Literary Hub

Who Exactly Was the Original Jezebel?

The story of Jezebel epitomizes how preoccupations with progeniture, female ambition, and female sexual autonomy were gradually mapped together in the tradition of Western thought and religion. As Lesley Hazleton has suggested in her masterful biography, Jezebel is a tissue of representations over time as much as she is an historical personage. Old Testament “editors” revisited that text repeatedly over centuries, and part of what emerged was the larger story of female fates, in the form of the story of one queen, the wife of Ahab and mortal enemy of Elijah.

A Phoenician princess who worshipped Baal, Jezebel is portrayed in the Old Testament’s Book of Kings as a crafty, cunning, and power-hungry beauty. Her love of ornamentation—she is often represented looking coyly into a mirror, the original selfie-snapping Kim Kardashian—was only equaled, legend goes, by her craving for influence. Specifically, she wanted to convert her husband Ahab’s people—northern Israelites and disciplines of Yahweh—to her own religion. She was allegedly ruthless in her pursuit of this goal, “destroying” as much of Yahwism as she could (the language, Hazleton points out, is vague, and even in the most negative rewritings, Jezebel is never accused of killing Yahweh’s prophets or worshippers).

Another critical detail of the Kings version of Jezebel: when Naboth, owner of an exquisitely beautiful vineyard, refused to sell it to Ahab, putting Jezebel’s husband into a profound funk, she falsely accused the reluctant vintner of blasphemy out of spite. He was stoned to death. Having made so many enemies and earned the righteous wrath of Yahweh, once Ahab died and she was no longer under the protection of a powerful man, Jezebel’s days were numbered. For a time, Jezebel ensured that her older son ruled, but he was pushed off a balcony in an “accident” that was convenient for Jezebel’s enemies, to say the least. She quickly installed her younger son, but he was killed as well. According to legend, on the last day of her life, knowing she was to be killed, Jezebel applied full makeup, donned an elaborate wig, and dressed in her finest clothing. What may have been an attempt to appear queenly and noble was read by history as a ploy to seduce her murderer, Jehu.

Now when Jehu had come . . . Jezebel heard of it; and she put paint on her eyes and adorned her head, and looked through a window . . .

And he looked up at the window, and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” So two or three eunuchs looked out at him. Then he said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses; and he trampled her underfoot. And when he had gone in, he ate and drank. Then he said, “Go now, see to this accursed woman, and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” So they went to bury her, but they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they came back and told him. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as refuse on the surface of the field, in the plot at Jezreel, so that they shall not say, “Here lies Jezebel.”’

Such a spectacularly humiliating fall, capped by the assertion that “they shall not say, ‘Here lies Jezebel,’” was necessary in a text like the Old Testament, which was at pains to undo the legitimacy of previous religions and social arrangements. A certain amount of overkill was required to thoroughly void the authority of the prior world order, one embodied by a woman with power who attempted to backseat drive a patriline and who worshipped the old, established way. Baal was a god of the earth and of fertility, likely based at least in part on earlier fertility goddesses. And in Jezebel’s native Phoenicia, royal women were commonly high priestesses with active roles in temple and palace relations.

Jezebel represented not just the old ways but a pre-plough version of ultimate female power. Jezebel was also, by many accounts, a cosmopolitan and pragmatic polytheist, like many Phoenicians of her time and economic class, and believed that religious tolerance was important and efficacious. For the more fundamentalist prophets of Yahweh, in contrast, there was only one male God; he and his proselytizers would tolerate no others. As the story is written and rewritten in the age of the plough, there are repeated metaphors of adultery and out-of-control female desire to describe the worship of any other than the One God, who was represented as the rightful Husband of a wayward Bride Israel.

“‘Say my name,’ says this One God to the woman in his bed. And what if she will not? The price of infidelity is death.”

When she “cheats” with other gods, she is denounced for adultery. In the words of Jeremiah, enraged about idol worship: “Have you seen what unfaithful Israel had done? She committed adultery with lumps of stone, and pieces of wood” ( Jeremiah 3:2). Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel similarly assert that Israelites have become “seed of an adulteress and a harlot.” Israel is compared to a she camel running around in heat; Judea is “infatuated by profligates with penises as big as those of donkeys, ejaculating as violently as stallions.” Yahweh is the jealous husband of a wife who is habitually untrue:

Let her rid her face of her whoring,
And her breasts of her adultery
Or else I will strip her naked
expose her as on the day she was born . . .
I mean to make her pay for all the days
when she burnt offerings to the Baals
and decked herself in rings and necklaces
to court her lovers, forgetting me . . .
She will call me “my husband” . . .
I will take the names of the Baals off her lips.

–Hosea 2:2-3, 2:13, 2:16-17

“Say my name,” says this One God to the woman in his bed. And what if she will not? The price of infidelity is death. In the words of Ezekiel: “They will uncover you, take your jewels, and leave you completely naked . . . You will be stoned and run through with a sword . . . I will put an end to your whoring. No more paid lovers for you. I will exhaust my fury against you” (Ezekiel 16:39).

As against Jezebel.

Our contemporary use of the term “jezebel” to mean “an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman” demonstrates not just our indebtedness to the notion that monogamy is a sacred covenant that flourished in religious soils tilled by the plough. It also shows the fates of women who upset the order of things—religious, dynastic, political—in settings where agriculture was doing its earthly and conceptual work. Debased like Jezebel, women who do not toe the line will share her legacy: their grandest, most ambitious acts will be associated with and reduced to unseemly sexual appetites. It is telling that Jezebel’s punishment for her assertion of power resulted not only in her death but in the defilement of her reputation and hence her authority: her very name came to be associated with prostitution (in which a woman is for sale) and false prophesy (in which a woman cannot be trusted). Her story dramatizes how, once anxieties about inheritance and paternity took hold in plough-centric contexts, authoritarian versions of possessive husbands were deified, and deities began to draw their conceptual power from what husbands felt compelled and emboldened by a newish world order to be. Female autonomy became ever more linked to cultural disorder and ever more perilous for its individual practitioners.

