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Jezebel's last laugh: the rhetoric of wicked women.

A most wicked woman is Jezebel, so much so that even feminist readers of the Old Testament, who have quite eagerly and insightfully reexamined the stories of other Old Testament women, seem reluctant to deal with her. She is, according to tradition, the ultimate figure of feminine evil, one considered so evil by patriarchal standards that her name in most dictionaries is synonymous with "wicked woman." Judeo-Christian tradition judges only Satan more harshly as a symbol of evil. Jezebel's association with patriarchal definitions of "bad women" presents an opportunity for feminists, for if we recover the figure of Jezebel, we not only undermine patriarchal assumptions about the story, we undermine the very basic patriarchal assumptions about what characteristics and actions constitute bad women. This paper, therefore, will reread the story of Jezebel, first, by considering rereading as a process of recovery; second, by examining the traditional readings of Jezebel; and finally, by exploring what Jezebel might mean as a feminist metaphor.

The Process of Feminist Recovery

Feminist recovery activities take many forms, but they all share a common assumption and goal, which may be summarized as the attempt to force reconsideration of so-called cultural "norms" substantiated by traditional understandings of texts. In the introduction to his 1989 book Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Culture Memory, 1910--1945, Cary Nelson defines recovery as rewriting the text according to new ideological assumptions:

what we 'recover' we necessarily rewrite, giving it

meanings that are inescapably contemporary, giving

it a new discursive life in the present, a life it cannot

have had before. A text can gain that new life in part

through an effort to understand what cultural work it

may have been able to do in an earlier time. (11) Crucial to a recovery project is an understanding of how a text by or about women worked in its historical setting and in its reception through subsequent ages of interpretation to uphold patriarchal assumptions about the feminine. Recovery, or "rewriting," of the text by feminism wrenches from patriarchy the power to interpret what feminine is and should be. From the diachronic tension between the historical understanding and a contemporary feminist reading emerges a new "text" which has the potential to redefine the cultural values which had been traditionally derived from the text.

Significant for many attempts at feminist reading and recovery is the problem of naming, of re-interpreting the names given to females and to the feminine in patriarchal literature. Recovery may mean usurping from ancient legend a male-given name or a male-created image of the feminine, appropriating it to name or describe our own existence. Traditional readings of these legends have created a rhetoric of oppression, using the names and their traditional connotations to mold the image of ideal femininity along lines which will not threaten, or which will neutralize any potential threat to, patriarchal power. Certain female figures are labelled "villainess" because they embody certain characteristics or perform certain actions which potentially threaten the patriarchal construction of the feminine, and thus the construction of the masculine. Tradition, therefore, must portray these women and what they represent as evil in order to undermine any power they might exert over patriarchy. Feminists reading these ancient stories rewrite, or recover, the legend to open a space for a different, potentially powerful image of the feminine in order to subvert the traditional constructions which name these figures as evil women and make their characteristics undesirable. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in No Man's Land, describe one such example of recovery: American author Pauline Tarn transformed herself into the French poet Rene Vivien by taking on the name, and thus the power, of the woman who wrests from Merlin his magical authority, his ability to speak the words of power. This story in its traditional reading is, of course, anti-female; the evil seductress robs Merlin of his power. But Rene Vivien recreates herself with this legend, subverting, even confronting, the passive process of being named, in essence, stealing the power of naming which has hitherto been the prerogative of the father in a patrilineal culture. The legend of Vivien placed in conjunction to the action of the poet Vivien becomes a metaphor for this process of defying patriarchal laws of the name and exposing how men's names and naming have been used as a rhetoric of oppression, a language act which effectively renders the woman's name null.

Perhaps the most famous example of a feminist revision of a male-written legend is Helene Cixous's "Laugh of the Medusa," in which she rescues Medusa from the Freudian spell, transforming the terrifying, evil visage of the Medusa, which turns men into stone, into a beautiful, laughing mouth filled with language, woman's language. With her radical and powerful use of language, Cixous recovers Medusa; she rewrites a traditional symbol of feminine evil into a metaphor for l'ecriture feminine. The evil woman of patriarchal literature becomes a feminist heroine by embodying certain projects or assumptions of feminism.

Closer to the subject of Jezebel are numerous attempts to recover female Biblical figures. One of the most interesting works of recovery is Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror: Literary Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Trible re-reads four Old Testament narratives in which female characters (Hagar, Tamar, the Levite's concubine, Jephthah's daughter) are victims of extremely violent and oppressive patriarchal rule. These women are recovered as Messianic figures, the "suffering servants" reflected in the poem from Second Isaiah and in the passion narratives (2). By giving the victims a voice, Trible's insightful readings undercut the traditional interpretations which tend to center on the male figures in the story, for instance, readings which emphasize Jephthah's faith in keeping his promise to God by sacrificing his daughter. The recovered narratives allow us to label such traditional readings as perverse and oppressive.

