A Warning Against Our Human Nature

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ICON SET-09There are famous people in the Bible and then there’s Jezebel. Hers is a name that transcends Christianity and it wouldn’t surprise me if many people didn’t know a) who she was beyond her being a wicked woman; and b) that she’s from a Biblical story. The name Jezebel conjures up a very specific meaning; to be “a Jezebel” is to be an evil, amoral woman. In some modern contexts, it’s synonymous with a woman who is calculating, adulterous and promiscuous. There’s no positive connotation, no redemptive arch, she’s wicked through and through.

Jezebel’s story goes from zero to insane the moment she marries King Ahab. As soon as they wed, she insisted Ahab not only convert to serving the god she served, Baal, but he should also build Baal both an altar and a temple. So he did what she told him to do. Then, having been given what she asked for in such a timely manner, she took it one step further and told Ahab her religion should be the national religion of Israel. So again, he did what she said. To support this, she organized guilds of prophets—450 of Baal and 400 of Asherah—who were then housed and funded by the palace. Then, she set herself to executing anyone who was deemed a prophet of the Lord. It was the Baal-em Witch Trials and God-fearing people were being put to death left and right. That’s the bloody preamble to her story and it only escalates from there.

My quest to understand her motivation was a fairly short one. “Baal is good. Yahweh is bad. Kill everyone who teaches about Yahweh.” (Yahweh was a name for the God of Moses and those who followed Yahweh were called Yahwists.) Because Jezzy had it out for the prophetic community, a dude named Obadiah took it upon himself to hide a hundred prophets in a series of caves to spare them from her wrath. It was a Miep Gies hiding Anne Frank sort of situation, which is dangerous and heroic in and of itself, but it’s even more so when you realize Obadiah was the overseer of King Ahab’s house; an insider as far up the chain as someone could be in the palatial social structure. That meant by rescuing, hiding and tending to the needs of a hundred prophets who Jezebel was actively targeting to murder, he was putting his neck on the line both literally and figuratively. That’s a big deal.

When he wasn’t breaking every law in the kingdom to keep his troop of prophets alive, he continued his day job at the palace. One day, this involved accompanying the king on a scouting mission in the valley. A drought had descended on their part of the world and Ahab wanted to find a place for his livestock to eat until the rains came back, so he and Obadiah split up and though Obadiah went searching for a good stable location (horse stable pun!), what he found was Elijah.

Among the prophets in hiding, Elijah was the ringleader. He was known far and wide, the TD Jakes of his day, and as such, Jezzy wanted him dead the most. Upon greeting Obadiah, Eli told him he’d like an audience with the king. You can imagine Obadiah’s surprise. “Perhaps you’re unclear about what’s going on. You and your prophet friends are dead men walking and you want me to just deliver you to her?” This didn’t faze Elijah though and he, in his best Tamela Mann voice, sang, “take me to the king.”

Obadiah spirals a bit, asking God, “What did I do to you? I thought I was doing you a solid by keeping these folks safe. Now Ahab and Cruella are going to find out I ran into Elijah, didn’t immediately bring him in to be executed, and I’m going to wind up dead.”

But Elijah was insistent he meet with the king so Obadiah gave it to him straight. “If I tell Ahab you’re here and he comes looking for you, which he will do, and you aren’t here when he arrives, I’m a dead man. I’ve been pro-God since I was a kid and now I’ve put my life on the line to hide your friends so they won’t be burned alive or impaled. Do you see the risk in my doing what you ask?”

Elijah assured him he wasn’t going to bolt and that he’d be there when the king arrived. Obadiah, after what I assume was the longest, most anxiety-stricken walk of his life, begrudgingly told Ahab who he ran into, after which Ahab immediately went to meet Elijah. He greeted him as the “troubler of Israel,” [1 Kings 18:17] which was ironic in that it was his wife who was having the Yahwists killed and forcing people into hiding. Cool story Hansel. “Okay no,” Eli responded, “the buck stops with you but fine, let’s end this. Tell everyone to meet me on Mount Carmel, bring the prophets your wife is housing and let’s have this out once and for all.”

Mount Carmel was one of my favorite biblical locations as a kid. I imagined it looked like something out of Candyland; a place Princess Lolly, Lord Licorice and Gloppy would feel at home. One of my junior high Sunday School teachers made a “joke” about it not being a mountain made of caramel and while I knew that was true, I low-key hated him for ruining the vision of Mount Carmel for me.

