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sourced from A&E’s Biographies
The story of Jezebel

1 Kings 21:1-25

June 13, 2016

Year C second after Pentecost

Over the years at Bible studies and at book groups Jezebel’s name has come up and for the most part, no one has had anything positive to say about her.

The very mention of Jezebel’s name conjures up images of overdone makeup, excessive jewellery, perfume, expensive and inappropriately sexy clothes and raw sensuality. Ask anyone, male or female about Jezebel and an opinion will be given. She has been given a bad rap and today we will explore her story and let’s see how we feel at the end of the story.

A new era has just begun in Israel. There has been a shift in how the power structure works and at this time the prophets are coming into power. The prophets were a liaison between human beings and God. The prophets encouraged the people to stay true to one God and to be faithful to God’s covenant. They were the keepers of Israel’s moral, religious and ethical standards. The tradition of the day called for absolute and exclusive loyalty to the God of Israel, any wavering meant disaster, hence, the idea that if you lead a good life God will look after you, you will be blessed - it is when you don’t live as God wants, that bad things happen. That theology still exists in many circles.

The other thing that was happening is that the Israelites had settled in the hills of Canaan and were in constant contact and conflict with the Canaanites who were already settled in that land. The Israelites struggled to hold their own both religiously and politically in a place where they were not wanted. They were living and farming the land side by side but it appears for the most part they worshipped different gods.

Both Israelite and Canaanite farmers would be concerned about favourable agricultural conditions, at the time these conditions were directly tied to how and who they worshipped. For both cultures the cycle of planting, growth, harvest and death was rooted in the rhythms of farm life. The Canaanite gods and goddesses were thought to be actively involved in the life rhythms of human beings and nature. A weather god, therefore, would be extremely important. Baal the god of rain and storm would be important and would be a major deity.

Having grown up on a farm in Saskatchewan I understand the importance of the weather, for years the weather was the main focus of our lives. Everything hinged on the weather and so I understand why it was important for the people to have a God that had power over the weather. I suspect many Israelites quite likely thought if Baal could make a difference, so be it. If God pitched in to help, so much the better. Remember, this story is told by those who had the power, the patriarchs. So the Israel prophets insisted that there was only one God, and if the people were to be blessed, than worship to the one God, Yahweh, was crucial.

The players in this drama today are: Elijah, he is a prophet, and he is God’s right hand man. Jezebel, when she enters the picture she plays a prominent role in the life of Elijah. Ahab, the seventh king and after Solomon’s death, he ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab had an excellent record as king. His administration was marked by military strength and government stability.
Ahab and Elijah had a stormy relationship. Elijah’s mission was to destroy the cult of Baal in Israel.

Very quickly Elijah manages to squelch Baal worship, but it gains momentum when the politically motivated marriage between King Omri’s son Ahab, and the King of Tyre’s daughter, Jezebel, takes place. It was not unusual for men to marry for political reasons. Such marriages connected and strengthened families so that military and political alliances would be sealed. That was the case with Ahab and Jezebel.

It was crucial economically at this time that Tyre and Israel form strong ties, hence, the arranged marriage. In the midst of political and economic stability, the religious scene took a turn for the worst. When the marriage between Ahab and Jezebel was sealed, it was expected that she and her people would continue to worship their deities, Baal and Asherah. As a sign of respect, Ahab built a temple to Baal and a shrine to Asherah in Samaria where they now lived. There was nothing unusual about this arrangement, Solomon had done the same for his wives. Baal and the one true God of Israel, Yahweh, coexisted. (I think it is rather interesting to see how life was lived in the country as compared to the city.)

Jezebel was an enthusiastic follower of Baal worship and she made sure that her devotion was widely known. The conflict between the two religions grew. Jezebel kills some of God’s prophets because she has this huge conflict going on with Elijah and Elijah receives word from God to cause a drought so they can prove that Israel’s God can produce rain and there is no need for the fertility God, Baal. So it goes. We understand this story, right, every day we see something like it in on TV.

Elijah gains the upper hand and instead of being a gracious winner when it looks like he had indeed won, he killed the prophets of Baal and Asherah, just as Jezebel had done. Of course she was outraged and she sent Elijah a message saying, I’ll be doing the same to you that you did to the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Elijah ran to the hills and pouts and whines. Elijah’s God tells him just hang tough I have troops prepared for you.

This is where today’s scripture lesson starts. The scene opens with Ahab seeking to acquire a plot of land in a vineyard that he wants for a vegetable garden. Naboth the owner of the vineyard says, “no, it’s not for sale it belongs to my family.” Ahab goes home, goes to bed, sulks and refuses to eat. There are not many mature players in this story. Jezebel comes along and says, “What are you doing in bed, it’s the middle of the afternoon, why are you so depressed that you will not eat. Get up.”

