In 1962, H. W. F. Saggs published a book titled The Greatness That Was Babylon. The book summarizes the results of years of excavations in Mesopotamia which have produced a vast amount of information about ancient Babylonian civilization.
According to Wikipedia, Saggs’s aim was “to reconstruct all aspects of this lost culture, presenting the Babylonians as living people – showing their eating and drinking habits, their worship, their relationships and lifestyle.”
Babylon was a great city. “The roots of much of western civilization lie in Babylonia, the ancient civilization of south Iraq. Alexander the Great recognized the importance of its heritage and planned to make Babylon his world capital.”
The greatness of Babylon, however, has been diminished by the biblical writers and for good reason. Jeremiah portrays Babylon as a city of iniquities, “Flee from the midst of Babylon and save your lives, each of you! Do not perish for her iniquity” (Jeremiah 51:6). In the New Testament, Babylon is introduced as a prostitute, “Babylon the great the mother of prostitutes and of the vile things of the earth” (Revelation 17:5).
The same thing happened to Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who married Ahab, the king of Israel. In the Bible, the greatness of Jezebel was diminished by the biblical writers in the same way Babylon was. In this article, I want to study Jezebel from three different perspectives: the defamation of Jezebel, the wickedness of Jezebel, and the greatness of Jezebel.
The Defamation of Jezebel
Jezebel was a great woman (see below), but because Jezebel introduced the cult of Baal to the Northern Kingdom, the biblical writers sought every opportunity to defame Jezebel. Take for instance, the name of Jezebel.
Jezebel’s name incorporates a title for Baal, Jezebel’s god. Zebul was a title for Baal. The word Zebul means “exalted,” “honored.” In the Bible, Zebul was the name of the ruler of the city of Shechem (Judges 9:28). According to Gale A. Yee, the name Jezebel has been changed to defame Jezebel (Yee 1992:848).
Yee wrote that, as it is written in the Bible, “the name Jezebel is probably a two-layered parody. The original name ʼîzěbūl (“Where is the Prince?”) first became ʼî-zěbūl (“No nobility”). Zebul, a title of Baal, was then distorted into zebel, “dung.” Jezebel’s name was “changed in order to show the contempt of the biblical authors” (Fensham 1967:361).
The identification of Jezebel’s name with dung is found in 2 Kings 9:37: “the body of Jezebel shall be as dung upon the face of the field in the portion of Jezreel, so that they shall not say, This is Jezebel.”
Jehu called Jezebel a whore, “When Joram saw Jehu, he said, ‘Is it peace, Jehu?’ He answered, ‘What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?’” (2 Kings 9:22). The “whoredoms” of Jezebel was her promotion of Canaanite religion in the Northern Kingdom.
In the New Testament, Jezebel is compared to a false prophet who induced Christians to practice sexual immorality, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20).
The Wickedness of Jezebel
The presentation of Jezebel in 1–2 Kings focuses on the evil things Jezebel did because the writers of her story were faithful worshipers of Yahweh who did not agree with her religious views and political policies.
This is the reason the information about Jezebel in the biblical text is strictly negative because it was written from the perspective of people who did not agree with Jezebel and her foreign religious views. Jezebel was an outsider. As an outsider, Jezebel was judged because of her religion and the verdict was unfavorable and adverse.
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre. She married Ahab, king of Israel, in order to seal an alliance between the two nations. Jezebel introduced the worship of Baal in Israel. To promote her religion, Jezebel brought to Israel four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19). Jezebel also ruthlessly persecuted and killed the prophets of Yahweh who opposed her missionary activities.
In order to please his wife, Ahab “erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole” (1 Kings 16:32–33). Baal was a fertility god who was known by the title Lord of Rain and Dew. During Ahab’s reign, there was a great drought and famine in Israel. The prophet Elijah had proclaimed a drought in the land in order to show that Yahweh was the true God of Israel.
When Ahab wanted to buy the vineyard of Naboth, the Jezreelite (1 Kings 21), Naboth refused because the vineyard was a part of his family’s inheritance. Ahab told Jezebel that Naboth would not sell him the vineyard. Jezebel said to Ahaz “I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (1 Kings 21:7). Jezebel wrote letters in her husband’s name in which she contrived a legal way to kill Naboth the Jezreelite so that her husband could obtain Naboth’s vineyard.
The people who opposed Jezebel anointed Jehu to put an end to the dynasty of Ahab. After his anointing, Jehu began a religious purge in Israel. Jehu went to Jezreel where Jezebel was living in the palace. Jezebel died an ignominious death at the hands of Jehu. Jezebel was thrown out of a window and her blood spattered against the wall and on the horses. Then, Jehu trampled her body under his horses’ hooves (2 Kings 9:33) and the dogs ate the flesh of Jezebel (2 Kings 9:36).
The Greatness of Jezebel
There is another side of Jezebel that most people who read her story fail to notice: Jezebel was a dynamic woman that sets her apart from many other women of her time. If Jezebel’s story were written from a Phoenician perspective or from the perspective of a worshiper of Baal, her story would be read completely differently. Jezebel came to Israel when Omri made an alliance with Phoenicia. The alliance was sealed by the marriage of his son Ahab with Jezebel.
