The “spirit of Jezebel.”

Every so often, Christian preachers will denounce what they call a “Jezebel spirit” in their churches. Some of ’em do it all the time, so they presume their churches know what they mean by that. ’Tain’t always so.

No, it’s not the ghost of Queen Jezebel bat Ethbaal of Samaria, possessing somebody and making ’em do evil stuff. Nor even is it the way Jezebel acted or behaved. Might be closer to the way Bette Davis’s strong-willed character Julie behaved in the 1938 movie Jezebel, but that’s assuming anyone’s even seen the movie, and betcha they haven’t.

It’s meant to be based on something Jesus said in Revelation. But since Jesus didn’t spell out what he meant, people guess at it, typically guess wrong, and claim all sorts of behaviors they don’t like “come from a Jezebel spirit.”

Let’s dig into biblical history, and from there we can see where all the usual popular misinterpretations come from.

Jezebel of Samaria.

Jezebel bat Ethbaal of Sidon (Hebrew אִיזֶבֶל/Iyzevél, probably meaning “exalt Baal”) first comes up in 1 Kings 16.31, when King Ahab ben Omri of Samaria married her.

Up to that point in the Deuteronomistic History, the historian (whom for convenience I’ll call “Sam”) compared every rotten king of Samaria to their first king, Jeroboam ben Nebat, who corrupted the LORD’s worship by building worship sites for him in Dan and Bethel—and by putting gold calves there. But Ahab outpaced Jeroboam by miles. Jeroboam’s sin was using idols to represent the LORD, and otherwise permitting idolatry in general. Ahab, however, was a full-on pagan. He didn’t dabble in false gods on the side; he devotedly worshiped Ašur, the Baal of the Assyrian Empire.

“Baal” means “master,” and it’s a generic title for the many Canaanite gods in the bible. Thanks to ritual sex with temple prostitutes being a big part of pagan worship, Baalism was extremely popular. Ahab promoted Ašur like crazy. More: He married a Sidonian princess who was just as much into Baalism as he. Maybe even more.

Sam took issue with Jezebel because she was really into Baal. So much so, she actively tried to eradicate the LORD’s prophets, 1Ki 18.4 who had likely denounced all the idolatry and reminded the people Israeli kings were mandated to follow the Law. Dt 17.18-20 Of course if the king didn’t even worship the God who mandated the Law, he was hardly likely to follow it.

In Israel kings were under the Law; in Jezebel’s homeland of Sidon kings were above it. This is why, when Ahab was unsuccessful in convincing his neighbor Naboth to sell him a vineyard, Jezebel had no qualms about arranging for Naboth’s death (on the grounds of blaspheming God, of all things) so Ahab could seize the vineyard. 1Ki 18.1-16 Various Christians look at Jezebel’s actions in the Naboth story and presume she overstepped her role, but really she didn’t: Jezebel told her husband she’d get him that vineyard, 1Ki 21.7 and Ahab was perfectly happy with her results. She did nothing behind his back; she did everything with his approval. She usurped nothing.

Sam’s objection wasn’t about Jezebel “not knowing her place,” but that Ahab “sold himself to do evil in the LORD’s eyes,” 1Ki 21.20 and follow Jezebel instead of the LORD. There’s nothing wrong with following your wife when she’s following God, and doing what’s good and righteous. There’s everything wrong with endorsing murder, slander, and theft. The issue isn’t usurpation, but evil. 1Ki 21.25

Hence the LORD’s prophet Elijah declared Jezebel would die, be left unburied, and get eaten by dogs. The next we see her, in 2 Kings 9, that’s just what happens. Army commander Jehu ben Jehoshaphat was ordered by a prophet to destroy King Joram ben Ahab, plus Ahab’s whole family, 2Ki 9.6-10 which he did.