Trible's readings exhibit understanding of how the female characters have functioned to uphold patriarchal images of the feminine. By breaking down the traditional constructions of the feminine in scriptural interpretation, constructions which render the feminine invisible and silent, Trible and other feminist readers open space in scriptural exegesis through which women can speak their experience.

Recovering Jezebel is a slightly different matter, however, for she is neither invisible nor silent in the Old Testament texts. Perhaps her reputation derives from this fact. The Old Testament historians had to "shut her up" in some way; they did so by making this speaking woman evil. The following exposes this particular process of silencing and gives Jezebel a voice once again.

Jezebel's Story

The legend of Jezebel derives from four stories in I and II Kings. The first is her marriage to Ahab, king of Israel from 874--853 b.c.e. Jezebel is blamed for Israel's great idolatry at this time. The Kings historian tells us that Ahab "did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him" (I Kings 16:30),(*) but the next statement places direct responsibility for Ahab's sin on his marriage to Jezebel, on her undue influence on him and the governing of Israel, especially in matters of religion.

In the second Jezebel story we find that she has killed a large number of the prophets of Yahweh, but Ahab's servant Obadiah has hidden and cared for 100 of them. Obadiah, ordered by Elijah to approach Ahab with a message, expresses fear, not of Ahab, but of Jezebel. Elijah also has no fear of Ahab; he boldly issues the challenge to Ahab to assemble the prophets of Baal and Asherah, "who eat at Jezebel's table" (I Kings 18:19) for the famous dueling gods scene on Mt. Carmel. After this scene, Elijah orders the rival prophets to be killed, but then must flee, not from Ahab--who repents in sackcloth and ashes--but from the wrath of Jezebel, who vows to kill him.

Jezebel's next act concerns her husband's desire for a vineyard belonging to a certain Naboth of Jezreel. When Naboth refuses to sell or trade the land, Ahab returns home in a pout. Jezebel comforts him and promises to get the vineyard for him. She writes letters to the elders of Jezreel in Ahab's name proclaiming a gathering for a fast, at which time two men are to accuse Naboth of blasphemy. Her orders are followed; Naboth is accused and stoned. When Jezebel receives word of Naboth's death, she sends Ahab to take possession of the vineyard, which is the proper legal action for the property of an executed blasphemer. Elijah meets Ahab at the vineyard and lays a curse on the house of Ahab, and a special curse on Jezebel: "the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the district of Jezreel'...Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord because Jezebel his wife incited him" (I Kings 21:23--25).

The Kings historian mentions only one other instance in the life of Jezebel--her death. Ahab dies in the year 853; their son Joram ascends the throne, and Jezebel is also blamed for the atrocities in his reign. When Jehu, the commander of the coup, comes to assassinate Joram, Joram asks, "Is it peace, Jehu?" Jehu's reply is quite telling: "What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?" (II Kings 9:22) Jehu kills Joram and rides to Jezreel to find Jezebel. When Jezebel hears of his coming, she "paint[s] her eyes and adorn[s] her head" and laughs and taunts Jehu from an upper window: "Is it well, Zimri, your master's murderer?" (II Kings 9:30--31). Jehu orders two eunuchs to throw her down. They do so; her blood splatters the wall and Jehu runs over her body with his chariot. When the servants go to bury her, they find only her skull, feet and hands. To Jehu, this fulfills the prophecy of Elijah, that "in the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel shall be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, 'This is Jezebel'" (II Kings 9:36b--37).

What tradition has done with these Jezebel stories is not difficult to surmise. The name is used as a device to designate a woman who leads the people astray from the "truth," usually a patriarchally-defined truth passing as transcendent truth. History provides many examples of this abuse of Jezebel's name. An early example comes from the Revelation to John, in the message to the church of Thyatira, a church which is assessed as good, except for the presence of one woman, a Jezebel:

But I have this against you, that you tolerate the

woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and

she teaches and leads My bondservants astray, so

that they commit acts of immorality and eat things

sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent: and

she does not want to repent of her immorality. Be-

hold I will cast her upon a bed of sickness and those

who commit adultery with her into great tribulation,

unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her

children with pestilence. (Rev. 2:20--23a) Significantly, this Jezebel is the only sinner named individually in the letters to the seven churches. Her sin includes three important characteristics: first, she is a woman; second, she is woman teaching and prophesying; and third; she is teaching and prophesying what is designated by the writer as "immoral."

