Today’s student offering focuses on one of the most notorious female characters in the Hebrew Bible – Jezebel. Yet, despite the fact that her name has become synonymous with woman’s wiles and wicked wantonness, very little is actually known about this biblical figure. In popular culture, however, she takes on a range of colourful afterlives, and it is one of these afterlives that our guest blogger, Charlotte Guy, explores in her essay. Charlotte is in the final semester of her Bachelor of Arts degree, where she has majored in Politics and Media Studies. After graduating with her BA, she plans to continue with postgraduate study next year, and then hopes to work in political communications.
Thanks, Charlotte, for a fascinating essay – and I’m sure you will all enjoy learning more about the enigmatic (and much maligned) Jezebel.
The Harlot Queen? Jezebel in the Bible and Popular Culture
by Charlotte Guy
Jezebel was a young Phoenician princess who appeared in 1 and 2 Kings after marrying King Ahab of Israel, and who ultimately became one of the most prominent women in the Bible. Her narrative swiftly moves from promoting deities Baal and Asherah, to persecuting prophets of YHWH, and finally fabricating evidence of blasphemy to obtain land for her husband. Eventually, she was murdered and eaten by dogs, and Jehu rejoices in the fact that no one can ever say “here lies Jezebel” (2 Kgs. 9.37), assuming “that along with her body, her name will be dispersed over the face of the earth into nothingness” (Hazleton 199). However, this was not to be. To this day, Jezebel remains notorious. She is frequently referred to as a murderer, a harlot, an enemy of God, and even the most wicked women in all of the Bible. The character of Jezebel has played a significant role in the shaping of our modern society, particularly its patriarchal nature. But great variation in her character can be seen when looking at the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the many Jezebels that have appeared in popular culture throughout history.
This essay will investigate the causes and the ramifications of this variation, with a particular focus on the biblical Jezebel and Lesley Hazelton’s novel Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. The novel draws extensively from the historical Jezebel, with Hazleton never deliberately straying from fact but rather writing using what she refers to as the “historical imagination” (23). Three gaps or grey areas in the biblical text will be explored – Jezebel’s thoughts on marrying Ahab and moving to Israel, how Jezebel’s character would be perceived by those who do not oppose her beliefs, and whether or not Jezebel is a faithful wife.
The Bible says nothing about how young Jezebel feels about moving to Israel and marrying a man she has never met. The reader is introduced to Jezebel not in her own right, but rather as a minor character in the story of Ahab – it is almost a passing comment that “he took to wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Zidonians” (1 Kgs. 16.31). Her characteristics are hardly considered, let alone her personal thoughts. This is a very significant gap in the story, for surely before one can be condemned as “the ultimate figure of feminine evil” (Quick 44), the societal and emotional context in which they are operating must be considered. Even in modern retellings of Jezebel’s story, it is rare to see any mention of Jezebel’s feelings at the beginning of her biblical narrative.
However, Lesley Hazelton’s novel explores her internal workings in explicit detail. The story begins the night before Jezebel is to be crowned queen and officially become Ahab’s wife, and “she is not sure if this is something she wants or dreads” (Hazleton 27). The reader is told that Jezebel “has not slept through the night since she arrived in this landlocked kingdom” (Hazleton 26), that she felt like a “hostage of politics” (Hazleton 34), and that she was devastated to have been “cut off from the most sophisticated culture of her time, never to return” (Hazleton 28). Her new husband “seemed wild and savage, brutal compared to the smooth-skinned men of the Tyrian court” and “shocked Jezebel at first. Repelled her, even” (Hazleton 43). Already, her strength is showing – she resolves to “never let anyone know how much she misses” her home, Tyre. But the novel makes it clear that while she is strong, she is also a teenage girl who is alone, scared and homesick. This would almost certainly have been the case for the historical Jezebel, but the Bible is silent on the issue. Instead, all we initially know of Jezebel is how she relates to men – “the first thing we learn about Jezebel is her marriage to Ahab, and the second is her origin as a daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidon” (Dutcher-Walls 24). She is essentially presented as an object in their control, and in many ways she was in her society. Lesley Hazelton’s book communicates a much more sympathetic portrayal of Jezebel than the Bible, not by changing the facts, but by presenting the emotions and societal constraints that lie behind them. This demonstrates the importance of keeping in mind “patriarchal assumptions about the story” (Quick 44) when considering the character of Jezebel in the Bible and all the representations of her that have appeared in popular culture since. Jezebel was a complex human being who faced difficulties that were factors in all of the decisions that she made, and it is important to treat her as such.
When telling the story of a person, it is impossible to create a perfectly factual account of their life – choices about phrasing and omissions must be made, and these choices will have ramifications. This is particularly clear in 1 and 2 Kings, where the information given about Jezebel frames her in an immensely negative light. Given the reverence in which the Bible is held, “it is easy to forget that it was written by specific men in specific times and places, for specific reasons” (Hazleton 15). The authors of Kings wished to communicate that the collapse of the Kingdom of Israel was divine punishment for being unfaithful to YHWH. Jezebel, already a “femme fatale” and “other” due to her status a powerful and foreign woman (Scholz 117), was at the centre of this issue, and was the perfect person to blame. The authors of Kings “must have counted their blessings for her very existence. If she had never lived, they would have had to invent her. And in a way, they did” (Hazleton 18). This brings to light an interesting gap in the biblical narrative – if it is the product of those who were fiercely opposed to everything Jezebel stood for, how would those who are able to view her more objectively perceive her character?
