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Red locks in John Byam Liston Shaw’s

Israel’s most accursed queen
carefully fixes a pink rose in her red
locks in John Byam Liston Shaw’s
“Jezebel” from 1896. Jezebel’s
reputation as the most dangerous
seductress in the Bible stems from
her final appearance: her husband
King Ahab is dead; her son has been
murdered by Jehu. As Jehu’s chariot
races toward the palace to kill
Jezebel, she “painted her eyes with
kohl and dressed her hair, and she
looked out of the window” (2 Kings
9:30). Image: Russell-Cotes Art
Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth,
UK/Bridgeman Art Library.
How Bad Was Jezebel?
Read Janet Howe Gaines’s full article about Jezebel in the Bible and later
depictions as it appeared in Bible Review
Janet Howe Gaines • 03/19/2018 (03/19/2018T11:30)
Who Was Jezebel?
For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled
with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of
women. This ancient queen has been denounced as a
murderer, prostitute and enemy of God, and her name has
been adopted for lingerie lines and World War II missiles
alike. But just how depraved was Jezebel?
In recent years, scholars have tried to reclaim the shadowy
female figures whose tales are often only partially told in the
Bible. Rehabilitating Jezebel’s stained reputation is an
arduous task, however, for she is a difficult woman to like.
She is not a heroic fighter like Deborah, a devoted sister like
Miriam or a cherished wife like Ruth. Jezebel cannot even be
compared with the Bible’s other bad girls—Potiphar’s wife
and Delilah—for no good comes from Jezebel’s deeds. These other women may be bad, but Jezebel
is the worst.
Yet there is more to this complex ruler than the standard interpretation would allow. To attain a
more positive assessment of Jezebel’s troubled reign and a deeper understanding of her role, we
must evaluate the motives of the Biblical authors who condemn the queen. Furthermore, we must
reread the narrative from the queen’s vantage point. As we piece together the world in which
Jezebel lived, a fuller picture of this fascinating woman begins to emerge. The story is not a pretty
one, and some—perhaps most—readers will remain disturbed by Jezebel’s actions. But her
character might not be as dark as we are accustomed to thinking. Her evilness is not always as
obvious, undisputed and unrivaled as the Biblical writer wants it to appear.
In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural
contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early
Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.
The legacy of Jezebel. “In the last
days, the daughters of Jezebel shall
rule over nations,” warns the
scrawling inscription that surrounds
the face of Jezebel in this 1993
painting by American folk artist
Robert Roberg. The apocalyptic
message seems to associate the
Biblical queen with the “mother of
whores and of abominations” who
“rules over the kings of the earth”
and who has committed fornication
with them (Revelation 17:2, 5, 18).
Jezebel’s name appears once in the
New Testament Book of Revelation,
Ahab and Jezebel in the Bible
The story of Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab of Israel, is recounted in several brief
passages scattered throughout the Books of Kings. Scholars generally identify 1 and 2 Kings as part
of the Deuteronomistic History, attributed either to a single author or to a group of authors and
editors collectively known as the Deuteronomist. One of the main purposes of the entire
Deuteronomistic History, which includes the seven books from Deuteronomy through 2 Kings, is
to explain Israel’s fate in terms of its apostasy. As the Israelites settle into the Promised Land,
establish a monarchy and separate into a northern and a southern kingdom after the reign of
Solomon, God’s chosen people continually go astray. They sin against Yahweh in many ways, the
worst of which is by worshiping alien deities. The first commandments from Sinai demand
monotheism, but the people are attracted to foreign gods and goddesses. When Jezebel enters the
scene in the ninth century B.C.E., she provides a perfect opportunity for the Bible writer to teach a
moral lesson about the evil outcomes of idolatry, for she is a foreign idol worshiper who seems to
be the power behind her husband. From the Deuteronomist’s viewpoint, Jezebel embodies
everything that must be eliminated from Israel so that the purity of the cult of Yahweh will not be
further contaminated.
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.
When Jezebel comes to Israel, she brings her foreign gods and
goddesses—especially Baal and his consort Asherah
(Canaanite Astarte, often translated in the Bible as “sacred
post”)—with her. This seems to have an immediate effect on
her new husband, for just as soon as the queen is introduced,
we are told that Ahab builds a sanctuary for Baal in the very
heart of Israel, within his capital city of Samaria: “He took as
wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Phoenicians, and
he went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an
altar to Baal in the temple of Baal which he built in Samaria.
