Jezebel was not a nice lady. She had many faults—she was an idolater, a tyrant, a schemer, a murderer. Oddly enough, however, perhaps the one fault she did not have was the one with which her name was to become synonymous—that of being a painted, sexually immoral temptress.
Jezebel was a native of nearby Sidon, the daughter of king Ethbaal, who functioned as the high priest of Astarte, and she married King Ahab of Israel as part of an economic alliance between the two states. When she came to Israel, along with her she brought her religion and fanatical devotion to Baal and Astarte as well as her style of governing, in which kings got whatever they wanted, regardless of the protests of their subjects. King Ahab, a weak king and a weaker husband, simply went along.
Thus very quickly Ahab’s royal staff came to include 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of the goddess Astarte. Those opposing her policies, such as the prophets of Yahweh, were quickly hunted down and put to death. This included anyone standing in the way of the king’s wishes and whims. When Naboth refused to sell to King Ahab a vineyard which had been in his family for generations, King Ahab’s reaction was to give up and sulk (1 Kings 21). Jezebel, however, was made of sterner stuff, and hailed from a land where the wishes of royalty were never questioned. Accordingly she simply plotted against Naboth, paid false witnesses to lay accusations of blasphemy against him which resulted in his execution, and then moved in to seize the vineyard after his death. Very simple. Lady McBeth had nothing on Queen Jezebel.
Her fanaticism for Baal and Astarte led to her determination to effectively wipe out any resistance, such as that spear-headed by Elijah, who spoke for the common man who was oppressed by the royal exactions, and for Yahweh whose covenant was being flouted by royal idolatry. When a contest at Mount Carmel resulted in a decisive and humiliating defeat for Baal and Astarte (and the judicial execution of their prophets) Jezebel swore revenge, and Elijah had to flee for his life, leaving the country and hiding in the Sinai peninsula. But that was not the end of it. Though depressed and dispirited, Elijah found new courage after an audience with Yahweh on Mount Horeb, and he continued to lead the spiritual resistance.
Part of that resistance movement involved anointing Jehu as king over Israel to replace idolatrous Ahab after he fell in battle at Ramoth-Gilead. Jehu was a famous charioteer, and popular with the rest of the army. When one of Yahweh’s prophets anointed him king over Israel, Jehu seized the opportunity to rebel and to take the crown for himself. He quickly assassinated Joram, Ahab’s successor, and rode to Queen Jezebel’s palace in the plain of Jezreel to finish the job. When he approached the palace, Jezebel knew that her final hour had come. She therefore “painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out of the window” (2 Kings 9:30). This last act gave rise to the expression “a painted Jezebel”—i.e. a sexually shameless woman, painting herself to tempt and seduce.
It is unlikely that this was what she had in mind. She was too shrewd a ruler to imagine that Jehu could be persuaded to show mercy and spare her life because of her physical charms. It was more likely that this was a last act of defiance, dressing up in finery and crown to meet her end with dignity, like a later ruler of Byzantium who refused to flee and who met her death remarking, “Purple makes an excellent shroud”. When Jehu saw her staring him down from the window he called up, “Who is on my side? Who?”—i.e. who up there supports this palace coup? Two of Jezebel’s servants looked out at him, signifying their support. “Throw her down!” he ordered, and they did so. As she fell to her death, some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her.
With a fine and cold-blooded disregard for her fate, Jehu walked past her bloodied corpse and entered the palace to eat and drink. After he had finished his meal, he turned to the business of burial, saying roughly to the staff there, “See now to this cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” But by then it was too late: when they went outside to remove the body, the dogs had eaten her, and they found only her skull, her feet, and the palms of her hands. The prophetic curse of Elijah, uttered long before, had found its terrible fulfillment—“In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel”. Such a horrifying fate in a culture where burial was thought absolutely necessary was the final indignity, the ultimate outpouring of divine wrath against the accursed woman.
What can we learn from the story of Jezebel? The true lesson is buried in the text a little deeper than one might think.
First of all, it is important to realize that the Biblical narrator was not writing what we would call objective history. The narrative was not impartial, and perhaps not even fair. But that’s because the narrator was not writing as an historian recording events but as a prophet denouncing infidelity. An historian (and Jezebel’s defense lawyer) would say that there was much to commend in Jezebel—and in Ahab. For consider the following.
Ahab’s marriage to the daughter of the king of Sidon was an astute move, both politically and economically. Sidon and Tyre were economic powerhouses, and Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel brought about an alliance between Israel and Sidon rich in benefits for Israel. Israel would enjoy the economic advantages from such an alliance (though these advantages seem not to have trickled down to the peasantry), as well as greater political security and stability. Moreover, by making Baal the national deity of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel were bringing their country into the religious mainstream, thereby facilitating easier political alliances with the surrounding nations.
Further, by promoting the worship of Baal, Jezebel was simply confirming the religious practice of most of the people, for the majority of the population worshipped Baal as well as Yahweh (a policy characterized by Elijah as “limping between two opinions”). Indeed, so popular was Baal worship that out of all Israel, only 7000 had refused to join in (1 Kings 19:18). Jezebel was hardly forcing her religion down the throat of an unwilling population.
One could also point to the actions and character of those opposing her. As far as Ahab was concerned, Elijah’s curse of drought on the land brought untold suffering to thousands, and it was Elijah who was the public enemy and the troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18:17). And Jehu, who finally brought down the House of Ahab, was a heartless traitor, a man who assassinated his lawful king and the aging queen mother (2 Kings 9). Jehu was a man of action, but admittedly he was not a nice man. Such was his brutality and lust for blood that God said that He would punish the House of Jehu for the bloodshed committed in Jezreel, such as his murderous purge of Baal worshippers (see Hosea 1:4). When Jezebel was murdered by Jehu, she met her end with defiance and dignity.
Why then is Jezebel to be thought “a cursed woman” and why has she gone down in the Biblical narrative as an enemy?–because the sacred narrator remembered his history.
Israel had been chosen by Yahweh and rescued from the Egyptian furnace at great cost to the Egyptian population. The Lord had cared for Israel in the wilderness despite their constant grumbling, ingratitude, and disobedience, and had given them the Promised Land. At the foot of Mount Sinai Israel had sworn to worship Yahweh alone and to keep His Law, binding themselves to Him in a sacred covenant. He had warned them of the consequences of apostasy, rebellion, and idolatry, yet they still freely entered that covenant, receiving the benefits of His love and protection. Elijah and all the other prophets were simply recalling Israel to the promises and covenant that they once had made.
This contains lessons for us today as well. Like Israel in Jezebel’s time, our land has also departed from God and His Law, reveling in things He detests and which we once detested as well. We enjoy the benefits of our apostasy, and exult in our prosperity. We happily go along with the rest of the western world in our departure from the old ways, and openly deride as trouble-makers those who rebuke our apostasy. It is as if Jezebel stirs in her long sleep.
We need to remember our history, and recall what we once had and how far we have fallen. Some voices have done the hard work of charting our long descent into madness; still other voices call us to return to God. Every generation finds Jezebel on the throne, issuing a siren’s call to forget our past, our tradition, and our history, and embrace her brave new world. But Jezebel is indeed a cursed woman. We must refuse her call and cling to the God of Elijah.