Jezebel Killing the Prophets

John Walton on August 28th, 2009. Tagged under ,.

John Walton

John Walton is Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. He has a PhD in Hebrew and Cognate Studies, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He writes for BioLogos Forum and is the author of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Set–Old Testament.

Bible-BackgroundsWhen we read a text like 1 Kings 18:4 about Jezebel killing the prophets, it is not surprising that what comes to mind is the religious persecution that our contemporary world knows so well. But John Monson offers us a different perspective from the ancient world in his 1 Kings commentary in ZIBBCOT.

The polytheism of the ancient world was an open system—there was always room for more gods, and if a god was deemed to be active and powerful in the region, it was logical to acknowledge that deity. This was not an issue of theological ideology; it was a matter of practical necessity. People worshiped gods by caring for their needs, such as providing food for them. As a result, the deity would not become angry and the attention he received brought benefits to the people.

No question arose in ancient Near Eastern theology of whether such and such a god was a "true god" or not, though there were discussions about some gods being stronger than others. The relative strength of gods was a political matter as one country, empowered by its gods, sought to impose its will on another country, despite its patron deities. We must therefore seek a motive for the slaughter of Yahweh’s prophets in politics rather than in theology. Prophets in the ancient world often served in the hire of the king and, more than anything else, served as mouthpiece for the gods to support the legitimacy and programs of the king.1 The prophets of Yahweh, therefore, would not likely offer support for the legitimacy of Ahab and Jezebel’s rule, and this made them enemies of the state.

Jezebel would not be suggesting that Baal was the only god or that Yahweh was not God. She was more likely trying to install Baal as the chief of the gods, and prophets of Yahweh would interfere with that.

Zibbcotsetbox Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 J. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 244–53.