University Congregational Church
Jan. 12, 2014
“Bad Girls; Good Stories: Jezebel”
I Kings 21: 1-15
“The wickedest woman in all the world”
“Lady Macbeth of the Bible”
“A scheming, wicked woman”
“Conspirator of power and greed”
“A spoiled princess and an evil queen”
These are phrases I have come across this week as I have been studying Jezebel. I’m telling you, soap operas have very little on the Hebrew Bible – our Old Testament! And this is a story that is full of twists and turns.
We continue our series of “bad girls; good stories” today. As I mentioned last week, we will look at characters in our Bible as well as some from church history. Some of these women just did a bad thing. Others were “bad to the bone”. While I’m starting with a bit of tongue-in-cheek about these so-called “bad” girls, what I really want to do with the series is to acquaint you with the ways in which women are depicted in our history, and what we can learn from that as it applies to our lives today. So the end of each sermon will be more serious and instructive to us.
Last week’s sermon was about a Midrash character – a story about a story in the Bible. Today’s Biblical story of Jezebel is more of an historical novel than an accurate historical chronicle and it is found in I Kings. First of all, scholars have found inconsistencies in the story.
* 1 Kings 20 states that “Ben-Hadad king of Aram” invaded Samaria during Ahab’s reign, but we know from other ancient records that this event did not happen until later in the history of Israel.
* Next, 2 Kings 3:9 refers to a king of Edom at the time of Jehoram’s reign, but there is no evidence of monarchy in Edom until a century after that.
However, the two books of Kings are part of the Deuteronomistic history, and Jezebel may have been a real person even though the writings about her were compiled more than two hundred years after her death and are obviously influenced by the theology and agenda of the seventh century BCE writers. This is important to keep in mind – that Jezebel as an historical person is portrayed 200 years later with an agenda of that time and not her own.
Jezebel was a Phoenician princess, rich and powerful. Her marriage to Ahab was strictly a political alliance between two nations. But her personality and her past, along with her position, made her downright dangerous!
- Sexual immorality
- Temple prostitution
- Sacrifice of children
These were her calling cards. I Kings 18:4 tells us that she was “killing off the Lord’s prophets.” And she urged her weak husband into a life of crime. While her story is told over a couple of chapters in the Bible, all of her pronouncements are contained in five verses.
The first was a threat. She said to Elijah the prophet, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like (those who have been slain by the sword) by this time tomorrow.” I Kings 19:2
The second was a complaint. She whined to her husband, “Why are you so depressed that you won’t eat?” I Kings 21:5
The third was sarcastic. Again to her husband, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful.” I Kings 21:7
The fourth was an audacious order. She had a neighbor killed because her husband wanted the man’s land. “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” I Kings 21: 9-10
The fifth was an insult. After lying in order to have Naboth killed, she went back to her husband and said, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth, which he refused to give you … he is not alive, but dead.”
I Kings 21:15
Two of them referred to murder.
The other three were direct hits at Ahab’s lack of leadership.
Jezebel stands out because she was a gifted woman who had every opportunity for greatness.
- She had a finely tuned mind, but used it to devise evil schemes.
- She had boldness and courage, but used it to commit murder.
- She had strong leadership abilities, but used them to take over the throne.
- She had an assertive personality, but used it to draw people away from God.
- She had a royal lineage, but used her royal position to manipulate her subjects.
That’s why Jezebel’s name is synonymous with wickedness. There’s no question that the story of Jezebel fuels the negative stereotypes of women. But the truth is, we don’t like men who act this way either.
Still, it’s interesting that two centuries after her death, Jezebel’s story is written to portray her as the definition of all that is evil. Scholars call this revisionist scholarship. Canadian scholar Stanley B. Frost observes that Jezebel has been “tried and condemned without mercy” and that she “does not deserve the censure.”
Furthermore, Frost points to other foreign women in the Bible, such as Rehab, Jael, and Ruth, who receive approbation even while engaging in treason, murder, and seduction. What’s the difference? While the other women submit to the faith of their new countries, Jezebel continues to practice the faith of her childhood and will not become a person who worships the God of Israel. Jezebel’s childhood god was Baal. The story of Jezebel is designed by the storyteller to promote Yahwehism. This, say scholars, is the whole reason for the story. And it explains why Jezebel is reviled while other foreign wives are honored. The Hebrew nation needed a reminder of how powerful their own God, Yahweh, was.
With this in mind, let’s look at the crimes attributed to Jezebel:
- She kills prophets. But wait a minute! The prophet Elijah, who is her counterpart in the story, annihilates Baal’s prophets with total success while Jezebel kills only a portion of Yahweh’s prophets.
- She belittles her husband, the king. Hold on! The first things we know about Jezebel are that she is described as a daughter and a wife. That’s Biblical shorthand for patriarchy. Remember that she is only credited with 5 sentences in the Bible? Perhaps that is because the writer didn’t want to allow Jezebel, a woman in a world hostile to women, much room to speak or to act.
- She orders the unjust murder of a neighbor. And yet! A discovery of an older story in which the murder of Naboth is actually attributed to King Ahab, not Jezebel, has been made. That means, say scholars, that four centuries later the editors (who were intent on protesting intermarriage) shifted the blame to Jezebel. They manipulated and maligned Jezebel to personify the evils of foreign wives. This is revisionist scholarship at its best.
You have likely heard the phrase, “History is written by the victors”. Phyllis Tribble says that this is a Hebrew text to promote adherence to Yahweh. Had it been written by a Phoenician, Jezebel would have been held in high esteem for remaining faithful to her religious convictions, and supporting her husband in his royal quest for land.
And look at what has happened over the millennium to her: Jezebel’s story has fueled the negative stereotypes of women. Jezebel is easily cast as a foreign seductress who corrupts a king of Israel. She is the perfect target for patriarchal biblical religion. And she is the quintessential temptress and manipulator that perpetuates sexism.
What can we learn from Jezebel? I think the lesson is clear: get the facts straight before you decide a woman is a lying, conniving, seductive, and power-hungry person. Who is the storyteller and what does it benefit him/her to tell such a story about her?
And for all of us, regardless of our power, gender, or position, Jezebel is a good reminder to find power in honesty, generosity, graciousness, and love.
Curtis Higgs, Liz. “Bad Girls of the Bible and what we can learn from them”. Waterbrook Publishers, 1999.
Hollyday, Joyce. “Clothed with the Sun; Biblical Women Social Justice and Us”. Westminster Press, 1994.
Trible, Phyllis. “The Odd Couple: Elijah and Jezebel”.
West, James King. “Introduction to the Old Testament” second edition. MacMillian Press, 1981.