Ahab also made a ‘sacred post’” (1 Kings 16:31–33). a 2
where it is attached to an
unrepentant prophetess who has
beguiled the people “to practice
fornication and to eat food sacrificed
to idols” (Revelation 2:20).
Yet the Book of Kings offers no hint
of sexual impropriety on Queen
Jezebel’s part, argues author
Gaines. She is, if anything, a toodevoted wife, willing even to commit
murder in order to help her husband
maintain his authority as king.
Image: Robert Roberg
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. She
represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the
one extolled in characters such as Ruth the Moabite, who is
also a foreigner. Ruth surrenders her identity and submerges
herself in Israelite ways; she adopts the religious and social
norms of the Israelites and is universally praised for her
conversion to God. Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her
own beliefs.
Jezebel’s marriage to Ahab was a political alliance. The union provided both peoples with military
protection from powerful enemies as well as valuable trade routes: Israel gained access to the
Phoenician ports; Phoenicia gained passage through Israel’s central hill country to Transjordan
and especially to the King’s Highway, the heavily traveled inland route connecting the Gulf of
Aqaba in the south with Damascus in the north. But although the marriage is sound foreign policy,
it is intolerable to the Deuteronomist because of Jezebel’s idol worship.
The Bible does not comment on what the young Jezebel thinks about marrying Ahab and moving
to Israel. Her feelings are of no interest to the Deuteronomist, nor are they germane to the story’s
didactic purpose.
To learn more about Biblical women with slighted traditions, take a look at the Bible History
Daily feature Scandalous Women in the Bible, which includes articles on Mary
Magdalene and Lilith.
We are not told whether Ethbaal consults his daughter, if she departs Phoenicia with trepidation
or enthusiasm, or what she expects from her role as ruler. Like other highborn daughters of her
time, Jezebel is probably a pawn, packed off to the highest bidder.
Israel’s topography, customs and religion would certainly be very different from those of Jezebel’s
native land. Instead of the lushness of the moist seacoast, she would find Israel to be an arid,
desert nation. Furthermore, the Torah shows the Israelites to be an ethnocentric, xenophobic
people. In Biblical narratives, foreigners are sometimes unwelcome, and prejudice against
intermarriage is seen since the day Abraham sought a woman from his own people to marry his
son Isaac (Genesis 24:4). In contrast to the familiar gods and goddesses that Jezebel is
accustomed to petitioning, Israel is home to a state religion featuring a lone, masculine deity.
Perhaps Jezebel optimistically believes that she can encourage religious tolerance and give
Glass jewels and glitter
adorn the veiled crown of
Jezebel and twisted
branches speckled with
paint form the queen’s
body in this sculpture by
Bessie Harvey. Photo by
Ron Lee, The Silver
Factory/The Arnett
Collection, Atlanta, GA
Detail of veiled crown of Jezebel
(compare with photo of veiled
crown of Jezebel). Photo by Ron
Lee, The Silver Factory/The
Arnett Collection, Atlanta, GA.
legitimacy to the worship habits of those Baalites who already reside in Israel. Perhaps Jezebel
sees herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural
pluralism, regional peace and economic prosperity.
What spurs Jezebel to action is unknown and unknowable, but the motives of the Deuteronomist
come through plainly in the text. Jezebel is a bold and impious interloper who has to be stopped.
From her own point of view, however, she is no apostate. She remains loyal to her religious
upbringing and is determined to maintain her cultural identity.
According to the Deuteronomist, however, Jezebel’s desire is not merely confined to achieving
ethnic or religious parity. She also seems driven to eliminate Israel’s faithful servants of God.
Evidence of Jezebel’s cruel desire to wipe out Yahweh worship in Israel is reported in 1 Kings 18:4,
at the Bible’s second mention of her name: “Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord.”
The threat of Jezebel is so great that later in the same chapter, the mythic prophet Elijah summons
the acolytes of Jezebel to a tournament on Mt. Carmel to determine which deity is supreme: God
or Baal.
Whichever deity is capable of setting a sacrificial bull on fire will be the winner, the one true God.
