Jezebel: Great Sluts of History

Jezebel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard Giclee. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her name has come to represent the symbol of an uppity, slutty woman. It’s the name of a movie, a butterfly, and of a popular website. But who was Jezebel, anyway?

By marrying Ahab, King of Israel, Jezebel became Queen – and a very powerful one.

From How Bad Was Jezebel? (Biblical Archaelogy Review):

As the Books of Kings recount, the princess Jezebel is brought to the northern kingdom of Israel to wed the newly crowned King Ahab, son of Omri (1 Kings 16:31). Her father is Ethbaal of Tyre, king of the Phoenicians, a group of Semites whose ancestors were Canaanites. Phoenicia consisted of a loose confederation of city-states, including the sophisticated maritime trade centers of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. The Bible writer’s antagonism stems primarily from Jezebel’s religion. The Phoenicians worshiped a swarm of gods and goddesses, chief among them Baal, the general term for “lord” given to the head fertility and agricultural god of the Canaanites. As king of Phoenicia, it is likely that Ethbaal was also a high priest or had other important religious duties. According to the first-century C.E. historian Josephus, who drew on a Greek translation of the now-lost Annals of Tyre, Ethbaal served as a priest of Astarte, the primary Phoenician goddess. Jezebel, as the king’s daughter, may have served as a priestess as she was growing up. In any case, she was certainly raised to honor the deities of her native land.

<snip> Jezebel does not accept Ahab’s God, Yahweh. Rather, she leads Ahab to tolerate Baal. This is why she is vilified by the Deuteronomist, whose goal is to stamp out polytheism.

The LORD was a hard sell in 9th Century BC. If you read Numbers and Deuteronomy, they’re full of rules that are a beast to carry out. Plus his prophets are always smiting and cursing people, or bringing down she-bears to rip apart little boys. Additionally, there was a big theological as well as political split between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Each of those countries claimed to be worshiping the One True God in The Only Right Way, and claiming the other Jewish people had gone astray.

Map showing the Kingdoms of Israel (blue) and ...

Map showing the Kingdoms of Israel (blue) and Judah (orange), ancient levant borders and ancient cities such as Urmomium and Jerash. The map shows the region in the 9th century BCE. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the meantime, the native peoples of the area had long worshiped other gods and goddesses; deities who were more tolerant and fun than the jealous and somewhat neurotic LORD. It was natural for them to return to the old ways, and natural for Jezebel, who may herself have been a priestess, to hold onto her own religious upbringing when she moved into the country next door, but Elijah didn’t see it that way.

Jezebel Wasn’t One to Weep and Wail

One of the other things Jezebel is accused of, in the Biblical story, is setting up a man named Naboth who refused to sell land to her husband King Ahab. Ahab was so upset he:

lay on his bed, turned away his face, and would eat no food. (1 Kings 21:4)

I’m not sure what a “proper” wife would’ve done – joined her husband’s childish tantrum, until they both starved to death?  (On a side note, 2 Kings 10 states that Ahab had seventy sons in Samaria alone, so clearly Jezebel was not The Only Woman in his life. But since no other queens or concubines are mentioned by name, clearly Jezebel was the one who counted.)

If the stories are true, Jezebel personally arranged to have Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy.  He was then stoned, and voila, the coveted property dropped into Ahab’s happy lap.

She not only took action, but she used the religion she despised as a tool to make it happen. That is either stone cold wicked or amazingly chill, depending on your point of view.

Can You Say Double Standard?

One classic Biblical story is that of King David, who committed adultery with Uriah the Hittite’s wife Bathsheba and knocked her up. Next David tried to trick him (Uriah) into having sex with her so he’d assume the baby she was carrying was his. Failing that, David set Uriah up to be killed. Even by the standards of the time, these behaviors were considered unsavory all around. The death of the love child shortly after his birth was considered to be a judgement from the LORD.

Yet David would still hold God’s favor, and the next child he and Bathsheba had, Solomon, would become king after him.

