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.

Read More »

Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel

Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.

In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture.Read More »

Kuntillet Ajrud

And Then There Was One: Yahweh and the Shema

One of the most famous phrases in all the Old Testament is certainly the declaration in Deuteronomy 6:4, referred to as the Shema after its initial word.

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יהוה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יהוה אֶחָד
šᵉma’ yiśrāêl yahweh ’ělōhênū yahweh ‘eḥāḏ

The best nuance with which to translate this statement has been debated. The NRSV and its footnotes offer no fewer than four options, for example. I used to frequently hear it in sermons expressed as “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God!” and there is a popular church song that uses this translation as its main lyric. Hearing it this way, people naturally assume the Shema to be a simple expression of monotheism.Read More »

Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of Creation

With the recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate and the conservative religious reaction to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new educational TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the spotlight is once again on Creationists — a vocal minority of the Christian public that believes “biblical creation” as described in Genesis ought to be taught in place of scientific theories about the origins of life and the universe.

Although the scientific absurdities of Creationism have been widely addressed, the biblical and theological failings of this doctrine are less well known. Even outside Creationist circles, most Christians (even most theologians, perhaps) know very little about the subject. What exactly did the ancient Jews believe about the creation of the world, and how are those views expressed in the Bible?

It is a common misconception that Genesis 1–3 is the key passage for understanding biblical creation. After all, this story (two stories, actually) is found at the very beginning of the Bible and seems to provide the basis for what comes after. This simplistic approach, however, ignores the complicated history of the Bible’s compilation and canonization — not to mention the rich cultural background of Palestine. Genesis 1, in fact, is a rather late retelling of a story that is woven throughout much of the Bible — the Psalms, Job and Isaiah in particular — and does not really mean what many people think it does.

Read More »