal could mean it was used by royalty.
According to Geoffrey Bromiley, the depiction of Jezebel as "the incarnation of Canaanite cultic and political practices, detested by Israelite prophets and loyalists, has given her a literary life far beyond the existence of a ninth-century Tyrian princess."
Through the centuries, the name Jezebel came to be associated with false prophets. By the early 20th century, it was also associated with fallen or abandoned women. In Christian lore, a comparison to Jezebel suggested that a person was a pagan or an apostate masquerading as a servant of God. By manipulation and seduction, she misled the saints of God into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. In particular, Christians associated Jezebel with promiscuity. The cosmetics which Jezebel applied before her death also led to some Christians to associate makeup with vice.  In the Middle Ages, the chronicler Matthew Paris criticised Isabella of Angoulême, the queen consort of John, King of England, by writing that she was "more Jezebel than Isabel". In modern usage, the name of Jezebel is sometimes used as a synonym for sexually promiscuous or controlling women. The Jezebel stereotype is an oppressive image and a form of racialized sexual harassment that began during the eras of colonization and slavery in the United States and continues today. Although this stereotype can potentially be applied to women of all ethnic backgrounds, the image is often associated with Black women.
If ever the Devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
If ever an angel fell
Jezebel, it was you, Jezebel, it was you!