Who was Jezebel in the Bible? It depends on your worldview.
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? She was a Phoenician princess who became a queen of Israel. As the wife of King Ahab, Queen Jezebel forcefully introduced Baal worship into the nation, a move opposed by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. In popular culture, Jezebel has come to be seen as a scheming, shameless woman out for blood.
Who is Jezebel in pop culture?
“Fie on him, Jezebel!” Shakespeare puts this curse in the mouth of one of the characters in his play Twelfth Night. It’s strange though. There’s no other mention of a Jezebel in the play. She’s not one of the characters. How was Shakespeare able to mention a name in a curse, only once, and expect his audience to catch its meaning?
It’s because the name Jezebel has long been synonymous with a scheming, shameless woman out for blood.
This is why when Warner Bros. released a film about a headstrong Southern belle, played by Bette Davis, who disgraces her fiancé and stokes a duel which kills one of her admirers, they felt it appropriate to call the movie Jezebel. The main character’s name was actually Julie, yet movie-goers knew from the title they were in for an alluringly disturbing portrayal of a dangerous woman.
“…an alluringly disturbing portrayal of a dangerous woman…”
The name gets around. I recall hearing “Jezebel!” used as a swear word in a movie set in Australia (said by the mountain man Spur in The Man from Snowy River). Jezebel is the title of a movie about a phone sex operator. It’s also the name of a leftist political and celebrity gossip website whose tagline is “Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth.”
Jezebel puts a name to ELO’s “Evil Woman.” She’s a bad girl, even a feminist icon of sorts. But who was the original Jezebel—the Jezebel in the Bible?
What’s a good 100-word bio for Jezebel?
Princess of Tyre, Queen of Israel. Husband of 1 king (Ahab). Mother of 2 kings (Ahaziah and Joram of the North) and 1 queen (Athaliah of the South). Baal-follower. Prophet hunter. Royal strategist for real estate appropriation. It’s a good thing this nice-guy husband married someone who gets things done. Alleged 3-year drought causer (don’t believe it; it’s really that pesky prophet Elijah…anybody seen him, by the way?). A huge fan of Baal temples (thanks, sweetheart!), Asherah poles, and makeup. Sexy senior citizen.
What was Jezebel’s religion?
Jezebel’s religion centered on Baal, and Baal-worship figures prominently in her story. What do we know about Baal? He was the supreme male god for Canaanite and Phoenician peoples. In my book Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don’t Exist, I include a chapter on Ahab and Baal, and here is an excerpt:
Baal was an Ancient Near Eastern warrior god with a helmet of horns. The “rider of the clouds” held in one hand a club and in the other a spear, signifying thunder and lightning respectively. As the storm god, Baal brought rain and fertility. Baal had conquered Yam, the god of the sea, only to be slain by Mot, the god of the underworld. On his way to the underworld, Baal had one last hurrah by mating with a heifer. However, it was not to be the end of Baal after all, for after his sister Anat killed Mot, both Mot and Baal were revived. The struggle between death and fertility continued, symbolizing the annual vegetative cycle.
Before Jezebel was queen in Israel, she grew up the daughter of Ethbaal, king of a major Phoenician city called Sidon. Ethbaal was also priest of Asthoreth, a Phoenician female god often connected with Baal (“We have forsaken the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths,” 1 Sam. 12:10). Baal worship had become trendy among the Israelites from time to time, such as in the time of Judges (Judges 10:6). But it wasn’t until Jezebel entered Israelite royalty that Baal worship became official policy.
How did Jezebel’s religion become Israel’s religion?
When Israel’s Northern tribes split off from the Southern tribes (shortly after the reign of King Solomon), the North became known simply as “Israel” and the South became known as “Judah.” Both nations of this Divided Kingdom wandered from Yahweh and ended up worshiping idols, but it was Israel in the North that did so immediately. The North’s first king, Jeroboam, built two temples, each with golden calves.
