Did Jezebel Murder Naboth? A Reassessment of Israel’s Most Notorious Queen

Note: This article is also available as a YouTube video, which you can watch here.

There is probably no woman in the Bible as hated as Jezebel. She was a Phoenician princess, given in marriage to king Ahab of Israel by her father king Ethbaal of Sidon—probably without any say in the matter—yet according to 1 Kings, she was a manipulative and deceitful character whose corrupting influence led to the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty.

Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of Yahweh, urged on by his wife Jezebel. (1 Kings 21:25)

Within these same biblical pages, however, an alternate depiction of Jezebel can be gleaned—one of a pious queen who remains faithful to her native religion of Baal and Asherah worship in the face of Elijah’s hostility, and a strong wife who makes a name for herself in a nation where the countless consorts and concubines who lived and died were almost always forgotten. Even at the end, she defies the usurper Jehu as he invades her palace and orders her bloody death.

In the book of 1 Kings, Jezebel’s most memorable crime—the one that cemented her legacy as a wicked queen—is her role in a plot to accuse and execute an innocent landowner named Naboth so that her husband, king Ahab, can possess his vineyard. This heinous murder by itself should be enough to justify our condemnation of her.

However, a closer look at these chapters reveals numerous inconsistencies—some of them serious enough to cast doubt on Jezebel’s guilt. Could it be, after all this time, that Jezebel herself is yet another victim of scheming kings and traitors? Let’s reopen this three-thousand-year-old murder case and see what the facts tell us about Naboth’s murder.

Ahab and Jezebel: Historical Background

It would help to take a quick look first at what archaeology has to say about Ahab and Jezebel.

The period that archaeologists refer to as Iron IIA began around 900 BCE with the end of Pharaoh Shoshenq’s military campaign, which left a political vacuum in Canaan. A powerful kingdom soon emerged in Samaria under king Omri, who was succeeded by his son Ahab. At this time, the Neo-Assyrian empire was expanding westward, but when emperor Shalmaneser III decided to invade Canaan in 853, he was opposed at Qarqar by a coalition of nations led by Hadadezer of Aram-Damascus, Irhuleni of Hamath, and Ahab of Israel. Assyrian monuments record this battle as a victory for Shalmaneser, but in reality, Shalmaneser was forced to end his campaign, and King Ahab and his allies remained free of Assyrian control.

There is no record of any queen named Jezebel during this time—not that any should be expected. Perhaps more importantly, there are no contemporary records to confirm that the king of Sidon around 850 was named Ethbaal. The Jewish historian Josephus cites a lost work by the Greek historian Menander of Ephesus about a king of Tyre named Ithobalos or Ittobaal who reigned around that time. There’s no way of knowing what Menander’s source was or if Menander even wrote precisely what Josephus claims. Josephus was, after all, writing with the explicit purpose of proving Jewish traditions to be true.

Still, there is no specific reason to doubt that there was such a king whose daughter married king Ahab. Intermarriage would have been an important means of creating the alliances necessary to keep the Assyrians and other enemies at bay. At the very least, Ahab’s marriage to a Phoenician princess fits the political situation at the time.

The Murder of Naboth

Let’s get back to the story of That Time Jezebel Murdered a Guy. The Naboth Incident is recounted in 1 Kings 21:1–16. Here’s what it says.

¹ Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. ² And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house. I will give you a better vineyard for it, or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” ³ But Naboth said to Ahab, “Yahweh forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” ⁴ Ahab went to his house resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

⁸ So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. ⁹ She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly;  10  seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.”

11 The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12 they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13 The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him, and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive but dead.” 16 As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Immediately afterward, the prophet Elijah is told by God to “go down to meet king Ahab who is in Samaria”. Elijah then delivers an oracle to condemn Ahab and Jezebel and to prophecy the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty as punishment.

If we take all that as a plain historical account, then it’s pretty damning for Jezebel. By all appearances, she is responsible for the death of an innocent man.

But let’s put on our detective hats and take a closer look at the evidence. There was a popular TV show in the 1970s about a detective named Columbo who would solve crimes by doggedly pursuing any element of the crime scene that seemed out of place—no matter how insignificant. It was always the minor details that ended up revealing the hidden truth of the mystery. In our case, because all the witnesses are long dead, we must examine the text for clues—particularly the details that don’t seem to fit.