It is only then that we learn just how many followers of Jezebel’s gods and goddesses are near her
at court. Elijah challenges them: “Now summon all Israel to join me at Mount Carmel, together
with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah who
eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). Whether the grand total of 850 is a symbolic or literal
number, it is impressive.
Yet their superior numbers can do nothing to ensure victory; nor can petitions to their god. The
prophets of Baal “performed a hopping dance about the altar” and “kept raving” (1 Kings 18:26,
29) all day long in a vain attempt to rouse Baal. They even gash themselves with knives and whoop
it up in a heightened emotional state, hoping to incite Baal to unleash a great fire. But Baal does
not respond to the ecstatic ranting of Jezebel’s prophets. At the end of the day, it is Elijah’s single
plea to God that is answered.
Learn about the excavations at Jezreel in “Jezreel Expedition 2016: You Don’t Have to Be
an Archaeologist to Dig the Bible” and “Jezreel Expedition Sheds New Light on
Ahab and Jezebel’s City.”
Standing alone before Jezebel’s host of visionaries, Elijah cries out: “O Lord, God of Abraham,
Isaac, and Israel! Let it be known today that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant, and
that I have done all these things at Your bidding. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people
may know that You, O Lord, are God; for You have turned their hearts backward” (1 Kings 18:36–
37). At once, “fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones
and the earth;…When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out:
‘The Lord alone is God, the Lord alone is God!’” (1 Kings 18:38–39). Elijah’s solitary entreaty to
Yahweh serves as a foil to the hours of appeals made by Baal’s followers.
Jezebel herself is absent during this all-male event. Nevertheless, her presence is felt and the
Deuteronomist’s message is clear. Jezebel’s deities and the huge number of prophets loyal to her
are powerless against the omnipotent Yahweh, who is proven by the tournament to be ruler of all
the forces of nature.
Ironically, at the conclusion of the Carmel episode, Elijah proves capable of the same murderous
inclinations that have previously characterized Jezebel, though it is only she that the
Deuteronomist criticizes. After winning the Carmel contest, Elijah immediately orders the
assembly to capture all of Jezebel’s prophets. Elijah emphatically declares: “Seize the prophets of
Baal, let not a single one of them get away” (1 Kings 18:40). Elijah leads his 450 prisoners to the
Wadi Kishon, where he slaughters them (1 Kings 18:40). Though they will never meet in person,
Elijah and Jezebel are engaged in a hard-fought struggle for religious supremacy. Here Elijah
reveals that he and Jezebel possess a similar religious fervor, though their loyalties differ greatly.
They are also equally determined to eliminate one another’s followers, even if it means murdering
them. The difference is that the Deuteronomist decries Jezebel’s killing of God’s servants (at 1
Kings 18:4) but now sanctions Elijah’s decision to massacre hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets.
Indeed, once Elijah kills Jezebel’s prophets, God rewards him by sending a much-needed rain,
ending a three-year drought in Israel. There is a definite double standard here. Murder seems to
be accepted, even venerated, as long as it is done in the name of the right deity.
After Elijah’s triumph on Mt. Carmel, King Ahab returns home to give his queen the news that
Baal is defeated, Yahweh is the undisputed master of the universe and Jezebel’s prophets are dead.
Jezebel sends Elijah a menacing message, threatening to slaughter him just as he has slaughtered
her prophets: “Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like
one of them” (1 Kings 19:2). The Septuagint, a third- to second-century B.C.E. Greek translation of
the Hebrew Bible, prefaces Jezebel’s threat with an additional insult to the prophet. Here Jezebel
establishes herself as Elijah’s equal: “If you are Elijah, so I am Jezebel” (1 Kings 19:2 ). In both
versions the queen’s meaning is unmistakable: Elijah should fear for his life.
These are the first words the Deuteronomist records from Jezebel, and they are filled with venom.
Unlike the many voiceless Biblical wives and concubines whose muteness reminds us of the
powerlessness of women in ancient Israel, Jezebel has a tongue. While her verbal acuity shows
that she is more daring, clever and independent than most women of her time, her withering
words also demonstrate her sinfulness. Jezebel transforms the precious instrument of language
into an evil device to blaspheme God and defy the prophet.