Jezebel’s story and its subsequent rewritings are just one example of how female power was increasingly linked with sexuality and with deception. If women could trick men, men would expose their cheating and their supposed essential duplicity for all the world to see, sometimes literally. This prerogative was one harvested through the work of the plough. In ancient Greece, where the most widely cultivated crop was wheat—the most plough-positive of all crops—adultery was considered a serious crime, with repercussions at the level of couple, family, and the state. The man committing adultery with a married female citizen could be murdered on the spot, with a likely reprieve for his killer; the wife was immediately and automatically divorced.

Interestingly, from 470 BC onward, the price for interfering with the transport of grain was also death. Just as meddling with the distribution of grain could lead to famine, a woman’s adultery could result in illegitimate children, the thinking went, and only legitimate children were allowed to become Athenian citizens. Thus it was an offense with social consequences for married female citizens and men other than their husbands to have sex. This meant the transgression had to be “aired” in public, at once atoned for and displayed to the adulterers and the world at large as a matter of concern to all, and the site of rightful intervention. According to Aristotle, adulteresses in the Peloponnese were required to stand in a transparent tunic without a belt in the town’s center for eleven days. This was an explicit assertion that what these women had tried to claim as their own—their naked bodies and sexuality—literally belonged to all who looked. In other areas, adulteresses were paraded around on a donkey with their lovers in a humiliating public display that made it clear that when it came to married women and sex, there was no zone of privacy, no act of self-determination that was not linked to the larger world and its power to determine her fate. As she sowed, so would she reap.

These fates were less terrifying than that of the adulterous, vengeful, and ambitiously unsympathetic Clytemnestra as told by Aeschylus in The Oresteia, the 458 BC tragedy and cautionary tale. Clytemnestra repartnered over the course of her husband Agamemnon’s long absence during the Trojan War, rendering her the polar opposite of the faithful, monogamous, and good wife of Odysseus, Penelope. Clytemnestra was enraged that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to the gods on his battleship in a bid for favorable winds. During his long absence, the text implies, she took solace in her power to rule Argos, and in sex with her illegitimate “husband” Aegisthus. Again, she was no Penelope, who held her ardent suitors at bay by weaving and unweaving at her loom for years. Upon Agamemnon’s return with his lover Cassandra, who crouched and lowed outside, knowing what was to come, Clytemnestra purred her welcome, drew a bath for her husband—and proceeded to ax or stab him to death.

“Jezebel’s story and its subsequent rewritings are just one example of how female power was increasingly linked with sexuality and with deception.”

But rather than being protected by the agesold rule of cyclical justice represented by the Furies, who sided with Clytemnestra because she was avenging the murder of her child, she was murdered by her own son, Orestes, at the urging of Apollo. Apollo then successfully argued his case against the Furies, absolving his client of the crime he had committed in Athenian court. There could be no more literal enactment of a new world order that did not tolerate women taking matters—whether sexual or legal—into their own hands. Female power and female privileges like those Clytemnestra represented were extinguished in a number of ways, including through the work of texts like The Oresteia, which flourished in the cultural soil tilled by plough use, enriching it in return. In this emerging new masculinist Order of Things, the death of a girl by her father’s hand not only isn’t a crime; it’s a right.

Ancient Romans, notorious for their sexual excess, were more likely to consider adultery a basically private matter to be resolved within the home rather than the courts. It was a personal rather than a criminal offense. During the reign of Augustus, however, new moral codes were implemented, including one that permitted the paterfamilias to put both adulterous parties to death. It is no coincidence that during this period, Virgil penned his Georgics, a paean to agriculture and farming life, reciting it to Augustus around 30 BC. Nor is it insignificant that the Roman way of life was often symbolized by a loaf of bread—wheat was a plough crop and a household staple. Against this backdrop and Augustus’s consolidation of power as he transitioned Rome from a republic to an empire with himself at the head, Augustus had his own daughter, Julia—vivacious, witty, and later the maternal grandmother of Caligula—exiled to a remote island of Campania for her many affairs, conducted openly while she was married to Tiberius.

When asked why all her children resembled their father, she had famously quipped that she only took on new passengers when the boat was already loaded—that is, when she knew she was already pregnant by her husband. Noble though she may have been, in the reorganization of Rome under her father her own libido became a site of social control, and her deceptions and autonomy her undoing. Augustus called his intelligent daughter, beloved by the Romans for her generosity, “a disease in my flesh.” Later, when Tiberius succeeded Julia’s father as emperor, he withheld her allowance, and she died of malnutrition at age fifty-three in AD 14, the same year Augustus passed away, almost as if her fate, like Iphigenia’s, could not be unlinked from her father’s. In a context where female sexual autonomy was associated with lawlessness and potential chaos, even royal standing could not protect a woman from the consequences of alienating powerful men with her independent actions, now infidelities. Julia’s exile was presumably a powerful lesson for other women: do not, in the words of Natalie Angier, behave in ways that risk “the investment and tolerance of men and the greater male coalition.”


From Untrue: Why Nearly Everything We Believe About Women, Lust, and Infidelity Is Wrong and How the New Science Can Set Us FreeUsed with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2018 by Wednesday Martin.

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