Friday, September 19, 2014

The Unknown God (Acts 17:23)

In what city did Paul proclaim Jesus to be the “Unknown God”? Athens (Acts 17:23)

In one of the few episodes in which Paul is seen traveling alone, the apostle engages philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). He observes the city’s many idols and joins an ongoing theological discussion with a wide variety of participants including Jews, God-fearers, Epicureans and Stoics (Acts 17:16-21). Having piqued their interest, Paul stands to address the Athenians at the Areopagus (or Mars Hill), the center of Greek religiosity (Acts 17:22). The missionary famously seizes on a statue he had seen dedicated to an “unknown god”. (Acts 17:23).

Paul begins his speech by acknowledging that the audience is “religious” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “superstitious” (KJV) or that they “take...religion seriously” (MSG) (Acts 17:22).

Notably, Paul takes a positive approach. Stuart H. Merriam (1924-2011) affirms:

In his opening remarks Paul reminded his audience of how religious they were and how he had noticed a statue with th inscription, agnosto theo, “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:23). This opened the way for Paul to declare the true God [Acts 17:24-31]. Wisely he did not denounce Athenian idolatry which would only have closed the minds of his hearers to his message. Paul was no iconoclast. He felt commendation was always better than condemnation. Provide the powerful antidote of the gospel, and in time and in its own way it would cleanse and reform society. (Merriam, Paul the Apostle: At the Edge by Faith, 105)
Paul intentionally opts not to begin his address by pushing his own beliefs (Scripture) or attacking the Athenians’ views (idolatry). Instead he seeks common ground.

Timothy George (b. 1950) recognizes:

Significantly, Paul did not begin his discourse by bashing the “false gods” of the Athenians, though elsewhere his preaching did result in iconoclastic riots (see Acts 19:23-41). He began instead by identifying that which was missing in the religious worldview of his conversation partners. The fact that the Athenians had built an altar to “an unknown god” (Acts 17:23) indicated that there was a real, if unfelt, sense of inadequacy, that Paul could address with the positive content of the Christian gospel. He did this by pointing precisely to the two places where God has made himself known to every person of every religious tradition, namely, the created order [Acts 17:24-26] and the human conscience [Acts 17:27-29]. He showed great sensitivity in quoting, not the inspired Old Testament, as he always did when speaking to Jews, but the pagan poets who were familiar to the Greeks [Acts 17:28]...He did not hesitate to use..non-Christian sources in his evangelistic appeal. But neither did he stop with this acknowledgment of common ground. (George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?: Understanding the Differences Between Christianity and Islam, 74)
Paul neither attacks the Athenians nor condescends because he has knowledge to which they are not yet privy. William H. Willimon (b. 1946) reminds:
When we proclaim the good news to the world, we do not claim that people who have not heard this news are bad people. They simply are those who have not heard this news. (Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, 89)
Not all have read the apostle’s opening remarks as accolades (Acts 17:22). Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) scrutinizes:
F. Gerald Downing [b. 1935], ‘Freedom from the Law in Luke-Acts’ suggests that even according to some of the philosophic reasoning of the time the Athenians are far from truly religious: ‘Δεισιδαιμονεστέρους [“very religious”, Acts 17:22 NASB] may be an ironic remark that the Athenians are assuming something senseless in their supposition that an unknown deity would claim worship from anybody (senseless even in non-Christian standards), this concept would be a prime example of superstition [Acts 17:22-23]. What God, if he were one at all, would be content to be unknown and to receive such little attention? (49)...Observance becomes superstition when it suggests that God or gods demand some action that does no good to the community or the individual worshipper. Thus an unidentified God would not have an area of competence, therefore no benefits would accrue from proper worship (50). The idea that a deity will quickly take offence if the ritual is not punctiliously observed is impious...The Athenians with their (supposed) worry about offending a (supposed) unknown god are superstitious in this way’. Cf. also Polybius [200-118 BCE]’s assessment of superstition and his theory of its origin in Rome (The Histories VI.56): ‘...the Romans have adopted these practices for the sake of the common people...the ancients were by no means acting foolishly or haphazardly when they introduced to the people various notions concerning the gods and belief in the punishments of Hades...’, quoted according to Polybius: The Rise of the Roman Empire: Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert [1917-1989], Selected with an Introduction by F.W. Walbank [1909-2008], Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 349, cf. XVI.12.3-11; Walbank’s introduction, pp. 24f; Folker Siegert [b. 1947], Kommentar, 311. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 211)
The Athenians’ religiosity opens a door for the apostle (Acts 17:22-23). John MacArthur (b. 1939) assesses:
The Athenians had taken the first step toward knowing God in that they were supernaturalists [Acts 17:22]. It is obviously impossible for those who deny God’s existence to know Him, since “he who comes to God must believe that He is” (Hebrews 11:6). No one will search for a path to a destination they believe does not exist. And they must have believed there was a god (among all their deities) whom they did not know [Acts 17:23]. (MacArthur, Acts 13-28, 132)
Paul’s ministry in Athens is unique (Acts 17:16-34), not only because he travels alone, but because he speaks to a very different audience than he typically addresses. In some ways the philosophers are more educated than the average congregant; teaching them would be much like the difference between preaching in a church and a seminary in contemporary society. Still, in other ways, this assembly is far more ignorant as they are unfamiliar with the Hebrew scriptures. This presents its own unique set of challenges.