Columbo season 3 episode 6, “Mind over Mayhem”

Is there anything suspicious about this account of Naboth’s death? If you are exceptionally astute, you might already have noticed how the plot seems to imitate another well-known Bible story, but we’ll come back to that later. For now, there are other questions worth asking. 

For starters, why is the palace of king Ahab in Jezreel rather than Samaria, the capital of his kingdom? Twice the story refers to this palace as Ahab’s house. Curiously, God’s command to Elijah to “go down to meet king Ahab who is in Samaria” implies that the story is set in Samaria. Norma Franklin has also noted that Naboth would not be called “the Jezreelite” if he lived in Jezreel. The qualifier is only needed if he is from Jezreel but lives elsewhere—like, say, Samaria.

Our confusion about the location of this incident grows when we look at the Greek Septuagint, in which there is no mention of Jezreel. In that version, the entire story takes place in Samaria! Someone seems to have tampered with the story, but which version—if either—is correct?

To answer that question, it would help to know a bit more about how the books of Kings were written.

The Sources of First and Second Kings

In 1943, the great German Bible scholar Martin Noth proposed that a single author was responsible for creating an early history of Israel spanning what are now the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. This hypothetical author is called the Deuteronomist by scholars.

In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the Deuteronomist crafted a narrative based on authentic records from the kingdoms of Samaria and Judah in order to explain Israel’s history from a specific theological viewpoint.

This narrative was probably expanded upon later through the addition of the Elijah and Elisha passages and other stories that do not contain the same annalistic structure, the same theological concerns, or the Deuteronomistic literary style. These passages are sometimes an awkward fit within the older narrative and may even contradict it. The latest additions also seem to be more novelistic in style, and there are often significant differences between the Hebrew and Greek versions—implying that the final form of the text was still in flux at a late date.

What does that mean for the Naboth story? Well, in the chapter immediately before it, chapter 20, we have a standalone tale about a war between king Ben-hadad of Aram and king Ahab of Israel. This story continues in chapter 22—the chapter after the Naboth incident—with no connection to Naboth’s murder. The problem with this story about the Samaria-Aram war is that it contradicts known history. It’s quite clear that Samaria and Aram were actually allies throughout Ahab’s reign, and there is no evidence for a war between them. Furthermore, we know from various inscriptions that the Aramean king at this time was named Hadadezer. His grandson Ben-hadad did not reign until about 50 years later. 

This story could not have come from genuine records of the kingdom of Samaria, but must have been invented by a later writer—inspired, perhaps, by a later period of history in which Samaria and Aram-Damascus were indeed at war. The intrusion of the Naboth story right in the middle suggests that chapter 21 is an even later insertion. In fact, the Greek translation places the two chapters about the war with Aram together and makes the Naboth story take place earlier, swapping the positions of chapters 20 and 21.

In other words, the Naboth murder story is sandwiched between the two halves of a war that historically never took place, and the Hebrew and Greek versions of 1 Kings disagree on (1) when it happened and (2) where it happened.

Examining the Crime Scene

Now, let’s investigate a key location involved in this crime: Naboth’s vineyard. 

In 1 Kings 21,  Naboth’s vineyard is located right next to Ahab’s palace in the city. Ahab wants it for his vegetable garden, which is a little weird, but okay. I guess even a king needs his vegetables. And it is important that we note where Naboth’s execution is carried out in this story: not at the vineyard (why would it be?), but outside the city. City gates were typically the location of judicial proceedings in the ancient Near East, and executions would naturally take place outside the gates rather than within the city proper. (Bench, p. 13)

The next time the death of Naboth is brought up is in 2 Kings 9. King Joram, son of the now-deceased Ahab, has been wounded in battle and is recuperating at Jezreel. Meanwhile, a man named Jehu has been plotting to take over the throne. Joram hears that Jehu is coming, so he and his ally, the king of Judah, ride out in a chariot to meet Jehu. It says “they met Jehu at the property of Naboth the Jezreelite.” This is somewhat surprising, because it implies that Naboth’s estate is off in the countryside—far enough away to warrant a chariot ride—and not immediately adjacent to the palace.

Anyway, at Naboth’s property, Jehu tells Joram that his mother Jezebel is a whore and a sorceress. Then he shoots an arrow at Joram, striking his heart and killing him.