The North’s kings kept “following the ways of Jeroboam” (1 Kings 15:34; 16:19) until things took an even darker turn with its seventh king, Ahab. What made Ahab’s reign so pivotal? Enter his queen:
Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him. (1 Kings 16:30-33)
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? “Ahab…married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.”
For Ahab, the prophets of Baal proved far more pleasurable to listen to than the prophets of God. The prophets of God kept telling Ahab truth he didn’t want to hear (see Elijah in 1 Kings 18 and Micaiah in 1 Kings 22). The prophets of Baal were echo chambers of optimism and were thus positioned as the ideal civil religion for Ahab’s regime. For example, when Ahab summoned them to see if he should go to war against Ramoth Gilead, the 400 prophets of Baal all agreed: “Go, for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand” (1 Kings 22:6). Their advice turned out to be deadly.
But worship of Baal wasn’t built on wholehearted trust and unreserved worship; it was more a contract between a human and his deity. In historical writings, we have one recorded prayer to Baal, and it feels very contractual:
O Baal! If you will drive the strong one from our gates, the warrior from our walls, a bull, O Baal, we shall dedicate, a vow, Baal, we shall fulfil, a male animal, Baal, we shall dedicate, a propitiation we shall fulfil, a feast, Baal, we shall prepare.
As Israel was about to discover, the contract which Jezebel and Ahab led them to make with their new god came with disturbing fine print.
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? A Christian tells her story.
Jezebel’s story in the Bible spans multiple chapters in 1 and 2 Kings, and we’re going to summarize the major events—twice. First, we’re going to tell her story with the same tone and points of emphasis as we find in the biblical account. This will be the Christian way of telling her story, with faithfulness to God being seen as good, and idolatry and murder plots being seen as evil. In the next section, we will tell the same story, but from more of a post-Christian perspective, with cynicism toward the biblical perspective and sympathy toward Jezebel’s actions.
Jezebel, the daughter of a Phoenician king, married Ahab, king of Israel. She imported her native religion into Israelite life with Ahab’s hearty approval. In the North’s capital city of Samaria, Ahab built a temple to Baal and set up an altar to Baal on the inside. Jezebel kept 450 prophets of Baal, as well as 400 prophets of Asherah (described as Baal’s consort, to be distinguished from the goddess Ashtoreth), all of whom “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). All the while, Jezebel hunted prophets of Yahweh to kill them, which prompted Ahab’s palace administrator Obadiah to secretly save a hundred of them, hiding them in caves (1 Kings 18:4).
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? “Jezebel hunted prophets of Yahweh to kill them.”
God’s response to this blatant apostasy of his chosen people was to withhold rain from the nation for three years. At the end of the three years, the prophet Elijah, who had become public enemy number one, appeared and challenged Jezebel’s prophets to a public contest. On Mount Carmel, he would cry out to Yahweh, they would cry out to Baal, and the God who answered by sending down fire would be recognized as the real God. Although Jezebel’s prophets called out for hours, Baal proved impotent. When Elijah prayed, God immediately sent fire to consume the animal sacrifice he had offered. Elijah had Jezebel’s prophets slaughtered, the onlookers recommitted to God (even if it was to be short-lived), and that day the rain returned.
When Jezebel found out what had happened to her prophets, she sent Elijah a chilling threat that made him flee into hiding again: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them” (1 Kings 19:2).
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? “When Jezebel found out what had happened to her prophets, she sent Elijah a chilling threat.”
Life resumed for Jezebel and Ahab, and within a few chapters, they had restocked their kingdom with another four hundred prophets of Baal. At one point, Ahab complained to Jezebel that a vegetable garden close to his Samarian palace would make a splendid addition to the palace grounds—but its owner, Naboth the Jezreelite, wouldn’t part with it. While Ahab sulked, Jezebel mocked his cowardice and began strategizing. “I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (1 Kings 21:7).
