Janet is a specialist in the Bible as literature in the Department of English at the University of New Mexico. As we will see, Janet sees the Bible as very fanciful literature that gives poor old Jezebel a bad shake. You might say that there is Jezebel, and then there is Janet’s Jezebel.
“For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women… and her name has been adopted for lingerie lines and World War II missiles alike. But just how depraved was Jezebel?”
“Yet there is more to this complex ruler than the standard interpretation would allow. To attain a more
positive assessment of Jezebel’s troubled reign and a deeper understanding of her role, we must evaluate the motives of the biblical authors who condemn the queen… we must reread the narrative from the queen’s vantage point. As we piece together the world in which Jezebel lived… her character might not be as dark as we are accustomed to thinking. Her evilness is not always as obvious, undisputed and unrivaled as the biblical writer wants it to appear.”
“As the Books of Kings recount, the princess Jezebel is brought to the northern kingdom of Israel to wed the newly crowned King Ahab… Her father is Ethbaal of Tyre, King of the Phoenicians… The Bible writer’s antagonism stems primarily from Jezebel’s religion. The Phoenicians worshiped a swarm of gods and goddesses, chief among them Baal… Jezebel, as the king’s daughter, may have served as a priestess [of Baal] as she was growing up. In any case, she was certainly raised to honor the deities of her native land.”
Jezebel wasn’t all that bad. She was just raised to honor the deities of her native land. And as we all know, you have to respect religious beliefs, no matter what they are. Isn’t it just like those close-minded “Bible writers” to fail to celebrate, or even appreciate, a wonderful diversity of religious beliefs? But what else could one expect from a Bible writer? If he had an open mind, he would write things other than the Bible, now wouldn’t he? But wait, there’s more:
“When Jezebel comes to Israel, she brings her foreign gods and goddesses—especially Baal and his
consort Asherah… with her. This seems to have an immediate effect on her new husband, for just as soon as the queen is introduced, we are told that Ahab builds a sanctuary for Baal in the very heart of Israel, within his capital city of Samaria.”
Poor misunderstood Jezebel. She was one of those wives who realized that to foster family unity, the
family needed to share a religion. She and Ahab settled on the religion of Baal. At least they “went to
church”somewhere, even if it was, more or less, the church of Satan. They were good “church-goers”
nonetheless, and that’s what counts. You might think that would be the end of it, but not in this case.
“Jezebel does not accept Ahab’s God, Yahweh. Rather, she leads Ahab to tolerate Baal. This is why she is vilified by the Deuteronomist, whose goal is to stamp out polytheism. She represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the one extolled in characters such as Ruth the Moabite, who…
surrenders her identity and submerges herself in Israelite ways; she adopts the religious and social norms of the Israelites and is universally praised for her conversion to God. Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her own beliefs.”
Jezebel held firm to her polytheistic idolatry, all the while helping her husband become more “tolerant.” (She would be perfect for the post of “Religion Czar” at the White House!) But the Bible writer is too close-minded to accept the virtue of this. Instead, this particular Bible writer (the “Deuteronomist” – or the “D” in JEPD for you fans of negative Biblical criticism) vilifies poor, misunderstood Jezebel. That because, to the “Deuteronomist” Jezebel represents polytheism, and the goal of the “Deuteronomist” is to stamp out polytheism. (Too bad the Deuteronomist couldn’t stamp out negative higher criticism!)
Contrast Jezebel with Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth was wishy-washy. She changed and worshiped the God of Israel – Who, we should not forget, is also the God of everything. But that’s mere detail. Jezebel didn’t bend. She was true to her own beliefs. Janet is surprised that so many people throughout history have not found this very praiseworthy. Remember, it’s not so much what you believe as it is your willingness to stick to your beliefs, no matter how bad they are. As Janet so aptly summarizes this:
“What spurs Jezebel to action is unknown and unknowable, but the motives of the Deuteronomist come through plainly in the text. Jezebel is a bold and impious interloper who has to be stopped. From her own point of view, however, she is no apostate. She remains loyal to her religious upbringing and is determined to maintain her cultural identity.”
There is Janet’s point-of-view, Jezebel’s point-of-view, and then the Deuteronomist’s point-of-view. And as we all know, or at least should know, all points-of-view are equally valid and worthy of respect – unless, of course, you are just plain anti-Jezebel like that wicked Deuteronomist fellow who is out to destroy “cultural identity.”