Another standout "Jezebel" is Anne Hutchinson who was often referred to as "the American Jezebel" (see Auger, Koehler, and Reuther for detailed biographical information). The story of Anne Hutchison describes a woman who entered into a situation of an established religion and attempted to introduce her own version, a version which threatened, or was perceived by those in power to threaten, the dominant "truth" of the established religion. In its general outline, her story is like the Old Testament Jezebel and the Thyatirian Jezebel: she enters the situation as a woman and a foreigner; she teaches on religious matters; and her teachings are labeled immoral or idolatrous. The designated "prophets of God" of the dominant religious ideology denounce each one of the Jezebels: the first two suffer horrible deaths and Hutchison is tried for heresy and exiled.

Popular literature provides several examples of how the legend of Jezebel has exceeded the character in Old Testament narrative; she has become the Hebrew Cleopatra. The Old Testament and other sources say nothing about her beauty or sexual appetite--in the Old Testament, Jezebel is never anything but a loyal wife to Ahab--but legend supplies these missing pieces in great detail. Like many powerful females, her power is attributed to her beauty and ability to seduce. One such example from popular literature is a soap-opera-like 1961 novel by Frank G. Slaughter, The Curse of Jezebel: A Novel of the Biblical Queen of Evil, a book representative of how these attributions from tradition are taken to an extreme. The author, in a note at the end of the novel, claims accuracy in presenting an account of the hap-penings in Kings. But in the novel, Jezebel is portrayed as a beautiful seductress, who uses her beauty to mani-pulate even the most faithful men into following her will, including Michael, the hero of the novel and a loyal servant of Yahweh. As a high priestess of Ashtoreth, the Jezebel in this novel has access to certain potions, which are presented solely as a device to trap men. Slaughter cannot be blamed entirely for presenting Jezebel this way and claiming fidelity to the original story. He follows a time-honored tradition necessitating that female power must stem from beguiling beauty and witchcraft.

Recovering Jezebel

Patriarchy, therefore, benefits greatly by constructing Jezebel in this way, and feminism will benefit greatly by breaking down the patriarchal construction. Appropriating her name to designate an evil woman makes what she stands for, and what patriarchy greatly fears, evil--a powerful, subversive, female religious leader. Tradition is able to control women who embody some or all of Jezebel's traits, naming these women evil by association. Hence a seemingly devout woman such as Anne Hutchinson is called Jezebel and tried for heresy. Patriarchy seems to fear most four of Jezebel's traits. First, within her tradition, she is a double-other. Her femininity places her apart from the dominant patriarchal hierarchy, but her status as a foreigner doubles the effect. Not only is she not-male, she is not-Israelite, not of the chosen people. With the Jezebel story, patriarchal tradition is able to degrade both the female and the foreign, anything that enters from the outside. That Jezebel exercises any power at all within these constraints is miraculous; the source of her power and the attempts by the Kings historian to crush this source are worth examining, as it presents a potential source of power for any group or individual who must strive against an oppressive cultural norm.

This source of power is the second aspect of Jezebel feared by patriarchy. Her power is not the "legitimate" kind, but power which the tradition portrays as the use of plots and machinations to accomplish goals. These processes are worrisome to a patriarchal power structure, for they undermine the legitimized processes and allow those not in power to accomplish purposes which may be antithetical to those of the power structure. But we might emphasize that the legitimate process in the Jezebel stories fails to accomplish its own goals, and fails miserably. In feminist terms, Jezebel subverts the patriarchy, using an essentially powerless cultural position to advantage; powerless, because as queen of Israel, any legitimate power comes only through Ahab, the king. Jezebel takes Ahab's power by taking his seal, the symbol of his power, using it creatively, albeit deceptively, to accomplish what Ahab could not. It might be argued that Jezebel accomplishes the purpose of Ahab, representative of the patriarchal power structure. However, her actions and the results of those actions must be read in light of the purpose of the Kings historian, rather than Ahab's. Her purpose is antithetical to that of the historian, who wishes to communicate a certain opinion about Yahweh's justice for those who obey and those who are idolators. Hence the formulaic theme in the histories refers to kings who "walked in the way of the Lord" and those who did not. However, Jezebel's initial success in the vineyard endeavor has a certain irony against the historian's purpose, demonstrating that one of the few traditionally feminine sources of power, portrayed negatively by the patriarchal writing in order to subvert it, actually subverts the subversion by working. The writers of the Old Testament books of history are fairly consistent in applying a double standard to this source of power, portraying female manipulators such as Jezebel as evil and male deceivers somewhat less so. For example, David gets a chance to repent even though his deception of Uriah is not significantly different from Jezebel's deception of Naboth (Fuchs, 141). The difference for the historian is that David does not threaten the power structure (power buttressed by his loyalty to a patriarchal God). But Jezebel's deception symbolically undermines the patriarchy in an incredibly significant way. When Naboth denies Ahab his vineyard, he says, "The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers" (I Kings 21:3). Jezebel, however, steals Naboth's patrimony; she not only takes Naboth's life, but severs his association with a patri-lineal heritage. In this one act, Jezebel disrupts one of the foundations of patriarchal power, the inheritance from father to son.