So frightened is Elijah by Jezebel’s threatening words that he flees to Mt. Horeb (Sinai). Despite
what he has witnessed on Carmel, Elijah seems to falter in his faith that the Almighty will protect
him. As a literary device, Elijah’s sojourn at Horeb gives the Deuteronomist an opportunity to
imply parallels between the careers of Moses and Elijah, thus reinforcing Elijah’s exalted
reputation. Nevertheless, the timing of Elijah’s flight south makes him look suspiciously like he is
afraid of a mere woman.
Jezebel indeed shows herself as a person to be feared in the next episode. The story of Naboth, an
Israelite who owns a plot of land adjacent to the royal palace in Jezreel, provides an excellent
occasion for the Deuteronomist to propose that Jezebel is not only the foe of Israel’s God, but an
enemy of the government.
In 1 Kings 21:2, Ahab requests that Naboth give him his vineyard: “Give me your vineyard, so that
I may have it as a vegetable garden, since it is right next to my palace.” Ahab promises to pay
Naboth for the land or to provide him with an even better vineyard. But at 1 Kings 21:3, Naboth
refuses to sell or trade: “The Lord forbid that I should give up to you what I have inherited from
my fathers!” The king whines and refuses to eat after Naboth’s rebuff: “Ahab went home dispirited
and sullen because of the answer that Naboth the Jezreelite had given him…He lay down on his
bed and turned away his face, and he would not eat” (1 Kings 21:4). Apparently perturbed by her
husband’s political impotence and sulking demeanor, Jezebel steps in, proudly asserting: “Now is
the time to show yourself king over Israel. Rise and eat something, and be cheerful; I will get the
vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you” (1 Kings 21:7).
Naboth is fully within his rights to hold onto his family plot. Israelite law and custom dictate that
his family should maintain their land (nachalah) in perpetuity (Numbers 27:5–11). As a Torahbound king of Israel, Ahab should understand Naboth’s legitimate desire to keep his inheritance.
Jezebel, on the other hand, hails from Phoenicia, where a monarch’s whim is often tantamount to
law. Having been raised in a land of absolute autocrats, where few dared to question a ruler’s
wish or decree, Jezebel might naturally feel annoyance and frustration at Naboth’s resistance to
his sovereign’s proposal. In this context, Jezebel’s reaction becomes more understandable, though
b 3
Elijah’s challenge of “the 450 prophets of
Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who
eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19) is
depicted in two scenes on the walls of the
third-century C.E. synagogue at DuraEuropos in modern Syria. According to 1
Kings 18, Elijah proposed that both he and
the prophets of Baal lay a single bull on an
altar and then pray to their respective
deities to ignite the sacrificial animal.
Whichever deity responded would be
deemed the more powerful and the one
true God. In the painting shown here, the
priests of Baal gather around their altar,
crying out, “O, Baal, answer us,” but their
sacrifice remains untouched. The small
man standing inside the altar in this
painting does not appear in the Biblical
story, but rather in a later midrash.
According to this midrash, when the
prophets of Baal realized they would fail, a
man named Hiel agreed to hide within the
altar to ignite the heifer from below. The
Israelite God foiled their plan by sending a
snake to bite Hiel, who subsequently died.
Image: E. Goodenough, Symbolism in the
Dura Synogogue (Princeton Univ. Press)
perhaps no more admirable, for she behaves according to her upbringing and expectations
regarding royal prerogative.
Four outstanding scholars look closely at a number of prominent women in the Bible and the
men to whom they relate in Feminist Approaches to the Bible, published by the Biblical
Archaeology Society. Learn more >>
Without Ahab’s direct knowledge, Jezebel writes letters
to her townsmen, enlisting them in an elaborate ruse to
frame the innocent Naboth. To ensure their compliance,
she signs Ahab’s name and stamps the letters with the
king’s seal. Jezebel encourages the townsmen to
publicly (and falsely) accuse Naboth of blaspheming
God and king. “Then take him out and stone him to
death,” she commands (1 Kings 21:10). So Naboth is
murdered, and the vineyard automatically escheats to
the throne, as is customary when a person is found
guilty of a serious crime. If Naboth has relatives, they
are now in no position to protest the passing of their
family land to Ahab.