Then there is that famous contest at Mt. Carmel. What can Janet tell us about this that the Deuteronomist has failed to reveal?
“Ironically, at the conclusion of the Carmel episode, Elijah proves capable of the same murderous inclinations that have previously characterized Jezebel, though it is only she that the Deuteronomist
criticizes. After winning the Carmel contest, Elijah immediately orders the assembly to capture all of
Jezebel’s prophets… Elijah [slaughters] his 450 prisoners… the Deuteronomist decries Jezebel’s killing
of God’s servants but now sanctions Elijah’s decision to massacre hundreds of Jezebel’s prophets… There is a definite double standard here. Murder seems to be accepted, even venerated, as long as it is done in the name of the right deity.”
In the Old Testament story according to Janet, it’s not so much that Jezebel never had anyone murdered, it’s just that Elijah did too, so Jezebel is not so bad after all. It’s a case of Jezebel’s jihad being justified by Elijah’s crusade. The point is, it’s all a matter of one’s point-of-view, and Jezebel is wronged because the Deuteronomist doesn’t like her perfectly valid point-of-view, and applies his horrid double standard to it. According to Janet, we end up with something like this: Jezebel – murdered on behalf of Baal; Elijah – murdered on behalf of Yahweh. But since Jezebel is slighted by the biased reporting of the Deuteronomist, she earns. But what about that infamous plot of Jezebel against Naboth? Wasn’t Naboth both right and innocent? Wouldn’t this tip the scale against Jezebel? Not according to Janet.
“Jezebel… hails from Phoenicia, where a monarch’s whim is often tantamount to law. Having been raised in a land of absolute autocrats, where few dared to question a ruler’s wish or decree, Jezebel might naturally feel annoyance and frustration at Naboth’s resistance to his sovereign’s proposal. In this context, Jezebel’s reaction becomes more understandable, though perhaps no more admirable, for she behaves according to her upbringing and expectations regarding royal prerogative.”
Surely at this point, you have learned that there is always a good explanation for anything done by Jezebel. She was raised in a culture where royalty were omnipotent and resistance was both futile and highly impertinent. So while killing an innocent man for his land might not be “admirable” it is at least understandable. Shouldn’t we all be more understanding? (Janet thinks the whole story of Naboth is unlikely to be anywhere near the truth anyway, so understanding is not really needed in the end.) Janet has much more to defend in Jezebel, but in summary thinks that “Someone has to bear the writer’s vituperation concerning Israel’s apostasy, and Jezebel is chosen for the job.” For Janet, the Bible portrays Jezebel as it does because she was:
“an outspoken woman in a time when females have little status and few rights; a foreigner in a xenophobic land; an idol worshiper in a place with a Yahweh based, state-sponsored religion; a murderer and meddler in political affairs in a nation of strong patriarchs; a traitor in a country where no ruler is above the law; and a whore in the territory where the Ten Commandments originate.”
In other words, had the political correctness of modern leftists been in force in ancient times, Jezebel
might have been a heroine, a nearly Hillary-like figure to be admired and imitated. But alas, those Bible writers hated women, hated strong women, and hated idol-worshipers. But what else could you expect from a Bible writer?
In the Old Testament story according to Janet:
“there is much to admire in this ancient queen. In a kinder analysis, Jezebel emerges as a fiery and
determined person, with an intensity matched only by Elijah s. She is true to her native religion and
customs. She is even more loyal to her husband. Throughout her reign, she boldly exercises what power she has. And in the end, having lived her life on her own terms, Jezebel faces certain death with dignity.”
Yes, Janet, there is nothing like the dignity of being tossed out of a window and having your body left in the street below for dogs to consume. But who even knows if that really happened? After all, it is reported by that disreputable Bible writer, the Deuteronomist. Janet’s Jezebel did it “her way” – which involved manipulation, murder, and idolatry, but understandable and perhaps even admirable manipulation, murder, and idolatry.
In addition to being an example of very creative Biblical interpretation, Janet’s little defense of the
supposedly admirable yet misunderstood Jezebel shows where you go when you accept without question the whole package of negative Biblical criticism. You get Janet’s Jezebel. (JIT)