who was jezebel

Who was Jezebel?

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

Misfit. Morally depraved. Wicked. Whore. The term “Jezebel” conjures any negative connotation of women that comes to mind. Lingerie lines and World War II missiles bear her name, but who was Jezebel? How did her legacy become synonymous with “loose women” and how is she remembered today?

Jezebel’s story unfolds in the biblical book of 1 Kings. Before understanding the details of her story, we have to understand the context in which her story was written. The books of Deuteronomy to 2 Kings are considered to be Deuteronomic history. These books explain the challenges the Israelites experienced after entering the Promised Land. They continued to sin and engaged in entanglements with non-Abrahamic deities. Jezebel and her story became the most well-known example of the consequences of going astray from the Abrahamic god. 

Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, a Phoenician priest-king of Sideon and Tyre, in present-day Lebanon. She married King Ahab of Israel and although she became a queen of Israel, Jezebel is an outsider and came to the throne with her own customs, faiths, and traditions. Ahab was a practitioner of the Abrahamic faith, yet Jezebel persuaded him to be tolerant of Phoenician deities, including Ba’al and Astarte. 1 Kings states that Ahab went so far as to establish a temple and altar for Ba’al in Samaria and even gave offerings to the deity. Ba’al was the god of fertility and on par with Zeus in the Greek pantheon or Set in ancient Egyptian theology. According to Greek historian Josephus, Jezebel’s father was also a priest of Astarte – Queen of heaven, sexual love, and fertility – and Jezebel may have served as or received training to become a priestess in their faith tradition. 

 

Jezebel and Elijah

Elijah was one of the most prominent prophets in the Old Testament. The kings of Israel were engaged in all sorts of shenanigans and God sent prophets to spare them from moral decline. Israelite law required that prophets receive care from royalty, but that wasn’t always the case. Jezebel was accused of “killing the prophets of the Lord,” Elijah came to blows with Jezebel at Mt. Carmel. Elijah called for a competition between the gods: Ba’al and God to find out which one reigned supreme. 1 Kings 18:19 says that 850 Ba’al devotees arrived on Mt. Carmel and participated in ritual dances for the deity. After hours of dancing and chanting, Ba’al never showed. Elijah prayed for the Abrahamic god to intervene and it rained fire upon the Ba’al worshippers. Elijah claimed victory, ordered the execution of the Ba’al devotees, and sent word to Jezebel that her god had been defeated. 

 

Jezebel’s Death

After the death of her husband, King Ahab, their son Joram ascends to the throne. Elisha – a prophet of Israel – has other plans and appoints Jehu, Joram’s military commander, to the throne. Jehu kills Joram in battle and sets out to assassinate Jezebel, and this is perhaps her finest hour. Jezebel doesn’t run from Jehu, but she combs her hair, applies eye makeup, sits in the window and waits. Some biblical scholars have argued these acts were Jezebel’s preparation to seduce Jehu and spare her life by entering his harem. However, these acts are demonstrative of her control over the situation. Jezebel determines how her enemies will see and remember her in her final moments. She sits in the window, looking below, eyeing Jehu’s arrival, but it also harkens back to the fertility deities of her culture. Jezebel’s eunuchs throw her from the window on Jehu’s command and was trampled by horses.

 

Jezebel’s Legacy

In American culture, the term jezebel is assigned to a woman who is considered to be mean-spirited and loose, but it’s also one of the common tropes assigned to Black women. 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. 

It’s important to note that Jezebel was a queen, despite the Bible’s refrain from acknowledging her station. She’s quite different from other women in the Bible. She’s forthright, often just as ruthless as the male rulers, and she never conforms to anyone’s expectations or traditions. She remains faithful to her own culture, even as it became a threat to her life. 

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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