In the early 1900’s there was a missionary named Francis King. He was assigned by the Northern Baptist Convention to the Indian Territory. He spoke the Gospel he knew to the Arapaho and Kiowa who had been relocated there. He learned their languages. He was generous and loving. He raised his children there, one of whom was my grandfather.
He was not a successful missionary in the popular understanding. In fact, he almost lost his job after many years of work and no converts to the Jesus Road. While preaching his last sermon, the story goes, a chief wanted him to stay and so convinced a dozen people to be baptized, thus generously saving his job. For his efforts, he was given land and mineral rights in Oklahoma, like so many whites after him. To this day, I don’t know if there were any real converts. What I do know is that indigenous people pay a price when a conquering army is on the warpath. Look at South Africa. Look at Ireland. Look at Gaza.
This is actually an old tradition. It’s as old as Israel and the Canaanite religions and people they conquered. It is in this context, that we remember the story of Jezebel and her people. We know most of the Jezebel story as the back story for the triumph of the great prophet Elijah. Just think of how silly her religion seems as depicted in the oratorio Elijah. If you want to get rid of a people, make its religion seem like nonsense. The stories of the indigenous often get lost or co-opted.
Maybe Jezebel has gotten a bad rap. She was a strong woman and a leader of her people. She tried to make peace with the conquering Israelites by way of marriage. This reminds me of Pocahantas, of Sacagawea, of others who forged alliances out of love but also out of love for country and religion. True, she got angry and her power went a little haywire as 450 of her prophets were slain by Elijah. She has also been the name of dangerous female power. When someone wants to misogynistically put a powerful woman down they call her Jezebel.
Let’s remember her story and see what we can learn from her about our own standing alongside our indigenous sisters and brothers.
A couple of things before we begin:
The truth is we know little of princess Jezebel aside from what the Bible tells us. Furthermore, her story is told by the Deuteronomist, a relatively later writer who was interested in telling why Israel had lost its land and its glory. The reason the author gives is its propensity toward idolatry and its tolerance for other religions. Jezebel is the perfect foil for the author. So, she is painted as evil incarnate.
But let’s look at what else she was. She was a powerful princess; a woman with a voice; a woman of power; a woman with a following; a faithful witness to the end of her culture and her religion. Phyllis Trible calls her a zealous missionary and a great theologian who understood the issues of her people very clearly.
In the 9th century before Jesus, the Phoenician princess Jezebel married a Hebrew King named Ahab. Jezebel was the daughter of King Ethbaal of Tyre. According to the historian Josephus, Ethbaal was a priest of Astarte, the mother goddess, the primary Phoenician goddess. Just so you know, Phoenician religion worshipped several gods.
You had El, the father god who resides on a northern mountain. It’s no accident that Israel built their cities and temples upon mountains, either usurping another god’s place or co-mingling with it.
You had Asherah, also called Astarte. She was the progenitor of all the deities. She was the lady of the sea. She is also associated with fertility and possibly sacred prostitution.
Then you had their children: Yam, Mot, Anat and Baal.
Yam was the God of the sea often represented as chaos. In Genesis I, God creates order out of chaos.
Mot was the god of death.
Anat was the god of war and peace. Earthquakes were understood as her foot stomping.
Then there was Baal, the god of life, rain and fertility.
The story goes that Yam, the god of chaos, decides to build a house as a status symbol. He gets permission from daddy El, but in true sibling rivalry, Baal is jealous and wins a fight with Yam. The god of life beats out the god of chaos.
Mot comes to his brother’s defense and kills Baal. The god of death kills the god of life.
Anat is distraught at all of this and goes to the underworld. She finds Baal and plants his pieces on the earth. Baal is revived. Sounds like Easter, doesn’t it?
It should be noted that this is a violent way to create the world. In Genesis 1, the world is created not by violence, but by blessing. God, whose name is Elohim or the plural of God, declares after each day of creation that is was good.
Baal (the god of rain, life and fertility), becomes the wife and sister Anat (the deity of war and peace.)
When Elijah had his visions he experienced a storm (representing Baal), but God was not in the storm. Elijah experienced an earthquake (representing Anat) but God was not in the earthquake.