Then we have a very strange passage in which Jehu gives his henchman instructions regarding Joram’s corpse:

Jehu said to his aide Bidkar, “Lift him and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite, for remember when you and I rode side by side behind his father Ahab how Yahweh uttered this oracle against him: ‘For the blood of Naboth and for the blood of his children that I saw last night, says Yahweh, I swear I will repay you on this very plot of ground.’ Now, therefore, lift him and throw him on the plot of ground in accordance with the word of Yahweh. (2 Kings 9:25–26)

Well now, this story that Jehu just told doesn’t hold water. Jehu never rode in a chariot behind Ahab, and the oracle he quotes doesn’t match the one spoken by Elijah. As Robker (p. 42) notes:

Jehu received the prophetic word, not Elijah! If the author were familiar with this Elijah tradition, he presumably would have included some reference to it.

These verses seem to describe a very different crime in which Naboth and his children were murdered, which simply didn’t happen in 1 Kings 21. It also implies that the crime happened at night out at Naboth’s property, which again seems to contradict the story in 1 Kings 21. 

Lastly, it’s quite notable that Jehu does not connect Jezebel with Naboth’s murder, despite his nasty accusations of whoredom and sorcery—which are not corroborated anywhere in Kings. And although Jehu claims to be avenging Naboth’s death, it’s impossible to tell from the wording whether Joram or his father Ahab is the one being blamed for the crime. The “him” against whom the oracle was spoken in verse 25 could grammatically be either Ahab or Joram.

Practically every detail of the original Naboth story is called into question here. Where was Naboth’s vineyard? Was Naboth murdered in secret at his property at night, or outside the city gates by a lynch mob? Were his children murdered as well, or not? Was Jezebel responsible, or not? And why does this version of the oracle insist that vengeance must take place at the scene of the murder?

It’s a confusing mess, but one thing is clear. The text does not give us one coherent version of Naboth’s murder. Instead, it gives us competing and inconsistent testimonies. If I were Jezebel’s defense lawyer, I would be having a field day.

Miniatur 201 335v, “Nabots Steinigung vor dem Weinberg” (the stoning of Naboth), anonymous, 14th century

Oracle, Shmoracle

To really understand what is going on, we need to talk about oracles.

The earlier Deuteronomic layer of 1 and 2 Kings repeatedly uses a formula in which a prophet is sent to the king of Samaria to deliver an oracle condemning that king and his household to death. This happens with at least three prophets and three kings, as this chart shows. 

AhijahJeroboamAnyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the field the birds of the air shall eat… (1 Kgs 14:11)
Jehu son of HananiBaashaAnyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the field the birds of the air shall eat. (1 Kgs 16:4)
Elijah the TishbiteAhabAnyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone who dies in the field the birds of the air shall eat. (1 Kgs 21:24)

Each oracle contains the same elements and makes the peculiar statement that those who die in the city will be eaten by dogs, while those who die in the field will be eaten by birds. This is not meant literally; we are not supposed to understand that anyone will actually be eaten by dogs and birds. Rather, such wording constitutes a curse of non-burial; telling someone that their corpse will be consumed by animals implies a shameful death and legacy. Such curses were “a standard part of treaty and covenent formulas throughout the ancient Near East” (Cronauer, p. 26), and there are many examples outside the Bible.

In 1 Kings, these curses seem to be intended figuratively as omens about the dynasty’s eventual end. (McKenzie 2013, p. 41) For example, Ahijah’s curse in chapter 14 that King Jeroboam and his family will be eaten by dogs and birds does not literally come true; Jeroboam dies peacefully and is buried with his ancestors. Jehu son of Hanani levies the same curse against King Baasha in chapter 16, but Baasha too has a peaceful death and is buried with his ancestors. The actual fulfillment comes later, when the dynasty of Jeroboam and Baasha is overthrown by the usurper Zimri.

In 1 Kings 21, Elijah pronounces the same curse against Ahab: “Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.” And in 1 Kings 22:40, we get the same notice that Ahab died and “slept with his ancestors”—meaning, he died a peaceful death and was buried with his ancestors. These verses all fit the formula we have come to expect, and they belong to the original Deuteronomist version of  1 Kings.

But now things get weird, because in the case of Ahab and Jezebel—unlike the earlier kings—a redactor has decided to take this idea of being eaten by dogs literally. And he works this into the narrative in several places that are clearly insertions.