The Mount Carmel part of the story tends to be told separately from Jezebel’s; a common Sunday School illustration about the power of God over false idols. Baal serves as the stand-in for Satan in many of the Old Testament stories and among the Baal-centric stories, this one has the most special effects.

The story goes that two altars were built on Mount Carmel, one for Baal and one for God, and on each altar, a bull was to be sacrificed. Elijah’s statement was simple: If God answers me, follow my God. If Baal shows up and answers these bozos, follow Baal. How would they know who answered? They (Elijah on one side and the hundreds of prophets of Baal on the other) would each pray literal fire down from heaven. The sacrifice that actually caught fire would be the indisputable winner.

The terms were agreed upon and Elijah told the prophets of Baal they could go first—“Numbers before beauty”—and off they went, praying to the point of shouting from morning until noon. Nothing happened. So they kicked into overdrive, dancing around the altar in the hope of getting Baal’s attention. Again, nothing happened.

Elijah saw an opportunity to dick around with them so he began to egg them on. “Pray louder! He can’t hear you! Maybe Baal is traveling or taking a nap.” [1 Kings 18:27] So Baal’s gullible, government-funded, prophets started praying louder and this time, they cut themselves with their swords and spears to show their devotion to their absentee god. The Bible includes an interesting sentence here that reads, “which was the way they worshiped.” So, not only was having a room full of hundreds of men cutting themselves acceptable to Jezebel but she condoned this behavior to the point of bankrolling it. Good to know. Context matters. The prophets of Baal did this all afternoon—slashing and bleeding and cutting and cursing—and, as I’m sure you’ve put together by now, nothing happened.

Bored after hours of nothing, Eli told the bystanders to pay attention. First, he rebuilt the second altar that had been torn down by the dancing cutters. Then, he had so much water poured over the wood and dead bull, the overflow filled a moat he’d dug around the altar. He left nothing to chance. There was no way anyone could claim he tricked them or that the fire came from anywhere except Heaven.

Then, he prayed.

Prove you’re the God I’ve said you are.

Fire rocketed down from heaven, incinerating the bull sacrifice, the wet wood, and the water-filled moat. We’re talking Game of Thrones dragon-level fire here. Seeing this, the bystanders fell to their knees and proclaimed Elijah’s God was, in fact, God. It doesn’t necessarily say this in the text but I imagine Eli did a “told you so” dance of vindication. But that wasn’t all he did. Elijah commanded the newly converted Yahwists to capture the prophets of Baal and lead them down into the valley where he then killed them. Subtlety was not among Eli’s spiritual gifts.

Which brings us back to the Notorious J. Z. Bel. With her multitude of Baal-worshiping cutters executed, she was sublimely pissed. I imagine she looked like Anger from Inside Out with an erupting volcano top for a head or Regina George when she realizes the Kälteen bars made her gain weight—lots of screaming and flipping tables throughout the palace. She declared Elijah was now “Public Enemy Number One” and vowed he’d be dead within 24 hours. Even after calling literal fire down from Heaven, Eli knew enough to quit while he was ahead so he took off.

Jezebel didn’t succeed in killing Eli that day—his story continued elsewhere and hers continued at the palace—but it didn’t take too long before he was back to cause her another headache.

This happened when a dude named Naboth—which reads to me like Joe Namath so I’m just going to call him Joe for the duration—owned a vineyard near the palace. Ahab had been eyeing Joe’s vineyard for a while because he wanted to expand his gardens and how better to do that than to just cannibalize someone else’s pre-weeded rows of carrots? Ahab offered to either pay Joe a bunch of money or to give him an even better vineyard in exchange for the one next to the palace but Joe wasn’t interested. The land on which the vineyard sat was his ancestors’ and he had no desire to part with it. Ahab understood but when Jezebel saw the disappointment on her husband’s face, she sprang into action. She arranged for the elders to drum up a sack full of lies about Joe, and as such, they claimed he’d been blasphemous and therefore should be stoned to death. Bye bye Joe. So Ahab took the vineyard because after Joe’s stoning, it had no overseer, but upon hearing he’d done so, Elijah showed up to reprimand both him and Jezebel.

More than just an ethical tongue lashing, he delivered a prophecy in three parts. The first was that Ahab would die. The second was that his royal line would die as well. The third was that Jezebel would be eaten by dogs. Woof.