Before Jehu killed Joram, he shouted, “How can there be peace when your mother Jezebel commits so much whoring and sorcery?” 2Ki 9.22 Many Christians interpret this to mean Jezebel was literally a whore and sorcerer, and teach this. For some odd reason they totally forgot “Your mom’s a whore” and “Your mom’s a witch” are two age-old insults. Translators really don’t catch this either. Even paraphrased bibles take Jehu literally. Certainly Baalism had a lot of ritual sex and ritual magic, and certainly Jezebel indulged in both. “But the queen does it” is a convenient rationalization for any Israelis who were tempted to try Baalism for themselves. She totally influenced many towards evil. But taking Jehu literally is an iffy interpretation.

Anyway. When Jehu arrived at the royal house in Jezreel, Jezebel did something which strikes many present-day readers as odd: She put on her makeup and fixed her hair. 2Ki 9.30 In American culture, women didn’t wear makeup for about three centuries; only actors and whores did. So our culture still frequently assumes this “painted Jezebel” did this so she might seduce Jehu. It’s a laughable interpretation: It doesn’t fit at all with her words, ’cause as Jehu entered the grounds, she taunted him and called him a murderer. 2Ki 9.31 What’s more likely is she knew she was gonna die, and hoped to go to her death looking decent.

Which just wasn’t gonna happen. Jehu had two eunuchs throw her out of the window, then ran over her with his chariot horses. 2Ki 9.32-33 When he finally bothered to have her buried, he found the dogs had got to her first, 2Ki 9.34-37 just as Elijah had said.

Jezebel of Thyatira.

When Jesus appeared to John and had him write Revelation, his message to his church of Thyatira was largely this.

Revelation 2.20-25 KWL
20 “But I have against you that you forgive the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet.
She teaches, and leads my slaves astray into porn and eating idol-offerings.
21 I gave her time to repent, and she didn’t want to repent of her porn.
22 Look, I throw her, and the adulterers with her, into bed and great suffering,
lest they repent of her works. 23 I’ll put her children to death.
Everyone in the churches will know I’m the one who examines minds and hearts,
and I give to each person according to your works.
24 I tell the rest of you Thyatirans, whoever doesn’t have this teaching,
whoever doesn’t know ‘Satan’s deep things,’ as they’re called,
I don’t put any other burdens on you.
25 Only cling to what you already have till I come.”

Revelation is an apocalypse, a prophecy where, like parables, the images and words in it represent other things. This woman wasn’t literally named Jezebel. Jesus picked the name because this fake prophet in Thyatira, just like Jezebel of Samaria, was a total devotee to the immoral idols of her homeland instead of the LORD.

Jezebel of Thyatira was enabling idolatry in Jesus’s church, just like Jezebel of Israel had enabled idolatry in ancient Israel. This is only speculation, but I would guess she was teaching ’em God’s grace made it okay for them to dabble in idolatry. Ancient Roman paganism wasn’t a whole lot different from Baalism, particularly in the ritual sex and ritual magic. So it was having the same effects: The Christians were becoming immoral and evil. And just as the LORD sent Elijah to Jezebel and Ahab to get ’em to repent, Jesus gave this woman plenty of time to repent too. But now it was time for consequences. Sounds like illness; probably sexually transmitted diseases, or at least food poisoning.

That’s the real issue: False teaching. Idolatry. Heresy. Christians who think it’s okay to be Christian, but dabble in other religions and spiritualities. We got a number of not-all-that-devout Christians who don’t really care to go much deeper into Christianity, but are sorta curious about what Hinduism or Buddhism or Wicca or Spiritualism teaches, and wonder if they can’t mix a few of those beliefs into the pile.

But we can’t be Christian and dabble in other religions. You can’t be a Christian Wiccan, or a Christian Hindu, or a Christian Spiritualist. You can try to be a Jewish Christian, thanks to the huge amount of overlap; but as both Jews and Christians recognize, your ultimate affiliation is with Christ Jesus. Exactly as Jesus taught about money, we can’t serve two masters. Mt 6.24 One’s gonna win out. When Buddhism and Christianity don’t overlap, a “Buddhist Christian” is gonna follow either the Buddha or the Christ—and if they go back and forth between their two gurus, they’re really following neither; they’re doing as they please.

So Jezebelism is really about that. But of course, Christians popularly presume it’s either about usurpation or loose women.