First, he makes an addition to the Elijah oracle. While previous instances simply had the prophets show up and deliver their oracles, the Elijah oracle is preceded by a passage in which Yahweh instructs Elijah what to say beforehand. This passage is linked to the story of Naboth’s murder, which is not mentioned in the actual oracle from Elijah. What’s also weird is that Yahweh’s instructions to Elijah don’t match what Elijah actually says! They specify that dogs will lick up the blood of Ahab in the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth. This insertion transforms the figurative non-burial curse into a literal prediction of being eaten by dogs, and it specifies where this event must occur. It also fits the narrative poorly, since Naboth’s blood was not licked up by dogs in the preceding story.

Insertion that connects Elijah’s oracle to the Naboth storyThen the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who is in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him: …Thus says Yahweh: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (1 Kings 21:17ff)
The Deuteronomist’s original oracle by Elijah against AhabBecause you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of Yahweh, will bring disaster on you. …I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. (1 Kings 21:20ff)

Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat. (1 Kings 21:24)

Now, remember Ahab’s military campaign against Aram in 1 Kings 20 and 22? As we noted earlier, those chapters contradict known history and were almost certainly added by a later editor. They also include an alternate version of Ahab’s death in which he is struck by an arrow during battle. Afterward, Ahab’s chariot is taken back to Samaria, where dogs lick up Ahab’s blood and prostitutes wash themselves with it. According to the narrator, this fulfills “the word of Yahweh that he had spoken”. In other words, an editor has revised the original Deuteronomist’s story. He has reinterpreted the standard oracle about being eaten by dogs as something that must literally happen, and he has invented a convoluted scenario surrounding Ahab’s death to accomplish that. 

Cronauer agrees that the story of Ahab’s death in battle was invented specifically to fulfill Elijah’s oracle. In his book on the Naboth incident, he writes:

One has the distinct sense that the author of this account of Ahab’s death, or at least its redactor, went to great lengths to attempt to create a connection or allusion to 1Kgs 21:19b. (p. 11)

Why is this important to our investigation? Well, first of all, it ties into the problem of whether Naboth’s vineyard was located in Jezreel or Samaria. The redactor’s version of Elijah’s oracle states that Ahab’s blood must by licked by dogs in the same spot where Naboth died. And when this oracle is fulfilled, it is in Samaria—not Jezreel—that Ahab’s blood is licked up by dogs. (Robker, p. 149) Either the redactor was incredibly sloppy, or he was working with a version of the Naboth story that occurred in Samaria instead of Jezreel.

Secondly, the discrepancies between the various oracles and the surrounding narrative are one of the clearest signs that the narrative about Ahab and Jezebel has been modified and embellished.

In fact, we find another obvious insertion in this same passage. Perhaps inspired by the description of dogs licking up Naboth’s blood, verse 23 also takes the dogs literally and predicts that Jezebel specifically will be eaten by dogs. Again, this is at odds with the original oracle structure of 1 Kings and with the non-literal nature of the non-burial curse.

More Doggone Oracles

As with Ahab, oracles are the primary means used by the narrative to foreshadow Jezebel’s death. The Deuteronomistic oracle delivered by Elijah against Ahab in 1 Kings 21 contains a remark about Jezebel that McKenzie calls “a clumsy post-Deuteronomist insertion” (McKenzie 1991, p. 68):

Also concerning Jezebel Yahweh said: Within the territory of Jezreel, the dogs shall eat Jezebel. (1 Kings 21:23)

According to Steven McKenzie,

Such a prediction is anomalous in the oracles against the dynasties, and v 23 has evidently been inserted, in rather clumsy fashion…into the oracle against Ahab’s house. Again, scholars are nearly unanimous in taking v 23 as a post-Dtr insertion….

This prediction that dogs will eat Jezebel is repeated in yet another odd insertion in 2 Kings 9. Let me explain the context a bit so you can see why it’s so obviously a secondary addition to the story.

This passage concerns Elisha’s decision to have Jehu be anointed king of Israel. Elisha gives another prophet very specific instructions on how this is to be done, telling him to speak only the following words: “Thus says Yahweh: I anoint you king over Israel.” Elisha tells the prophet that following this pronouncement, he must open the door and flee without lingering. The reasons for such haste are not clear, but Elisha’s instructions are very specific.

A few verses later, the prophet carries out Elisha’s instructions. He finds Jehu, performs the ritual and speaks more-or-less the same words: “Thus says Yahweh the God of Israel: I anoint you king over the people of Yahweh, over Israel.” And then he opens the door and flees as instructed. No problem, right?

