Behind every great man there’s a great woman. Or so it’s been said. In the case of King Ahab, the saying acquires a few nuances. Jezebel didn’t just support Ahab: She steered him for her own purposes. And this duo’s legacy would be anything but great.
Using literary devices, the biblical writers demonstrate these points in the story of Ahab, Jezebel and a godly man with a vineyard.
Ahab and Jezebel enter the biblical story in 1 Kings 16. Up to this point, the worst that could be said of an Israelite king was that he followed in the sins of Jeroboam. Ahab, however, was worse than all before him (16:30). His crowning offense: marrying Jezebel, a Sidonian princess, and then building a temple for Baal in Israel’s capital, Samaria (16:31–32). While the Israelites had long been worshiping Baal, Ahab gave them a state-sanctioned place to do it.
Jezebel came from the coastal city Sidon (16:31), a place from which nothing good ever came in the view of the Old Testament writers. Sidon posed a threat to the newly settled Israelites (Josh 13:2–6; compare Judg 1:31; 3:1–3), who eventually capitulated to serving the “gods of Sidon” (Judg 10:6). Also, early in the time of the monarchy, Sidonian women had corrupted Solomon and introduced Judah to Ashtoreth worship (1 Kgs 11:1–6). By the time Jezebel arrives on the scene, we know to expect trouble.
When Jezebel relocated to Israel, she was joined by 450 prophets of Baal and another 400 prophets of Asherah, whom she fed at her own table (18:19). In an unexplained act of terror, she killed all the prophets of Yahweh that she could find (18:4). Then, after Baal’s defeat on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18), her threat to hunt down Elijah sent Yahweh’s prophet into his own dark night of the soul (1 Kgs 19). But she doesn’t commit her most detestable act until she sets her sights on Naboth’s vineyard as a desirable location for Ahab’s vegetable garden (1 Kgs 21).
Naboth the Jezreelite has the misfortune of owning a vineyard next to the royal palace. Ahab offers to buy the plot of land for a generous sum, but Naboth refuses. Finding Ahab in an unkingly, pouty state, Jezebel schemes to acquire the vineyard, constructing a conspiracy that involves defamation and a death sentence for Naboth. After Naboth’s death, Ahab snatches up the coveted vineyard. While touring his new garden, he is met by the prophet Elijah, who pronounces the Lord’s impending judgment.
Dialogue propels the plot of the Naboth account. Biblical narrative often offers its best insights through the voices of its characters. Here, the narrator Ahab and Jezebel’s own words to reveal their character and motives.
- “Naboth the Jezreelite”
Ahab and Jezebel treat Naboth as nothing more than an obstacle, yet they call him by name. Given their actions, they should call him “the man,” “the vineyard owner” or something equally impersonal. That they appear to dignify Naboth by using his name and then swiftly dispose of him highlights their unconscionable behavior.
- “Sell me your vineyard”
The story begins with Ahab’s words to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard” (21:2). Naboth replies, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my father’s” (21:3). He is reminding the king of a fundamental Israelite belief upheld by law: The land belongs to Yahweh, who gave it to families as an inheritance. It was not a resource to be sold to the highest bidder (e.g., Lev 25:23).
Ahab concedes defeat on account of Israelite law but he holds no regard for the God who gave it. He later tells Jezebel, “Naboth said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard’ ” (21:6), effectively dismissing Israelite law again and painting Naboth as an uncooperative citizen. Jezebel promises, “I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (21:7).
But the land was neither Naboth’s nor Jezebel’s to give. It was Yahweh’s. Naboth’s life, similarly, was not hers to take. It was Yahweh’s. By killing Naboth and claiming his land, Jezebel has taken two rights that belong to Yahweh. She has made herself god in Jezreel.
- “You have sold yourself”
Yahweh dispatches Elijah to confront Ahab with his crimes: killing a man and stealing land. Elijah, however, translates Yahweh’s message, “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord” (21:20). Elijah shows Ahab that he has enslaved himself to the new god of Jezreel: Jezebel was Ahab’s master.
- “O my enemy”
When Ahab sees Elijah, he greets him as “O my enemy.” He greets Elijah on only one other occasion (18:17), calling him “troubler of Israel.” The irony of both greetings is that Jezebel—not Elijah—exemplifies these names. She troubles Israel with idolatry and incites Ahab to do evil (21:25).
In the end, Elijah’s prophecy is fulfilled. Ahab dies and Jezebel meets a particularly nasty end. Jezreel, the site of their dastardly crime, becomes known throughout the Bible for bloodguilt and judgment (2 Kgs 9–10; 2 Chr 22:6–8; Hos 1:4–5). In this account, a king who might have done better stands in the shadow of his wife and the vineyard where he sold himself to her.
A Lesson in Marrying Well
God forbade the Israelites from marrying foreign men or women because doing so often led them to serving foreign gods (Exod 34:16; Deut 7:3–4). Solomon disobeyed this command, marrying multiple foreign wives, building high places for their gods, and even worshiping their gods. Because of his unfaithfulness, God split the kingdom (1 Kgs 11:9).
Even after the split, Israel and Judah struggle to understand this command. After the Babylonian exile, Ezra the scribe even commands Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives because they compromised their faith in the Lord (Ezra 10:10–11). Nehemiah, who leads the returned exiles in rebuilding Jerusalem, takes extreme measures: “I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves’ ” (Neh 13:25).
Biblical references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).