Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation studies Jezebel

Remains of Jezebel found on the street. | Rijksmuseum

Rabbi Lia Bass aims to understand the Hebrew Bible on “different levels and Jewish lenses.” On April 24, she taught a class at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation about Jezebel, queen of the northern kingdom of ancient Israel and one of the most hated people in scripture.

“I am fascinated by the depiction of women in the Hebrew Bible, how women are sometimes vilified and how women are sometimes sanctified or beautified,” said Bass, a rabbi with the Jewish Institute for Lifelong Learning and Innovation. “That is fascinating to me. And Jezebel is one of these characters where we hear her name and we immediately hate her.”

The wife of King Ahab of Israel and daughter of a Phoenician king, Jezebel opposed the worship of the Hebrew God in favor of the local nature god, Baal.

She challenged the Israelite prophets Elijah and Elisha and neglected the rights and well-being of her subjects, falsely accusing a vineyard owner of cursing God and Ahab and having the man stoned to death. Her actions caused internal conflict that plagued Israel for decades, Bass said.

Bass said the Bible uses Jezebel to mirror two of its most beloved characters – David and Elijah. The Bible is using her to do a little bit of criticism.

Bass said it’s a human tendency to try to label certain things as evil, because it makes it easy for us to not deal with all the complexities of the human being. She thinks this is “the patriarchy working its magic,” as people seek to find enemies.

“I’m not saying that she’s not evil,” Bass said. “She is. But I think that the tradition makes it an easy evil to share with people. She can be the target of our anger because she does really reprehensible things.”

Jezebel was the second installment of Bass’ four-part “Strange Women of the Hebrew Bible” — strange meaning “foreign.”

In part 3, Bass will talk about Gomer, daughter of Diblayim in the book of Hosea. Part 4 will consider the image of a stranger/alien woman in the book of Proverbs.

Bass said she wants participants to see how biblical archetypes work, and how they relate to women.

Bass said there are multiple ways that people benefit from discussions such as this. Beyond reading the literature itself, Bass said learning about character development is also a tool to understand the “gift that we have that is the Torah.”

“What I hope people take from this class is that they open their view of the biblical characters and that we learn different lenses to read them,” Bass said.”

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