Robert N. Bellah (1927-2013) observes:

There is only one point in the New Testament, as far as I know, when the Gospel is preached to those entirely lacking in knowledge of the scriptures (most of the gentiles to whom Paul preached were among the sympathizers of the synagogue, so that Paul could presume what George Lindbeck [b. 1923] calls “biblical literacy”), and that is Paul’s famous address on the Areopagus [Acts 17:16-34]...In order to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified [I Corinthians 2:2] to the biblically illiterate Athenians, Paul must convince them of the fundamentally Jewish notion of a creator God who is Lord of all and who will bring the world to an end in a last judgment [Acts 17:24-31]. Only in that context does the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make sense. (Bellah and Steven M. Tipton [b. 1946], The Robert Bellah Reader 480)
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) and Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) assert:
The audience may be ignorant, but their ignorance is far from invincible. No blindness has utterly corrupted pagan hearts, as Paul presently demonstrates. In due course he comes to the claim that all people descend from one person fashioned by God (Acts 17:26). A scrap of pagan poetry, “We are God’s offspring” (Acts 17:28) serves as the text. As in chapter 14, this is linked to an argument from the phenomena of nature [Acts 14:15], one which now explicitly buttresses the justification of a world mission by claiming descent from the one God. (Parsons and Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts, 98)
Though he must begin where his audience is at, their shortcomings do not impede Paul. Loveday Alexander advises:
Accepting the reality of our audience’s conceptions doesn’t mean being bound by their limitations. Paul has to start by expanding his listeners’ view of God. (Alexander, Acts: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 136)
Paul actually uses the Athenians’ ignorance to his advantage. G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996) exposes:
Their unusual respect for deities is marked in that they leave not even the unknown deity unworshipped [Acts 17:23]. There was a strange paradox here. Worship assumes at least some knowledge, at least of the existence of the god. Paul makes use of this contradiction: “What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you” (Acts 17:23). He comes to grips with the pseudo-religion of the Athenians by way of this altar. He does not mean to complete what they already possess of true religion. On the contrary, what the Athenians acknowledge as ignorance has a far deeper meaning for Paul. He makes contact with the Greek mind by way of the altar and the unknown god; but his point of contact is the ignorance of the Greeks. And he sees this ignorance more profoundly than the Athenians’ own acknowledgment of it would agree to. He calls the Athenians to conversion from this ignorance; to them it is a sign of real religion [Acts 17:24-31]. (Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation, 143)
Like all good speakers, Paul identifies his audience and adapts his strategy accordingly. Gerhard A. Krodel (1926-2005) informs:
The climactic speech of Paul’s missionary career to Gentiles has become the subject of much debate [Acts 17:22-31]. Martin Dibelius [1883-1947], whose brilliant study of this speech has greatly advanced our understanding, concluded that “the Areopagus speech is absolutely foreign to Paul’s theology, that it is in fact foreign to the entire New Testament.” (Krodel, Acts (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 327)
Instead of his usual approach, Paul plays the part of a Greek philosopher. Nick Page (b. 1961) explains:
Paul is doing his best to be a sophisticated Athenian orator and not a provincial religious zealot. He never mentions Jesus by name. He talks about ‘the God who made the world and everything in it’ [Acts 17:24]. He even quotes from Greek poets: first from the sixth-century BC poet Epimenides [Acts 17:28] and then from Aratus of Soli in Cilicia [271-213 BCE], a third-century BC Stoic [Acts 17:28]. He does what good missionaries and evangelists have always done: he uses the language, the style and the cultural references familiar to his audience. (Page, Kingdom of Fools: The Unlikely Rise of the Early Church)
George A. Kennedy (b. 1928) agrees:
In terms that would be comprehensible to Stoics...Paul’s usual techniques of proof are adapted to a Greek audience...If Paul actually delivered a speech like this, he made a remarkable effort to carry the gospel to the gentiles in terms they might have understood. (Kennedy, New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism, 130-131)
Philip E. Satterthwaite concurs:
Paul’s speech in Acts 17:22-32 emerges as a textbook example of a deliberate speech: proem (Acts 17:22, seeking to secure audience goodwill) narration (Acts 17:23a, giving background); division (again a single proposition: I will tell you of this God you worship as unknown, Acts 17:23b); demonstration (God as incomparably greater than idols, Acts 17:24-29); peroration (Proverbs 17:30-31). As Robert Morgenthaler [b. 1918] notes, this is a speech appropriate to one of the rhetorical centres of the Graeco-Roman world. (Bruce W. Winter [b. 1939] and Andrew D. Clarke, “Acts Against the Background of Classic Rhetoric”, The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, 360)
Marion L. Soards (b. 1952) differentiates:
Instead of preaching the “latest novelty,” Paul takes shrewd line as he addresses his hearers—he starts by referring to one of their own religious shrines, an altar “to the unknown god” [Acts 17:23]. In his proclamation Paul is unlike Socrates [470-399 BCE], for he advocates nothing new; rather he clarifies the identity of the creator God (a deity that the Stoics would have known about) and ultimately relates the God of creation (who also sustains the world) to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:18, 31). (Earl Richard [b. 1940], “The Historical and Cultural Setting of Luke-Acts”, New Views on Luke and Acts, 460)
After acknowledging his audience (Acts 17:22), Paul attempts to connect with them by seizing an opportunity that presents itself. He turns his attention to an inscription he had stumbled upon while surveying Athens (Acts 17:23). In a city that overflows with “gods”, the apostle capitalizes on a statue inscribed to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).
For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23 NASB)
Paul finds a concrete example that gives his listeners something with which they can latch onto while priming remainder of the discourse (Acts 17:23). In doing so, the missionary astutely generates interest and meets his audience where they are.

