In the Bible, there exist only two types of women: good and evil. There is a common thread running through this well-praised book: the pure, "good" women are always passive and acquiescent, and the wicked, "bad" women are always strong active characters. This is no strange coincidence; written by primarily male authors, the Bible is a patriarchal book of morals that praises the silent females but wields a sharp tongue at the outspoken ones. These active women are thus portrayed as evil in order to provide examples of God's lack of tolerance for sinners, or are often eliminated completely. As a result, one is left with a fragmented picture of women in biblical times.
Women in the Bible are often chastised and portrayed as evil for aspiring to achieve knowledge and power in a patriarchal society. In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot takes his wife and daughters to escape the ruin of these two evil cities. One of the (male) angels instructs the family to "Flee for your lives! Don't look back!" (Gen. 19:17). Lot's wife, curious and desirous of knowledge like Eve, decides to turn back and take a look at this miraculous destruction. As a result, she is turned into a pillar of salt, her punishment for not remaining passive and obeying men's orders.
Another prime example of a woman breaking out of the traditional silent role ordained her by patriarchy is Delilah. Most often heard of in conjunction with Samson, the stories of this man portray him as a pure, faultless man, a victim of women's wiles. At closer look, Samson's true personality can be seen: he is a power-hungry loner who cannot control his own anger. He is proud and destructive, and can't stand it when someone bests him in anything. At his wedding, he bets 30 garments that no one can guess his riddle. The bride's (male) family are unable to do so, so they threaten Samson's wife to get the answer. She runs to Samson and pleads for the explanation, crying and accusing him of not loving her. He finally relents and tells her, and she gives the answer to her people. When the men guess correctly, Samson flies into a rage, stomps to their hometown, "[strikes] down thirty of their men, strip[s] them of their belongings and [gives] their clothes to those who had explained the riddle" (Judges 14:19). A few months later he returns to claim his wife, only to find she has been given to another. Angry that someone else has _his_ possession, Samson sets fire to their crops and kills all the townspeople. Obviously this is a man with little control of his emotions, and his need for dominance clouds his thinking. "Samson [shows] no ability to build coalitions and share power" (Berquist 95), yet he is the one portrayed as innocent and good.
Samson falls in love again, this time with a woman who is equally as powerful -- —Delilah. "Delilah and Samson [are] perfect match" (Berquist 95). Even as Samson had been tricked before into giving secrets to his lover, he is not bright enough to avoid this again. Philistine elders offer Delilah an exorbitant amount of money to find the source of Samson's great strength. Seeing an opportunity to gain power through fortune, she accepts. After much joking, Samson finally reveals his secret: his long hair. Delilah relays this to the elders, who overpower and capture Samson. His end comes as a final display of power; he prays to God to "strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge" (Judges 16:28) and tear down the temple holding most of the city. He dies in the wreckage.
This classic tale of a struggle for power clearly depicts the double-standard for women. Samson, who is known for his great strength, has been "blessed" and is admired by all, yet Delilah, who uses her knowledge to gain power as a woman, is reduced to a betrayer. Nevertheless, it is her that wins. "Her power over Samson was strong, even stronger than this judge's legendary strength. She overpowers him" (Berquist 95).
The most evil female in the Bible, though, is by far Jezebel. She is "the woman who was a she-devil" (Lockyer 73), her name synonymous for wickedness. Although her actions are, reanalyzed, not that much different from sins committed by other biblical men, she challenges the deep-set patriarchal values of Hebrew society of that time.
With reevaluation of the famous stories of history's most evil female, one can discover the meanings behind Jezebel's image, created by a patriarchal society. While usually women figures in the Bible and other earlier writings (of which the majority of authors are male) have little or no voice, Jezebel is a character who cannot be silenced. She is quite visible, and her powerful actions cannot be denied. Thus, in order to continue to uphold patriarchal views of women, male historians portrayed her as pure wickedness.
When Jezebel is first introduced in the Bible, she is immediately at fault. Her husband, King Ahab, has been accused of "[doing] evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him" (I Kings 16:30), but, writers say, he is not to blame. It is his wicked wife Jezebel's influence, "inciting" him to do evil.
In the second story, Jezebel, who doesn't worship the Judeo-Christian God, has slain many prophets. Elijah retaliates and kills 450 of Baal's prophets. As Jezebel vows revenge on Elijah's life, he flees from her wrath.
In another passage, Jezebel's husband covets a neighbor's vineyard, but the man refuses to give it up, as it was the inheritance of his fathers. When Ahab returns home, flops down on the bed and refuses to eat, Jezebel orders a pouty Ahab to be strong and vows to get it for him. Through deceptive means, she gets Naboth stoned, and so Ahab then takes possession of the vineyard. An angry Elijah curses Ahab and Jezebel.