Yet the details of Jezebel’s underhanded plot against
Naboth do not always ring true. The Bible maintains
that “the elders and nobles who lived in [Naboth’s]
town…did as Jezebel had instructed them” (1 Kings
21:11). If the trickster queen is able to enlist the support
of so many people, none of whom betrays her, to kill a
man whom they have probably known all their lives and
whom they realize is innocent, then she has astonishing
The fantastical tale of Naboth’s death—in which something could go wrong at any moment but
somehow does not—stretches the reader’s credulity. If Jezebel were as hateful as the
Deuteronomist claims, surely at least one nobleman in Jezreel would have refused to assist in the
nefarious scheme. Surely one individual would have had the courage to expose the detestable deed
and become the Deuteronomist’s hero by spoiling the plan.
Perhaps the Biblical compiler is using Jezebel as a
scapegoat for his outrage at her influence over the king,
Shown here, Elijah and his followers have
easily conjured up a blazing fire, which
engulfs their white bull. Seeing the flames,
the Israelites call out, “Yahweh alone is
God, Yahweh alone is God” (1 Kings
Jezebel herself is not present during the
event. And yet Elijah’s contest is a direct
challenge to the queen who has brought
the worship of Baal to the forefront in Israel
by inviting the pagan prophets to the
palace (compare with painting of the
priests of Baal). Image: The Jewish
Mesuem, NY/Art Resource, NY.
Four paleo-Hebrew letters—two
just below the winged sun disk
at center, two at bottom left and
right—spell out the name YZBL,
or Jezebel, on this seal. The
Phoenician design, the dating of
the seal to the ninth or early
eighth century B.C.E. and, of
course, the name, have led
scholars to speculate that the
Biblical queen may once have
used this gray opal to seal her
documents. In the Phoenician
meaning that she herself is being framed in the tale.
Traditionally thought to be a narrative about how
innocent Naboth is falsely accused, the story could
instead be an exaggeration of fact, fabricated to
demonstrate the Deuteronomist’s continued wrath
against Jezebel.
As a result of this incident, Elijah reappears on the
scene. First Yahweh tells Elijah how Ahab will die: “The
word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Go down
and confront King Ahab of Israel who [resides] in
Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard; he has gone
down there to take possession of it. Say to him, “Thus said the Lord: Would you murder and take
possession? Thus said the Lord: In the very place where the dogs lapped up Naboth’s blood, the
dogs will lap up your blood too”’” (1 Kings 21:17–19). But when Elijah confronts Ahab, the prophet
predicts instead how the queen will die: “The dogs shall devour Jezebel in the field of Jezreel” (1
Kings 21:23). Poetic justice, as the Deuteronomist sees it, demands that Jezebel end up as dog
food. Ashamed of what has happened and fearful of the future, Ahab humbles himself by assuming
outward signs of mourning, fasting and donning sackcloth. Prayer accompanies fasting, whether
the Bible explicitly says so or not, so we may assume that Ahab raises his penitential voice to a
forgiving Yahweh. For once, Jezebel does not speak; her lack of repentance is implicit in her
After the Death of Ahab: The Ill Repute of Jezebel in the Bible
When Jezebel’s name is mentioned again, the Bible writer makes his most alarming accusation
against her. Ahab has died, as has the couple’s eldest son, who followed his father to the throne.
Their second son, Joram, rules. But even though Israel has a sitting monarch, a servant of the
prophet Elisha crowns Jehu, Joram’s military commander, king of Israel and commissions Jehu to
eradicate the House of Ahab: “I anoint you king over the people of the Lord, over Israel. You shall
strike down the House of Ahab your master; thus will I avenge on Jezebel the blood of My servants
the prophets, and the blood of the other servants of the Lord” (2 Kings 9:6–7).
King Joram and General Jehu meet on the battlefield. Unaware
that he is about to be usurped by his military commander, Joram
calls out: “Is all well, Jehu?” Jehu responds: “How can all be well
as long as your mother Jezebel carries on her countless harlotries
and sorceries?” (2 Kings 9:22). Jehu then shoots an arrow
through Joram’s heart and, in a moment of stinging irony, orders
the body to be dumped on Naboth’s land.
This ivory comes from Arslan
Tash, in northern Syria. The
most common motif found on
Phoenician ivories, the
woman at the window may
represent the goddess
Astarte (Biblical Asherah)
looking out a palace window.
Perhaps this widespread
imagery influenced the
Biblical author’s description of
Jezebel, a follower of Astarte,
Ivory fragment discovered in
Samaria (compare with photo
of ivory from Arslan Tash).