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Tyre (1 Kings 16:31). Tyre (the name Sidonians is derived from the port city of Sidon) was a nation located northwest of Israel. The Phoenicians were well known as traders and artisans. The Phoenicians were seafaring people whose influence is attested in the art, culture, religion, politics, international trade, and commerce in the first millennium BCE.
Ethbaal was both a king and a priest in the worship of the goddess Astarte. Thus, it is probable that Jezebel was a high priestess in the temple of Baal. As a princess by birth, Jezebel lived in the luxury of the palace and had considerable influence in the political, economic, and religious life of Tyre. Jezebel believed that Baal was the source for her prosperous life. When she came to Israel, Jezebel was determined to make her god the God of Israel.
Jezebel’s story is the story of a woman who was determined to be a queen in her new nation. Jezebel was a queen with great power in Israel. It is evident that Jezebel knew her power and she was not afraid to use her position to achieve her goals. Jezebel knew what she believed, and she was determined to defend her beliefs.
When Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done. Jezebel did not cry, throw a fit, or run. Jezebel was ready for a fight, and she threatened Elijah. Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of [my prophets] by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2–3). Elijah was so afraid of Jezebel that he “fled for his life.” Jezebel remained unimpressed by the killing of the prophets of Baal. This speaks to her character. Only a remarkable woman could have dealt with such a critical situation and remain determined to accomplish her goals.
When Ahab came to Jezebel, upset because Naboth refused to sell his vineyard, Jezebel was willing to fight for her husband and give him what he wanted. Jezebel gave Ahab the vineyard he desired by using her political power. Her action reflects Phoenician politics. Jezebel had a very high view of kingship, and she used the power of the palace to obtain Naboth’s vineyard for the king.
When Jehu confronted Jezebel, she remained strong and defiant. Knowing that she was about to die, Jezebel does not flee the city, nor does she disguise herself. Jezebel welcomed Jehu by mocking him, “Is it peace, Zimri, murderer of your master?” (2 Kings 9:31). Jezebel called Jehu “Zimri” because Zimri became a king by killing his master, the king.
Jezebel was determined to die with dignity. Before she died, Jezebel “painted her eyes, and adorned her head, and looked out of the window,” waiting for Jehu to arrive (2 Kings 9:30). Her determination to die as a queen was recognized by Jehu himself. After Jezebel was killed, Jehu told his servants, “Take care of that cursed woman and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter” (2 Kings 9:34).
Jezebel was no stranger to wielding power over people. As a princess and high priestess of Baal, Jezebel was tutored in the ways of politics as well as the religious practices of her nation. From the time of Jezebel’s birth on she was raised to be a woman of knowledge, power, determination, and cunning. Perhaps these characteristics, specifically those of knowledge and power, are what led Ahab to marry Jezebel in the first place. As a king it is always wise to have a wife who can help maintain and direct the empire.
Jezebel, A Great Woman
If Jezebel was such a powerful political and religious leader in her nation, why does the Bible present such a negative view of Jezebel? The biblical writers were not interested in the greatness that was Jezebel. They were interested in the deleterious role she played by promoting the worship of Baal and Asherah in Israel.
In the patriarchal society of the Northern Kingdom, the religious and village leaders of Israel would not recognize the power and leadership of a female priest, a female priest who was promoting the worship of a foreign god. To Jezebel, Israel’s religion was lacking a female goddess. Jezebel’s motivation behind her missionary work was not one of wickedness or malice toward the people of Israel. Rather, in her mind, Jezebel believed that she was helping the people of Israel enjoy a more prosperous life.
The purpose of this article is not to promote or defend Canaanite religion, nor to support the ways by which Jezebel fought for her faith or acted as a queen. Rather, the purpose of this article is to look at Jezebel as a person who was a princess and a queen, a strong woman who had strong opinions about her role as a queen, who took her religion seriously, and who fought for what she believed.
Jezebel’s legacy proves to be the legacy of a great woman who lived in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and under the wrong circumstances. Although Jezebel did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, Jezebel proved that she was a woman of courage, determination, and greatness. Jezebel was definitely a force to reckon with.
When Jezebel is evaluated from an unbiased perspective, one can appreciate the greatness that was Jezebel. Jezebel was trying to help the people of Israel live a better life by introducing them to Baal, the god who gave her a prosperous life in Tyre. Jezebel was a very strong woman who believed that Baal was a great god and she tried to show that to the people of Israel. Jezebel acted as a queen to help her husband, the king, to get what he wanted. She used political cunning to obtain Naboth’s land.
For good or for evil, Jezebel was one of the most influential women of the Bible. At a time when women had few rights or power, Jezebel was a formidable woman who is not remembered as one of the greatest women of her day, but as an evil woman who tried to subvert a nation.
Notwithstanding the efforts to marginalize Jezebel, there was a greatness in her that cannot be denied: Jezebel was a great, great, great-grandmother of Jesus Christ.
Saggs, H. W. F. (1962). The Greatness That Was Babylon. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Fensham, F Charles. “Possible Explanation of the Name Baal-Zebub of Ekron.” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 79 (1967): 361-364.
Yee, Gale A. “Jezebel (Person).” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Volume 3:848–849. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
OTHER STUDIES ON JEZEBEL
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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