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Women of the Bible

Jezebel

1 Kings 21

Lesson audio

Wicked women, it seems, come in two Biblical flavors: the sensual seductress (Delilah, Salome) or the woman behind the throne (see also Athaliah). Jezebel is of the latter flavor. It is interesting, therefore, that she is being “re-interpreted” in our time – something that says more about our time than it does Jezebel.

Ahab

1Ki 21:1-6 NASB Now it came about after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. (2) Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, "Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden because it is close beside my house, and I will give you a better vineyard than it in its place; if you like, I will give you the price of it in money." (3) But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers." (4) So Ahab came into his house sullen and vexed because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he said, "I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers." And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food. (5) But Jezebel his wife came to him and said to him, "How is it that your spirit is so sullen that you are not eating food?" (6) So he said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you a vineyard in its place.' But he said, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'"

Background

To completely understand what is happening here, there are two relevant items of background information:

·         We are dealing with the northern kingdom of Israel, which split off from the southern kingdom, Judah, after the death of Solomon. The kings of Judah were a mixed lot; some good, some evil. The kings of Israel were much more uniform: they were evil men.

·         It seems strange that the king cannot persuade Naboth. But Naboth was a man who understood the Law of Moses – he was not allowed to sell the land outside his clan.[1] Naboth was, evidently, a right wing fundamentalist in a time of liberal theology.[2]

Handles

It doesn’t take much to see that Ahab provides a series of handles by which his wife can manipulate him. In particular, we have:

  • Childish sulking. He didn’t get what he wanted so he went home to pout about it. Perhaps being king he could get away with it.
  • There is also a lack of courage. To put it simply, he lives in a time where the king can get his way by telling one of the military types to put a sword in the man. He was afraid of the consequences.
  • Most of all there is wounded pride. I’m the king; I should be able to get my own way.

These three will give Jezebel all the maneuvering power she needs.

A weak king

More than anything else we see in Ahab a weak man. He was frightened by Elijah and managed by his wife. Even the stubborn resistance of a righteous man was enough to make him feel helpless. This was a man who looked in the mirror each day in the hopes of seeing someone else.

Character of Jezebel

1Ki 21:7-15 NASB Jezebel his wife said to him, "Do you now reign over Israel? Arise, eat bread, and let your heart be joyful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite." (8) So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal, and sent letters to the elders and to the nobles who were living with Naboth in his city. (9) Now she wrote in the letters, saying, "Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the people; (10) and seat two worthless men before him, and let them testify against him, saying, 'You cursed God and the king.' Then take him out and stone him to death." (11) So the men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them, just as it was written in the letters which she had sent them. (12) They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the people. (13) Then the two worthless men came in and sat before him; and the worthless men testified against him, even against Naboth, before the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones. (14) Then they sent word to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned and is dead." (15) When Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth, the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead."

Conspiracy!

One of the factors which feed our fascination with conspiracies, real or imagined, is that we can picture a situation just like this. Which conspiracy seems to be a matter of personal politics, but it is because we can picture something like this happening in our time as well.[3] Indeed, that is what this was: conspiracy. Let’s look at the rules to this game:

  • She knows that Ahab won’t ask any questions; he prefers to be “kept out of the loop.” One suspects she’s done this before.
  • Women of that day were expected to be loyal wives at their husband’s side. It’s a very short jump from “side” to “behind the throne.” She sends the letters in the king’s name, with his seal.
  • One rule for certain: once the deed is done, Ahab will get along and go along. His wife has already murdered many of God’s prophets[4]; it’s not a good idea to rock her boat.
The creep of sin

This is a subtle woman. She knows how to encourage the creep of sin. For example:

  • She doesn’t just tell the authorities to put a sword in Naboth. No, she involves the local leadership in deceit. Once they have had Naboth stoned, none of them would want the secret to come out. Thus, they can be trusted to keep their mouths shut – and collude with the Queen.
  • It sounds pious to proclaim a fast, then a banquet – so all is done under the cover of strict righteousness. Those who threw the stones no doubt thought that they were being righteous people and good citizens.[5]
  • To these Jezebel adds what is normally considered a virtue: patience. She waits patiently for things to develop. Satan cannot create, only twist.
Pride

Jezebel no doubt had her pride. See if these sound familiar:

  • “I can make my husband do anything.” Tell me, what do you think of the husband of such a wife?
  • “I am the real power around here – no one crosses me!” Tell me, what chance do right and justice have around here?
  • “I can make the good guys sweat.” If you can’t be respected you can at least arrange to be feared.