Photo: Israel Antiquities
language, Jezebel’s name may
have meant “Where is the
Prince?” which was the cry of
Baal’s subjects. But the spelling
of the Phoenician name has
been altered in the Hebrew
Bible, perhaps in order to read
as “Where is the excrement
(zebel, manure)?”—a reference
to Elijah’s prediction that “her
carcass shall be like dung on the
ground” (2 Kings 9:36).
Collection Israel Museum/Photo
Zev Radovan.
From these words alone—uttered by the man who is about to kill
Jezebel’s son—stems Jezebel’s long-standing reputation as a
witch and a whore. The Bible occasionally connects harlotry and
idol worship, as in Hosea 1:3, where the prophet is told to marry
a “wife of whoredom,” who symbolically represents the people
who “stray from following the Lord” (Hosea 1:3). Lusting after
false “lords” can be seen as either adulterous or idolatrous. Yet
throughout the millennia, Jezebel’s harlotry has not been
identified as mere dolatry. Rather, she has been considered the
slut of Samaria, the lecherous wife of a pouting potentate. The
1938 film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis as the destructive
temptress who leads a man to his death, is evidence that this ancient judgment against Jezebel has
been transmitted to this century. Nevertheless, the Bible never offers evidence that Jezebel is
unfaithful to her husband while he is alive or loose in her morals after his death. In fact, she is
always shown to be a loyal and helpful spouse, though her brand of assistance is deplored by the
Deuteronomist. Jehu’s charge of harlotry is unsubstantiated, but it has stuck anyway and her
reputation has been egregiously damaged by the allegation.
When Jezebel herself finally appears again in the pages of the Bible, it is for her death scene. Jehu,
with the blood of Joram still on his hands, races his chariot into Jezreel to continue the
insurrection by assassinating Jezebel. Ironically, this is her finest hour, though the Deuteronomist
intends the queen to appear haughty and imperious to the end. Realizing that Jehu is on his way to
kill her, Jezebel does not disguise herself and flee the city, as a more cowardly person might do.
Instead, she calmly prepares for his arrival by performing three acts: “She painted her eyes with
kohl and dressed her hair, and she looked out of the window” (2 Kings 9:30). The traditional
interpretation is that Jezebel primps and coquettishly looks out the window in an effort to seduce
Jehu, that she wishes to win his favor and become part of his harem in order to save her own life,
such treachery indicating Jezebel’s dastardly betrayal of deceased family members. According to
this reading, Jezebel sheds familial loyalty as easily as a snake sheds its skin in an attempt to
ensure her continued pleasure and safety at court.
looking out the palace window
as Jehu approached (2 Kings
9:30). Photo: Erich Lessing
Applying eye makeup (kohl) and brushing one’s hair are often connected to flirting in Hebraic
thinking. Isaiah 3:16, Jeremiah 4:30, Ezekiel 23:40 and Proverbs 6:24–26 provide examples of
women who bat their painted eyes to lure innocent men into adulterous beds. Black kohl is widely
incorporated in Bible passages as a symbol of feminine deception and trickery, and its use to paint
the area above and below the eyelids is generally considered part of a woman’s arsenal of artifice.
In Jezebel’s case, however, the cosmetic is more than just an attempt to accentuate the eyes.
Jezebel is donning the female version of armor as she prepares to do battle. She is a woman
warrior, waging war in the only way a woman can. Whatever fear she may have of Jehu is
camouflaged by her war paint.
Her grooming continues as she dresses her hair, symbol of a woman’s seductive power. 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.
The third action Jezebel takes before Jehu arrives is to sit at her upper window. The
Deuteronomist may be deliberately conjuring up images to associate Jezebel with other disfavored
women. For example, contained within Deborah’s victory ode is the story of the unfortunate
mother of the enemy general Sisera. Waiting at home, Sisera’s unnamed mother looks out the
window for her son to return: “Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, behind the lattice she
whined” (Judges 5:28). Her ladies-in-waiting express the hope that Sisera is detained because he
is raping Israelite women and collecting booty (Judges 5:29–30). In truth, Sisera is already dead,
his skull shattered by Jael and her tent peg (Judges 5:24–27). King David’s wife Michal also looks
through her window, watching her husband dance around the Ark of the Covenant as it is
triumphantly brought into Jerusalem, “and she despised him for it” (2 Samuel 6:16). Michal does
not understand the people’s euphoria over the arrival of the Ark in David’s new capital; she can
only feel anger that her husband is dancing about like one of the “riffraff” (2 Samuel 6:20).