Except that’s not what happens. Between speaking the words commanded by Elisha and fleeing as commanded by Elisha, the prophet delivers to Jehu a whole extra oracle stating that Jezebel specifically will be eaten by dogs. The signs of editorial tampering are obvious, and the oracle is clearly aimed at the reader rather than at Jehu. As McKenzie observes, it is “widely accepted among scholars” that this extended oracle is secondary. (p. 71)

Furthermore, some scholars believe that this insertion happened in two stages: once to add a condemnation of Ahab to Jehu’s anointing ceremony, and a second time to add a prophecy of Jezebel’s death. The Jezebel additions are awkward, and the text reads more smoothly without them.

Original story (the prophet following Elisha’s instructions)So the young man, the young prophet…announced, “l have a message for you, commander.” “For which one of us?” asked Jehu. “For you, commander.”

So [Jehu] got up and went inside. The young man poured the oil on his head and said to him: “Thus says Yahweh the God of Israel: I anoint you king over the people of Yahweh, over Israel.”
Insertion of oracle against Ahab (second insertion of Jezebel oracle in bold)You shall strike down the house of your master Ahab, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of my servants the prophets and the blood of all the servants of Yahweh. […] I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah. Within the territory of Jezreel, the dogs shall eat Jezebel, and no one shall bury her.
Original storyThen he opened the door and fled.

To sum up this rather confusing situation, we have determined so far that:

  1. The entire story of Naboth’s murder in 1 Kings 21 is a late insertion into an earlier narrative that did not necessarily blame Jezebel for Naboth’s death.
  2. The two oracles predicting Jezebel’s death and consumption by dogs are obvious insertions by an editor who is mimicking the Deuteronomist’s non-burial curse formula.
  3. There are other passages that blame the death of Naboth solely on Ahab with no awareness of Jezebel’s alleged role.

The conclusion made by numerous scholars, then, is that an earlier version of Kings mentioned Naboth’s murder without placing the blame on Jezebel. However, an “anti-Jezebel redactor” has made significant changes to the story of Naboth’s death to cast Jezebel as the culprit. Another way of putting it would be to say that Jezebel has been framed.

Dogs eating the flesh of Jezebel, from Bible Beasts and Birds, Dalziel Brothers, 1861

And so we come to the actual death of Jezebel. After murdering King Joram as we saw earlier, Jehu comes to Jezreel, finds Jezebel in her tower, and has her thrown out the window. Then horses trample her corpse until nothing is left but her skull, hands and feet. There is no mention of dogs here.

[Jehu] said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down; some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her. Then he went in and ate and drank; he said, “See to that cursed woman and bury her, for she is a king’s daughter.” But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. (2 Kings 9:33ff)

However, following Jezebel’s death, Jehu states, “This is the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite: In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel.” This is a clear reference to Elijah’s earlier oracle to Ahab; specifically, the part concerning Jezebel that was inserted by a redactor. That Jehu would say this makes no real narrative sense. First of all, Jehu was not present in 1 Kings 21 when Elijah delivered that oracle to Ahab. The oracle that Jehu did hear was from the prophet sent by Elisha. And remember that the line about Jezebel was probably a late addition to that oracle. Perhaps that addition was made to rectify the problem of Jehu not having heard this oracle from anyone.

The second reason Jehu’s statement makes no narrative sense is because it contradicts the way Jezebel’s death actually occurred—being thrown out a tower and then trampled to oblivion by horses.

The purpose of Jehu’s statement here, however, is to emphasize the point that Jezebel’s death was divinely ordained. Both McKenzie and Cronauer, among others, believe that this statement by Jehu was added secondarily by the anti-Jezebel redactor.

The Source of the Naboth Murder Plot

If we accept that the story of Naboth’s murder as we now have it was a late modification to the narrative of 1 Kings, then we might ask where it came from. Did it originate as a separate tradition about Naboth and Jezebel, or was it created by the redactor using some other story for inspiration? It turns out, the answer has been staring us in the face, though no one noticed until fairly recently. 

It’s the story of David and Bathsheba. As scholars Patrick Cronauer and Marsha White recently noticed, the two stories have almost exactly the same plot, and it can hardly be coincidence. Let’s go through it point by point. 