I. Howard Marshall (b. 1934) describes:

As proof of his statement [Acts 17:22] Paul relates how he had been observing the various objects of worship in the city; here again the word could be understood positively by the hearers, but at least to Jewish readers it would have a derogatory nuance (‘idols’; Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17). One such had particularly occupied Paul’s attention: a wayside altar with the inscription to an unknown god [Acts 17:23]. He eagerly seized on this inscription as a way of introducing his own proclamation of the unknown God. There was, to be sure, no real connection between ‘an unknown god’ and the true God; Paul hardly meant that his audience were unconscious worshippers of the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to an unknown god. (Marshall, Acts (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 285-86)
Paul’s observation will be developed into the speech’s theme (Acts 17:23-31). John J. Pilch (b. 1936) traces:
The speech that Luke crafted to insert in Paul’s mouth is, like all the speeches in Acts, a masterpiece [Acts 17:22-31]. His theme represented in the words, “Unknown,” “unknowingly,” and “ignorance” (Acts 17:23, 30) was a response to their suspicion that he was introducing “foreign” or “strange” notions (Acts 17:20). Paul’s focus is God, and how God ought to be properly understood...The aim of the speech was to guide the listeners toward monotheism. Jesus was not mentioned by name in this speech. (Pilch, Visions and Healing in the Acts of the Apostles: How the Early Believers Experienced God, 122-23)
Paul begins his speech with the familiar before venturing into new territory. When speaking publically, this is generally good practice. Richard N. Longenecker (b. 1930) analyzes:
Paul does not begin his address by referring to Jewish history or by quoting the Jewish Scriptures, as he did in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch (cf. Acts 13:16-41). He knew it would be futile to refer to a history no one knew or argue from fulfillment of prophecy no one was interested in or quote from a book no one read or accepted as authoritative. Nor does he develop his argument from the God who gives rain and crops in their season and provides food for the stomach and joy for the heart as he did at Lystra (cf. Acts 14:15-17). Instead he took for his point of contact with the council an altar he had seen in the city with then inscription Agnōstō Theō (“To an Unknown God”) [Acts 17:23]. (Longenecker, Acts (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary), 271)
Paul takes the opening his circumstances provide, affirms his audience’s own religious language and uses it as a point of departure (Acts 17:22-23). Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) educates:
Using the altar inscription as his point of departure, Paul says, “What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23b). This was a conventional technique in an argument: for example, Pseudo Heraclitus, Fourth Epistle, takes the text of an altar inscription that could be read in two ways as the point of departure for reflections on true worship. The selection of this inscription may have been facilitated by the fact that the deity of the Jews was sometimes called an/the unknown god: for example, Lucan [39-65], Pharsalia 2.592-93, says, “Judea [is] given over to the worship of an unknown god”; the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, “Claudius,” 2.4 speaks about Moses receiving a revelation from “the unknown god”; Josephus [37-100], Against Apion 2.167, says Moses represented God as one who in his essence is unknown. A Messianist Jew sees an Athenian inscription and takes it as his point of departure for a speech that will wind up attacking idolatry. Paul claims that, unlike Socrates [469-399 BCE], he is not teaching anything new or strange. What he proposes to do is not to tell them about a new deity but to acquaint them with the one already honored but not understood by them. Justin Martyr [100-165], 2 Apology 10.5-6, says Socrates in his teaching urged the Athenians to know the unknown god. Perhaps here is yet another Socratic echo. (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 161-62)
Like Paul, contemporary preachers ought to keep their eyes peeled, scavenging for items with which connect to an audience and better contextualize the gospel. Randy White (b. 1956) conceptualizes:
Like all good communicators he [Paul] was gathering intelligence while he was interacting. We learn something of his straightforward methodology for uncovering hidden forces in the city when, in speaking at the Areopagus, he referred to his first experience in Athens. He remarked mundanely, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully...” (Acts 17:23)...Paul got out in the city and looked, paying attention to things he saw. He knew that they had meaning and would give him clues that would help him connect with the city in a way that might bring a measure of transformation. (White, Encounter God in the City: Onramps to Personal and Community Transformation, 69)
Modern homileticians can also build upon the familiar. Fred B. Craddock (b. 1928) advises:
Most of those to whom we preach...need to recognize, and should recognize the message. If they don’t, it’s the fault of the preacher...It is part of the power of preaching that the people are familiar with what we’re saying. It is a mistake in preaching to disguise its familiarity. But that’s a part of the preacher’s ego—not to deal with the familiar. Somehow the familiar doesn’t seem powerful, somehow the familiar is just a no-no and there is a veering away from what is familiar and a sense that the power of preaching is in its novelty...The power in the preaching is for the people to say, “Amen.” And how can they say “Amen” if they’ve never heard it before? (Craddock, Craddock on the Craft of Preaching)
Avoiding the accusation of introducing yet another god into an already crowded pantheon (Acts 17:18-21), Paul draws attention to the statue of an unknown god (Acts 17:23).

David G. Peterson (b. 1944) comments:

The basis of Paul’s accusation was his careful observation of their ‘objects of worship’ (sebasmata; cf. Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities of the Jews 18.344; II Thessalonians 2:4 [sebasma]). He had seen an abundance of statues and altars devoted to the worship of many gods, even coming across ‘an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ [Acts 17:23]. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 494)

C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) examines:

διερχόμενος [“passing through”, Acts 17:23 NASB] here does not have the meaning that διέρχεσθαι sometimes...has in Acts. Paul was simply making his way through the city; as he went, he was looking carefully at religious objects. ἀναθεωρειν [“examining”, Acts 17:23 NASB] is a stronger word than θεωρειν (Acts 17:16); δϋστορειν stronger still. Idols struck the eye; Paul looked more closely at the σεβάσματα [“objects of worship”, Acts 17:23 NASB] . The word is derived from σέβας, reverential awe (Greek-English Lexicon: Revised Supplement 1587): something viewed with such awe; broadly, any object relayed to cultus. At Wisdom of Solomon 14:20, 15:17; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities of the Jews 18.344 the word is used of objects of idolatrous worship, and so it is here, though one such object will be found to point to, or rather to suggest, the true God. εὑρον [“found”, Acts 17:23 NASB] does not necessarily imply that Paul was looking for what he found—he came across. Among various religious objects, σεβάσματα, a βωμός is almost certainly an altar, though the base of a statue (Homer [800-701 BCE], Odyssey 7.100) is, in the context, not impossible. The statue would be an image of the unknown god [Acts 17:23]. The altar, or base, was inscribed. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 836-37)
David W. J. Gill (b. 1946) relays:
As a focus for his speech to the Areopagus, Paul drew attention to an inscribed altar, ‘To an unknown god’, ΑΓΝΩΣΤΩ ΘΕΩ (Acts 17:23). Both Pausanias [110-180] and Philostratus [170-247] noted such altars at Athens. However Richard Ernest Wycherley [1909-1986] has suggested an alternate view that this was not an isolated altar, but perhaps rather a hero shrine, possibly linked to Mycenean tombs in the Agora area at which offerings were made in later centuries. Certainly these tombs were perceived in later centuries as being sacred. Thus it is quite conceivable that a hero-cult, or heroon, might have centered on one of the Bronze Age tombs surrounding the agora, and that it is this cult of an unnamed theos to which Paul refers. It should be noted that the altar was one of many objects of worship (σεβάσματα) (Acts 17:23). Although this word may merely reflect the numerous altars and visual images related to cult at Athens, it also resonates with the worship of the imperial family, usually in Sebasteion. (Gill and Conrad Gempf [b. 1955], “Achaia”, The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, 446-47)
The idol reads to an “unknown god” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “The God Nobody Knows” (MSG) (Acts 17:23).

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) defines:

ágnōstos [“unknown”, Acts 17:23 NASB]...[is] found in the New Testament only in Acts 17:23, this word denotes “unknown” or “unrecognized.” The phrase “unknown God” does not occur in the Old Testament, though the heathen do not know (Psalm 79:6) and Israel does not know other gods (Hosea 13:4). The rabbis think the Gentiles have some knowledge of God but call God’s ways unknown. Neither the Greek nor Jewish world believes God is unknowable, though Plato [428-347 BCE] thinks he is inaccessible to the senses. An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply. Scepticism, of course, questions all knowledge, and Gnosticism thinks God can be known only supernaturally but Socrates [469-399 BCE], Aristotle [384-322 BCE], and the Stoics accept God’s knowability. (Gerhard Kittel [1888-1948] and Gerhard Friedrich [1908-1986], Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21)
Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) connects:
There is a rhetorical play on the “unknown god” who is “unknowingly worshipped” [Acts 17:23]. The participle agnoountes also anticipates the “times of ignorance” in Acts 17:30. The verb eusebeō (“worship/reverence”) finds its only New Testament usage here and I Timothy 5:4; but sees eusebēs in Acts 10:2, 7 and eusebia in Acts 3:12. The verb is cognate with sebasmata in Acts 17:23. Paul’s “I am proclaiming” (katangellō), in turn, picks up the designation of him as a katangeleus [“proclaimer”, Acts 17:18 NASB]. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 315)
There is a grammatical anomaly in the inscription (Acts 17:23). F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) divulges:
This God whom they venerated, said Paul, while they confessed their ignorance of his identity, was the God whom he now proposed to make known to them [Acts 17:23]. But he did not express himself quite so naturally, as if unreservedly identifying the “unknown god” of the inscription with the God whom he proclaimed. He used neuter, not masculine forms: “what therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (RSV). Since they acknowledge their ignorance of the divine nature, he would tell them the truth about it. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 336)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) determines:
Surprisingly, the masculine θεός is taken up as if it were neuter [“God”, Acts 17:23 NASB]...It is likely that the neuters are original; there was a double reason for changing them, the grammatical reason that the antecedent was θεός, the theological reason that Paul was understood to proclaim a personal, not an impersonal, deity (but cf. τὸ θειον in Acts 17:29). (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 838)
As a statue enshrined to an unknown god (singular) is otherwise unknown while dedications to unknown gods (plural) have been uncovered, some have suspected Acts of altering the altar’s inscription.