Generations later, Jezebel also appears at her window, conjuring up images of Sisera’s mother and
Michal, two unpopular Biblical women.
The image of the woman at the window also suggests fertility goddesses, abominations to the
Deuteronomist and well known to the general public in ancient Israel. Ivory plaques, dating to the
Iron Age and depicting a woman peering through a window, have been discovered in Khorsabad,
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Nimrud and Samaria, Jezebel’s second home. The connection between idol worship, goddesses
and the woman seated at the window would not have been lost on the Deuteronomist’s audience.
Sitting at her window, Jezebel is seemingly rendered powerless while the active patriarchal world
functions beyond her reach. But a more sympathetic reading of the situation suggests that
Jezebel has determined the superior angle from which she will be viewed by Jehu, thus giving the
queen mastery of the situation.
Positioned at the balcony window, the queen does not remain silent as the usurper Jehu arrives
into town. She taunts him by calling him Zimri, the name of the unscrupulous predecessor of
Omri, Jezebel’s father-in-law. Zimri ruled Israel for only seven days after murdering the king
(Elah) and usurping the throne. “Is all well, Zimri, murderer of your master?” Jezebel asks Jehu (2
Kings 9:31). Jezebel knows that all is not well, and her sarcastic, sharp-tongued insult of Jehu
disproves any interpretation that she has dressed in her finest to seduce him. She has contempt for
Jehu. Unlike many Biblical wives, who remain silent, Jezebel has a distinct voice, and she is
unafraid to articulate her view of Jehu as a renegade and regicide.
To demonstrate his authority, Jehu orders Jezebel’s eunuchs to throw her out of the window:
“They threw her down; and her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled
her. Then [Jehu] went inside and ate and drank” (2 Kings 9:33–34). In this highly symbolic
political action, the once mighty Jezebel is shoved out of her high station to the ground below. Her
ejection from the window represents an eternal demotion from her proper place as one of the
Bible’s most influential women.
Jezebel’s body is left in the street as Jehu celebrates his victory. Later, perhaps because the new
monarch does not wish to begin his reign with such a disrespectful act against a woman, or
perhaps because he realizes the danger in setting a precedent for ill treatment of a dead ruler’s
remains, Jehu orders Jezebel’s burial: “Attend to that cursed woman and bury her, for she was a
king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34). Jezebel is not to be remembered as a queen or even as the wife of
a king. She is only the daughter of a foreign despot. This is intended as another blow by the
Deuteronomist, an attempt to marginalize a formidable woman. When the king’s men come to
bury Jezebel, it is too late: “All they found of her were the skull, the feet, and the hands” (2 Kings
9:35). Jehu’s men inform the king that Elijah’s prophecies have been fulfilled: “It is just as the
Lord spoke through His servant Elijah the Tishbite: The dogs shall devour the flesh of Jezebel in
the field of Jezreel; and the carcass of Jezebel shall be like dung on the ground, in the field of
Jezreel, so that none will be able to say: ‘This was Jezebel’” (2 Kings 9:36–37).
In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural
contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early
Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.
With its green hills, fecund grapevines and
abundant flowers, the scene depicted in
this early-17th-century silk embroidery
would appear peaceful—if not for the
gruesome detail at left, which shows a
woman being pushed out the palace
window to a pack of hungry dogs.
According to 2 Kings 9, Jehu orders the
palace eunuchs to throw Jezebel out a
window. When he later commands his men
to bury her, little remains: “All they found of
her were the skull, the feet and the hands”
(2 Kings 9:35). Jehu’s men inform the new
king that Elijah’s prophecies have been
fulfilled: The queen’s corpse has been
devoured by dogs; her body is mutilated
beyond recognition, so that “none will be
able to say ‘This was Jezebel’” (2 Kings
9:37). Death of Jezebel/Holburne Museum,
Bath, UK/Bridgeman Art Library
How Bad Was Jezebel?