  1. David desires Bathsheba, just as Ahab desires Naboth’s vineyard. 
  2. A complication occurs: Bathsheba gets pregnant, which threatens to expose David’s adultery, but her husband Uriah refuses to go home and sleep with her, just as Naboth refuses to give up his vineyard.
  3. David devises a plan to have Uriah killed and writes down instructions for Joab, just as Jezebel writes instructions to the city nobles for the murder of Naboth.
  4. The recipients of these letters carry out their respective orders. Uriah and Naboth are killed.
  5. Reports are sent back in writing to David and Jezebel with news of the target’s death.
  6. David takes Bathsheba as his wife, and Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.
  7. Yahweh is displeased and sends the prophet Nathan to David, just as he sends Elijah to Ahab.
  8. David and Ahab are condemned by the prophet and threatened with death.
  9. David and Ahab both repent of their sin.
  10. Because of David and Ahab’s repentance, their own lives are spared, but their sons will receive divine punishment in their stead.

Cronauer’s position that the entire Naboth murder story was the invention of an anti-Jezebel redactor is hard to deny. In his book-length treatment of the Naboth story, he writes:

I maintain that a Persian-period Jehud writer took a text which was already found in the [Deuteronomistic History]…, which contained both an account of a crime committed by Ahab against Naboth…and Deuteronomistic accusations and condemnations of Ahab and his dynasty, supposedly for this same crime…, and expanded and filled out this composite text with the addition of a parable of his own creation…. (p. 2)

For my part, I’ve seen enough evidence to overturn Jezebel’s guilty verdict.

Bathsheba, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1889

In Search of the Historical Jezebel

For the sake of time, we haven’t yet analyzed the verses in which Jezebel is accused of persecuting the prophets of Yahweh, but they show many of the same problems we’ve seen in the Naboth passages. What, if anything, can we salvage about the historical Jezebel from the books of Kings? Patrick Cronauer believes that the only reference to Jezebel in the original Deuteronomist’s version of Kings is in 1 Kings 16:31:

[Ahab] took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and went and served Baal and worshiped him.

The other passages about Jezebel, in addition to the problems described above, contain “strong evidence of a post-exilic origin” according to Cronauer (p. 197). In particular, the Hebrew terminology and grammar used in these passages are more consistent with late, post-exilic Hebrew. The Jezebel in these stories is not a historical figure but a literary “type” — an epitome of the wicked foreign woman whose seduction leads Israel away from God over and over, going all the way back to Eve.

It should also be noted that 2 Chronicles, which covers the reign of Ahab in chapter 18, makes no mention of either Jezebel or Naboth.

However, another possible reference to Jezebel turns up in an unexpected place: Psalm 45. This psalm was written to celebrate a royal wedding, and though it does not name the bride and groom, the bride is referred to as the “daughter of Tyre” and a princess.

The city of Tyre will come with a gift, people of wealth will seek your favor. All glorious is the princess within her chamber; her gown is interwoven with gold. In embroidered garments she is led to the king; her virgin companions follow her—those brought to be with her. Led in with joy and gladness, they enter the palace of the king. (Psalm 45:12–16) [translation from Schmidt and Schröter, pp. 79–80]

Many Bible scholars, though not all, believe that this hymn was originally written to celebrate the marriage of King Ahab and Princess Jezebel. And later, even when Jezebel became a figure of villainy in the Bible, this psalm was retained because how readily it could be reapplied to God. The historian Stanley B. Frost, in a reassessment of Jezebel written for Theology Today in 1964, concluded:

I like to think whenever I hear that forty-fifth Psalm sung in church that Jezebel has indeed found her way into the King’s palace. (p. 517)

Another Voice from the Wilderness

Throughout the story of Jezebel, she faces opposition not only from the story’s most powerful characters, Elijah and Jehu, but also from the writer/editor of 1 and 2 Kings himself, who ensured that his readers would curse her name for millennia to come.

But a voice from another corner of Scripture had something else to say. Several generations after Jezebel’s time, the prophet Hosea delivered an oracle from Yahweh in condemnation of Jehu’s violent tactics and proclaimed the end of his dynasty through treason, in the same manner in which it had begun:

…in a little while I shall surely punish the dynasty of Jehu for the blood shed at Jezreel, and I shall put an end to its rule over the state of Israel. It will happen on that day that I will break Israel’s bow in the Jezreel Valley. (Hosea 1:4b–5)

It’s time readers of the Bible stopped treating Jezebel as the villain of the story when in reality, so many of the God-fearing men who dominate the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings committed crimes as bad or worse than what she is accused of.


