It was an off-handed comment, of the kind pastors will make sometimes, when they’re comfortable in front to their congregations and say something they probably shouldn’t. Pastor Steve Swofford was talking to the First Baptist Church of Rockwell, Texas, on January 3, about the recent election and the “new pressures” that Christians might face under the incoming Democratic administration.
He pretended not to remember the vice president-elect’s first name.
“Jezebel Harris, isn’t that her name?” Swofford said.
Before the month was out, another Southern Baptist pastor in Texas would drop another reference to the biblical queen, comparing the vice president to one of the Bible’s most infamous villains.
Reacting to women calling Harris a role model, Tom Buck, the First Baptist Church pastor in Lindale, Texas, tweeted, “I can’t imagine any truly God-fearing Israelite would’ve wanted their daughters to view Jezebel as an inspiration role model because she was a woman in power.”
Buck later defended the term, saying it was appropriate because Harris was has “godless character” and “not is the most radical pro-abortion VP ever but also most radical LGBT advocate.”
To some people, these invocations of an Old Testament queen might seem to come out of nowhere. But there’s actually a long Christian and American history of using the name as a slur against women.
Jezebel becomes a symbol
Jezebel was a princess sent to Israel during King Ahab’s reign as a potential suitor, to seal an alliance between Sidon and Israel. Throughout 1 and 2 Kings, Jezebel is portrayed as the evil opposition to the prophets of God, especially Elijah and Elisha. She had several prophets executed, promoted the worship of Baal in Israel, and is presented as a manipulative influence, turning the king and the nation away from true worship.
Jezebel suffers a horrible fate in the biblical narrative. She is thrown to her death from a window. Wild dogs come and eat her corpse, as prophesied by Elijah. In many ways, Jezebel appears to be one of the evilest women in the Bible.
But scholars point out that there are other wicked women in the Bible. Delilah betrays the prophet Sampson, cutting his hair and sapping his power. Potiphar’s Wife attempts to seduce Joseph, and has him thrown into prison when he refuses. Herodias plots the death of John the Baptist.
For some reason it is Jezebel’s name that lingers as a slur. It’s her malice that lingers in the Christian imagination today.
“It’s useful to distinguish between the historical woman Jezebel and the symbolic Jezebel,” said Cat Quine, assistant professor of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Nottingham, in Great Britain. Unlike others, Jezebel becomes “an explicit symbol of sexual promiscuity and religious sin.”
According to Quine, this isn’t because of the Old Testament but the New. Jezebel, unlike other women in the Hebrew Bible, makes a surprise appearance in the book of Revelation. In John’s apocalyptic vision, the resurrected Jesus berates the church of Thyatira for tolerating a female prophet who “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Quine said Revelation 2:20-23 transformed Jezebel into a symbol and that’s the image that continues today.
An American term
American Christians first used the term “Jezebel” in the 17th century. Massachusetts governors William Bradford and John Winthrop had described Anne Hutchinson as an “American Jezebel” for “teaching without authority” and promoting what the Puritans called antimomianism, the doctrine that good works were not a sure sign of salvation. Hutchinson was tried by a jury of ministers and excommunicated from Massachusetts and her church.
The term also has a racist history. The Jim Crow Museum of racist memorabilia at Ferris State University, in Michigan, has collected dozens of racist and obscene characters of the “Jezebel stereotype.” In the 19th century, the biblical character was reimagined as an African queen, since she came from a kingdom south of Israel, and black women in the United States were called Jezebels.
According to sociologist David Pilgrim, “The Jezebel stereotype was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between white men and black women,” essentially claiming that enslaved women were responsible for their own rapes.
The term was most frequently applied to mixed race women, conceived in the rapes of their mothers. These women, with lighter skin colors, were more likely to be sold into prostitution in the 19th century.
The stereotype has lingered in American pop culture, even as the term has faded from popular use.
In the 20th century, “Jezebel” was sometimes used by religious conservatives attacking women accused of undermining established gender roles. Southern fundamentalist John R. Rice, for example, wrote that women who wore too much makeup or jewelry were like Jezebel. Rice also opposed “bobbed hair, bossy wives, and women preachers,” which was the title of his 1941 book on Christians “who make too much effort to look like worldly women.”
According to historian Emily Suzanne Johnson, author of This Is Our Message: Women’s Leadership in the New Christian Right, Christian women in the 1970s and ’80s sometimes invoked the symbol as a way to degrade those more in support of feminist ideas.
“The idea of the Jezebel dovetails with ideas about sexuality and ‘proper’ womanhood that have been central to the religious right from its beginning,” Johnson said, pointing to Baptist leader Beverly LaHaye as an example of what many saw as the ‘anti-Jezebel.’
Powerful and vague
The term is not only used by Baptists like LaHaye and Rice. Charismatic Christians talk about a “Jezebel Spirit,” a demonic force, often associated with women and false doctrines, especially doctrines concerning gender and lifestyle issues. According to Leah Payne, an charismatic historian at Portland Seminary, the “Jezebel Spirit” names the demonic forces inspiring immorality, such as feminism, abortion, and homosexuality.
But Payne said it’s not the specific references that give the term its power.
“‘Jezebel’ is kind of vague,” she said, “and that vagueness lets the hearer assign whatever meaning they place on it.”
The name can mean almost anything bad. Women in Christian churches have been called “Jezebel” for everything from believing they were called to preach to disagreeing with a male authority to wearing clothing deemed immodest.
Valerie Hobbs, a linguist who specializes in the study of religious language at the University of Sheffield, in Great Britain, said that term is most often used to silence a woman or mark her position as beyond the bounds of acceptability. In one study of the language used within a Facebook group of conservative Christian men who argue for a biblical form of patriarchy, she found the slur, along with other offensive phrases like calling women “dogs,” was used to indicate that certain people were not worth arguing with.
Called to honor leaders
Kamala Harris’s identity, as the first female vice president and first African American vice president, has been celebrated. But it also aggravates some critics, who attack her in ways they wouldn’t attack white male politicians who held similar positions on abortion and other controversial issues. Her identity seems to provoke a vitriol that sends some critics back to the book of Revelation looking for a slur.
But not all conservative Christian leaders are okay with this. Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear tweeted that “some pastors are likely unaware of the history of certain racial stereotypes in calling or comparing our Vice President to Jezebel, but that doesn’t make such statements any less unwise.”
Greear said that Christians can and should critique the policies of the vice president, but should avoid “personal attacks on a newly elected official God has told us to honor and pray for.”