Today the noun jezebel has come to describe,
”A woman who is regarded as evil and scheming."
The word that has come to illustrate an "impudent woman" arose in the English language around 1558, following Jezebel, the iniquitous Tyrean princess who, according to the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles, married Ahab, king of Israel during the middle of the nineteenth century BCE. 1 One etymological source says her name is derived from Isabel and Elizabeth and The Oxford Companion to the Bible explains her name is best understood to mean ”Where is the Prince?”…“The cry of Baal’s divine and human subjects when he is in the underworld”
The purpose of this marriage was a political one intended to reinforce an alliance. Kingdoms of the region had been spilt in two because of past idolatry that led to the certain and terrible consequences of Yawism. Ahab and his successors were eventually accused of a new kind of idolization when he allowed Jezebel to import a cult of Tyrian beliefs and thus introduced a foreign god into Israel.
Canaanite gods such as Baal of Peor 2 and the Baals 3 were primarily local manifestations of the storm god Baal, important because of his association with the storms which brought revival of vegetation and fertility. By the ninth century BCE, Baalism had deeply pervaded Israelite life. Personal names with formed with Baal already began to appear during the era of the Judges. 4 Even Saul and David have Baal names to their male offspring. 5
Opposition to Baalism was led by Israel’s prophets. The fertility rites associated with Baal worship corrupted the faith in Yahweh and the traditions that supported them erroneously disregarded aspects of nature. The prophets endeavored to show Yahweh as a transcendent universal God who provided rains and fertility yet who is not a “nature god” trapped in regular seasonal cycles. Since farming was so crucial and precariously reliant on the weather it became essential to show that Yahweh, not Baal, was the one who “rode the clouds” controlling the storms and brought freshening rains.
Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Tyre, today known as Sur and Lebanon, grew up among the Sidonians a Biblical term for Phoenicians. In general. Josephus and other historians of the era establish her genealogy as the great aunt of Dido, the founder of Carthage. Jezebel was a passionate worshipper of Baal as well as Ashera supporting their worship from her throne in Israel. 7 8 9 Because the Phoenician queen looked to non-Israelite models of kingship in which patron gods supported the dynasty, intense conflict arose with the introduction of Baal of Tyre by Jezebel and was viewed as an egregious offense. This became the impetus for mutual hostilities between her and the prophets of Jehovah until she became bitterly embroiled in opposition to the prophet Elijah. The dispute turned violent when Jezebel executed many prophets of Yahweh. A contest ensued between Yahweh and Baal, dramatized in 1 Kings 16: 31-33. Elijah confronts Ahab and issues his challenge in the name of Yahweh. Elijah’s miraculous victory over the prophets of Baal and Ashrah is enhanced by the fact that wood is set afire and then soaked with water. Elijah acting as rainmaker puts an end to the drought he enforced in 1 Kings 17: 1.
Motivated by economic gain and exercising her royal privilege Jezebel plotted the death of Naboth to acquire his vineyards ostensibly for her husband. 10 Ahab had asked Naboth to sell him his land, but Naboth had to refuse on the basis that the Lord forbade him to sell his inheritance. Jezebel provided false witnesses who claimed Naboth “didst blaspheme” God and the king. Naboth was then taken out and stoned to death while Ahab confiscates his vineyard.
The framing and murder of Naboth prompted Elijah to foresee that dogs would eat Jezebel’s corpse in Jezreel. 1112 By now Jezebel had survived her husband over a decade and the commander of King Joram’s army, Jehu was anointed king in Ramoth-gilead in order to destroy Ahab’s house because of Jezebel’s actions against the prophets as well as the faithful of Yahweh.13 When King Joram (who was the son of Ahab) met with Jehu and Jezebel he observed that there could be no peace in Israel while the “woredoms and sorcery” of Jezebel persisted. After killing Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah (Ahab and Jezebel’s grandsons), Jehu continued on to Jezreel to kill Jezebel. Adorned like a queen, she appeared to him in a window, imperially defiant in the face of his hostility. Her own attendants, who sided with Jehu, threw her out the window and she was trampled to death.
As the only reigning queen in Jewish history except Athaliah, Jezebel wasn’t all bad. According to Louis Ginzberg who wrote Legends of the Jews:
Hardened sinner though Jezebel was, even she had good qualities. One of them was her capacity for sympathy with others in joy and sorrow. Whenever a funeral cortege passed the royal palace, Jezebel would descend and join the ranks of the mourners, and, also, when a marriage procession went by, she took part in the merry-making in honor of the bridal couple. By way of reward the limbs and organs with which she had executed these good deeds were left intact by the horses that trampled her to death in the portion of Jezreel.
It was her use of cosmetics that gave rise to the phrase painted Jezebel used for a woman who flaunts herself provocatively. Jezebel’s sons and daughters also ruled. Ahaziah was king of Israel for two years after Ahab passed away and Joram went on to become his heir to the throne. 1415 16 Their daughter Athaliah later married Jehoram of Judah, and was the mother of Ahaziah, king of Judah. 17 When her son was killed by Jehu 18 Athaliah set out to kill all his heirs and she herself ruled for six years. 19
Jezebel was held in reproach among the Jews because she introduced a tyrannical government and the worship of foreign gods. Eventually her name acquired its insulting label for a woman and is used as an allusion in the New Testament book in Revelation 2:20 about a prophet in Thyatira of whose teaching and practice the author of Revelation disapproves.
It might interest some to know that Jerebaom’s archeological digs in the northern city of Dan has yielded impressive structures including a monumental gate with benches, a pedestal for and a “high place.” Excavators discovered magnificent buildings at Samaria that belonged to Ahab and his wife Jezebel, including Proto-Aeolic columns and fragments of ivory.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English:
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Jezebel," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Evil: Man's Good Works Create the Desperate Outcast:
Holy Bible; King James Version.
Legends of the Jews, By Louis Ginzberg:
Online Etymology Dictionary:
The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.