Ahab explains what has happened. Jezebel takes over, she is amazed and appalled at the situation. After all Ahab is King he should have the vineyard if he wants it.
Remember, Jezebel is royalty from another land. The rules were different there, but… She also understands Israeli law, she makes a plan, and follows it through. She sees that Naboth dies, with him dead, Ahab can inherit the garden. She goes home and tells Ahab what has happened, that Naboth is dead. Upon hearing that good news Ahab heads off for his new vineyard. But this is all too easy - Elijah has returned from the hills. God, of course, has sent Elijah to confront Ahab about the matter of the vineyard and Elijah predicts the death of Ahab and the horrific death of Jezebel. The narrator of this story makes sure that we understand the transgressions of Ahab and Jezebel.

The story has been laid out - So, now let’s look a little closer at who Jezebel was: Amongst all the dangerous foreign women of the Bible Jezebel stands alone as the one most able to undermine Israel’s faith. It is possible that everyday people liked her. She was regal, articulate, smart, sensitive and generous. She was after all a princess before she became queen of Israel. Her father and grandfather were kings. It is likely that she grew up in the palace watching her mother and grandmother live out the duties of queen and queen mother. She was used to the finer things in life, the best foods, wines, the best clothing, the best furnishings, she was used to the best teachers and tutors. No doubt, she was privy to conversations around the dinner table where her father and his friends talked military and commercial strategies. She listened attentively as her dad set forth his polices and reforms. She watched her Mom use her own power and authority with grace and poise. She watched her parents negotiate the terms of their marriage. I imagine she celebrated with her people at the festivals that celebrated Baal’s blessings, or entreated Baal’s kindness.

She sat with her mother and grandmother during the services at the Baal temple. She danced with her girlfriends at the shrine of Asherah. She helped the servants prepare the feasts her parents sponsored for the prophets of Baal and Asherah. Jezebel lived in a bubble of royal pride and privilege.

When Jezebel married Ahab she did not get a sudden case of amnesia. Instead, she brought her history and her way of life with her to Israel. Her background had prepared her to be a Canaanite queen, and Israelite customs were a real eye opener. She could not understand the insecurities of the Israelite God. This God required absolute loyalty, this God required strict obedience. This God had a long list of dos, and don’ts that even the greatest saints would find challenging. This God bragged about and encouraged people to remember deeds of valour and violence. All the while, God’s prophets, preached doom and gloom, it would have been very depressing.

Moreover, for Jezebel, Israel’s God would have seemed incomplete - as there was no female counterpart. Besides, Baal had been around longer - he had seniority. So, Jezebel saw nothing wrong with promoting her religion. She was doing the bumbling Israelites a favour by providing a more reliable and less demanding God.

Jezebel was dangerous because she was somebody before she arrived in Israel. She was a woman of means, and compared well with Elijah. But they were on opposite sides - Jezebel used her power to destroy the opposing prophets of God and Elijah used his power to destroy the opposing prophets of Baal.

She was condemned for Baal worship and this allowed folks to be ruthless. She was condemned on religious and ethical grounds, but she acted out of political motivations. In Jezebels opinion, King Ahab was entitled to anything he wanted. Certainly if he had been King of Tyre, he could just take the vineyard. Jezebel was impatient with Israel law that didn’t give the king what he wanted. Ahab would have let the matter of the vineyard drop but Jezebel didn’t see it that way. The powers that be decided that all traces of Jezebel had to be gotten rid of. She broke Israelite law and her following of Baal worship was enough to order her death.
The established order deemed her evil and so she was dealt a harsh hand. Elijah who had the power to save Jezebel - didn’t. It is interesting to note that they never met face to face. Probably it would have been inappropriate for Elijah to meet with a foreign woman. Yet they were very similar, both were active, fanatical, stubborn and all in the name of their deities.

Jezebel had the nerve to stand up to Elijah. Jezebel was not afraid of Elijah and he knew it. All the more reason for her to die. Because of her worship of Baal, the dreaded threat to Israel’s wellbeing, and her connection to God, Jezebel had to die a terrible death. The description of her death is the most graphic in the Bible and it is not for the fainthearted: it is at the time of her death when she is standing at the palace window that she paints her face, adorns her crown, dresses in her best clothes and stands waiting like the royal woman she was, for death - she was flung from the window; she was smashed to the ground and trampled upon by horses; her blood spattered; and her body was devoured by dogs. All that was left was her skull, and the palms of her hands.

She serves the tradition/story well, but she deserves another look. She was not a harlot or a seductress. She was not involved in any sexual scenes. She was a woman from another culture, and worldview trying to adjust in a new and strange land. She was not a villain to be eternally despised - she was religiously committed, politically savvy, determined, self assured and clever. She was dedicated to her family and she was a zealous missionary for Baal and Asherah.

I leave the end to you - what do you think about Jezebel?
Sharon Ferguson-Hood