Joshua J. Mark
published on 18 January 2012
Jezebel was the Phoenician Princess of Sidon (9th century BCE) whose story is told in the Hebrew Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament) in I and II Kings where she is portrayed unfavorably as a conniving harlot who corrupts Israel and flaunts the commandments of God. Recent scholarship, which has lead to a better understanding of the civilization of Phoenicia, the role of women, and the struggle of the adherents of the Hebrew god Yahweh for dominance over the indigenous worship of the Canaanite deities Astarte and Baal, suggest a different, and more favorable, picture of Jezebel as a woman ahead of her time married into a culture whose religious class saw her as a formidable threat (phoenicia.org).
Her name has been claimed to mean, `Where is God?’ or, alternately, `Where is The Prince’ and even `Not Exalted’ but, as all these claims come from sources antagonistic to Jezebel (and make little sense when one considers her father was King Ethbaal of Sidon, a Phonecian High Priest, who would hardly have given his daughter a name which literally meant she was not exalted, nor one which asked a question he already knew the answer to) it is far more likely that her name means `Daughter of Baal’ or, as we would say today, `Daughter of God’.
Phoenician women enjoyed enormous liberty and were considered the equals of males. Both men and women presided over religious gatherings as priests and priestesses and, as daughter of a High Priest, Jezebel would have naturally been initiated into the priesthood. Her on-going conflict with the Prophet Elijah chronicled in I Kings has been interpreted by some as simply an impossible clash of cultural understanding as the Israelites were not accustomed to a strong female ruler and Jezebel was not used to second-class citizen status (phoenicia.org).
Jezebel was married, by contract, to King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a means to cement an alliance between that city and her home state of Sidon. She almost immediately came into conflict with the religious class by importing her own priests and priestesses and setting up shrines and temples to the gods of her own understanding. In I Kings she orchestrates the murder of the landowner Naboth (slyly using Ahab’s signet ring unlawfully to seal the messages sent) in order to give Ahab his vineyards which the Yahwehist Prophet Elijah seized upon as proof of her wickedness. Recent archaelogical discoveries, however, reveal she had her own ring and, accordingly, authority as a monarch to take what actions she deemed necessary (science daily). She imposed a death sentence on Elijah himself after his massacre of her priests following the contest on Mount Carmel (causing Elijah to flee). Elijah’s successor, Elisha, moved the Israelite General Jehu to revolt and Jezebel was murdered by two eunuchs (at Jehu’s command) by being thrown from her window to the street below. The famous scene from II Kings 9:30-33 in which Jezebel applies make-up before her death (which has traditionally been interpreted as her attempt to seduce Jehu to spare her life and which has largely lead to her reputation as a `whore’) is now believed by some scholars to be the appriate action of a Queen of Israel and Princess of Sidon, preparing for her end with dignity as a monarch and true priestess of her gods.