Sunday, May 20, 2007

Bible Story: Ahab and Jezebel

While working on the list of Bible stories to include in the Bible Story of the Week widget, I had a very hard time deciding on just what stories to include, since there are easily a couple of hundred Bible stories I would have gladly included. The earth would have to radically change its orbit to have enough weeks in the year to include all the stories that are my favorites from the Bible.

One of my motivations in choosing a particular story was whether or not the story had lived on in popular culture, and this week's story - Ahab and Jezebel - is a good example of that. Both of these names have gone on to become a part of our culture, even though most people would probably be hard-pressed (I would guess) to tell you the Bible story that goes with these names. Ahab, of course, has become most famous as the sea-captain in Melville's Moby Dick, while Jezebel has become a catchphrase for a no-good woman. In fact, with a lower-case j, "jezebel," she has even become a word in the dictionary, defined variously as "a woman who is regarded as evil and scheming," "an impudent woman," " a shameless impudent scheming woman," and so on.

The story of King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, is found in the book of Kings. Ahab (wikipedia) was the king of Israel. He married Jezebel (wikipedia), the princess of Phoenicia, a marriage which brought him great wealth. Jezebel, however, did not worship the God of Israel. Instead, she worshipped Baal, and incited Ahab to do the same.

When Ahab was killed in battle, Jezebel continued to exert royal power through his sons. Finally, Jehu, the son of Jehoshaphat, had Jezebel killed by being thrown out of a window (yes, you can use the word defenstration here), and her body was eaten by dogs. The catchphrase "painted Jezebel" alludes to the moment before she is tossed out of the window, when she puts on her makeup:
Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she painted her eyes, arranged her hair and looked out of a window. As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, "Have you come in peace, Zimri, you murderer of your master? He looked up at the window and called out, "Who is on my side? Who?" Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. "Throw her down!" Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot. Jehu went in and ate and drank. "Take care of that cursed woman," he said, "and bury her, for she was a king's daughter." But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, "This is the word of the Lord that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel's flesh. Jezebel's body will be like refuse on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, 'This is Jezebel.' "
Throughout Jezebel's reign in Israel, it is the prophet Elijah who is her constant nemesis, denouncing her for her worship of Baal and challenging her again and again.

My favorite story about Elijah's denuncitation of Ahab and Jezebel and the worship of Baal is the story of how Elijah challenged the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. As the story begins, Elijah has summoned King Ahab to come see him:
Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?" "I have not made trouble for Israel," Elijah replied. "But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."
Elijah, on his own, is going to challenge the 450 priests of Baal!
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing. Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only one of the LORD's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets."
Elijah's challenge to the priests of Baal is simple: they will all together prepare one bull for sacrifice, and Elijah will prepare a bull also. The god who answers their prayers by kindling the sacrificial fire will be revealed as the true god:
"Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God." Then all the people said, "What you say is good." Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire." So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Oh, the poor priests of Baal. They call upon their god, but nothing happens, and Elijah taunts them:
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. "O Baal, answer us!" they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened." So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then it was Elijah's turn:
Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come here to me." They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, "Your name shall be Israel." With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, "Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood." "Do it again," he said, and they did it again. "Do it a third time," he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench. At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again."
The fire is kindled, and the bull is consumed by the flames:
Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The Lord -he is God! The Lord -he is God!" Then Elijah commanded them, "Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!" They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.
Elijah's triumph does not make Jezebel happy. In response, she issues a death threat against Elijah and he has to flee:
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "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." Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.
So, even though Elijah had defeated the priests of Baal, Jezebel remained the Queen of Israel and she still had some more wicked deeds to do before she finally being defenestrated.

For the image today, I wanted to include this picture of Elijah and the priests of Baal from the synagogue paintings at Dura Europos. It was one of the great pleasures of my life to visit Dura Europos in Syria two years ago, and to see the synagogue paintings which are now housed in the national museum in Damascus.

Meanwhile, here is a "painted Jezebel" as imagined by the British artist John Byam Liston Shaw in 1896:

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