Hans Conzelmann (1915-1989) contends:

Paul’s use of the altar inscription as a point of contact with the Athenians is a purely literary motif [Acts 17:23], since there was no inscription in this form. Luke has taken up a type of inscription well known in Athens, and has altered it to suit his purposes. (Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles (Hermeneia: A Critical & Historical Commentary on the Bible), 140)
This argument is ancient. Alister E. McGrath (b. 1959) reveals:
Numerous Christian writers of the early patristic period explained Paul’s meaning at this point [Acts 17:23] by appealing to the ‘anonymous altars’ which were scattered throughout the region at the time. Several (including Didymus [313-398] of Alexandria) suggested that Paul may have altered the inscription from plural (‘to unknown gods’). (McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology, 79)
Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) bolsters:
Jerome [347-420], Commentary on Titus 1.12, says, “In actuality, the altar inscription read ‘to the unknown, foreign gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa,’ not ‘to the unknown god’ [Acts 17:23], as Paul would have it.” To change a plural inscription to the singular for the sake of argument would not be unusual in antiquity. Philo [20 BCE-50 CE], On Sobriety 150, quotes Hesiod [eighth-seventh century BCE]’s Works and Days 289-92 in a monotheistic form by changing theoi (gods) to theos (God). (Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 161)
The archaeological record has substantiated the existence of epitaphs to unknown gods. Lee Martin McDonald (b. 1942) catalogs:
No such altar has been found at Athens, but there are several indications that there are altars erected in honor of unknown gods (plural). The absence of any such find, however, is no evidence that none existed. Apollonius of Tyana, responding to the piety of a young man, said “ is much greater proof of wisdom and sobriety to speak well of all the gods, especially at Athens, where altars are set up in honour even of unknown gods” (Philostratus [170-247], Apollonius of Tyana 6.3, Loeb Classical Library; similarly, see also Diogenes Laertius [200-250], Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1:110). In the second century A.D., Pausanias [110-180], while describing one of the harbors of the Athenians at Munychia, wrote: “Here there is also a temple of Athena Sciras, and one of Zeus some distance away, and altars of the gods named Unknown, and of heroes, and of the children of Thesus and Phalerus...” (Description of Greece 1.1.2, Loeb Classical Library). In describing the altars of Olympia, Pausanius again writes: “An account of the great altar I gave a little way back; it is called the altar of Olympian Zeus. By it is an altar of the Unknown Gods, and after this an altar of Zeus Purifier, one of Victory, and another of Zeus—this time surnamed Underground” (Description of Greece, 5.14.8, Loeb Classical Library). Although Paul speaks of an “Unknown God” (singular) there is considerable support for altars erected in antiquity to Unknown Gods (plural). Again, this does not mean that what is reported in this passage is incorrect, but only that presently there is no evidence of such an altar. The independent evidence, however, is enough to suggest that such altars did exist. (Craig A. Evans [b. 1952], Acts-Philemon (The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary), 119-20)
C. Kavin Rowe (b. 1974) footnotes:
There are...several references to the plural “unknown gods” (ἀγνώστοις θεοις, etc.). So far, the only strong possibility for the singular form occurs in Diogenes Laertius [200-250]’s account of Epimenides [sixth century BCE]. Epimenides freed the Athenians from a plague by offering sacrifice to the “local god” (θύειν τω προσήκοντι θεω) upon the Areopagus wherever the sheep brought in for the occasion happened to lay down (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 1.110). For a thorough review of the literary and inscriptional evidence, see especially, Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946], “The Unknown God,” 19-42. (Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, 197)
David G. Peterson (b. 1944) defends:
Though no inscription specifically ‘to an unknown god’ [Acts 17:23] has been found in Athens... Any such altar could have perished, or its inscription could have become indecipherable through the ravages of time. Even in the singular, such a dedication implied polytheism — the need to acknowledge any god that might exist — but Paul used it to affirm monotheism. In their anxiety to honour any gods inadvertently ignored, the Athenians had displayed their ignorance of the one true God. (Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 494-95)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) reviews:
