I grew up in a very religious Protestant family in Mississippi. We learned to recite stilted, King James versions of scriptures before we could read; the Bible was The Greatest Book, and everyone had their own to take to church with them on Sunday. Once I truly learned to read, I puzzled out a note in the back of my mother’s big, leather-bound Bible. It said “unless your name was Jezebel.” That was it. No scriptural reference, no punctuation, no arrows to other notes. Nothing. Of course I asked her about it, but she said that she’d written the note so long ago as to forget totally what it meant at the time. (She’s probably reading this, so hi mom!) Anyhow—for whatever reason, that phrase has been stuck in my head.
But who the hell was Jezebel, anyway? A princess, it turns out…And later a queen. Even later, she would symbolize wickedness and witchcraft in the Christian church. A large legacy for someone with only a few mentions in the Bible, but there it was. So if your name was Jezebel…Who were you?
Jezebel, a princess of Phoenicia, would’ve grown up in the coastal cities of modern-day Lebanon. The Phoenicians lived in a fairly cosmopolitan, religiously diverse, prosperous society. It is likely that Jezebel would’ve been well-educated, and it is also possible that she would’ve spent some of her girlhood serving as a priestess in a temple to one of the gods or goddesses worshiped in her country.
But Israel and Phoenicia were very different. Though the match of Jezebel and Prince Ahab of Israel made for a sound alliance–providing both with military bolstering from the other and with access to new trade routes–the polytheism and cosmopolitanism that Jezebel would bring with her to conservative, monotheistic Israel presented a problem.
Jezebel continued to worship the gods of her youth, most notably Baal, a nature god, and his consort Astarte, the primary Phoenician goddess. Jezebel persuaded her husband to introduce the worship of Baal (or at least to allow the worship to occur freely—it is entirely possible that this worship already occurred behind closed doors in parts of Israel). The prophet Elijah predicted a severe drought in retribution for this act, and indeed 3 years of drought began shortly thereafter.
Jezebel threatened to kill those who opposed her, and she did order the killing of many Christian prophets. This act led to a challenge from the prophet Elijah: a showdown on Mt. Carmel between Elijah’s Christian God and Baal. After Elijah’s god wins, he (ironically?) has the prophets of Baal captured and executed; Jezebel issued a threat to him, whereupon he (smartly?) retreats for a time.
Jezebel also figures largely in the story of Naboth, an Israelite with a lovely vineyard that King Ahab really, really wanted. Naboth doesn’t want to give up his land, even for a fair price. But when a king and queen want something, they often get it. Jezebel plots the murder of Naboth and forges her husband’s signature to do so–Naboth is executed for blasphemy and treason, and his lands are seized. Enter the prophet Elijah again, who foretells the death of King Ahab and his heirs and Jezebel’s fate—to be devoured by dogs.
After the deaths of Ahab and their oldest son, Israel is ruled by the couple’s second son, Joram. But the monarchy is not supported by many of the citizens, and the prophet Elisha crowns another king—Jehu, a former military commander in Joram’s army. Elisha orders the destruction of Jezebel’s bloodline–Joram is killed by Jehu, and Jezebel prepares for her death. She paints her eyes with kohl, fixes her hair, and stands looking out the window, from which she is eventually thrown, her body trampled by horses and eaten by dogs.
So this is her? This is the woman of such wickedness and horror?
She seems hardly worse than her contemporaries, and much of what the Old Testament story-tellers deem horrible in her is what I find most divine. Where the stories suggest that those final moments of death were intended to woo her conquerors and prevent her death, the image is more suggestive to me of a woman in her war paint, following the course of her life to her inevitable death—meeting the populace of the strange land she was brought to rule over a final time with eyes forward. When the prophets condemn her for being outspoken, I wonder why she should be silent.
It’s difficult to even decide that she is a witch…But she has become synonymous with both women’s sexual sins and their proclivity towards witchcraft (which seem to walk hand-in-hand, in any case).
Huh. “Unless your name is Jezebel.”