20 thoughts on “Did Jezebel Murder Naboth? A Reassessment of Israel’s Most Notorious Queen

  1. I really enjoyed this. Between all the different productions, do we see the transition between the formulaic interpretation of prophetic utterances at the time when the Deuteronomic Histories were first compiled, and the literal interpretation of Bible verses current in the Mishnaic period?

    Can you recommend one clear single source, preferably a peer-reviewed learning article accessible online, for my own readers, when while criticising creationist pretensions of biblical literalism, I can point out, not only that the text contradicts itself, but that the disagreements between Septuagint and Masoretic show that the text itself was still fluid way into the Hellenistic period?

    And when are you going to shove your columns between covers, get published (with a title like yours, that would surely not be difficult), and get rich? And more to the point, see your book in bookshops lurking as a trap among the Bible boosters?

    Liked by 1 person

    • To your first question, there are a number of recent publications on prophetic/oracular culture of the ancient Near East that I need to read before I can offer a good answer.

      There are lots of books and papers about the differences between the MT and LXX with respect to specific passages or books, but it’s hard to find a good survey of all the significant differences between them.

      One idea is The Earliest Text of the Hebrew Bible: The Relationship between the Masoretic Text and the Hebrew Base of the Septuagint Reconsidered. It has a very good article by Emanuel Tov on large-scale differences between the Greek and Hebrew versions as well as articles on Judges, 1 Kings / 3 Kingdoms, Ezra-Nehemiah / 1 Esdras, Ezekiel, and Daniel, but some are in French and one is in German.

      The article by Tov by itself can be downloaded here:

      If I wanted a publisher to consider anything I’ve written, I might need a few academic writing credits first. I have a few submissions on the backburner, but nothing imminent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So the Bible has been tampered with. How much of it is really reliable then?

        “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness” – 2nd Tim 3:16

        This is indeed troubling. Are the Christians’ faith challenged, if so?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks for the comment, Al. I think any believer that really wants to delve into the Bible is going to have to grapple with the fact that it is not a magical tome of inerrant historical data, and if they are really honest in their study, it will change them in ways they didn’t expect.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Replace “God-breathed” with “divinely inspired”, exactly the same thing in less archaic language, and perhaps your difficulty will go away. Those who use this verse to justify a blinkered literalism while neglecting the rich history of the text are imposing their own unnatural interpretation

          Liked by 1 person

        • I must admit, I’m just a layman. At best, I can only regurgitate. I suppose I’m also guilty of taking verses out of context.


      • I see the problem, and since the area attracts cranks and charlatans, your biggest problem is to actually get looked at seriously. Are you on corresponding terms with someone with relevant qualifications who could provide introductions or even be willing to write a foreword? (My own qualifications are unfortunately not relevant here)


  2. Thank you, Paul. I really appreciate what you have researched and shared here, and the very creative way that you have put it all together in your video.

    For decades I’ve felt irked by the way Jezebel is bashed from pulpits. I’ve heard many sermons demonizing her, particularly in regard to the Mt Carmel episode (1 Kings 18). But verse 40 (Elijah slaughtering the prophets of Baal) is swept under the rug. I’m keenly aware that we don’t have access to “her side” of the story.

    Now you’ve got me wondering about how scholars view the composition of chapter 18. This “fire of the Lord” episode has always struck me as phantasmagorical. Is there any chance that this story might have been invented and inserted with the intent to frame Jezebel and shift attention away from Elijah’s mass murder?

    If you have any thoughts of your own, or insights from researching what others might think, I would love to know about whatever you could share.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment. Far from distracting attention from Elijah’s mass murder, I think Jezebel’s role is invented to be a foil for Elijah and highlight his “heroism” (from the author’s perspective) as a prophet in the mold of Moses, and this was only possible once the Naboth story had turned Jezebel into a murderess.

      The key is the order in which 1 Kings was probably expanded with these passages.

      The original (Deuteronomic) text went straight from 16:33, where Ahab is accused of being worse than his predecessors, to 21:17 where “Elijah the Tishbite” appears and delivers the same oracle as Ahijah and Jehu ben Hanani. Elijah would not be introduced as “the Tishbite” here if he had already been introduced in chapter 17.

      Next, the Naboth story was added, and Yahweh’s instructions to Elijah were added to link the oracle against Ahab to the new story.