The debate over whether or not there was any such thing as an altar to an unknown god [Acts 17:23] in Athens in Paul’s day has largely proved sterile, due to a lack of hard evidence one way or the other. It has been suspected that Luke or Paul altered the plural into a singular for apologetic purposes. Some scholars, such as Hans Conzelmann [1915-1989], have been wiling to be dogmatic about the matter. It is certainly true that thus far clear evidence of such an altar has not been forthcoming, though there is considerable evidence for altars to certain unnamed gods (plural) in antiquity...All relevant evidence of any kind postdates the first century. For example, Pausanias [110-180]’s Descriptions of Greece written in the third quarter of the second century A.D., speaks of altars of gods called unknown (1.1.4)...The especial relevance of this is that Pausanias the inveterate traveler says he saw these altars in Athens. It is worth asking what exactly Pausanias means. Does he mean various altars each dedicated to an unknown god, or altars each of which is dedicated to more than one unknown god?...Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946] has rightly pointed out, after surveying all the relevant material in detail, “[w]hen Greek and Latin authors speak of βωμοι θεων or arae deorum they usually mean a number of altars dedicated to a number of individual gods (e.g. Homer [800-701 BCE] Iliad XI,808; Juvenal [first-second century CE] Saturae III,145), not altars dedicated to a plurality of gods.” As van der Horst says, it is thus logically and grammatically possible that Pausanias might be referring to altars each one of which was dedicated to an unknown god. Here the parallel texts in Pausanias that speak about altars for unknown heroes (6.20.15-19, 6.24.4, 10.33.6) may be relevant since there are certainly altar inscriptions which read “altar for a hero” of unknown name (Inscriptiones Graecae 2.2.1546, 1547). This may suggest that what Paul (or Luke) actually saw was an inscription which simply read “altar to a god,” since the god’s name or identity was unknown, and he added the explicatory term “unknown” [Acts 17:23]. One factor which may be thought to count against this reasoning is another text in Pausanias’s work (5.14.8) which clearly refers to “an altar of unknown gods” (αγνωστων θεων βωμος), and the wording here suggests that this is exactly what the inscription on the altar read, whereas in the previously quoted text it could be thought to be Pausanias’s way of describing the altar in view of the term “called.” The evidence from Diogenes Laertius [200-250] (Lives of Eminent Philosophers 1.110) and from Philostratus [170-247]’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana (4.3), both from the early third century, confirms that in Athens there were altars for unknown gods with both altars and gods being in the plural...The one relevant piece of archaeological data comes from an altar from the second century A.D. found in the precincts of the temple of Demeter in Pergamum in Asia Minor. Unfortunately, the inscription is broken off at the crucial point, but it appears probable in view of the number of letters per line and the fragment of a word we do have that it should be restored to read “to gods unknown (ΘΕΟΙΣ ΑΓ[ΝΩΣΤΟΙΣ]) Capito the torch-bearer [dedicated this altar].” The discussion by van der Horst shows that this reconstruction is very possible and was favored by three of the great experts in this century on Greco-Roman religion, A.D. Nock [1902-1963], Martin P. Nilsson [1874-1967], and Otto Weinreich [1886-1972]. Jerome [347-420] (Commentary on Titus 1.12; Epistle 70, Ad Magnum) suggests that Paul rephrased an inscription which originally read “To the gods of Asia, Europe, and Africa, to the unknown and foreign gods.”...What the above evidence does seem to establish is that there were altars to unknown gods (plural) in antiquity, and that they were especially known to have existed in Athens. What this evidence does not rule out is that there were also altars that read “to a god” or even “to an unknown god” [Acts 17:23] which archaeologists simply have not discovered yet. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 521-22)
Many have addressed why such an idol would have been erected. In his 1913 book Agnos Theos, Eduard Norden (1868-1941) proposed, that in addition to the twelve primary deities and countless lesser gods, ancient Greeks worshiped a deity they called “Agnostos Theos” (“Unknown God”) which Norden dubbed “Un-Greek”.

