Jezebel (/ˈdʒɛzəbəl/, Hebrew: אִיזֶבֶל / אִיזָבֶל, Modern Izével' / 'Izável Tiberian ʾÎzéḇel / ʾÎzāḇel) (fl. ninth century BCE) was a queen, identified in the Hebrew Book of Kings (1 Kings 16:31) as the daughter of Ithobaal I of Sidon and the wife of Ahab, King of Israel.

According to the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel incited her husband King Ahab to abandon the worship of Yahweh and encourage worship of the deities Baal and Asherah instead. Jezebel persecuted the prophets of Yahweh, and fabricated evidence of blasphemy against an innocent landowner who refused to sell his property to King Ahab, causing the landowner to be put to death. For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death – thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs.

Jezebel became associated with false prophets. In a few interpretations, her dressing in finery and putting on makeup led to the association of the use of cosmetics with "painted women" or prostitutes.

Meaning of name

Jezebel is the Anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew אִיזָבֶל ('Izevel/'Izavel). The Oxford Guide to People & Places of the Bible states that the name is "best understood as meaning 'Where is the Prince?'", a ritual cry from worship ceremonies in honour of Baal throughout periods of the year when the god was considered to be in the underworld.

Scriptural account

The Death of Jezebel, by Gustave Doré
Queen Jezebel Being Punished by Jehu, by Andrea Celesti

Jezebel's storey is told in the Books of Kings. She was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre (1 Kings 16:31 says she was "Sidonian", which is a biblical term for Phoenicians in general). According to genealogies given in Josephus and additional classical sources, she was the great-aunt of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Jezebel married King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom (i.e. Israel throughout the time when ancient Israel was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south). Ahab was the son of King Omri, who had brought the northern Kingdom of Israel to great power, established Samaria as his capital, and whose historical existence is confirmed by ancient inscriptions on the Mesha Stele and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.

Jezebel and Ahab meeting Elijah, print by Sir Francis Dicksee (1853-1928)

This marriage was the culmination of the friendly relations existing between Israel and Phoenicia throughout Omri's reign, and possibly cemented important political designs of Ahab. Jezebel, like the foreign wives of Solomon, required facilities for carrying on her form of worship, so Ahab made an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria.

Jezebel went so far as to require that her religion should be the national religion of Israel. She organised and maintained guilds of prophets, 450 of Baal, and 400 of Asherah. She additionally destroyed such prophets of Israel as she could reach. Obadiah, the faithful overseer of Ahab's house, rescued one hundred of these, hid them, and secretly fed them in a cave. Bromiley points out that it was Phoenician practise to instal a royal woman as a priestess of Astarte. As such she would have a more active role in temple and palace relations than was customary in the Hebrew monarchy.

Elijah

The prophet Elijah confronted Ahab and charged him with the sin of following Baal. Elijah had two altars set up at Carmel, one dedicated to Baal, one to Yahweh, and a bull sacrificed upon each altar. The supporters of Baal called upon their god to send fire to consume the sacrifice, but nothing happened. When Elijah called on Yahweh, fire came down from heaven immediately and consumed the offering. Elijah ordered the people to seize the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and they were all slaughtered. The superiority of Elijah and of his God in the test at Carmel, and the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, fired the vengeance of Jezebel. Elijah fled for his life to the wilderness, where he mourned the devotion of Israel to Baal and the lack of worshipers of Israel's God.

Naboth

Naboth owned a vineyard near the royal palace in the city of Jezreel. Wishing to acquire Naboth's vineyard so that he could expand his own gardens, Ahab offered to purchase Naboth's vineyard or to give him a better one in exchange, but Naboth refused, saying he couldn't part with ancestral land. When Jezebel saw that her husband was depressed by this, she arranged for the elders to falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and stone him to death. When Ahab took possession of Naboth's vineyard, he was again confronted by Elijah, who prophesied that, owing to the way Ahab and Jezebel had plotted to have Naboth killed, Ahab would die, his royal line would be obliterated, and Jezebel would be eaten by dogs.

Death

Three years later, Ahab died in battle. His son Ahaziah inherited the throne, but died as the result of an accident and Ahaziah was succeeded by his brother, Joram. Elisha, Elijah's successor, commanded one of his disciples to anoint Jehu, commander of Joram's army, as king, in order that he might destroy Ahab's descendants as a punishment for the way Jezebel had treated God's prophets and his people. Jehu killed Joram and next went to the royal palace at Jezreel, where Jezebel was the last formal obstacle to his kingship.

Knowing that he was coming, Jezebel put on make-up and a formal wig with adornments and looked out a window. Bromiley says that it should be looked at less as an attempt at seduction than the public appearance of the queen mother, invested with the authority of the royal house and cult, confronting a rebellious commander. In his two-volume Guide to the Bible (1967 and 1969), Isaac Asimov describes Jezebel's last act: dressing in all her finery, make-up and jewelry, as deliberately symbolic, indicating her dignity, royal status and determination to go out of this life as a queen.

