What’s in a Name? Jezebel

When Jehu was on his way back to Jezreel, Jezebel was informed. She made up her eyes with mascara, adorned her head and then appeared at the window. As Jehu came through the gateway she said, ‘How did Zimri get on after killing his master?’ Jehu looked up to the window and said, ‘who is on my side? Who?’ And two or three officials looked down at him. ‘Throw her down’, he said. They threw her down and her blood spattered the walls and the horses; and Jehu rode over her. He went in and ate and drank, then said, ‘See to this accursed woman, and give her burial; after all, she was a king’s daughter.’

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But when they went to bury her, they found nothing but her skull, feet and hands. They came back and told Jehu, who said, ‘This is the word of Yahweh which he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite, “The dogs will eat the flesh of Jezebel in the field of Jezreel; the corpse of Jezebel will be like dung spread on the fields, so that no one will be able to say: This was Jezebel.” [II Kings 9:30-37]

One of the many blood-curdling episodes from the Old Testament! Jezebel was the daughter of the Phoenician king Ithobaal. She married Ahab, king of Israel, and because she was a Baal worshiping foreigner she was seen as an abomination in the eyes of the later biblical redactor.

The original, contemporary name of this foreign queen of Israel is attested on a ninth century scarab as Yzebel which means ‘[Baal] is prince’ (where the name of the god has been dropped in the hypocoristic form of the person’s name – a common practice in the ancient Near East). Thus we have the following Hebrew letters making up the original name of Jezebel (I have reversed the sequence of the letters here to facilitate the English writing so as to make the process easier to follow).

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When the redactor writes the name Jezebel he pours scorn on the Phoenician harlot by taking a Hebrew word which sounds almost identical – but which means something wholly different and very insulting. He calls her Ayzebel which means ‘where is the excrement?’. Given her sorry end, the connection between this name and the last sentence in II Kings 37 becomes readily apparent: ‘the corpse of Jezebel will be like dung spread on the fields, so that no one will be able to say: This was Jezebel.’

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