Jezebel. One of the most pervasive and persistent stereotypes about Black women. Sexually aggressive. Unable to be satisfied. Cunning. Bitchy. Predatory, so be careful not to get caught in her web. If a Black woman has the audacity to enjoy sex and is not somewhere cowering in a corner ashamed of her curves, then she is a dangerous ho.
These assumptions and pre-judgments have a particular pain for us because they are stitched into the American project that began with landgrabbers who did not want to work the land themselves. This created a need for labor, unpaid labor, a forced servitude unto death that was based upon skin tone. The kidnapped Black women who were forced into slavery faced horrors unspeakable. Their clothes were snatched from their bodies to be inspected upon the auction block. Their children were ripped from their arms and sold away from them. And rape. Rape was a fact of life for Black women and girls, and there was no recourse for them. There was no one to report these violent assaults to. No counseling for the husbands and children and other women and girls forced to witness these attacks. Many of them bore children for their rapists, children who were also forced into slavery.
And the men who assaulted them slept good at night because they believed Black women to be ‘un-rapeable.’ This was the lie they told themselves, the lie that allowed them to slip into slave quarters, rape human beings, and then come home to their own families. Men like these believed Black women to be ‘hot-blooded’ by nature, that Black women were only a few steps removed from an animal, that Black women’s bodies were made for rough sex, and all manner of vile assumptions. (To read more about this history of abuse, see Paula Giddings’ Where and When I Enter: The Impact of Race and Sex on America.)
At least once a week I see something on social media platforms that reminds me how saturated we are with this notion of Black women as Jezebels. The endless memes that suggest respectability is the way to get a man, or that any obstacle in a Black woman’s path is there because she opened her legs. Most of these memes are religious in tone, because Jezebel has a permanent pew in many Black churches, across all denominations. I cannot tell you how many Jezebel sermons I’ve heard, but I have YET to hear one that actually reflects the Jezebel in the Bible, the one found in
1 Kings 16:31-34
1 Kings 21:1-29
2 Kings 9:30-36
In 1 Kings 16:31-34, we learn that Jezebel is the wife of Ahab, who was a king of Israel. Ahab had several encounters with the prophets, especially Elijah. Typically when we hear about the Jezebel of the Bible, she is portrayed as a sexual vixen, a hypersexualized temptress, or a harlot. Yet, the only sins Jezebel can be fairly accused of are cheating (because she helped Ahab cheat Naboth out of his vineyard in 1 Kings 21:1-29) and worshipping false gods. Even though she was married to a king of Israel, Jezebel worshipped Ba’al. (Ba’al was a Canaanite god of fertility and virility, and there are several places in the Old Testament that warn the people of Israel not to bow down to this god.)
So sure, she stole land and worshipped Ba’al but nothing in 1 or 2 Kings tells us she was loose. If anything, the text confirms that Jezebel was shrewd and was an effective administrator, delegator, and leader when Ahab wimped out. Jezebel was likely unscrupulous, but she was not a ho. In many cases in the Bible, men preaching these texts characterize strong women as being whorish because it’s a great way to diminish the fact that there are women in the Bible who ruled over men. These are women who had control…and one of the best ways to keep us from seeing that is to portray the woman was a ‘Jezebel.’
Jezebel was a woman in the ancient world who lived on her own terms, and died on her own terms (2 Kings 9:30-36). The contempt for thinking women was a reality in biblical times and still is today, so always remember to challenge and question readings of women of the Bible that describe them as loose. Remember that people bring their “isms” to the texts they read and preach in church, and part of loving God with our minds is parsing out harmful readings. Consider the story as told by Howard Thurman, a great mystic and theologian, whose grandmother was a former slave who could not read or write. She would have Howard read the Bible to her, but she did not want to hear any of the Pauline letters. Consider her words:
“During the days of slavery,” she said, “the master’s minister would occasionally hold services for the slaves. Old man McGhee was so mean that he would not let a Negro minister preach to his slaves. Always the white minister used as his text something from Paul. At least three or four times a year he used as a text: ‘Slaves, be obedient to them that are your masters . . . as unto Christ.’ Then he would go on to show how it was God’s will that we were slaves and how, if we were good and happy slaves, God would bless us. I promised my Maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the Bible.”
The quote above is from Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited. God bless his grandmother. She knew how to parse.