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Jezebel and Polytheism

            During my search for something in the Hebrew Bible to write a Midrash (AKA biblical fan fiction) about, I realized that I haven’t read the book itself closely enough yet to know how I want to re-write it; I’m still grappling with what these stories were meant to teach me in the first place. I have to remind myself that the goal of the Hebrew Bible is to convince the reader to believe in one god, Yahweh, rather than to tell the absolute truth, and therefore, anything that detracts from belief in that one god is characterized as evil, even if, in our modern view of morality, it isn’t evil at all. Given my cursory understanding of history, it seems like women were given more power and authority by the polytheistic religions that came before, and were then put down by monotheism. And I don’t understand why that was a necessary part of the transition to a One God system, or if it was.

“Girl Power!”

The story of Jezebel, in the book of Kings, focuses on this transition from a female-friendly polytheism to a male-centric monotheism, and it portrays foreign women, and the worship of any God other than Yahweh, as evil. And we have taken this portrayal of Jezebel as fact, because the Bible says it’s so. But is it?

            I know that many modern women have tried to find redeeming value in Jezebel (I did that myself by naming a protagonist after her), but I was willing to believe that she was as wicked as advertised, because I think there’s value in recognizing that women are capable of unforgivable harm; that you don’t have to be a man to be evil. Except, often in the Hebrew Bible, what the evil women are accused of seems more like rebellion, or a different opinion, than true evil.

Jezebel was a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the Phoenician king, and she was married to Ahab, the king of Israel, in a political alliance. She was raised with her own gods, including Baal and Astarte, and did not switch over to Yahweh when she married Ahab. Why? Because she came from a place where both male and female gods were worshipped, and when she married and moved to Israel there was only one, lone, Male God, and, not surprisingly, she didn’t appreciate the change.

“Me neither.”

            The biblical authors don’t like that her husband, the king, builds a temple of Baal, rather than forcing her to worship his national God. They accused her of interfering with the exclusive worship of Yahweh among the people of Israel and bringing in her own gods, as if that is her main crime. In one parenthetical sentence it says that Jezebel has been killing off the prophets of Yahweh, so she may also be a murderer, but there’s no explanation for why she’s doing it, or for how she would have the power to do so without the King’s okay.

            Her crimes seem to be: being a powerful woman able to hold her own against men, and being a polytheist instead of a Yahwist. Her own morality and use of power are questionable, but not more so than her husband’s or other kings of Israel. In fact, King Ahab is considered one of the worst kings of Israel. He reigns for twenty-two years, and the Bible says, he did what was displeasing to God even more than his predecessors.

The prophet who speaks up against Jezebel and Ahab in the Book of Kings is Elijah, and he asks the Israelites how long they will keep hopping between Yahweh and the other gods. His fight is with Polytheism and with the temptation to worship other gods. Elijah and the prophets of Yahweh fight the prophets of Baal and win, and then Elijah kills all 450 prophets of Baal. So Jezebel is evil for killing the prophets of Yahweh, but Elijah is pure for killing 450 prophets of Baal? Doesn’t that make both of them killers?

Elijah confronts King Ahab and predicts that he and all of his heirs will be destroyed, and that dogs will devour Jezebel. Eventually, the King is killed in battle, and his sons become kings for short periods of time each and then they die too.

            We finally return to Jezebel in chapter nine of the second book of Kings. She is sitting in her room in the palace, putting on her makeup, when the new king arrives and has Jezebel thrown out of the window by her eunuchs. He drives over her body with his chariot, and she is devoured by dogs, as the prophecy foretold.

“Eeeeew.”

But is she being punished as a murderer? Or for worshiping foreign gods? For me, it matters.

            Polytheism is the worship of multiple gods, often assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing forces of nature and ancestral principles. Sometimes these gods are seen as completely separate individuals, and other times they are seen as aspects of a single god – which resonates with how God is portrayed in the Hebrew Bible. God is given many names in the Hebrew Bible –  Yahweh, El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Tzevaot, Yah, Adonai, etc. – and many attributes – healer, merciful, warrior, infinite, strong, omnipresent, shepherd, righteous, Rock of Israel, etc. Possibly the variety comes from so many different authors, but, conveniently, absorbing the names and attributes of the surrounding gods helped the biblical authors to convince the Israelites to stop worshipping foreign gods; if you prized strength or mercy or healing or war, you could find any and all of those qualities in the one god, like in a big box store.

            Polytheism is actually a more comprehensive way of depicting the multiple aspects of the self, and the contradictory nature of the universe. Monotheism attempts to determine what is good (loyal to God) and what is evil (antagonistic to God), and tries to explain how all of our different qualities can exist within a single person, or a single universe. But that doesn’t mean that the particular forms of monotheism that we believe in are right, or lead to more moral behavior in human beings. If anything, Monotheism encourages more black and white thinking, ignoring the grey areas, and giving in to totalitarian leadership systems, whether they strive for actual goodness or not.

