Gaines believes the motives of the 1 and 2 Kings writers—as with all Old and New Testament authors—must be evaluated when considering the veracity of their accounts. The pagan Jezebel, she notes, is crowned queen of Israel at a time of spreading Hebrew apostasy. She conveniently provided an opportunity to teach a moral lesson on the evils of spurning monotheism and worshiping multiple idols, and the writers exaggerate her transgressions accordingly.
Despite the harlot references, there is no scriptural evidence that Jezebel was a prostitute or an unfaithful wife, yet the taint of immorality has branded her a whore for more than 2,000 years. One explanation is biblical allegory. The Old Testament authors often equated worship of false gods and foreign deities with wanton sexuality.
"Every biblical word condemns her," Gaines says. "Jezebel is an outspoken woman in a time when females have little status and few rights; a foreigner in a xenophobic land; an idol worshiper in a place with a Yahweh-based, state-sponsored religion; a murderer and a meddler in political affairs in a nation of strong patriarchs; a traitor in a country where no ruler is above the law; and a whore in the territory where the Ten Commandments originate."
This biblical character assassination—if that's what it is —succeeded only too well. Jezebel reappears as a New Testament prophet in Revelation 2:20, encouraging servants to fornicate and eat the animals that had been sacrificed to the gods. She has come down through the ages as the primary symbol of wanton, shameless womanhood. She has been limned by playwright William Shakespeare and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, by 16th-century religious reformer John Knox and novelist James Joyce. Frankie Laine had an international hit single Jezebel in the 1950s, and Boyz II Men sing about her today.
In 1938, Bette Davis won an Academy Award for best actress playing the title role in the steamy melodrama Jezebel set in the 1850s. Jezebel characters have appeared in such television shows as I Love Lucy, Little House on the Prairie, and The Muppet Show. And her name was invoked during the investigation into President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. From Lady Macbeth to Lizzie Borden, among history's most famous female villains, fictional or real, the pagan queen of Kings 1 and 2 still rules as the most wicked and enduring of them all.