Third, Jezebel is a religious leader, a prophetess for a female-based religion at odds with the Judeo-Christian Father-God. Jezebel, because she is a Sidonian princess, is most likely a priestess, or at least a devoted follower, of Astarte, a goddess who was often worshipped in conjunction with Baal, as the male and female counterparts of an all-powerful diety, the King and Queen of Heaven (Ackroyd, 252; Wevers, 192). Therefore, Jezebel represents a threat to a monotheistic, jealous male god, which is how the King's historian (and much of the Old Testament) portrays Yahweh. The imposition of a female deity, suggested by the presence of Jezebel as priestess, upon such a male-centered religion poses a serious problem to those who wish to suppress any sort of femininity associated with an all-powerful god, for if the feminine deity has power, it might be assumed that her counterparts on earth should share in earthly power. The historian has a vested interest in suppressing any expression of a feminine God, or of a feminine side to God. One of the purposes of the Old Testament as a whole is to promote monotheism, which many scholars agree was probably not at all a dominant concept in Israel at the time of the events discussed in the Old Testament books of history. The Kings historian must discredit Jezebel as a representative of a female deity in order to destroy any taint of femininity, or any trace of another deity on a jealous, monotheistic Father-God.

Finally, Jezebel's last act was to laugh at, to taunt the figure of Jehu, who represents the conquering, masculine hero, the anointed of Yahweh, the one who will avenge the sins of Jezebel against Israel. The insult, hurled out the window, directly questions Jehu's manhood, his ability to hold onto the power he is usurping from her family. Her words refer to a failed coup by Zimri, who was able to rule Israel for less than seven days (Olyan, 206). She laughs, not only at Jehu, but at his construction of his own self as the conquering hero for the Father-God. Jezebel taunts him as a failure, interpreting him in the insult with an alternate construction of reality which does not fit with his own self-image or with the Kings historian's construction of him as the anointed of God.

All of this leads to the ultimate question: of what use is a recovered Jezebel to feminism? She becomes a metapor from ancient legend, like Medusa, like Vivien, a metaphor which rejects its traditional symbolic significance--which, in Jezebel's case is the paradigmatic "wicked woman"--and empowers those who name themselves with her name. Specifically, the new Jezebel embodies the rhetorics of subversion and confrontation, legitimizing the efficacy of these rhetorics for feminism. When going through the proper channels does not work, feminine intelligence and creativity accomplish what a king could not. In the process, a crucial source of patriarchal power, handed down from generation to generation, is destroyed. The Jezebel metaphor also undermines patriarchal religion by providing space for a God defined by the feminine. Whether in the simple act of proclaiming the Judeo-Christian God as female and male, or participating fully in goddess worship, naming ourselves Jezebels emphasizes the break with a patriarchally constructed religion, allowing us to be the "priestesses" for our own spirituality. Finally, Jezebel serves a purpose similar to the Medusa; she laughs, and she speaks her laughter, directly confronting the male construction of himself and his denial of the other. The patriarchy, Jehu, kills Jezebel to stop this very laughter. But by reviving Jezebel, she and her twentieth century daughters will have the last laugh.

(*)Thanks to Grace Pallazo of Emory University for so astutely pointing out this fact to me during a recent electronic mail conversation.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter R. "Goddesses, Women and Jezebel." Images of Women in Antiquity. Ed. Averil Cameron and Amlie Kuhrt. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1983. 245--259.

Augur, Helen. An American Jezebel: the Life of Anne Hutchinson. New York: Bentanos, 1930.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs I (1976): 875--93. Rpt. in The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990. 1232--1245.

Fuchs, Esther. "Who is Hiding the Truth? Deceptive Women and Biblical Androcentrism." Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship. Ed. Adela Yarbro Collins. Society of Biblical Literature Centennial Publications. Kent Harold Richards, ed. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land, Vol 1. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 137--184.

Koehler, Lyle. "The Case of the American Jezebels: Anne Hutchinson and Female Agitation During the Antinomian Turmoil, 1636--1640." Feminist Studies 1 (Fall 1972): 68--75.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910--1945. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Olyan, Saul M. "2 Kings 9:31--Jehu as Zimri." Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987): 203--207.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford and Rosemary Skinner Keller. Women and Religion in America, Vol 2: The Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, A Documentary History. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Slaughter, Frank G. The Curse of Jezebel: A Novel of the Biblical Queen of Evil. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

Trible, Phyllis. "Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives." Overtures to Biblical Theology. Ed. Walter Brueggemann, John R. Donahue, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Christopher R. Seitz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.

Wevers, John William. "The First Book of Kings." The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible. Ed. Charles Laymon. Nashville: Abingdon, 1971. 181--196.
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Author:Quick, Catherine S.
Publication:Women and Language
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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