            Jezebel’s role in the story is to play the straw (wo)man, that Elijah, as God’s representative, is able to tear down. But even a surface level reading of Kings tells us that Elijah’s behavior is no more moral than Jezebel’s, no more compassionate or reasonable or just. Elijah wins because he backs the protagonist of the book: Yahweh.

“Where’s MY book?”

            So where does that leave me? Why do I believe in one God rather than many? Do I believe in the Yahweh portrayed in the Bible, or a more modern iteration that my ancestors wouldn’t recognize? Can I find fault with the Hebrew Bible and still look to it for guidance?

            I think the lesson I learn over and over is that this book is the memoir of a flawed people, groping towards a vision of God and community that will be able to sustain them and help them find peace. But, clearly, the Hebrew Bible is not always meant to be taken literally; even great rabbis have understood this. This book is not the last word on morality; it’s a starting point.

If seeing the Hebrew Bible this way makes me a Jezebel, so be it. I’m in good company.

“Do you mean us?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

55 responses »

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’m an expert fence sitter when it comes to this whole subject. One of my friends tried to enlist me on an Alpha course some years ago, and I requested that he watch the beginning of the movie “Dogma” as a warning to what might happen (the scene where Loki turns two nuns against religion in a matter of minutes). I can’t help feeling that if belief in multiple gods is wrong in some way, than belief in any gods is equally wrong. The thing that has always interested me is the historical attempts to let “normal people” read the various religious texts by maintaining them in ancient languages, rather than translating them.

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  2. If I could LOVE this post I would. Fascinating, intelligent and spot on in my opinion. The repression of the divine feminine makes me every but as sad as it does angry. I have never thought it consistent with the truth. Like you, however, I have not thrown the baby out with the bath water. I want to read about every God, in every last book. The parallels are fascinating. Your book sounds fantastic too, by the way. I’ll totally check it out. In the meantime, my goodness, is it refreshing to hear voices like yours in this crazy world. I’m so grateful for this space for that end alone. Much love. So glad I found ya here.

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  3. Great post! you tackled some questions that I have often considered mostly about women losing their power after they were deposed as the creative image. (So many female images in anthropology. It was interesting to read your comparison between polytheistic images of God and monotheism. In college (many moons ago) I had a class officered under a grant that brought a professor from India to teach about his country, history, and religion. His area was predominantly Hindu. He mentioned that scholars in his country often saw the many gods as images of one God just as Christianity sees a triune God. It made me read more and think more about various religious ideas. Thanks for the post.

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  4. I enjoy your perspective and your knowledge. I am always reviewing my feelings and often redefining them. A wonderful post.

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  5. Rachel, I love your thoughtful and insightful interpretation. I think God thinks so to! Thank you for taking us on this journey.

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  6. It’s interesting to follow the transformation of God from the fierce war-god, Yahweh, to the loving God in Christianity.

    Worshiping goddesses doesn’t necessarily mean your civilization treats women as equals. Look at the ancient Greeks; they had many powerful goddesses, but they were one of the most misogynistic civilizations in history.

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  7. Thank you for writing this, Rachel. I have learnt much from you about your faith and your traditions.

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  8. It held my interest to the very last, very telling, few words.

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  9. Since helping trans people, I’ve found that the “One God” system of things, has been a bit of a blight on society. All the older religions, accepted a lot of those of who some of the Christian religion would call sinners or “different”, and so should be feared.

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    • There have to be ways to accept differences in who we are and still be a community. The question is, can we adapt our current systems to do that work or do we need new systems?

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  10. Interesting post and I shall think more about Jezebel in future. I have always thought it logical that the older religions worshipped goddesses – women being the ones who actually give birth to new life. The fear of worshipping idols we were taught at Sunday school ( I always thought it very unlikely I would worship an idol ) is a far cry from understanding that the gods of the Hindu religion for example could be a representation of aspects of one God.

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    • Some of the prejudices of early monotheism were so particular to circumstances of the time and have no place in the modern world. The hard thing is figuring out, and agreeing, on which ones those are.

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  11. Thank you for this. I rarely read the Old Testament, because I find parts of it too disturbing, but I am going to read about Jezebel again. I love your take on it. As a Catholic, which I was brought up as but don’t exactly practice now, I am guilty of some polytheism, because we pray to saints. This is rationalized as, we’re just asking the saints to pray for us, as we might ask our friends to do (“Could you ask God for me…”). But the next time you lose something, try saying, “Tony, Tony, turn around! Something’s lost and can’t be found!” and see if St. Anthony helps you out. Seriously, though, the older I get, the more I believe that we don’t know much about God.

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    • I think that we can spend our whole lives thinking about God and still never know for sure. And I’m okay with that. There is so much in the Hebrew Bible that freaks me out, which means it’s rich with things to argue about! My rabbi says that every time you read these stories you see them differently, and that sounds like a challenge worth taking.

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  12. I think Jezebel’s key sin was having Naboth killed on false chances so that Ahab could take his vineyard. As I read it, that misuse of power was the really unforgiveable sin, something even Ahab was shocked by. Jewish kings weren’t supposed to do things like that; they didn’t have absolute power like pagan kings.