She wrote letters in her husband’s name proclaiming a day of fasting. She arranged for Naboth to be seated in a prominent place and then to be publicly accused of blaspheming God and the king. The two scoundrels she hired made the accusations and then riled the attendants against him. The people gathered lathered into a mob and stoned him to death. The garden was now the king’s.
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? “She arranged for Naboth to be seated in a prominent place and then to be publicly accused of blaspheming God and the king.”
As mentioned before, the prophets of Baal unwittingly sent Ahab to his death by prophesying his victory in a battle. Now a widow, Jezebel saw one son, and then another, ascend to Israel’s throne. Jezebel outlived both, as the first son, Ahaziah, died from a fall, and the other son, Joram, was assassinated by a commander in the Israelite army named Jehu. It turns out that Jehu was on a mission from the prophet Elisha to clean house, and he was coming for Jezebel next.
When Jezebel heard Jehu was coming for her, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair, and waited for him by watching out an upper window. When Jehu’s chariot came in sight, she called down to him, “Have you come in peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master?” (Like Jehu, Zimri had been an Israelite official who killed the king to take his place).
Jehu called up, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two eunuchs who had attended their queen signaled that they were on his side, and he told them to throw her down. They seized her and threw her down from the window. Jehu’s horses trampled her under their feet, and some of her blood spattered the palace walls. Jehu then went into the palace to eat and drink. When he returned to see to her burial, the body was gone. All that was left were her skull, feet, and hands.
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? “When he returned to see to her burial, the body was gone. All that was left were her skull, feet, and hands.”
Thus was fulfilled the prophesy Elijah had given while he was still alive: “Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel” (1 Kings 21:23).
Who was Jezebel in the Bible? A post-Christian tells her story.
After reading Jezebel’s story in the Bible, you would think it would be impossible to flip it and make her the heroine, right? This prophet hunter and property stealer was just plain evil. Yet it’s actually very possible to rewrite the script, and in a minute I’ll point you to a scholar who does exactly this. Just as the 1959 movie Sleeping Beauty can be retold in 2014 and 2019’s Maleficent movies, the story of Jezebel can be told in a sympathetic, even admiring light, and all it takes are some crucial worldview adjustments.
For those of us who try to read the Bible through a worldview shaped by the Bible (i.e., a biblical worldview), it’s a given that idolatry is bad and that the biblical writers were writing to help us choose what is good and true. However, what if you are more post-Christian in your worldview? If so, you likely read the Bible cynically. Perhaps you believe the writers to be misogynistic because the majority, if not all, are males. You might view the Bible’s prohibition of idolatry as power-plays by religious higher-ups who weren’t enlightened enough to see that all religions have equal validity.
“You might view the Bible’s prohibition of idolatry as power-plays by religious higher-ups who weren’t enlightened enough to see that all religions have equal validity.”
Janet Howe Gaines, professor of literature, specializes in reading the Bible as literature. In her book Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages, Gaines rereads Jezebel’s story through an admiring lens. To her, it’s the biblical writers whose motives are suspect, as she sees them as misogynists obsessed with maintaining their religious stranglehold on the nation. In this context, Jezebel emerges as the anti-Ruth, for Jezebel bravely refuses to surrender her religious identity to fit into Israel (whereas Ruth had said, “Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Gaines surmises that, by importing Baal worship, Jezebel was probably trying to do something admirable that the ethnocentric Israelites wouldn’t allow: to bring prosperity between Israel and Phoenicia and encourage religious toleration in xenophobic Israel. Gaines acknowledges that the Naboth story makes Jezebel look pretty murderous but casts doubt on the story’s historicity.
“Gaines surmises that, by importing Baal worship, Jezebel was probably trying to do something admirable that the ethnocentric Israelites wouldn’t allow.”
How she meets her death is Jezebel at her best, explains Gaines. In an “active patriarchal world,” Jezebel determines that she will face her death in an upper window looking down, dressed her best, and will go out taunting her killer. She wielded what power she had in a male-dominated world to go out with dignity. Gaines gives the following summary:
“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.”
