Shortly after the Biden administration commenced, a small but vocal minority of white evangelical pastors revived a familiar insult from history. After only two days in office, cries of “Jezebel” began to appear on social media from self-identified Christians describing Vice President Kamala Harris. Most stemmed from an initial tweet by Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lindale, Texas. As people around the country were celebrating Harris as a role model for their daughters, he wrote, “I can’t imagine any truly God-fearing Israelite who would’ve wanted their daughters to view Jezebel as an inspirational role model because she was a woman in power.”
A flurry of posts arguing for and against his statement followed, and even some Sunday services joined in describing the vice president as the Old Testament villain. Phoenix pastor James White described the backlash to his friend Buck’s comments to the sounds of congregational laughter. Later reporting by Baptist News Global revealed that Pastor Steve Swafford of First Baptist in Rockwall, Texas, had actually invoked the name before Buck in a January 3 sermon that has since been taken offline. Swafford, a Southern Baptist leader, worried out loud about then President-Elect Biden’s mental state calling him a “cognitively dysfunctional president.” He then revealed his true worry: “What if something happens to him and Jezebel has to take over? Jezebel Harris, isn’t that her name?”
Buck later stood by his post, saying he likened the vice president to Jezebel because of her “godless character.” Yet, the derogatory name-calling was a sad commentary on the reception from many white Christians for the first woman—and woman of color—to hold the vice presidency. While many were shocked, it was not surprising that these voices—most of them white men—fell back on the complicated symbolism of “Jezebel,” which carries a long history loaded with sexism, racism, and dehumanization. J.D. Greear, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized the “Jezebel” rhetoric, tweeting that “some pastors are likely unaware of the history of certain racial stereotypes” in using the name for Harris. That naivete may or may not be true, but either way, it is vital that pastors and Americans know that history.
The name originates with a princess. She was the daughter of the king of the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, who doubled as the high priest of local god Ashtoreth. Jezebel was not an Israelite by birth, but a pagan. Israel became her adopted country after she married the Israelite King Ahab, who in the biblical text is depicted as a wicked ruler. After her marriage, Jezebel’s name is changed retroactively in the Hebrew text to protest her actions.
A play on words transformed the queen’s actual name “i-zebul,” meaning “Where is the prince [Baal],” into “i-zebel,” meaning “Where is the dung?” The new moniker told the reader that the pagan fertility god Baal was equivalent to excrement. At a deeper level, this sentiment also described the woman who was blamed for some of the most corrupt and atrocious acts in the Bible—including mass murder and threats against biblical heroes—and helped justify why her violent life met a violent end.
In the biblical narrative, a man named Jehu ferociously seizes what was by then the throne of Ahab’s son at the command of God. While rapidly consolidating his power, he rides into the city and encounters the widowed queen mother looking out from an upper room. Wasting no time, he commands allies to “throw her down” from the window to the street below where “some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her.” The body is left in the street, while a victory feast commences. After the meal, the new king sends servants to bury the dead monarch but “they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands.” The story ends with a grisly callback to an earlier prophesy declaring: “In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; the corpse of Jezebel shall be like dung on the face of the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no one can say, this is Jezebel.”
Ahab and Jezebel’s marriage had been political like most royalty of the period. Yet, bringing in a pagan outsider violated a regular admonition in Hebrew scripture. Thus, the original story and complaint against the Phoenician queen could be understood as a warning against corruption. But in the centuries since it also has been leveraged to support sexist takes on the very nature of women themselves—particularly those who are perceived as the “other” in terms of religion, race, or ethnicity. Most theologically conservative scholars insist the historical Jezebel was indeed wicked. Other biblical scholars, like Athalya Brenner and Nyasha Junior, maintain that she had unfriendly biographers from the start. Though Ahab was also engaged in evil acts, the story pins the blame on Jezebel—seeming to argue that she was the one who influenced and corrupted him.
It’s an old tale—one seen reflected in the story of Genesis and the roles of Adam and Eve. In some Christian circles, evil in the world was often blamed on the original “sinner,” Eve, who allegedly corrupted her husband Adam in the garden. By the time the book of Revelation in the New Testament was composed, the name Jezebel had already become a metaphor to describe a seductive evil. Revelation 2:20 warns: “You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.”
This lasting image was quickly weaponized into the “temptress” trope that stretched much further than simply worrying about corruption. Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk living from 1090 to 1153, claimed the fornication of Jezebel made whole cities uninhabitable for righteous people, and her actions led to the downfall of many men—while also often neglecting to mention her husband. Interpretations like these perpetuated the idea that a sinful man was not as guilty as the woman he was involved with.
In conservative American circles, there is a precedent for calling women Jezebel within a theological or cultural disagreement. In a 1906 sermon entitled “Shall Woman Preach,” the Baptist W. P. Harvey argued against women in the pulpit, stating: “But, alas! there are many dark shadows and crimes of women in power. Jezebel brought ruin on Ahab and Israel.” More recently, two outspoken Southern Baptist women—the Bible teacher Beth Moore and Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor—were labeled as Jezebels by critics for such crimes as advocating for assault victims, teaching men, and taking public stances on religious controversies. Moore has even quipped, “You can’t be a woman of any influence whatsoever in Christianity if you have not yet been called Jezebel.”
For some Christians, to be a woman in leadership remains a spiritually suspect reality. And the misogyny at work in the name “Jezebel” was only compounded when it was adopted into the United States’ history of racial prejudice. Theologian James Cone notes that after the Civil War, Black men were “transformed … to menacing ‘black beast rapists’” while Black women became the temptress. He writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “The image of black women was changed from nurturing ‘Negro mammies’ to salacious Jezebels, nearly as corrupting to white civilization as black men.” Redefining Black women as “Jezebels” excused rape and forced prostitution, claiming instead that all Black women desired sexual relations with white men. And when society looked for someone to blame, this new classification allowed for further violence against Black women and their children as a sick echo of “throw her down” from the biblical narrative of Jezebel.
The harmful sexualized Jezebel stereotype of Black women and girls continued after Emancipation and Jim Crow, and it continues today. More recently, as many white evangelicals have reframed the ideas of liberalism and progressivism as a type of pseudo-religion, the pagan queen has a new false god. Suddenly, modern “Jezebels” are not simply offering generic temptation but are now leading people into the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been called “Jezebel,” and accusations of them being agents of Satan or even demonic beings have become commonplace. The labeling of Vice President Kamala Harris is only the latest misuse of the racist and sexist Jezebel trope. It required no particular behavior on her part. Instead, Harris fit the demographic as a woman of color and a leader of progressive liberalism. While many prominent faith leaders spoke out against this language, others have doubled down, including one who claimed a narrower and “biblical” use of the term against someone who corrupts a nation spiritually.
Most white evangelical leaders using this derogatory term today deny summoning all these connotations, yet history aligns against them. They play with fire, even if they do not know it is hot. Embracing a hyper-masculinized Christian interpretation, many imagine themselves as the biblical warrior-king riding to save the faithful from ruin. In this effort, they reinterpret any woman in a position of authority or of color as the pagan queen. However, while imagining themselves the heroes of the story, they are really showing themselves to be the dogs—waiting to devour their prey.
Mark Fugitt holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology and is a pastor and adjunct professor of religion, ethics, and history for Missouri State University and Spurgeon College. Twitter: @markfugitt