Revelation 2:18-23 reads, literally translated, something like this:
(18) And to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write: these things says the child of God, the one who has eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze: (19) I know your works and love and faith and service, and your steadfast endurance, and your last works (are) greater than the first ones. (20) But I have against you that you put up with the woman Jezebel, the one who calls herself a prophet and teaches and leads my servants astray to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (21) And I gave her time, that she might repent, and she does not wish to repent from her fornication. (22) Behold, I throw her on a sick-bed, and the ones who commit adultery with her into a great affliction, if they do not repent from her works, (23) and I will kill her children with death. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches innermost thoughts and hearts, and I will give to y’all each according to y’all’s works.
This is the first half of what Jesus says to the church in Thyatira, according to John’s vision. (I’ll get to the second half next week.) There’s a lot going on here, and, as usual, I don’t intend to try to speak about all of it. But I do have some thoughts about Jezebel.
Basically, I think it’s kind of bonkers that the idea of Jezebel ― of a female false prophet who leads people astray, or, really, just any woman cast as troublesome or villainous ― has become such an outsized religious and cultural image since biblical times.
For many (Western male) writers, preachers, and other people-whom-people-listen-to, Jezebel has been a go-to label for a woman who does not fit the confines of what is considered (by men in power) to be respectable and good, demure and feminine. Additionally, in some usages, it has been a racially-specific stereotype directed at Black women to further their intersectional oppression. It is also a label that has been reclaimed by some feminists who see the biblical Jezebel as a sort of icon of female empowerment.
Reading this passage in the context of what Jesus has to say to the other three churches before this one ― which I’ve been reflecting on in my last three posts (“Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism,” “From Jesus, to those who are suffering,” and “Where is the love?”) ― makes it pretty clear that the actual New Testament reference to Jezebel really has nothing to do with gender.
It’s not her female-ness that’s important; rather, it’s the content of her teaching. And the reference to fornication, or prostitution, or sexual immorality, or however you want to translate πορνεύω, is likely a metaphor for idol-worship and general unfaithfulness to the ways of the God of love and justice ― not a literal reference to female sexuality.
Jesus rails here against the teachings of Jezebel; in previous passages, he railed in a similar way against the teachings of Balaam (2:14) and of the Nicolaitans (2:15, also mentioned in 2:6). We don’t get any specifics about the teachings of the Nicolaitans, but we do know that the teachings of Balaam involved eating food sacrificed to idols and committing fornication (2:14) ― the exact same description as we get of Jezebel’s teachings in v. 20.
To be fair, Jezebel has quite a history in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 16-21) ― but then again, so does Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). And Balaam is referenced three times in the New Testament, by three different New Testament writers: here, in 2 Peter 2:15, and in Jude 11. Jezebel is mentioned only this once.
And yet, (Western) men have latched onto the idea of Jezebel as an image of the kind of wicked woman who clearly needs to be brought under (male) control ― while Balaam, as far as I can tell, has been kind of ignored. No one sees a male leader doing something immoral and thinks, “ah, another Balaam,” or, “clearly this is why men should not be given power.”
I’m also kind of interested in the simple fact that ― assuming “Jezebel” is being used here as a sort of code name for an actual woman who was teaching and misleading people ― this means that there was an actual woman who was actually teaching and leading people in Thyatira, and people were actually listening to and following her. Bummer that the people of Thyatira were being led to do bad things and believe things that weren’t true ― just as the people of Pergamum were, likewise, by “Balaam” ― but good for them for at least being open to seeing women as spiritual authorities.
It seems that, in some ways, late first century Christians weren’t really hung up on questions about whether women should be teaching and preaching and leading. (So much for our convenient myths of progress.) It’s kind of encouraging, in a way ― to think that, if this kind of church community where women taught and led freely could exist two thousand years ago, surely more of these kinds of church communities could be built today.
(By the way, if anyone says that it wasn’t a good thing that the people of Thyatira were willing to listen to and follow Jezebel, I would like to reiterate this: the fact that she was a false teacher had nothing to do with her gender. If we say that women should not lead because Jezebel led poorly, we also have to say that men should not lead because Balaam led poorly.)
I don’t exactly want to look to the biblical Jezebel as a role model ― although I don’t fault other feminists for looking for strong women in the Bible amidst a religious tradition in which strong women are often ignored or downplayed, and finding her. At the same time, I really don’t want to, in the language of v. 20, “put up with” people trying to use this passage to imply something about women in general that it absolutely does not, or using Jezebel language to shame and silence women who step up and speak up in ways men in power don’t like.
Perhaps the image of Jezebel and the ways it has been used are the things that now need to be, in the literally-translated words of v. 23, “killed with death.”