Usurpation.

Usurpation means seizing control that’s not rightfully yours. This is a valid problem in our churches. But sometimes it’s not. Valid instances would be churches with

  • A self-anointed prophet who wants everyone to recognize their authority as God’s mouthpiece.
  • A group of “concerned members” who think their numbers gives ’em the right to circulate petitions, overthrow leaders, overrule their pastors, or otherwise wield power.
  • People who use financial manipulation to get their way: “I tithe a lot of money to this church, and if I don’t see ‘proper changes’ I think I’ll have to donate it elsewhere.”
  • Those who sue to get their way.
  • Teachers who will hear no correction or rebuke from anyone, ’cause they’re the teacher and they’re right.
  • The pastor’s spouse, siblings, or kids, who think the pastor’s authority automatically applies to them too—despite their lack of ability, maturity, or anointing.

Invalid instances would be cults. Or any church where the leadership is micromanagerial or tighly controlled. Where you might be put in charge of something, and given a title, but you don’t actually get to make real decisions; you’re like a high school student body president who hasn’t yet realized the principal and faculty really runs things.

Fact is, in every church God gave supernatural gifts to most of the people in it, if not all. Meaning most of the people in a church should be able to lead in some capacity. New believers should be given very little leadership authority, ’cause they still need to develop character (i.e. be fruity). Whereas mature believers should be given as much authority as possible, ’cause they know what they’re doing and can support the pastors. Pastors can identify who is whom; responsibilities can be delegated appropriately; the church can work together in harmony. And everyone recognizes their true place: Under Jesus.

The unhealthy church puts all that responsibility on only the pastor’s shoulders, or only on a tight group of elders. Not so much Jesus’s. And these folks jealously guard their power, and fight off anyone who tries to take it. It doesn’t look at all like God’s kingdom, where the greatest is everyone’s servant; it looks like a city council, or a dictatorship, Mk 10.42-44) or Ahab’s kingdom—where the worry about a person like Jezebel would be far more valid.

In a church where everyone recognizes all authority is submtted to Jesus, anyone who tries to grab some immediately stands out, like a tree in a wheat field. That’s how we fight usurpers: Surrender. Not to them, but to God. When it’s all given to him, there’s none left for them, and you starve ’em out.

But again: Jezebel of Thyatira’s problem wasn’t usurpation. She didn’t take over Thyatira’s church. Instead they tolerated her. They forgave her. They kept letting her lead people astray. The problem is false teaching, not bad leaders.

Sexuality and sexism.

Lastly, “Jezebel” is too often misinterpreted to mean a seductress. Christians zoom in on the sex parts of Jesus’s warning, and figure there’s the entire problem right there: We got a seductress in the church who’s leading the men into adultery, whoring, and other vices. We got a girl who’s too promiscuous, and having her around is giving people the idea promiscuity is okay. Or we got a girl who people assume is promiscuous because they’d like to sleep with her: She’s really attractive, or she wears too much makeup and too few clothes, or—intentionally or not—she distracts the preacher with her boobs when he’s trying to think holy thoughts. (Or in Paul’s case, distracts him with her hair.) Get those women out of there, or at least put a burka on ’em.

This might be a valid problem… but usually the real issue is men who lack self-control. Or men who are too promiscuous, and likewise having them around is giving people the idea promiscuity is okay… for men, anyway.

But even when we understand Jesus correctly, “Jezebel” is only used to refer to women. How often are men called “Jezebels,” or get accused of having a Jezebel spirit? (Or even “an Ahab spirit”?) Frankly they don’t. Even when they actually are being like Jezebel of Thyatira. I’ve seen many a male false teacher or false prophet try to sway a church in the wrong direction, and nobody even thought to call them Jezebels.

Sexuality, or threats to power, tend to produce an emotional reaction in people. Particularly people who covet power or sex. It’s because of these gut-level responses that people are slow to recognize they’re using the term “Jezebel” wrong… or to stop using it wrong even when they know what it properly means. So don’t be too surprised to see the misinterpretation perpetuate itself.