    I don’t think women had more power in the pagan world than in ancient Israel. I think pagan societies were just as patriarchal. The only women in the ancient world I can think of with much power in their own right were Nefertiti and Cleopatra. Athens had a female patron goddess, but women were not allowed to be citizens or to vote.

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    • The vineyard story bothered me too; Jezebel’s behavior is immoral. But not more than Ahab’s or even Elijah’s. the amount of mass murder accepted as moral in these stories is horrifying. The reality is, these stories and histories were written by men, so we don’t really know the reality of things.

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  13. This my friend I believe can be applied to any bible. ” I think the lesson I learn over and over is that this book is the memoir of a flawed people, groping towards a vision of God and community that will be able to sustain them and help them find peace. ” The Christian and the Koran included.

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  14. Enjoyed the post, and many of the thoughtful responses. Living through recent history I wonder how the story tellers who assembled the Bible would frame the events of the last five years or so. We’ve had large numbers of horrific storms, wildfires and a pandemic, plus the brutality of the police.

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    • Exactly! I was talking to a group of students about miracles in the Bible, and they wanted to know if they were really miracles or if everything could be explained with science. And my answer was: both. We can interpret science as a miracle or as an act of God(s), both back then and now. It’s about interpretation.

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      • A favorite question I used to ask at a study group I led was: if you understand the physics behind something is it still a miracle? It always caused interesting discussions.

  15. This post was very interesting. I like that you are unafraid to think for yourself as you interpret the bible.

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  16. Excellent, informational, and entertaining post, Rachael. What great food for thought!

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  17. Rachel, good post. Women do not get enough credit in religious texts, regardless of the religion. Too many men writers, translators and editors took a big eraser to many of their contributions. In the Christian religion, women kept the worship going by holding meetings in their homes. They were fearful of the Romans, who were not too kind to people going against the empire, so such meetings were in secret.

    In Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s excellent, but tough to read book, “Half the Sky” it reveals how often women are kept down in lesser strata roles as a result of religion. To their point, not only is that not right or fair, but it means a community is competing in a world with only 1/2 of its resources. This is where the title comes from, as a Chinese proverb says women hold up half the sky. Keith

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  18. I think the lesser role most women play in the modern bible — Jewish AND Christian — is due to the rise in a male-dominant society and men’s attempt to keep women under their thumbs. as you know, up until a few years ago, women weren’t allowed to play any role in the synagogue or temple, up to not even being allowed to sit with the men. It is the same still in some Christian denominations.

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  19. I cannot agree w/ your premise, Rachel. The Bible is the absolute truth — not a mere collection of stories to convince us to believe in God. If monotheism curtailed women’s power (a conclusion I think is flawed), that is only b/c the “sin nature” of mankind tends to corrupt all activities. Under pagan Roman rule, for instance, women were wholly subservient to their husbands. By contrast, the Bible teaches that men and women are equal in the eyes of God.

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  20. I recently read “The Evolution of God” by Robert Wright. He looks at the belief systems of hunter/gatherers, tribes, small states and complicated states. He ties religion to social utility. A society develops a religion that promotes internal cohesion. Wright spends a lot of time describing how monotheism developed. He notes that the Bible sometimes describes Yahweh as one of many gods. The promotion of monotheism may have developed as a reaction to exile. Before that trauma, Israelites worshipped multiple gods. Yahweh may even have had a consort.

    He also states that Yahweh expanded from a warrior god to include attributes of Canaanite gods.

    My wife and I are leaving a church now that a new pastor has arrived. He holds up the Bible and smugly says, “This is the Word of the Lord”. He sounds like he’s congratulating himself and the congregants for choosing to join an exclusive club.

    Judy and I know that the word of the lord has changed a lot over time, that the Bible is exactly what you’ve described: a starting point.

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  21. Always a lot of murder. We’ve come a long way. Not.

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  22. Considering the amount of killing allowed or even ordered by Yahweh in the Old Testament, it seems obvious that Jezebel was written as a villain for persisting in paganism, not for killing people. But even more, she was a villain for leading Ahab astray — since he tolerated polytheism and even built that temple of Baal because of her. Woman as a “temptation” that leads otherwise-righteous men into error is a common theme in the Bible, going all the way back to Eve and the forbidden fruit.

    The presence or absence of female rulers, or even of female deities, doesn’t tell you much about the lives of ordinary women in a society. India and Pakistan have had female leaders, while the US and modern France have not, but that doesn’t tell you much about the status or freedoms of most women in those countries. Japan’s traditional dominant religion is pagan (Shinto) with a goddess as its highest deity, but its traditional culture is also fairly patriarchal by Western standards. It’s the same with ancient societies. Ancient Greece definitely put women in a subordinate role, Roman culture somewhat less so, but it takes a lot of digging and analysis to understand what ordinary people’s lives were really like in a society thousands of years ago.

    Ancient pagan cultures varied a lot, but in many cases you’re right that women had more de facto independence in pagan societies. Of course, one has to remember that the Roman Empire listed half a millennium and Roman culture doubtless evolved over that time.

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