So, Jezebel—the Phoenician princess and Baal worshipper marries Ahab, the Hebrew King. They forge an alliance for safety and commerce. Two dynasties working as one. Ahab even erected an altar to Baal in the temple which he built in Samaria, a high place. He also made a “Sacred Post”. Asherah or Astarte is also called a sacred Post. Not only does Jezebel introduce her religion to her new husband, but he places the central representation of a feminine deity Asherah alongside the masculine YHWH. They probably combined the best parts of their religions and lived harmoniously side by side. Trade routes were opened to the sea on the west and to Damascus on the north and east.
But Jezebel is vilified by the Deuteronomist, whose goal is to stamp out polytheism. She represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the one extolled in characters such as Ruth the Moabite, who is also a foreigner. Ruth surrenders her identity and submerges herself in Israelite ways; she adopts the religious and social norms of the Israelites and is universally praised for her conversion to God. Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her own beliefs.
In contrast to the familiar gods and goddesses that Jezebel is accustomed to petitioning, Israel is home to a state religion featuring a lone, masculine deity. Perhaps Jezebel optimistically believes that she can encourage religious tolerance and give legitimacy to the worship habits of those Baalites who already reside in Israel. Perhaps Jezebel sees herself as an ambassador who could help unite the two lands and bring about cultural pluralism, regional peace and economic prosperity.
But we soon hear of her attempts to prosecute the prophets of YHWH. She is accused of killing the Prophets of YHWH. The prophets of Baal and the prophets of YHWH have a grudge match against the lone remaining prophet of YHWH on mount Carmel. Elijah wins creating fire and rain, proving that my god is better than your god. He then goes on to kill all of the prophets of Baal.
Jezebel ends up cornered in a tower by Jehu, the general and king who killed Ahab and sought to restore order by killing off the ancient religion of the Phoenicians. She taunted Jehu by calling him Zimri who was a king of Israel for all of seven days after killing his predecessor. . 'Is all well, Zimri, murderer of your master'? Jezebel asks Jehu (2 Kings 9:31). Jezebel refused to be taken captive or disgraced so she leapt from a window, choosing her own death.
As the daughter, wife, mother, mother-in-law and grandmother of kings, Jezebel would understand court politics well enough to realize that Jehu has far more to gain by killing her than by keeping her alive. Alive, the dowager queen could always serve as a rallying point for anyone unhappy with Jehu's reign. When all a person has left in life is the way she faces her death, her final actions speak volumes about her character. Jezebel departs this earth every inch a queen.
How bad was Jezebel? The Deuteronomist uses every possible argument to make the case against her. When Ahab dies, the Deuteronomist is determined to show that 'there never was anyone like Ahab, who committed himself to doing what was displeasing to the Lord, at the instigation of his wife Jezebel' (1 Kings 21:25). It is interesting that Ahab is not held responsible for his own actions. He goes astray because of a wicked woman. Someone has to bear the blame for Israel's apostasy, and Jezebel is chosen for the job.
Yet there is much to admire in this ancient queen. Jezebel was a fiery and determined person, with an intensity matched only by Elijah. She is true to her native religion and customs. She is even more loyal to her husband. Throughout her reign, she boldly exercises what power she has. And in the end, having lived her life on her own terms, Jezebel faces certain death with dignity.
Portions of this were adapted from an article by Janet Howe Gaines from www.phoenicia.org/jezebel.html
We love our religion. We love its precepts. We love the way that it calls us to embrace a life that is better not only for us, but for the others we encounter. We need to remember that our religion has an ancestry that is not so squeaky clean. We have usurped other religions. We have used religion to support a slave trade and to subjugate a land from a people who were here long before us. We presently use religion to make war and determine enemies.
What if our god is not better than their gods? What if it is all part of a reality that we only know in part? What if in looking at another religion or our own common history, we might discover something about ourselves?
That’s the faithful task of imaging justice not FOR indigenous peoples but WITH indigenous peoples.
We need to remember the stories of the land. We need to understand our roles as people who seek to live with our sisters and brothers, not against them. We may need to redeem some of their stories, like Jezebel. Not because we want to emulate them, but because they expose a truth about our own struggles to be faithful. They expose the underside of religion.
We therefore have a choice. We can be like Jehu who tried to expunge a religion and a people from the earth. We can be like Ahab who tried to accommodate all people and ended up vilified. We can be like Jezebel, a martyr to her cause. We can be like Jesus who called us to live a still better way.
This sermon has no easy answers to tie everything up. But as we imagine justice with indigenous peoples, it might make sense to redeem the Jezebels of our imaginations. In so doing, we humanize those of other religions and other priorities. As we seek to understand them, then we might move in the direction of peace.