Read Janet Howe Gaines's full article about Jezebel in the Bible and later depictions as it appeared in Bible Review
Janet Howe Gaines • 05/06/2013
Who Was Jezebel?
Israel’s most accursed queen carefully fixes a pink rose in her red locks in John Byam Liston Shaw’s “Jezebel” from 1896. Jezebel’s reputation as the most dangerous seductress in the Bible stems from her final appearance: her husband King Ahab is dead; her son has been murdered by Jehu. As Jehu’s chariot races toward the palace to kill Jezebel, she “painted her eyes with kohl and dressed her hair, and she looked out of the window” (2 Kings 9:30). Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth, UK/Bridgeman Art Library
For more than two thousand years, Jezebel has been saddled with a reputation as the bad girl of the Bible, the wickedest of women. This ancient queen has been denounced as a murderer, prostitute and enemy of God, and her name has been adopted for lingerie lines and World War II missiles alike. But just how depraved was Jezebel?
In recent years, scholars have tried to reclaim the shadowy female figures whose tales are often only partially told in the Bible. Rehabilitating Jezebel’s stained reputation is an arduous task, however, for she is a difficult woman to like. She is not a heroic fighter like Deborah, a devoted sister like Miriam or a cherished wife like Ruth. Jezebel cannot even be compared with the Bible’s other bad girls—Potiphar’s wife and Delilah—for no good comes from Jezebel’s deeds. These other women may be bad, but Jezebel is the worst.1
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. Furthermore, we must reread the narrative from the queen’s vantage point. As we piece together the world in which Jezebel lived, a fuller picture of this fascinating woman begins to emerge. The story is not a pretty one, and some—perhaps most—readers will remain disturbed by Jezebel’s actions. But her character might not be as dark as we are accustomed to think ng. Her evilness is not always as obvious, undisputed and unrivaled as the Biblical writer wants it to appear.