Clearly, if Jezebel had Naboth set up, it was not for personal gain or power, but out of loyalty and concern for her husband. But it’s not entirely clear that she did set him up; 1 Kings states:

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal

Except, archaeologists are in possession of what appears to be Jezebel‘s seal. As a queen powerful enough to have her own seal (this was a very rare and unusual thing), she had no need to use that of her husband or forge letters in his name. She could write them in her own damn name.


Seal of Jezabel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the Bible is wrong about the seal, isn’t it possible some of the other details could be wrong, too? Maybe Jezebel was a cunning and ruthless woman, but in twenty-two years of Ahab’s rule, the two years that followed of her son Ahaziah’s rule, and then the twelve years that followed during her son Joram’s reign, these are only the two negative stories about her – that she protected the priests of Ba’al and persecuted those of the LORD, and that that she had Naboth killed.

Wore Too Much Makeup?

The third story is that when Jehu, who killed both her son, King Joram, and Ahaziah, King of Judah (in ambush after asking for a parley), came into the city of Jezreel, Jezebel “painted her eyes and adorned her head.” Some have spun this as harlotry and an attempt to seduce her son’s murderer. (Really? When if she had become queen at fourteen years old she still had to be fifty or older?) Others see it more as a display of royal pride and dignity, akin to Benjamin Guggenheim dressing in his tux in the Titanic’s final hours, so as to go down like a gentleman. She knew she too was about to be killed, but she was not the type to cringe and beg for mercy.

In any event, some of Jehu’s cohorts threw her body out of the window, he and his company trampled her body with their horses, and went in to eat and drink.  Nice guy, eh? (This is the upstanding guy who violated a parley and shot both Joram and Ahaziah in the back, according to 2 Kings 9.)

Where do the stories of Jezebel come from? In the end, history is told by the winners – or those whose writings have survived.

Elijah Was The Donald Trump of the Old Testament

You can barely turn a page without seeing the name Elijah plastered onto something or given credit for some mighty act of bravery. He is always portrayed in a heroic, righteous way, and was the top prophet of the LORD [according to himself].

Elijah pitted himself directly against Jezebel, and though he won a few battles, for the most part he lost the war, often fleeing the country or hiding out in caves.

A power struggle. And a woman was winning?! Intolerable. Later, his protege Elisha took up both Elijah’s mantle and his grudges, including the one(s) against Jezebel.  You will not be surprised to learn that Elisha also is credited with many miracles (as well as setting the bears to tear the boys into bits for teasing him).

Jezebel Was My Kind of Slut

Jezebel may not have been all sweetness and light; she
may in fact have had blood of innocent people on her hands. She also held firm to her personal beliefs, took action to get what she wanted for her husband (at a time when he was sulking like a two year old), raised as least two sons to be Kings, and met a horrific death with courage and dignity.  Despite centuries-old efforts to smear her reputation, hints of the real Jezebel shine through, and I believe that’s why most women do not consider it an insult to be called a “Jezebel.”  Frankly, I take the bad-mouthing against Jezebel by Elijah and Elisha to be more like a recommendation; they are what’s known in the writing craft as “unreliable narrators.”  In our current age we have talk radio “prophets” and other pundits who also rant and seethe over strong women.  Their derogatory language and twisting of facts speaks more to their own fears and questionable manhood, than it does to the character of the women they attack.

About the Great Sluts in History series:
What makes a woman a “slut,” anyway? From Lillith to Jezebel to Sandra Fluke, it seems that whenever women are in positions of power, open about their sexuality, “too outspoken,” or heaven forbid, all three, they are labeled sluts by some men (and sometimes other women), in an attempt to shame them into “knowing their place.” And into meekly accepting “their place.”
This series will look at flawed and wonderful heroines throughout history who insisted on “Following their own weird,” no matter how much it cost them to do so. And how, by doing so, they made the world better for all humans, of all genders, who followed them.

“…it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights… If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” ~Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995

What do you think of Jezebel? Do you think she was evil?
Who’s your favorite slut?

(This was originally published on my old blog in 2013.)