Elijah may have lacked subtlety but he more than made up for it in moxie. He could’ve been killed just for standing there but instead, he stood up for what he knew was right. I feel like this is why Ahab realized he’d been in the wrong. Lots of wrongs. Yes, his wife influenced him, but he was equally culpable and his actions brought great pain and death to many. He had an a-ha moment of clarity and in that, he felt genuine remorse. He course-corrects somewhat (but eventually reverts back to being the worst) and three years go by where all of the concerned parties weren’t actually all that concerned about anything. Nothing happened to any of them.

But after those three years of peace, Ahab was shot during battle, an arrow hitting him between the pieces of his armor. He bled out over the course of the day and by the evening, he was gone. This fulfilled the “Ahab will die” part of Elijah’s prophesy. Now, you could chalk this up to circumstance in that everyone is eventually going to die so no matter what, Elijah would come out on top with this one. But then, one of Ahab’s sons died in an accident and the other was murdered by the commander of his own army so that effectively accomplished the “his royal line would be obliterated” part of the prophecy. Elijah was two for three and that left only the third prong of the prophecy: Jezebel.

Jehu, the commander who killed Ahab’s second son, returned to the palace to finish off the rest of the family and having anticipated he would, Jezebel put on her makeup and did her hair before gazing out of her window. If this isn’t a Game of Thrones-style tactic in getting the last word, I don’t know what is. She knew the end was near and if she had to take her final bow, she would do so looking super-hot.

From the window she asked if he’d come in peace, “you murderer of your master?” [2 Kings 9:34] A cornered dog knows only how to bite so of course she was going to get in one last dig. She had a point, he did kill his superior, but her history of underwriting the deaths of countless people didn’t provide her with much of a leg to stand on. Jehu shouted out to anyone within earshot, “Who is on my side?” and some eunuchs popped their heads out of their windows to see him. I imagine this playing out a like the little town in Beauty and the Beast waking up to say bonjour. Jehu didn’t say good morning though, he commanded the eunuchs throw Jezebel out the window instead, which they did.

It stands to be mentioned that most eunuchs weren’t that way by choice. Their sexual dismemberment and subsequent servitude made them the lowest minority class; beings viewed as subhuman. For a eunuch to be given a moment of power (however short it may have been) to do away with the representation of evil which had enslaved and disassembled their status as a person, that’s a big plot point. It often goes unnoticed but there’s a dynamic transference of power there. Truly, in all of Jezebel’s story, this moment most clearly and literally symbolizes the redemptive power of the “least of these” over evil.

After being launched out the window by the eunuchs, the Bible says Jezebel landed so grotesquely, her blood splattered on the wall and that horses trampled her body. Bye girl. Jehu told the palace staff to bury her since she was a king’s daughter and out of duty, she should have a burial, but when they went to fetch her body, all that was left were her skull, feet, and hands. The rest of her had been picked clean by dogs. So Jezebel did have the violent death as was prophesied, she was eaten by the dogs (dogs were super gross back then), and Elijah wound up three for three in the prophecy department.

Jezebel got the villain’s demise audiences wait for at the end of the movie. It’s the vanquishing of evil that feels entirely satisfying, as if the world has leveled out once more. There’s not as much of that in films anymore. It used to be standard practice for action films, there was the hero and there was his foil who was completely saturated with evil, but today, that isn’t as frequently the case. Many of today’s pop culture villains are crafted to be somewhat likeable; to be relatable so we, the audience, feel the tension within their decisions and actions. They make a bunch of really wrong choices and do despicable things but we still gravitate toward them because sometimes, when the stakes are really huge, they might do the right thing. We relate to them as humans. But that’s not Jezebel at all. Jezebel is just plain evil, like Voldemort or Maleficent. Characters like that—the pure evil ones—don’t only serve as the antagonistic foil of a story’s hero, they serve as a reality check about the human condition.

ICON SET-09Maya Angelou said, “I am capable of what every other human is capable of. This is one of the great lessons of war and life.” That means we as human people sharing this planet at this point in time are each capable of what every other human on Earth is capable; both the good and the bad, the helpful and the harmful, the humane and the heartless. She’s saying that Hitler and I aren’t so different and that you and Bin Laden aren’t that foreign either.

But I would never do the things they did!