While the Biblical storyteller wants the final images of
Jezebel to memorialize her as a brazen hussy, a
sympathetic interpretation of her behavior has more
credibility. When all a person has left in life is the way
she faces her death, her final actions speak volumes
about her character. Jezebel departs this earth every
inch a queen. Now an aging grandmother, it is highly
unlikely that she has libidinous designs on Jehu or even
entertains the notion of becoming the young king’s
paramour. As the daughter, wife, mother, mother-inlaw and grandmother of kings, Jezebel would
understand court politics well enough to realize that
Jehu has far more to gain by killing her than by keeping
her alive. Alive, the dowager queen could always serve
as a rallying point for anyone unhappy with Jehu’s
reign. The queen harbors no illusions about her chances of surviving Jehu’s bloody coup d’état.
How bad was Jezebel? The Deuteronomist uses every possible argument to make the case against
her. When Ahab dies, the Deuteronomist is determined to show that “there never was anyone like
Ahab, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to the Lord, at the instigation of his
wife Jezebel” (1 Kings 21:25). It is interesting that Ahab is not held responsible for his own
actions. He goes astray because of a wicked woman. Someone has to bear the writer’s
vituperation concerning Israel’s apostasy, and Jezebel is chosen for the job.
Every Biblical word condemns her: Jezebel is an outspoken woman in a time when females have
little status and few rights; a foreigner in a xenophobic land; an idol worshiper in a place with a
Yahweh-based, state-sponsored religion; a murderer and meddler in political affairs in a nation of
strong patriarchs; a traitor in a country where no ruler is above the law; and a whore in the
territory where the Ten Commandments originate.
Yet there is much to admire in this ancient queen. In a kinder analysis, Jezebel emerges as a fiery
and determined person, with an intensity matched only by Elijah’s. She is true to her native
religion and customs. She is even more loyal to her husband. Throughout her reign, she boldly
exercises what power she has. And in the end, having lived her life on her own terms, Jezebel faces
certain death with dignity.
“How Bad Was Jezebel?” by Janet Howe Gaines originally appeared in Bible Review, October 2000. The article was
first republished in Bible History Daily in June 2010.
Janet Howe Gaines is a specialist in the Bible as literature in the Department
of English at the University of New Mexico. She recently published Music in the
Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages (Southern Illinois Univ. Press).
a. Asherah is the Biblical name for Astarte, a Canaanite fertility goddess and consort of Baal. The
term asherah, which appears at least 50 times in the Hebrew Bible (it is often translated as
“sacred post”), is used to refer to three manifestations of this goddess: an image (probably a
figurine) of the goddess (eg., 2 Kings 21:7); a tree (Deuteronomy 16:21); and a tree trunk, or sacred
post (Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3). See Ruth Hestrin, “Understanding Asherah—Exploring Semitic
Iconography,” BAR, September/October 1991.
b. In the Septuagint, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are all included in Kings, which therefore
has four books, 1–4 Kings.
c. A similar statement is made by the unnamed prophet who anoints Jehu king of Israel in 2 Kings
1. For a fuller treatment of Jezebel, see Janet Howe Gaines, Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel
Through the Ages (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1999).
2. All references to the Bible, unless otherwise noted, are to Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures: The
New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 1985).
3. The translation of the Greek text is my own. According to Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton (The
Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, 3rd ed. [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990], p.
478), the translation of the entire line is “And Jezabel sent to Eliu, and said, If thou art Eliu and I
am Jezabel, God do so to me, and more also, if I do not make thy life by this time tomorrow as the
life of one of them.”
4. For a discussion of Phoenician customs, see George Rawlinson, History of Phoenicia (London:
Longmans, 1889).
5. As corroborating evidence, see the story of David’s plot to kill Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel
11:14–17. Like Jezebel, David writes letters that contain details of his scheme. David intends to
enlist help from the entire regiment as confederates who are to “draw back from” Uriah, but Joab
makes a shrewd and subtle change in the plan so that it is less likely to be discovered.
6. Eleanor Ferris Beach, “The Samaria Ivories, Marzeah, and Biblical Text,” Biblical Archaeologist
56:2 (1993), pp. 94–104.
7. For an excellent, detailed discussion of Biblical imagery concerning women seated at windows,
see Nehama Aschkenasy, Woman at the Window (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1998).
8. For a reassessment of Ahab’s character based on the archaeological remains of his building
projects and extrabiblical texts, see Ephraim Stern, “The Many Masters of Dor, Part 2: How Bad
Was Ahab?” BAR, March/April 1993.
Permalink: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/people-in-the-bible/how-bad-was-jezebel/
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