Part 3 in the Series:
The Spirit of Jezebel
By Don Enevoldsen
The message to the church of Thyatira revolves around a character called “that woman Jezebel.” (Revelation 2:20) Since Revelation is an apocalyptic book, written in an apocalyptic style, which makes copious use of imagery and symbols, there is no good reason to assume this particular Jezebel was an actual person in the church. Such allusions to Old Testament characters are so consistently incorporated into the images of Revelation, it would be very unusual if the reference was not to the wife of King Ahab, whose life represented characteristics intended for the church to recognize.
Over the next few weeks, we will examine this Revelation passage in detail, so it makes sense to quote it in full:
“To the angel of the church in Thyatira write:
“These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.
“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.
“Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.’
“To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations—that one ‘will rule them with an iron scepter and will dash them to pieces like pottery’—just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 2:18-29)
To understand the implications of this message, there are two characters in the Old Testament account of Jezebel who are relevant—Jezebel and her husband, Ahab, king of Samaria. We will develop personality profiles for each and note how their character traits bear on the message to Thyatira. In addition, we will look at Jezebel’s chief nemesis, the prophet Elijah, her father, Ethbaal, king of the Phoenician city of Sidon, and Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram.
Four of the images in Revelation will also be examined in detail—“sexual immorality,” the closely related image, “food sacrificed to idols,” “a bed of suffering,” and “Satan’s so-called deep secrets.” An understanding of the first century organizations sometimes called “trade guilds,” but more accurately known as “voluntary associations,” will help illuminate the significance of the food sacrificed to idols.
Jezebel is one of the best known characters of the Bible, her memory kept alive by phrases like “painted Jezebel” and “Jezebel spirit.” Both expressions are almost universally defined in terms of sexual immorality, harlotry and adultery. “Painted Jezebel” conjures the image of a prostitute with layers of eye shadow and lipstick, sitting in a window, enticing men to engage her services. “Jezebel spirit” brings to mind a seductive woman determined to compromise a church leader through an adulterous affair.
Which makes it a little surprising to find that nothing in the Old Testament account of Jezebel mentions any kind of promiscuity. (With the single exception of a comment by Jehu, right before he killed her son, Joram. He declared that there could be no peace in Israel as long as the harlotries of Jezebel abounded [2 Kings 9:22]. In the context, however, this referred to her worship of Baal and Astarte, not to her sexual behavior.) Her sexual reputation depends entirely on the Revelation reference to sexual immorality.
Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians. (1 Kings 16:31) Little is known about this Phoenician king. Josephus, using the slightly different form of his name, Ithobalus, adds that he was a priest of the goddess Astarte. (Josephus, Against Apion 1.18.116) Though Josephus cited his source as the ancient Greek dramatist, Menander, a not particularly reliable source, several Sidonian inscriptions show that other kings of the city were priests of Astarte. (Sarcophagus Inscription of Tabnit, King of the Sidonians, KAI 13; Sarcophagus Epitaph of King Eshmunazar II, KAI 14) Ethbaal likely was a priest, too. Jezebel’s affinity for the goddess Astarte undoubtedly stemmed from her childhood as daughter of Astarte’s priest. Ethbaal’s reign is generally dated at 887-856 B.C. (Philip J. Boyes, “ ‘The King of the Sidonians’: Phoenician Ideologies and the Myth of the Kingdom of Tyre-Sidon,” p. 38)
Jezebel was one of the most strong-willed and tenacious women in history. She had no intention of being just the wife of the king or a political bargaining chip, married to a neighboring ruler as part of a treaty. She intended to be queen in the fullest sense of the word. One incident in particular demonstrated her independence and determination.
A man named Naboth owned a vineyard in Jezreel, a military town north of Samaria where Ahab built a spacious palace which he used as a kind of summer home. Ahab wanted the vineyard and offered to buy it from Naboth or to trade for a different vineyard. Naboth refused to sell. The property had belonged to his family for generations and he had no interest in parting from it. (1 Kings 21:1-3)
Ahab was “sullen and angry,” so much so that Jezebel found him laying on his bed fuming and refusing to eat. (1 Kings 21:4) Her response demonstrated far more grit than Ahab’s and showed how she thought people in positions of authority and power should behave. “Is this how you act as king over Israel?” she demanded. “Get up and eat! Cheer up.” (1 Kings 21:7)
Then she demonstrated her willingness to act and the lengths to which she was willing to go to get what she thought a king should have. “I’ll get you the vineyard,” she scowled at him. She left the room, wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with his seal and sent them to elders and nobles who lived in the city with Naboth. (1 Kings 21:7-10) In the letters, she gave orders to falsely and publicly accuse Naboth of blasphemy and then stone him to death. Once Naboth was dead, Jezebel ordered Ahab to go and take possession of the vineyard. (1 Kings 21:11-16)
Naboth’s death also illustrated two other character traits that drove most of Jezebel’s behavior. She was ruthless and she was entitled. She thought nothing of having an innocent man murdered if he stood in the way of what she perceived as her royal prerogative. To promote the worship of Baal and Astarte, she readily ordered her servants to kill all the prophets of God they could lay there hands on. (1 Kings 18:4, 13) No act was too egregious if it furthered her interests.