I’d hope not but our capacities are the same. Look at the news today. White supremacists marching, teenagers shooting their classmates, titans of industry raping women, crooked politicians being paid off by lobbyists to keep military grade guns on the streets, children being held in cages like animals or bring human trafficked into sexual slavery—and that’s just in America. We are all capable of what every other human is capable of. Jezebel’s story isn’t simply a trope of a wicked woman, it’s a warning. And this warning isn’t specific to women because Jezebel’s skin suit was that of a woman. There are plenty of men in the Bible who did heinous things and were unrepentant for them.

As a matter of fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve mined the story of a wicked person in the Bible in an attempt to understand them. As a freshman in high school, I wrote a script for a Christmas-themed monologue in which I did this very thing and when I presented it to my director, she encouraged me to perform it as a part of our set in the church Christmas production.

The monologue was about King Herod, the king whose fury over the potential birth of Jesus sent him into such a fit he ordered the firstborn son of everyone in the country murdered. [Matthew 2:16] He was a man who was so small, he’d rather carry out mass infanticide than possibly give up his power. Being a card-carrying church kid from the day I was born, I’d presented the Christmas story from every conceivable angle so I decided to try something new and tell the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of the man who tried to have him murdered. In my research, I learned Herod died a horrible death, something biblically attributed to him trying to kill God, so I figured the best way to tell his story was to portray him looking back on his life from hell. Sounds like everything you’re looking for from a suburban Pentecostal church Christmas production doesn’t it?

To paraphrase: The wise men told Herod that the King of the Jews had been born. He got a Napoleon complex about it and decided to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. Josephus wrote that years later, at the end of his life, Herod’s death was long and excruciating—something I used to inform my character choices. The somber tone of the monologue spoke about the importance of not turning your back on God and how I, King Herod, had not heeded that warning. As a result, I was currently being eaten by worms.

To recap my paraphrase: I performed a Christmas monologue from the perspective of the king who massacred an entire generation of baby boys and who was now in hell while his earthly body was being digested by maggots. I even used the word maggots in the monologue.

No one told me this was a bad idea; no one said I should reword it or perhaps consider a maggot-less perspective for an evening meant for celebrating all things joyful and triumphant. No one said a thing. So on cue, I walked on stage dressed as King Herod and talked to the congregation about rotting in hell.

When my monologue ended, there was a smattering of applause but it was evident I’d bombed. To make matters worse, the spotlight didn’t go out like it was supposed to, leaving me silent and frozen on stage. I stood in a hell of my own at that point, waiting for the blackout which never came. After what felt like an eternity, I scurried off the stage in the light. Still, I was young and naive enough to think maybe I’d just doled out a heady truth bomb about the complexities of our faith. Maybe I’d been so profound about our need for a Savior that the room was stunned into silence. Yeah. Maybe that was it.

The following morning, I was upstairs in Children’s Church where I spent all of my Sunday mornings bringing puppets to life and making the kids laugh. Our children’s pastor encouraged them to attend the Christmas production that evening, he talked about the flying angel and the youth choir, and then said, “And Ryan…he did a little skit…” I smiled but inside, I officially knew I’d missed the mark. That evening before the production started, I was informed they were cutting the monologue to “save time.” A true Christmas miracle.

The point isn’t that I was a foolish kid who tried too hard. Toward the end of the monologue, I admonished the congregation to heed Herod’s warning. You don’t have to end up like me. You don’t have to let the darkness snuff out the light. That’s the point I tried to make and though my adolescent delivery may have been a colossal failure, the point is still as true for Herod as it is for Jezebel. No, it’s not fair that Jezebel’s name has become synonymous with evil whereas Herod or Haman have not, but the end result is the same: Evil begets destruction.

But that’s not all this story tells us. Through Eli and Obadiah, it’s telling us to stand up for what’s right and what’s just. Even if the odds against us are great, stand firm. Through the eunuchs, it’s telling us that no matter how the world or those in power have damaged or degraded us, there’s hope. There’s redemption for “the least of these.” It also tells us that anyone—outsiders or otherwise—have an important place at the table. Through Ahab, it’s telling us we can change; we can turn things around. That doesn’t mean absence of consequence but we can do it. And through Jezebel, it’s a warning. Guard your heart because if you let the darkness in, it will consume and destroy you.

Jezebel’s story can be found in the books of 1 and 2 Kings.

So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here. 

Illustrations by freepik.com