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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?