- August 19, 2014 in Bloggers
Why Jezebel is not the harlot history wants us to hate
Have you ever been called a Jezebel or heard the name used to call a woman a slut? Likely you’re familiar with Jezebel, the wildly popular women’s blog, but not with the woman behind its controversial name. Perhaps you have wondered where the term comes from, or who the woman was whose name has (for far too long) been used to shame women. If you’re like me, you crave knowledge and always want to learn more. But, really, who has the time to learn about every great woman in history, regardless of how useful or important her story may be?
Like you, I love to learn new things, especially things that change the way I see the world. Knowledge is power, and we live in a day and age where that power is too often used to subjugate women. As smart, savvy, self-aware women, we know that there is a double standard. We know that powerful men are revered while powerful women are feared. And we’re all too used to promiscuous men being playfully referred to as players or bachelors, while promiscuous women are slut-shamed. But we also know that we have the ability to level the playing field, and that our strength comes from knowledge and awareness.
If we know what a word means and where it comes from, that word becomes a tool in our arsenal to be used for our own empowerment. There’s a reason a beloved women’s blog chose the name Jezebel for their monicker. They’re taking back the name from the mouths of oppression, empowering themselves with awareness, and you can too. Change the way you think, change what you know, and you can change the world.
So what, or who, is a Jezebel?
“Jezebel has come to be associated with promiscuity. In modern usage, the name of Jezebel is sometimes used as a synonym for sexually promiscuous and/or controlling women.”
The thing is, Jezebel was more than a name. She was a woman—historical or legendary—and only by unearthing her story can we begin to understand how her name was taken from her—and used against us.
Throughout her tale in 1 and 2 Kings, Jezebel does not commit adultery or any sexually deviant acts. And while she is certainly the active figure in her story, she does not act alone. So, if she was not a sexually promiscuous controlling woman, what did she do to earn—and share with us—her scathing reputation?
“When Jezebel comes to [live in] Israel [as a queen], she brings her foreign gods and goddesses… with her… This is why she is vilified… She represents a view of womanhood that is the opposite of the one extolled in characters… [who surrender their] identity… Jezebel steadfastly remains true to her own beliefs.”
As her story unfolds, we learn that Jezebel, in bringing her own religious and cultural identity to her new marriage and homeland, seriously pisses off the religious zealots of her day. They go to war with her, and she loses, but this is not enough for the men who curse her very name. So one of them goes to her castle and demands that she be thrown to death from her own tower:
“‘Throw her down!’ Jehu said. So they threw her down, and… her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot… But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. [Thus fulfilling the prophecy that] dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh.”
— 2 Kings 9:33-36, New International Version
Jezebel’s murder has been immortalized in literature and art. Take a moment to ponder the painting below, “Queen Jezabel being punished by Jehu,” for example. “Punished” is a bit of an understatement. What you’re looking at there is Jezebel’s murdered body, dead on the ground, her flesh being eaten by dogs.
Treason. Murder. Brutal dismemberment. Thrown from a tower and trampled by horses. Eaten by dogs until nothing but her feet, head, and hands were left to identify her disfigured corpse. This was the punishment Jezebel apparently deserved for being a woman who stood up for what she believed in. And, if that weren’t enough, let her name be forever tainted and used to keep women in their place, lest they become strong like Jezebel.
“Jezebel is characterized as totally evil in the biblical text and beyond it: in the New Testament her name is a generic catchword for a whoring, non-believing female adversary (Rev 2:20); in Judeo-Christian traditions, she is evil incarnate.”
Why did the myth that arose around Jezebel change her from an egalitarian queen to a promiscuous harlot? Because there has never been anything as scary as an independent and powerful woman. If you want to vilify a woman’s beliefs, slut-shame her. It happens in 2014, and it’s been happening at least since the 6th century B.C.E.
On a recent visit to Jezreel—where Jezebel reigned—our Israeli tour guide told us that Jezebel’s real name was once Izvu. But, when male scribes wrote her story down, they changed her name to Izevel (Jezebel in English) in order to equate her name with zevel, the Hebrew word for trash. Most biblical scholars agree that Jezebel means “where is the prince” (a male-centric meaning in it’s own right, that seems to imply that a woman should not be the one ruling), but I would argue that the name change offered by our tour guide should not be ignored as an equally offensive possibility.
In a way, society has done worse by Jezebel in re-appropriating her name than it did in murdering her. Because now this regal woman shares our shame. Now every one of us is a Jezebel. When we are strong and opinionated. When we speak up. When we own our own bodies and do with them as we please. And the name—her name—is meant to crush us.
But “knowledge,” as Patricia Briggs says, “is a better weapon than a sword.” Knowing Jezebel’s story can help you change the world in small but meaningful ways. You can give her back her name, to start. And you can take back her name, too. Reframe the discussion. Be strong like Jezebel. Pick up your knowledge—your weapon of choice—and arm yourself for the bigger battles, those of power and reputation.
Feel empowered by reviving the story behind the woman? Don’t stop here! You can learn a whole lot more about the complex and misunderstood Jezebel from Biblical Archaeology and the Jewish Women’s Archive. Have your own story about name-calling? Slut-shaming? Being called a Jezebel? Share in the comments! We want to revive your stories, too!
The RH Blog is a project of Reviving Herstory: Reviving and retelling lost women’s stories. Biblical, historical, and otherwise. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.