A piece of art of the princess Jezebel in color in the middle, and in black and white on either side.

Explain This

Jezebel Isn’t Who You Think She Is

The biblical royal, married to King Ahab, is portrayed in speeches—most recently by Hillary Clinton—as a corrupt and “loose” woman. But as with many powerful women, we’ve got her all wrong.

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Many U.S. politicians invoke biblical texts in their public speeches, especially when speaking at a church. The memorial service for Maryland Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings was no different. On Friday, October 25 at New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, numerous dignitaries gathered to pay their respects to the Baltimore native. In her comments, Secretary Hillary Clinton compared Cummings to his biblical namesake. She remarked, “It is no coincidence, is it? That Elijah Cummings shared a name with an Old Testament prophet, whose name in Hebrew is ‘the Lord is my God,’ and who used the power and wisdom that God gave him to uphold the moral law that all people are subject to.” Clinton continued, “He weathered storms and earthquakes but never lost his faith. Like that Old Testament prophet, he stood against corrupt leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.” The audience applauded this deep cut, and #KingAhab was a trending Twitter topic that day. Many pundits interpreted the mention of Ahab as a swipe at President Donald Trump, particularly since Cummings was his constant critic.

Ahab and Jezebel are remembered as an evil duo, but Jezebel alone has become an infamously villainous woman. Biblical Jezebel is a royal badass who got [clap] things [clap] done [clap]. but the name “Jezebel” has become shorthand for a tarted-up, “loose” woman. How does Jezebel go from princess to prostitute? Like many powerful women, Jezebel has a bad reputation, but she deserves another look.

According to biblical texts, Jezebel was a Phoenician princess who married Ahab—a foreign king who presided over the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE—and helped him rule. He is depicted as a terrible ruler who is disloyal to the Israelite god by promoting the god Baal and the goddess Asherah. Jezebel is portrayed as an evil foreign woman who leads Ahab astray by encouraging his worship of other gods.

Women today are still called “Jezebels” in the sense of a beguiling, wanton woman. Biblical Jezebel is a woman who is devoted to her gods and to her man. She becomes linked with promiscuity and prostitution because powerful women are targeted using the rhetoric of deviant sexuality. Then and now.

Yet, from another vantage point, we can interpret Jezebel as a powerful, determined woman who is a trusted adviser to the king. Unlike many other biblical women who are unnamed and uninvolved in public affairs, she has a track record of decisive action. For instance, after Ahab complains that the prophet Elijah has humiliated him by slaughtering hundreds of his prophets, Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah and swears to kill him. When Ahab whines to Jezebel that he wants a vineyard that the owner refuses to trade or sell, Jezebel reassures him that she will obtain it for him. She writes letters in his name and devises a plan to set up and kill the vineyard owner. The plan succeeds, and Ahab gets the vineyard. Jezebel is cold-blooded and cunning. Murderous, too. But so are other biblical monarchs, like King David. Hers is the age-old story of a woman who is regarded negatively for traits that often would be applauded in a man.

The biblical text does not refer to Jezebel as a “queen,” but she holds enough power and influence such that even after Ahab’s death, the next king seeks to kill her as part of his efforts to establish his authority. After Ahab’s death, there is a power struggle for the throne. His son Joram rules Israel, but a military general named Jehu is anointed king by a prophet of God. When Joram meets Jehu, he inquires whether there will be peace between them. Jehu asks, “What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?” Although none of Jezebel’s ruthless actions suggest sexual immorality, this pearl-clutching insult casts Jezebel’s religious practices in sexual terms. In biblical texts, the worship of non-Israelite gods is often framed as a deviant sexual relationship, and Jezebel’s devotion to Baal is no exception.

In addition to Jezebel’s steadfast devotion to her gods, she is a woman of style. Seeking vengeance on behalf of the Israelite god, Jehu begins his campaign to destroy the house of Ahab. After killing Joram, he sets out to kill Jezebel. While waiting for him to arrive, she prepares for the occasion by applying makeup and dressing her hair. She does not hide or run away. This is Dynasty-level nerve! When he shows up, she calls him by another usurper’s name. Her staff throw her from the window down to Jehu, and when they go to bury her, only her skull, feet, and palms remain. Jehu regards this as a fulfillment of Elijah’s earlier curse: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel.” After her horrific death, she is not accorded a royal funeral but publicly dishonored. Powerful women are often not permitted to step down or quietly retire. Instead, they are silenced, shamed, and often killed.

The name “Jezebel” gains a closer association with sexual immorality due to its use in the New Testament book of Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse of John). John of Patmos has a vision of Jesus and addresses seven churches. In the letter to the church in Thyatira, John praises the congregation for their faith, but he also chastises them. He charges, “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” Using “Jezebel” as a derogatory slur, he regards this woman as a false prophet. John continues, “I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead.” John regards this so-called “Jezebel” as a serious opponent, and he threatens her and those who follow her teachings. While many commentators interpret “throwing her on a bed” as suggesting illness, Meredith J.C. Warren, lecturer at the University of Sheffield, explains, “This is a rape threat that is being used to shut up a woman John thinks of as his rival.” Using a relationship metaphor, he contends that such infidelity will be punishable by death. Rape threats and death threats remain a frequently used tactic against outspoken women. State Representative Kiah Morris, Vermont’s only Black lawmaker, resigned her position in September 2018 due to the constant harassment she faced. In the UK, women Members of Parliament are targeted with online abuse, but Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott, a Black woman, receives a disproportionate number of threats. Insecure men use these threats to undermine and silence women in positions of power.

Jezebel has remained a popular subject within art and literature. One of the most well-known instances is the film Jezebel (1938), for which Bette Davis played the main character, and won an Oscar for it. The connections between Jezebel and female promiscuity and prostitution continue in our contemporary era. In The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, the brothel is named Jezebel’s. The song “Jezebel” by Sade Adu is about a clear-eyed sex worker who is unashamed of her profession. Furthermore, as detailed by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins and others, Black women are frequently stereotyped as sexually promiscuous “Jezebels.” Since the European enslavement of African peoples began, myths surrounding enslaved African women as out-of-control and hypersexual served to justify their sexual abuse. In Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Tamura Lomax writes, “From black venus to jezebel sluts to “ain’t loyal” hos, black women are miswritten into religious and cultural history as sites of ultimate human and sexual deviation.”

Jezebel has become synonymous with evil and licentiousness, but like other powerful women, her reputation is based largely on what her opponents have said about her. We can never recover the “real” Jezebel. Nevertheless, we can choose to judge contemporary women not based on hearsay and rumor or how well they comply with gendered stereotypes but on their receipts.

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