In the final story, the city is being taken over by a coup; the commander Jehu slays Jezebel's son (citing the whoredom and witchcraft of Jezebel as his reason) and rides off in search of Jezebel. Jezebel paints her face and adorns her hair, and when Jehu calls up to her, she taunts him and calls him Zimri. She is thrown down and killed, fulfilling Elijah's prophecy that her body will be so mutilated "so they cannot say, 'This is Jezebel'" (II Kings 9:37).
Catherine Quick, in "Jezebel's Last Laugh: The Rhetoric of Wicked Women," shows the male-dominated society in which Jezebel lived. She examines exactly what Jezebel's "sins" are: first, she is a woman; second, she is a non-Israelite. Already her gender and her ethnicity condemn her, without looking at who she really is.
Another aspect of Jezebel's wickedness is her ability to seize control where others fail. She takes Ahab's power from him, subverting patriarchy. She also takes Naboth's vineyard, and in this one act commits two "sins" -- —she takes his life, thus his power and his symbol of patri-lineal inheritance. "Jezebel disrupts one of the foundations of patriarchal power, the inheritance from father to son" (Quick 47). Naboth's line is severed, and this is deemed so wicked that Elijah lays a curse on their household. During the confrontation between Jehu and Jezebel, she tauntingly calls him Zimri. By referring to a coup leader who ruled for only seven days, she questions his manhood and his power. "She laughs, and she speaks her laughter, directly confronting the male construction of himself and his denial of the other" (Quick 48). Elijah's prophecy, too, attempts to eradicate her identity by making her corpse unrecognizable.
Jezebel's final "sin" is that of challenging the first commandment. She is a priestess of Astarte, a goddess in conjunction with Baal. Astarte, or Asherah, was a powerful deity whose practices of homage involve both homosexual and heterosexual celebrations atop holy mountains. This encourages good crops and pleasures the worshippers. In the Judaic belief, though, religion means being completely subservient and powerless, at the grace of a mighty god. Hebrews "did not associate worship with erotic ecstasy... Yahweh was garbed with stern commandments... Moral discipline was required, and exploitative uses of sexuality were curbed" (Phipps 72). The religion of Asherah encouraged people to enjoy themselves and take control of their own sexuality. As a result, this goddess is commonly represented in art and literature as a whore riding a lion nude. Reduced to her sexuality, the Bible does the same to Jezebel. "Due to the nature of Jezebel's gods, the Israelites also associate their queen with 'many whoredoms and sorceries'" (Phipps 72). Asherah also has a fierce personality, and stories show her with a fury unmatched by anyone in combat; her power is evident, and she takes pleasure in the bloodshed of her enemies. Jezebel "imitates the ferocious nature of the goddess she worships" (Phipps 71). She questions the idea of one male god, and kills Judeo-Christian prophets. By worshipping a female deity, Jezebel threatens the monotheistic patriarchal-established religion. Historians must then suppress her -- —"if the feminine deity has power, it might be assumed that her counterparts on earth should share in earthly power" (Quick 47). Like calling ancient goddesses "fertility goddesses," male authors give female deities no power except that of birthing, which women have already and which cannot be taken away. Fear of rising female power causes patriarchal assumptions in history, often to the point of editing for male interests to maintain that authority.
The name of Jezebel has been used to describe someone who is evil or who encourages someone to wickedness. Through time, this has distorted to define someone who is adulterous and seductive, —a manipulator of men, often by means of witchcraft. Jezebel has "threaten[ed] the patriarchal construction of the feminine, and thus the construction of the masculine" (44). If she can't be silenced, then, she will become undesirable. By portraying powerful women as evil, this ensures that women don't gain any control over the preservation of patriarchy. Jezebel is an assertive strong woman, and historians, feeling threatened, make her the symbol of ultimate wickedness. "Appropriating her name to designate an evil women makes what she stands for, and what patriarchy greatly fears, evil - a powerful, subversive, female religious leader" (46).
The strong nature of these women can be seen by rereading their stories. With Delilah, one perceives a woman who aspires for more than the traditional passive role and makes up her mind to achieve just this. With Jezebel, one discerns a powerful woman who challenges monotheism, the Judaic God, and patriarchy. "As we read between the lines we cannot fail to see her as a woman of prodigious force of intellect and will" (Lockyer 74).
Although the Bible's narratives are, for the most part, male-based, occasionally one can see the representations of women as they actively portray secondary characters. While the male authors illustrate some women to be role models, such as Deborah and Esther, other times the women are so powerful they must be viewed in a negative light, and condemned with wickedness. Thus, a strong woman such as Delilah or Jezebel is "frequently charged instead with being a demon or a witch exerting some evil supernatural force" (Stableford 15). Being such an influential book, these values have carried into present-day society, and only by challenging the conventional submissive roles can women become truly free.