No two biblical figures are more synonymous with evil than Judas and Jezebel. For more than 2,000 years, they have evolved as such enduring symbols of male treachery and female depravity that it's highly unlikely any Christian children have ever been baptized in their names. The story of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, is well known. Not so Jezebel's. Across the centuries, in prose, poetry, movies, sermons, and song, this ninth-century B.C. pagan queen of Israel has come to epitomize the wicked woman. Yet the events of her life, as told in 1 and 2 Kings, are probably unfamiliar to all but devoted readers of the Bible.
With its intrigue, sex, cruelty, and murder, Jezebel's story is a rich stew of the historical events, allegorical interpretation, and metaphorical license that make many of the Old Testament's biographical dramas such fascinating reading. At the climax of her long struggle to bring pagan worship to the kingdom of Israel, where the Hebrew God, Yahweh, is the only deity, Queen Jezebel pays a terrible price. Thrown from a high window, her unattended body is devoured by dogs, fulfilling the prediction of Elijah, Yahweh's prophet and Jezebel's nemesis.
To modern feminist authors, Jezebel is one of the most intriguing women in the Scriptures, a bloodstained yet strong-willed, politically astute, and courageous woman. A Phoenician princess who worships Baal, the pagan god of fertility, Jezebel marries King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel. She persuades him to tolerate her alien faith, then becomes entwined in the vicious religious conflict that ends in her death. "She became a convenient scapegoat for misogynistic biblical writers who tagged her as the primary force behind Israel's apostasy," believes University of New Mexico biblical scholar Janet Howe Gaines, author of Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages. "[She] has been denounced as a murderer, prostitute, and enemy of God.... Yet there is much to admire in this ancient queen."
After her marriage to King Ahab, Jezebel emerges as the power behind the throne. Their union represents a political alliance, bringing advantages to both nations. It is also an opportunity for Jezebel to foster the spread of her Baal religion with its many gods, ritual sex, and temple prostitutes. She hates the monotheistic Hebrew religion, and when she becomes queen, Israelites have already begun worshiping alien idols. Under his wife's malevolent influence, King Ahab protects and encourages pagan rituals, prompting Yahweh to inflict a three-year drought in a land where people are spurning him. Seizing the initiative, Jezebel imports 450 priests of Baal from her native Phoenicia and has many of Yahweh's prophets murdered.
To Jews, Baal worship was the worst sin against God, akin to today's Christians' embracing Satan. Some interpreters see Jezebel as commendably faithful to her pagan religion, but the Kings writers portray her as a dangerous apostate. To settle the question of who is supreme—Yahweh or Baal—the prophet Elijah devises a contest on Mount Carmel. Whichever deity can set afire and destroy a sacrificial bull by divine intervention will be acknowledged as the true God.