Ever heard someone called a "Jezebel?" The term isn't used much anymore, but not so long ago "Jezebel" was a word for a woman who flouted society's conventions, who wielded stolen power, who ordered people killed -- in short, someone utterly wicked. The biblical Queen Jezebel, wife of King Ahab, has become an archetype of a wicked woman.
Little Documentation Exists for the Wicked Queen Jezebel
However, the problem in determining the facts about Jezebel is that little documentation exists other than Old Testament stories that paint her as wicked. These accounts were written by the triumphant supporters of Elijah, the Jewish prophet of Yahweh who opposed Queen Jezebel and King Ahab for attempting to lead Israelites to worship Ba'al, a Phoenician deity. One of the few pieces of evidence for her existence is a seal made of opal on which Jezebel's name was identified in 2008.
Scholars have debated since then whether it actually belonged to the biblical Jezebel. Archaeological evidence, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs on the seal that were commonly used by Phoenicians of that time, tend to validate it as hers.
Historians examining the detailed accounts in 1 and 2 Kings have determined that Queen Jezebel's era, around 9th century B.C., was one of Israel's most intense religious-political struggles. The 22-year reign of Ahab and Jezebel was marked by a religious contest between adherents of Ba'al and followers of Yahweh, and by a political battle between urban elites and rural landowners.
Jezebel Was a Daughter of Intrigue
Jezebel was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Sidonia, another name for Phoenicia, home of the Mediterranean's greatest sailors. The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Ethbaal originally had been a priest of Ashtoreth, goddess and consort of Ba'al. Historical accounts record that Ethbaal usurped the Phoenician throne and reigned over Sidon and Tyre for 32 years. In other words, Jezebel came from a royal household that had taken power from other rulers, so she was probably well-schooled in political intrigue. Her name in Phoenician translates roughly as "The Lord [Ba'al] exists," but in biblical Hebrew her name means "without nobility."
Some historians think Ahab married Jezebel so that his land-locked domain could keep its access to international trade via the Phoenicians. Jezebel's country stretched along the Mediterranean coast west of the land originally granted to the tribe of Asher in Israel. Kings of Israel had maintained alliances with the Phoenicians since King Solomon's time, and their treaties provided wealth that sustained the Israelite monarchy and its supporters. This wealth also would have enabled ruling elites to gain and keep political power.
For example, the story of Naboth, a landowner whom Jezebel plotted successfully to kill so that Ahab could gain his land (1 Kings Chapter 21), may be a metaphor for a political struggle between rural landowners and powerful city dwellers. Some historians have interpreted the story as a sign of resentment against foreign alliances given that Jezebel, not Ahab, is said to have hatched the plot to have Naboth falsely accused of heresy and stoned to death.
Queen Jezebel Deserves Some of Her Bad Reputation
According to other Old Testament accounts, Jezebel didn't come by her reputation solely from gossip. She is credited with ordering the slaughter of many Israelite prophets (1 Kings 18:4) so that she could install priests of Ba'al in their place. During the 12-year reign of Joram, her son by Ahab, she took the title of "Queen Mother" and continued to weave her political webs (2 Kings 10:13).
With the rise of historical-critical methods for interpreting the Bible over the past 200 years, other views of Jezebel have been proposed. For example, Middle East expert and author Lesley Hazleton, in the historical novel Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, portrays her as a cultured, cosmopolitan ruler defending herself against a fundamentalist Elijah. In his book, The Caves of Steel, science fiction grand master Isaac Asimov describes Jezebel as a faithful wife who conscientiously promoted her faith in keeping with social conventions of her time. Asimov further speculates in his two-volume Guide to the Bible that Jezebel dressed in all her finery at the time of her murder (2 Kings 9:30-37) not because she was a harlot as the Bible tells it, but to show dignity and royal status in death.
So was Jezebel really a bad girl? Considering what we know of her historical context, she likely was a product of her times, when it was common for ambitious people to seize power and use it ruthlessly. She may have had good traits as well as bad, but she suffered the misfortune of being remembered only in propaganda written by her religious and political opponents.
Sources on the Wicked Queen Jezebel:
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (1994, Oxford University Press).
Wood, Bryant G. PhD, "Seal of Jezebel Identified," Spring 2008, Bible and Spade magazine, reprinted September 2008, Associates for Biblical Research, http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/09/seal-of-jezebel-identified.aspx
Korpel, Marjo C.A., "Fit for a Queen: Jezebel's Royal Seal," May 2008, Biblical Archaeological Review, http://www.bib-arch.org/scholars-study/jezebel-seal-01.asp
Hazelton, Lesley, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen (2007, Doubleday Religion), Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Jezebel-Untold-Story-Bibles-Harlot/dp/0385516150/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1285554907&sr=1-6
Asimov, Isaac, The Caves of Steel (1991, Spectra Books). Amazon.com, http://www.amazon.com/Caves-Steel-Robot-Spectra-Books/dp/0553293400/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1285554977&sr=1-1
Asimov, Isaac, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: Two Volumes in One the Old and New Testaments (1988, Wings) http://www.amazon.com/Asimovs-Guide-Bible-Volumes-Testaments/dp/051734582X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1285555138&sr=1-1