      Next, new stories about the adversarial relationship between Elijah and Ahab/Jezebel were added in chapters 17 and 18. These stories are modeled after Elisha and Moses and are no longer concerned with the sins of Jeroboam. Elijah’s altar on Mt. Carmel resembles Moses’s in Ex. 24:4. Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal is like Moses’s competition with the Egyptian magicians. The slaughter of the prophets of Baal mirrors the slaughter of the worshippers of the golden calf. Chapter 18 ends the story in Jezreel to set up the story of Naboth’s vineyard.

      Lastly, chapter 19 is inserted about an Elijah who is not the triumphant victor of chapter 18 but a fearful and discouraged prophet.

      Along the way, we end up with a lot of contradictions as pointed out to me by fellow Bible nerd John Kesler: (1) 1 Kings 19:14 blames the Israelites rather than Jezebel for killing the prophets. (2) Obadiah supposedly hid 100 prophets from Jezebel (18:4), yet Elijah claims to be the only prophet of Yahweh left (18:22 and 19:22). (3) What happened to the 400 prophets of Asherah supported by Jezebel in 18:19? As a side note, we also have more differences between the LXX and MT; for example, the LXX has Jezebel declare to Elijah in 19:2, “If you are Elijah, then I am Jezebel.”

      (Most of the above information is pulled from the sources already cited, but especially McKenzie 1991 and 2014.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Interesting. Does the Elisha tradition predate that of Elijah?

        I don’t know how much you know about the more Pentecostal and fundamentalist corners of Christianity, but the name of Jezebel continues to be used to harm and coerce Christian women. It would almost be fitting if the historical Jezebel turned out to be none of the things modern Christians believe about her.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yeah, the scholars cited in this article (especially McKenzie) think for various reasons that the Elisha stories were incorporated into Kings earlier than the Elijah ones.

          I do come from a Pentecostal background, so I know all about the way “Jezebel” is invoked as a spirit or demon any time a woman is doing something the church leaders disapprove of. Another negative use of Jezebel in modern times—this time, one that I had no direct experience with—is its use as a stereotype for African-American women—particularly in order to justify the rape of slaves. It was used in contrast to other negative stereotypes like the “Mammy”—the stereotypical rotund, working-class African-American woman (think housemaids in old TV shows, Aunt Jemima, and so on). I considered adding a section on this aspect of the name, but it would have made the article too long.

          Liked by 1 person

        • I’ll see if I can find the McKenzie books locally. I was always struck by the similarity of the names Elijah and Elisha, at least in English.

          The Book of Kings has some fascinating episodes in it. I wonder what the historical background was, if any, for the story of Athaliah.

          Liked by 1 person

        • The article of McKenzie’s in Congress Volume Munich 2013 has a fair amount about Elijah and Elisha. There are probably more comprehensive books or papers, but it would take me some time to dig them up. If you want to find it locally, your best best is a seminary or university library (if the university has a religious studies department).

          I’ll have to look into Athaliah more and see if there’s an interesting article there.


  3. Quite interesting. I should note 1 Kings 21 isn’t the only part of the Bible out of place narratively speaking, I recently come across (thanks to the Oxford Study Bible) Joshua 8:30-35 and how it feels more in place between Joshua 24:1-2 than ch 8 or before Joshua 5 as some Qumran manuscripts (not sure which) apparently have it. I hear Job is also another example of parts of texts being out of place, but it’s less clear where these parts were originally included than the examples in Joshua and 1 Kings since it’s mostly a poetic dialogue rather than a work presented as a historical narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is really interesting! Will definitely share a link on my blog 🙂

    I have a question- how would ancient readers have thought about these insertions/redactions in the text? If some of the insertions were “clumsy” or didn’t make sense with the story, that would be even more obvious to ancient readers familiar with the genre, right? Why did they preserve and make copies of this version of the text, which has some parts that don’t quite fit together?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment, Perfect. We can only speculate, so my guess is that the earliest community that used this text was very limited, and they were still adding to it and making edits over time. However, once the text was in wider circulation and seen as authoritative, it became harder to fix, since that meant your copy would be different from everyone else’s. Also, the vast majority of readers and listeners (ancient texts were usually read out loud) would not have been paying the close attention to detail that modern scholars do when trying to understand an ancient text and its history. Especially if copies were limited to a handful of scribes and priests.


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