Modern Views

1Ki 21:16-29 NASB When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab arose to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. (17) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, (18) "Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth where he has gone down to take possession of it. (19) "You shall speak to him, saying, 'Thus says the LORD, "Have you murdered and also taken possession?"' And you shall speak to him, saying, 'Thus says the LORD, "In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth the dogs will lick up your blood, even yours."'" (20) Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" And he answered, "I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the LORD. (21) "Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away, and will cut off from Ahab every male, both bond and free in Israel; (22) and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, because of the provocation with which you have provoked Me to anger, and because you have made Israel sin. (23) "Of Jezebel also has the LORD spoken, saying, 'The dogs will eat Jezebel in the district of Jezreel.' (24) "The one belonging to Ahab, who dies in the city, the dogs will eat, and the one who dies in the field the birds of heaven will eat." (25) Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. (26) He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel. (27) It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. (28) Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, (29) "Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but I will bring the evil upon his house in his son's days."

Modern views of Jezebel are quite different.

She wasn’t all that bad

Permit me to share a book review:

Fortress Press, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has announced the publication of The Jezebel Letters, which "combines top-notch biblical scholarship with a fictionalized first-person account of the biblical character." According to the Fortress press release, the book "transforms the stereotype of the notorious biblical queen into a more historically based portrayal of a powerful, literate royal woman."

You may have gotten a bad impression of Jezebel from the Biblical account, but this book argues that the facts are "she was 'the urbane and thoughtful Queen of Israel who gives voice to her efforts and those of her family in guiding Israel through one of its most challenging, and least understood, periods.'"

Fortress Press, where the truth is what we make her.

You see the point, of course. We start with the idea that the traditional interpretation must be wrong, and therefore we have this serious misimpression. After all,

  • She was just doing what was natural and normal in her time.
  • Look how devoted she was to her husband and family! Don’t you have any appreciation for family values?
  • She’s a victim of bad press, and was really a stellar human being. (There are only two accounts of her life from ancient times, the other being in Josephus, several hundred years later.) Since she was so wonderful, it proves once again that you can’t trust the Bible.[6]
The Liberated Woman

Of course, since she lived in a male-dominated time, you really don’t see her for what she is. Which is, of course, the liberated woman so beloved of modern liberalism. The arguments for this boil down to these:

  • First, we must take account of realpolitik. She did what she had to in order that she might survive and her husband’s reign continue. After all, her chief opponent was a religious nut case (read: right wing fundamentalist) who lived like a hermit.
  • Can there be a right and a wrong for those (women) who are oppressed and enslaved by the male hierarchy? Such oppression surely excuses any so-called moral failings.
  • Finally, as we all know, evil is liberating! It sets you free from conventional morality so that you may rise above it, as she did.
Take it home

Nothing is ever a total loss, it can always be used as a bad example. But the bad example has to be turned into good advice to be of any use. So I present three questions for the contemporary woman of the church:

  • Are you re-writing history for your own point of view? Do you justify the sin of yesterday be re-interpreting your memories?
  • Is your marriage a push-his-buttons relationship or a partnership? Do you find yourself saying that “I won” after an argument?
  • Do you view the sin of the past as one who is justified by suffering oppression – and thus convert it from sin unforgiven to a memory showing how great a martyr you are?


[1] Numbers 36:7

[2] Was it worth it? Obedience to God can cost you your life.

[3] The finest proof of a conspiracy is, of course, no evidence whatsoever. That’s how a successful conspiracy is done, right?

[4] 1 Kings 18

[5] Is it possible that all Christians are hypocrites? Or are some of us honestly trying to be real?

[6] I hate to be this obvious, but really: this is tongue in cheek, satire, and solid circular reasoning.

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