who was jezebel

Who was Jezebel?

“Jezebel: often not capitalized: an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman.”  – Merriam Webster Dictionary 

The moniker “Jezebel” is often used as a negative descriptor. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines jezebel as an, “impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman.” And, “jezebel” has become a synonym for “old pro” for a long time. But who was the real Jezebel, originally? How did her legacy become synonymous with how the word is used today?

Jezebel’s story is recorded in the book of Kings, found in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. Thought to be written around the 7th century BCE, the book of Kings is the story of generations of kings who disappointed God by tolerating or participating in false idol worship. Jezebel and her story has become one of the most well known examples of the consequences of disobeying the patriarchal, and evidently controlling, Abrahamic God in this fashion.

According to the biblical story, Jezebel was the daughter of the priest-king Ethbaal, ruler of the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, which is present-day Lebanon. Their culture worshiped many deities including Ba’a Melkartl, a fertility god, and Astarte, a fertility goddess who is similar to Ishtar. Jezebel received training to become a priestess in their polytheistic faith and brought her gods with her when she married King Ahab of Israel (ruled c. 874 – 853 BCE).

King Ahab was an Isrealite and practitioner of the Abrahamic faith, and believed in one God above all other “false” gods. Despite the king’s faith, he allowed Jezebel to build a temple in the city to honor her gods. Jezebel’s temple became a place for people to give offerings to fertility deities and became a center of power for “heretics.” The temple enraged Abrahamic Israelites, who already mistrusted the foreign queen.

One story about Jezebel is that she encouraged her husband, the king, to forcibly take a vineyard he wanted from one of his subjects. Another anecdote is that she was a boastful hostess and practiced her faith without shame. Jezebel’s enemies allude to her infidelity but there’s no evidence to suggest that there was any unhappiness, jealousy, or bitterness in her marriage to King Ahab. Historical accounts show that the Israelites viewed most foreign women as temptresses, so it makes sense that Jezebel’s political enemies would capitalize on that cultural prejudice.

The character of Elijah is one of the more prominent prophets in the Old Testament. He waged a years-long campaign against Queen Jezebel, eventually executing a coup against her husband and killing one of her sons. Elijah was a vocal opponent of Jezebel and her temple, at one point challenging her to a faith-off on a hill. Jezebel did not attend the contest, but according to followers of Elijah, their God won. This was a political turning point that eventually led to Jezebel’s death.

After the death of King Ahab, Jezebel’s son, Joram, inherited the throne. Elijah appointed a military commander and orchestrated a coup to kill Joram in battle. After murdering her son, the military commander on Elijah’s order, set out to assassinate Jezebel. Knowing that her son was dead and that they were coming for her, Jezebel famously did not run. She combed her hair, applied eye makeup, and waited by the open window. Jezebel was determined to control how her enemies would see and remember her final moments. At the military commander’s order, Jezebel’s eunuchs threw her from the window. She was trampled by horses, and her body was left to be eaten by dogs.

The term “jezebel” has racist connotations. White men arriving in pre-colonial Africa fetishized the nudity common in African culture. European colonizers quickly attributed this to a lack of modesty, morality, and connected Black women’s bodies to lasciviousness. The attribution of the jezebel stereotype was, and continues to be, used to justify the commodification of Black women’s bodies and the criminalization of Black sexuality.

The term jezebel has evolved into a word used to imply that a woman is promiscuous and manipulative. But the original story is about a proper born queen, who never engaged in sex work (not that there’s anything wrong with that), who was faithfully married to her husband until his death. A queen who bravely practiced her own faith and faced her own death at the hands of her son’s murderer.

Dr. Charlene J. Fletcher is a historian, womanist, activist, and lover of most things Kentucky, Charlene holds a Ph.D. in History from Indiana University, specializing in 19th century United States and African American history and gender studies. Prior to attending IU, Charlene led a domestic violence/sexual assault program as well as a large reentry initiative in New York City, assisting women and men in their transition from incarceration to society. She also served as a lecturer of Criminal Justice at LaGuardia Community College and an adjunct lecturer in Global and Historical Studies at Butler University. Keep reading…

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