Justice for Jezebel?

In my study of 2 Kings 9-10 the past few weeks, I found myself coming back time and again to the character of Jezebel. She is unquestionably a villain, but she is one of the most compelling figures in the Hebrew Bible. In the Deuteronomistic history, she is treated less as a person than as a symbol of religious apostasy. The Western tradition as a whole has piled on and ‘Jezebel’ has become a byword for the so-called seductive dangers of women. Her very name is laced with misogyny, and so in a postmodern way, she is equally a symbol for all the women in history who have taken the blame for the bad decisions of men, or who have been looked upon as evil for using what little power their society gave them. She is the prototypical wicked sinner and therefore the prototypical victim of gendered violence.

Again, Jezebel is certainly not a good figure: She is a religious zealot, a liar and a schemer prone to use extreme violence to get what she wants. But then again, those words describe many of the heroes of the books of Kings too, Jehu above all. 

A less biased reading of her might say that she started off as a pawn in international politics, but was too intelligent to stay that way. While her marriage to Ahab was clearly designed to cement Israel’s alliance with Phoenicia against Aramaean and Assyrian threats, she was unwilling to be a bystander. She took leadership and her presence provided a measure of stability in Israelite politics for close to forty years, which is no small feat. She was if nothing else, a worthy adversary for the prophets of YHWH. But as both a woman and a foreigner, Jezebel was also an easy target, taking the blame not only for her own sins but a convenient scapegoat for the sins of Ahab and his descendants as well. 

From the perspective of the Deuteronomistic history, Jezebel is a symbol of lust, apostasy, greed, and violence; but through less biased eyes, she might just as equally be a symbol for the internationalism and openness of the Samaritan court as opposed to the cultural nativism and protectionism of the last days of the Kingdom of Judah, whose theology has come down to us as canonical.

Under the rules of the game in the days of Jezebel and Elijah, there really was no way Jezebel was going to come to a happy ending, villain or no. But I do think the New Testament offers hope for Jezebel and for all the women who have been caught up in systems far bigger than them, have taken the fall for the sins of men, or who have simply been maligned for being strong or sexual. Specifically, I think Jezebel’s story is in a sense recapitulated in three narratives from the Gospels.

The first is the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15.21ff). Here Jesus encounters a woman who is a lot like Jezebel: she is fiercely strong, intelligent, and is a gentile from the land around Tyre and Sidon. She goes toe-to-toe with Jesus, refusing to take his ethnocentric ‘no’ for an answer. In the end, Jesus relents and heals the woman’s daughter because of the boldness of her faith. The Kingdom of God has room for strong women. The Kingdom of God has room for foreigners and outsiders.

The second story that comes to mind is the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). In this story, Jesus takes the offensive, breaking all kinds of taboos to talk to her. In the course of the conversation, Jesus breaks down the ancient religious barriers between North and South, saying that those old arguments about whose mountains and whose temples are the ‘right’ ones aren’t important anymore. A new day has dawned and she is welcome to be a part of it — even she, a woman who has had five husbands but has no husband. The Kingdom of God has room for Samaritans and “heretics.” The Kingdom of God has room for all who find themselves outsiders amongst their own people.

Finally, I think of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. When Jesus comes on the scene she is about to be stoned by a vigilante mob. Notice that the man she was caught with is nowhere to be seen. The mob doesn’t care about his part in the act, only hers. And, he hasn’t stuck around to defend her either. It’s an all-too familiar scene. There’s a violation of a community’s sexual mores and the woman takes the full weight of the community’s wrath while the man gets off free. Jesus steps in and takes the spotlight off her and puts it on the crowd: “If you’re sinless, feel free to throw the first stone.” The crowd disbands. The Kingdom of God has room for the victims of gendered violence. The Kingdom of God has room for the victims of mob injustice. The Kingdom of God has room for those who, whether through no fault of their own or through their own agency, find themselves outside their community’s sexual mores. 

All three of these women were sinful by the rules of their society. Like Jezebel, one was a strong-willed foreigner, one was a Northern heretic, and one was reviled for being an agent or object of sexual desire. Unlike Jezebel, they all found divine welcome and healing. 

As we saw in the 2 Kings 9-10 post, Isaiah 61 describes divine vengeance in terms of bringing good news and healing the broken-hearted — of undoing and not perpetuating the effects of injustice and violence. This was Jesus’ life mission, and it was through encounters with women not unlike Jezebel that he was led to see and to teach just how expansive and open this mission is: how deep, how broad, how wide the love of God is.

If we take this to heart, it means that for Christians, we have to undo the damage of our inherited images of prototypical wickedness, particularly when they are gendered or racialized or focus too strongly on sexual sin. The prototypical sinner is me and you as much as it is Jezebel, or the Syrophoenician woman, or the Samaritan woman, or the woman caught in adultery. 

The good news is that God’s welcome and embrace extends to me and you too, just as it extends to them.

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