The Bible makes it clear that Jezebel did have many followers, due to the mention of “the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kgs. 18.19). This is the only indication of support for her – on the whole, she is presented as purely evil. However, even in modern times of religious tolerance, where Jezebel can be viewed more objectively, it is rare to see positive depictions of her largely due to her specific acts outlined in the Bible. Catherine Quick writes that Jezebel was “a most wicked woman… so much so that even feminist readers of the Old Testament, who have quite eagerly and insightfully reexamined the stories of other Old Testament women, seem reluctant to deal with her” (44). There are two key acts that make Jezebel difficult to redeem. Firstly, she “cut off the prophets of the Lord” (King James Version, 1 Kgs. 18.4). There are multiple ways of reading this, and Jezebel did not necessarily kill any prophets, but it is widely accepted that she did. Secondly, she plotted the murder of Naboth, whose land her husband Ahab wanted – she “wrote letters in Ahab’s name… saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die” (1 Kgs. 21.8-10). However, in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, Jezebel is cleared of both these crimes. When she ‘cuts off’ the priests, she is removing them from a treaty rather than ending their lives, and she is depicted as far too smart to have been to blame for the Naboth plot, thinking that “it would have been easier and far more elegant to produce forged papers” and that “only a rank amateur in the exercise of power would go about things so transparently” (124). It is made clear that “the fact that she was framed does not necessarily mean she was innocent” and that “she was no angel either” (Hazleton 20). But while she is not perfect, removed from the bias of Kings 1 and 2, Jezebel becomes a more realistic character, rather than merely the evil foil to Elijah’s righteousness in a biblical tale of morality.
The image of Jezebel as an evil woman that stems from 1 and 2 Kings has taken on a life of its own in popular culture in the three thousand years since the account was written. Today, the name is used by lingerie brands, a prominent sex-focused blog, and as an insult to suggest that a girl is sexually promiscuous. All this has occurred despite the fact that there is no mention of Jezebel behaving in a way that could be deemed sexually immoral in the Bible. She is called a harlot or whore, depending on the translation, just once, when Jehu says to Joram “what peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kgs. 9.22). However, this was never intended as a comment on her sexual behaviour – rather her “unwavering allegiance to the Phoenician deities of her homeland renders her a harlot in the judgment of some biblical narrators and later commentators” (Everhart 688).
If anything, Jezebel was a particularly loyal wife in the biblical account, as evidenced by her efforts to obtain land from Naboth for her husband. Lesley Hazelton’s book does not greatly differ from the Bible in this regard, although it does go one step further in redeeming Jezebel by explicitly stating that “she was the image of sexual fidelity to her husband” and “certainly never plays the harlot” (Hazleton 19). The novel also states that the reason Jezebel “put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window” (2 Kgs. 9.30) in the moments before her death was purely so that she could “exit boldly, every inch a queen” (Hazleton 186). This is an important addition because Jezebel’s application of make-up prior to her death can be interpreted as an attempt at seduction, and this of course connotes sexual immorality. The image of Jezebel as a harlot demonstrates the tendency to assume sexual women are bad women and vice versa, even today. However, it is still somewhat bizarre given the lack of evidence, and it reveals how Jezebel was seemingly able to do nothing right – her whole tale was “twisted into a sequence of negatives” (McKinlay 33) even in cases where she did follow the societal expectations of her time.
After considering the stories of the historical Jezebel, the biblical Jezebel, and the Jezebel in Lesley Hazelton’s novel, it becomes clear that there is not just one Jezebel – she becomes a different person in each of her many afterlives. However, it can certainly be said that on the whole she has been treated unfairly throughout history, for while she was not perfect by any means, neither was she the irredeemably “wicked woman” she has been framed as. She was always fighting a losing battle as a young girl in a patriarchal society where her firmly-held beliefs were considered sacrilegious, and her story was told by those who were against everything she stood for and wished to use her as a tale of morality. In the thousands of years since Kings 1 and 2 were published, her reputation has suffered further damage due to the unfounded, yet widespread modern perception that she was sexually promiscuous. But along with these false perceptions, it is at least fitting that a queen of such strength has remained an iconic character for so long. It has been three thousand years since the historical Jezebel died, but thanks to her many afterlives “her spirit cannot be repressed… courageous, unbowed, and magnificent, Jezebel lives” (Hazleton 224).
Dutcher-Walls, Patricia. Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2004.
Everhart, Janet S. “Jezebel: Framed by Eunuchs?” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 72.4 (2010): 688-698.
Frost, Stanley B. “Judgment on Jezebel, or A Woman Wronged.” Theology Today 20.4 (1964): 503-517.
Hazleton, Lesley. Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2007.
McKinlay, Judith E. “Eve and the Bad Girls Club.” Hecate 33.2 (2007): 31-42.
Quick, Catherine S. “Jezebel’s Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women.” Women and Language 16.1 (1993): 44-49.
Scholz, Susanne. Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible. New York: T&T Clark International, 2007.