What’s In A Name? And Why Do We Care About Jezebel?

For Inquiring Minds…

This section is intended to give you some extra information.  Enjoy it or ignore it.

1) Names, Names All Around…

מדרש שם – exegesis based on a name (usually of a person or a place) which functions to highlight the important traits, events etc relevant to the story.  As the biblical narrative is sparse in descriptions, this tool enhances our reading and understanding of the story.  Sometimes such Midrashim are spelled out, as with Moshe (Ex. 2:10,) and sometimes we have to figure it out.

Keep in mind:  It does not have to be grammatically correct, and sometimes the narrator takes the liberty to fix a name so that it creates a Midrash (see I Sam 25:3 and 25.  No parent would have named his child Naval – villain, but perhaps Nevel – a musical instrument or a jug of wine.)

Many biblical names are theophoric – they include the god’s name as a component of the name.  For example: Daniel – judge+God (El), Isaiah-Yisha’ya – salvation+Hashem (Ya).

Let’s try this on the main names in this story: (It has to be done in Hebrew.  If you can, try it yourself before reading the comments.)

Ahab אחאב – A theophoric name (the ‘ab’ part meaning ‘father’- God.  Similar to its use in Abigail – God’s joy) that relates closeness to God:  God’s brother.

Jezebel איזבל – Hmmm… I suspect the narrator had some fun with this one. Zevel is not found in Tanakh, but is well known in mishnaic Hebrew.  It means dung.  It is doubtful that her royal parents had this meaning in mind.  How about changing the vowel to zevul (temple)?

Elijahאליהו  – “My god is Hashem”.  That is indeed the character of Elijah in a nutshell.  He defines himself as a zealot for Hashem (I Kings 19:10.)

Another interesting name is that of Jezebel’s father, king of Sidon.

Ethbaal – is a theophoric Canaanite name.  Have you found the god-element in the name? Might it hint to the source of the sudden change on the state level from Hashem worship to Baal worship in Israel?

Names with Baal as their theophoric component existed also in Israel, before Jezebel. See the list of Saul’s family in I Chronicles 9:39.  One of his sons is Eshbaal.  Was this an indication of idol worshiping on Saul’s part?  Probably not.  We name our children based on the popular names at the time, with little thought of the full meaning of the name.  But here comes the twist:  Eshbaal is mentioned also in II Sam 2:8, but with a little editing.  Now he is called Eshboshet (Boshet=shame).

2) Elijah and Jezebel:– The Great Conflict

For those of you who want to pursue the topic further:

The book of Kings devotes a great deal of space to the period of Ahab.  As the narrator shows little interest in the physical and economic growth of the country under Ahab, why does this period merit attention?

Because the great conflict of the time will repeat itself in Jewish history, also past the period of the book.  Along with the wonderful physical growth, the national and religious identity was threatened by a foreigner, Jezebel.  Against her rose one of the most legendary prophets – Elijah.  (Ahab just happened to be there.)

As you read these biblical stories, watch for the religious conflict that pits Elijah, as the representative of Hashem (and his supporters) against the foreign queen who sought to integrate Israel into the Canaanite culture and religion around them, rather than to adapt to the culture of her new country.

Go to Next Class – Conclusion