Jezebel’s ruthlessness came from a belief that as the queen, nothing should be denied her. If she wanted it, she could not conceive why she shouldn’t have it. In her mind, no law superseded her will. She was born the daughter of the most powerful of the Phoenician kings and she was the wife of the most powerful Israelite king.
The prophet Elijah became her arch enemy, especially when he retaliated for the killing of the prophets by personally killing 450 prophets of Baal whom Jezebel entertained at her table. (1 Kings 18:19, 40)
Elijah had just called down fire from heaven to consume a sacrifice on Mount Carmel. While the rest of the nation cowered in awe at this demonstration of power, Jezebel dealt with the problem in the entitled manner to which she had become accustomed. She sent a note to Elijah with the message, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” (1 Kings 19:2) The Septuagint version of this passage adds a line: “If you are Elijah, I am Jezebel.” (As translated by Lesley Hazleton, Jezebel, The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, p. 100) Elijah might be the prophet of God, but Jezebel considered herself not only the queen but the prophet of Astarte. Not even God would be allowed to infringe on her will, not while she had the approval and the sanction of the goddess for her actions.
Several indications of how she conceived her spiritual authority and position are hidden in the biblical account and alluded to in other sources. Her father was a priest of Astarte and she supported the worship of this patron goddess of Sidon. She was the earthly representative of Astarte.
A further piece of evidence is included in the account of Jezebel’s death. Sometime after Ahab had been killed in battle, Jehu, one of his military commanders, was anointed as the new king. He first had to get rid of all of Ahab’s family. He killed each of them in turn, and then set out to deal with Jezebel who at the time was in the fortress at Jezreel.
When Jezebel heard that Jehu was coming, she had no illusions about what would soon take place. The short account of her preparations paints an odd picture.
“When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window.” (2 Kings 9:30)
This verse is the source of the phrase “painted Jezebel.” Because of the historically groundless reputation Jezebel has for sexual immorality, most assume her purpose was to seduce Jehu into an affair and thereby save her life. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Jezebel’s sense of entitlement prompted her to defy her enemies even in the face of death. Putting on eye makeup and fixing her hair were intended to give her the most regal appearance possible. Her intent was not to seduce Jehu but to overawe him. (Many commentaries make this observation. One of the most detailed is by Lesley Hazelton, pp. 174-188) Jezebel was determined that Jehu would know he was dealing with royalty. If she were going to die, she would go out in glorious, regal defiance.
In addition, Jezebel added to her image by invoking the divine, intentionally taking on the identity of Astarte. Positioning herself in a window to wait for Jehu made a distinct statement about her religious entitlement by the picture it presented to Jehu as he approached the building. Archaeologists have discovered numerous carved plaques in the ruins of Samaria and in a few other locations that are distinctly Phoenician in style. Most are carved from ivory and portray the goddess Astarte sitting in a window. The carved figures show eyes heavily painted and hair fixed with distinctive ringlets. A kind of railing, such as might be seen in a window or on a balcony, runs across the bottom of the frame. The other three sides are closed in by a triple recessed window of the type found in ancient temples. Jezebel faced Jehu not only as the queen, not only as the priestess of Astarte, but as the incarnation of Astarte herself. (Numerous examples can be seen online, usually under the title “woman in a window” or “Astarte in a window.”)
From the record of Jezebel’s life, a profile of Israel’s queen can be constructed. She was a woman who sought power and position from a sense of entitlement. That is, she believed she deserved whatever she wanted because she was the queen and because she was either the earthly representative of Astarte or Astarte herself. Using religious justification for her actions, she was willing to perpetrate any crime, including murder, to get what she wanted. She believed she was above all law.
Jezebel, as she appeared in Thyatira, was a symbolic representation of the same characteristics of leadership in the church. Thyatira had a leader or leaders (not necessarily women) who viewed their overseer positions as license, not ministry. Such leaders tend to equate their own interests to the interests of the church, and any challenge to their ethics, their behavior or their teaching is treated with contempt and intimidation, displayed in lies, character assassination and deception, and justified by the claim they are protecting the church or the ministry.
Next week, we will look at how this looks in church today. I lived under this kind of leadership for many years. I have become intimately familiar with it, as no doubt many of you have in your own experience.
Next, part four: Entitled Leaders–Patty’s Story
Go to the beginning of the series, The Spirit of Jezebel: Part 1, A Jezebelian Kind of Thing
Do you have an additional thought on this subject? Please join the discussion and share your insights.