Jehu ordered her servants to throw her from the window. Her blood splashed on the wall and horses, and Jehu's horse trampled her corpse. He entered the palace where, after he ate and drank, he ordered Jezebel's body to be taken for burial. His servants discovered only her skull, her feet and the palms of her hands – her flesh had been eaten by stray dogs, just as the prophet Elijah had prophesied.

Historicity

According to Israel Finkelstein, the marriage of King Ahab to the daughter of the ruler of the Phoenician empire was a sign of the power and prestige of Ahab and the northern Kingdom of Israel. He termed it a "brilliant stroke of international diplomacy." He says that the inconsistencies and anachronisms in the biblical storeys of Jezebel and Ahab mean that they must be considered "more of a historical novel than an accurate historical chronicle." Among these inconsistencies, 1 Kings 20 states that "Ben-Hadad king of Aram" invaded Samaria throughout Ahab's reign, but this event didn't take place until later in the history of Israel. The two books of Kings are part of the Deuteronomistic history, compiled more than two hundred years after the death of Jezebel. Finkelstein notes that these accounts are "obviously influenced by the theology of the seventh century BCE writers". The compilers of the biblical accounts of Jezebel and her family were writing in the southern kingdom of Judah centuries after the events from a perspective of strict monolatry. These writers considered the polytheism of the members of the Omride dynasty to be sinful. In addition, they were hostile to the northern kingdom and its history, as its centre of Samaria was a rival to Jerusalem.

However, additional scholars such as Dr J Bimson, of Trinity College, Bristol, argue that 1 and 2 Kings aren't 'a straightforward history but a history which contains its own theological commentary'. He points to verses like 1 Kings 14:19 that show the author of Kings was drawing on additional earlier sources.

According to Geoffrey Bromiley, the depiction of her as "the incarnation of Canaanite cultic and political practices, detested by Israelite prophets and loyalists, has given her a literary life far beyond the existence of a ninth-century Tyrian princess."

An ancient seal, discovered in 1964, might be inscribed with Jezebel's name.

Cultural symbol

Through the centuries, the name Jezebel came to be associated with false prophets. By the early twentieth century, it was additionally associated with fallen or abandoned women. In Christian lore, a comparison to Jezebel suggested that a person was a pagan or an apostate masquerading as a servant of God. By manipulation and/or seduction, she misled the saints of God into sins of idolatry and sexual immorality. In particular, Christians associated Jezebel with promiscuity. In modern usage, the name of Jezebel is at times used as a synonym for sexually promiscuous and/or controlling women, especially as a racist stereotype of Black women, the Jezebel stereotype.

In popular culture

Bette Davis as Julie in the film Jezebel

If ever the Devil was born without a pair of horns
It was you, Jezebel, it was you
If ever an angel fell
Jezebel, it was you, Jezebel, it was you!

  • 10,000 Maniacs recorded a song "Jezebel" as part of their 1992 album Our Time in Eden. Their song is written from the perspective of a woman who has realised that she's no longer in love with her husband and wants to dissolve their marriage.
  • Iron & Wine included a song "Jezebel" on his 2005 EP Woman King. It contains a large number of references to the biblical Jezebel, in particular the dogs associated with her death.
  • The debut single "Doo Wop (That Thing)" by American R&B/Hip-Hop artist Lauryn Hill features a lyric that refers to the death of Jezebel:

Talking out your neck sayin' you're a Christian
A Muslim sleeping with the djinn
Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in
Who you gon' tell when the repercussions spin

  • In his novel The Caves of Steel (1953, 1954), Isaac Asimov portrayed Jezebel as an ideal wife and woman who, in full compliance with the mores of the time, promoted her religion.
  • Paulette Goddard starred as Jezebel in the film Sins of Jezebel (1953).
  • The Gawker offshoot blog Jezebel (launched 2007) concerns mostly feminist issues and women's interests.
  • In the speculative fiction novel The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood, the brothel is called "Jezebel's" and prostitutes are referred to as "Jezebels."
  • The popular historian Lesley Hazleton wrote a revisionist account, Jezebel, The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen (2004), presenting Jezebel as a sophisticated queen engaged in mortal combat with the fundamentalist prophet Elijah. Hazleton has additionally written several non-fiction books about the Middle East.
  • Sade features the song "Jezebel" on the band's 1985 album Promise.
  • Kelly Clarkson referenced Jezebel in I Had A Dream on her album Piece by Piece (2015).
  • In Hannibal episode 7 of season three, "Digestivo", a parallel is made between Jezebel and character Mason Verger. "You recall dogs ate her face."
  • Australian indie rock band The Jezabels took their name from the biblical figure.