Jezebel’s Troubling Legacy
There are a couple ways in which Jezebel’s legacy should be troubling to disciples of Jesus. We’ll start with her immediate legacy following her death and then trace her legacy further out toward our own time.
Setting an example for her daughter.
Recall that Ahab and Jezebel had three children: two sons who reigned as kings in the North, and one daughter who reigned as queen in the South. The first son (Ahaziah) died from a fall, and the second son (Joram) was killed by Jehu on the same day Jehu killed Jezebel.
But there was a third person Jehu killed that day. This can get a little confusing because of the names: In his killing spree, Jehu killed another king, and he was named Ahaziah. This wasn’t the Ahaziah who had been the king of the North (the son of Ahab and Jezebel who had died years earlier from a fall). This was a different Ahaziah, who was king of the South. So, on that day, Jehu killed two kings (Joram of the North, Ahaziah of the South) and a queen (Jezebel).
Here’s where things get very interesting: This second King Ahaziah (of the South) was actually Ahab and Jezebel’s grandson. Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah had married a king of the South, and when Athaliah’s husband died, their son Ahaziah became king. Then, when Jehu killed King Ahaziah, king of the South, guess who rose up to take Ahaziah’s place as king of the South? It was actually his mother Athaliah, Ahab and Jezebel’s daughter.
To become queen, Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah killed off the rest of the royal family in the South. This meant having her own kids and grandkids slaughtered. She succeeded except for a grandson who was hidden from her. Athaliah was eventually deposed when this grandson was brought out after 7 years and proclaimed king.
“To become queen, Jezebel’s daughter Athaliah killed off the rest of the royal family in the South. This meant having her own kids and grandkids slaughtered.”
Think about Jezebel’s legacy of pragmatism. From Jezebel’s example of killing naysaying prophets and resistant landowners, her daughter learned that you live your best life by removing whatever obstacles get in the way of what you want. That’s a shameful legacy, and unfortunately one gaining traction in Western culture. We are taught to obey our lusts and silence anyone who suggests otherwise.
Leading God’s people into unrighteousness.
Jezebel also left a legacy of leading God’s people into blatant sin for which God would judge them. Every mention of Jezebel in the Bible is in 1 or 2 Kings, except for one final mention in the Bible’s final book: In Revelation 2:20, Jesus’ letter to the church in Thyatira mentions “that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” In the church of Thyatira, there was apparently a force misleading Christians into sexual immorality and idolatry which was reminiscent of Jezebel’s destructive influence on ancient Israel.
It is worth noting that God reserves fearsome judgment to those who “pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 1:4) and for those who cause “one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble” (Matt. 18:6). Romans 1, a chapter which describes numerous society-collapsing sins, blames not only those who commit the sins, but also those who “approve of those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32). It’s basically the “Hippocratic Oath” for Christian leaders not to ever lead God’s people into unrighteousness by their teachings or lifestyle.
“It’s basically the ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for Christian leaders not to ever lead God’s people into unrighteousness by their teachings or lifestyle.”
It can be tempting to get squishy and permissive when it comes to calling things sin, especially when it comes to sexual immorality and idolatry. This is because we in the Western world are experiencing what Friedrich Nietzsche called “a transvaluation of all values”—where the labels of good and evil are getting switched. This is a world which sooner would celebrate Jezebel as a model of resistance and empowerment than uphold the Bible’s spiritual and sexual boundaries. In such a culture, it can be difficult to know up from down.
For followers of Jesus who want to discern and pursue what is good, true, and beautiful, it’s important to pray prayers like the following:
“No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame, but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause. Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Ps. 25:3-5)
 Daniel McCoy, Mirage: 5 Things People Want from God That Don’t Exist (Renew.org, 2021), 68.
 Nicolas Wyatt, “Religion in Ancient Ugarit,” in A Handbook of Ancient Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 137.