Is Jezebel the baddest of the bad girls of the Bible?
Not long ago on Facebook, a fellow Unitarian Universalist minister, as I recall, mentioned visiting a new city and seeing announcements for worship services for the two most liberal congregations. The UU church advertised the sermon title as “On Consciousness,” while the progressive Christian congregation had a sermon advertised as “Bad Girls of the Bible.” The minister asked, “Which one would you attend?”
Now, I actually would have been interested in that reflection on consciousness. But I take the colleague’s meaning. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought there’s something for religious liberals, for Unitarian Universalists, in going back and looking at who is thought to be a bad girl in the Bible. Eve? Delilah? Mary Magdalene? How about Jezebel?
Is Jezebel the baddest of the bad girls? Her story is told in 1 and 2 Kings, in the context of stories about the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Jezebel is a Phoenician married to the king, presumably for political reasons. Of course therefore she’s a foreigner, seen as responsible for allowing other religions to have their shrines and priests within the kingdom. She’s particularly associated with the worship of Baal. Baal is not liked in the Hebrew stories, a terrible deity who demands child sacrifices. A closer look, and Baal seems to mean any deity, or even a father or lord-of-all-gods deity. I suspect a major bit of competition for the forming Hebrew religion; regionally, Baal is the primary alternative option for a god before all other gods.
There’s a great scene where devotees of Baal and Yahweh have a magical competition. The gazillion priests of Baal, despite hours of appeals and rituals, fail the magic test of setting a sacrificial bull on fire without using a match. But when the prophet Elijah makes a single short call on his deity, not only is the bull consumed by heavenly fire, but so is the altar itself. The prophet then orders that all the competing clergy be killed on the spot, and they are.
Jezebel’s response, the first time she is given voice in her story, is her rebuke of the prophet, saying, at least in the Greek version of the text, “If you are Elijah, so I am Jezebel.” Given the context, Elijah would have been foolish not to think he had wandered into dangerous territory, and he takes off.
After this there’s a story about encouraging her husband Ahab to confiscate someone’s vineyard. Going beyond encouragement, she enters a plot to destroy the rightful owner of the vineyard. Then she seems able to convince the owner’s fellow villagers to enter into the plot to kill the man and take his property. Most feminist scholars find the story unlikely, more a frame-up, adding to her crimes and setting Jezebel up for her fall, as it were. If she is so disliked, how is it she can so easily convince the villagers to turn on one of their own? But within the text it is the primary example beyond her devotion to false gods of what a wicked person she was.
When Ahab dies and his and Jezebel’s son assumes the throne, there’s a revolt against the half-foreign sovereign. Here Jezebel is also accused of sorcery and harlotry, probably not actual sexual immorality, but as is consistently the practice of the biblical writers, simply collapsing foreign religion, magic, and sexual licentiousness as one ugly mess. And, more than enough for the author(s) of the Kings books to justify the new king’s general murdering him and then murdering his mother.
Learning the assassin is on his way to kill her, we might actually get a peek at the real person. Jezebel doesn’t flee, which she has plenty of time to do. Instead “she painted her eyes with kohl and dressed her hair, and she looked out of the window.” The official interpretation is that she’s trying to seduce her enemy. This way of seeing women is an old story. But the text itself puts the lie to that interpretation. When he arrives, she taunts the general as a murderer and usurper. In response he has Jezebel thrown from the window. Her body is left to be trampled by the horses and then eaten by dogs.
That’s the story.
Feminist scholar Melissa Jackson notices how we can see Jezebel in two ways. She can be the “foreigner, seducer, permanently and quintessentially the ‘other’” that we find in that quick read in the books of Kings. Or, with just a twist of the head and looking at the Bible’s Jezebel from an oblique angle, she can also be seen as “strong-willed, courageous, (and) defiant.” Not totally admirable, but definitely someone different than the all-out villain I was taught about at Sunday school.
Another feminist scholar, Janet Howe Gaines, writes, “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.”
I’m particularly moved by her death. As a minister and spiritual director, I’ve noticed over the years that we tend to die the way we have lived. The story of her death probably speaks more truthfully of who Jezebel was than the accounts of her life and alleged crimes.
I find if one takes a critical eye and an open heart to the matter, we might see something more useful than an ancient “history” written by victors with bloody hands. Here we see a song of fidelity and openness, the possibility for the followers of various perspectives to learn from one another, rather than to create a king of the hill.
That latter option, the one the text celebrates, leaves us with a world where each side seeks total victory, and victory is found only in the death of the other. I know that feeling. Perhaps you do as well. Here we can see a profound warning about those other parts of us, that part that wants to win no matter what, that knows it is the only true way.
Instead, as religious liberals we are invited into a great not knowing, a place of hesitance, and multiple shades of light and shadow. In this place we can re-examine texts made holy by repetition and see what they might hold of real value to real people seeking something more in this life than endless cycles of oppression and cruelty, of parsing out the sheep and the goats, and protecting some vague and slippery idea of purity and tribe with blood and fire.
But the invitation is itself harsh.
Here we can know the other as part of our own heart. More, I believe, we need to know the other as part of us. And that means Elijah and Jezebel, both.
We do that, and who knows what the victory might be? Something more, I suspect, than owning a small hill, waiting to be knocked off it by a new contender.
Art (above): “Jezebel and Ahab Met by Elijah” (detail), c.1862-3 by Frederic Leighton. Oil on canvas. (© Scarborough Borough Council, North Yorkshire, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library)
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The Rev. James Ishmael Ford, a UU World online columnist, is a Zen Buddhist priest and senior guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen as well as senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island.
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