F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) posits:

Paul may have seen an altar dedicated exactly as he says [Acts 17:23]. When a derelict altar was repaired and the original dedication could not be ascertained, the inscription “To the (an) unknown god” would have been quite appropriate. An altar on the Palatine Hill in Rome was rebuilt around 100 B.C. and dedicated “whether to a god or to a goddess”; the vagueness of the wording reflects ignorance of the divinity in whose honor it had first been erected. (Bruce, The Book of Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 335-36)
A more common explanation is that the Athenians created a catchall deity as a precaution in the event a god had been inadvertently overlooked (Acts 17:23). One would not wish to unintentionally offend an as yet anonymous deity lest he punish his audience for their sin of omission. The unknown god then functions much like a god of fill-in-the-blank. It is like keeping a present wrapped in the event an unexpected guest appears on Christmas morning. The statue also functions like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, whose own inscription reads, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”. In short, the Athenians are hedging their bets.

C. Kavin Rowe (b. 1974) researches:

Altars to the unknown gods are usually interpreted as evidence of pagan anxiety not to neglect—and thereby anger—any god whatsoever. See Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946], “The Unknown God” 27, for example, and Robin Lane Fox [b. 1946], Pagans and Christians, 38 passim, for the general context of “the gods’ own anger at their neglect.” From a different angle, Stephen Mitchell [b. 1948], “Cult of Theos Hypsistos,” 122, has noted that if—following Timothy D. Barnes [b. 1942]—Paul stood trial on the Areopagus, “he was standing directly in front of the cult place of Theos Hypsistos, the God ‘not admitting of a name, known by many names.’” Mitchell’s quotation the famous oracle inscription from Oenoanda (northern Lycia). (Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age, 197)
Martin Dibelius (1883-1947) justifies:
The consecration to unknown gods may have been occasioned by the fear that, through ignorance, a god might be denied the homage which was due him; this fear, when found in places such as Athens, Olympia, and Pergamum—through which foreign traffic passed—seems not entirely unjustified and may even have been kept alive by stories of gods which had become maleficent. (Dibelius, The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology, 103)
Ajith Fernando (b. 1948) concurs:
Conrad Gempf [b. 1955] points to a writing by Diogenes Laertius [200-250] that presents the practice of anonymous worship as a “safety precaution...The thinking was that if the gods were not properly venerated they would strike the city. Hence, lest they inadvertently invoke the wrath of some god in their ignorance of him or her, the city set up these altars to unknown gods (Diogenes 1.110-113).” Paul, then, is highlighting an acknowledged need of the Athenians, and he presents the God whom he proclaims as the answer to that need (Acts 17:23b). (Fernando, Acts (NIV Application Commentary), 475)
Christoph W. Stenschke (b. 1966) recreates:
Though the origin or reasoning behind this worship is not given, it can be reconstructed [Acts 17:23]. Rather than offend a deity forgotten or as yet unknown to them and risk retribution for such disregard, worship of the unknown god was established in precaution. There was ‘fear of anxiety that by naming one god instead of another their acts of worship would not yield the results desired. To be on the safe side, a Greek could use the formula “unknown god”’. This altar and its inscription indicated that even a god whose existence were dubious was worshipped, showing the uncertainty and confusion in which these Gentiles were. Worship of yet another god, though unknown, is not surprising in their polytheistic paradigm. (Stenschke, Luke’s Portrait of Gentiles Prior to Their Coming to Faith, 212)
William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945-2014) relays:
Once when Athens was plagued by pestilence in the sixth century B.C. and the city rulers had exhausted all their strategies to abate it, they sent to Crete, asking the prophet Epimenides [sixth century BCE] to come and help. His remedy was to drive a herd of black and white sheep away from the Areopagus and, wherever they lay down, to sacrifice them to the god of that place. The plague was stayed, and Diogenes Laertes [200-250] says that memorial altars with no god’s name inscribed on them may consequently be found throughout Africa. Richard Ernest Wycherley [1909-1986] proposes, with some archaeological justification, that such altars may also have been raised to appease the dead wherever ancient burial sites were disturbed by the building projects of later generations (1968:621). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary Series), 255-56)
Dean Flemming (b. 1953) penetrates:
It illustrates a common fear of unknown powers among the Greeks. Paul’s mention of the altar to the unknown God therefore identifies an underlying religious need of his audience [Acts 17:23]. At the same time, it picks up on the theme of knowledge, which is highly valued by the Greeks. The Athenians’ worship of the unknown serves as a springboard for Paul to launch into his evangelistic message about the one true God who is known because this God has revealed himself. Additionally, the reference to the altar inscription allows Paul to build credibility with his audience by removing the suspicion that he is trying to introduce foreign deities to Athens (cf. Acts 17:18): the God he proclaims is not entirely unknown to them. (Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission, 76)
These are just several of the reasons that have been given for the existence of a statue devoted to an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) reflects:
There are at least several possible scenarios which could have led to the erection of an altar to an unknown god [Acts 17:23]. First, as F.F. Bruce [1910-1990] points out, altars were frequently reused and rededicated, especially after a natural disaster or a war. If an altar was found partially destroyed, and the name of the god it was originally dedicated to was missing, it is very possible that such an altar would be rededicated either in the form “to a god” or even “to an unknown or unnamed god.”...Secondly, there is now some evidence discussed by Pieter Willem van der Horst [b. 1946] that God-fearers living in places like Athens or elsewhere outside of Palestine could have erected an altar to the god of the Jews with the inscription “to the unknown (or unnamed?) God” of the Jews. It must be remembered that to “many Greeks the god of the Jewish religion was definitely an unknown god par excellence because he could not be called by name and he had no image. If a God-fearing Gentile dedicated such an altar, then of course the inscription would have referred to a god, namely, the only one Jews and their Gentile adherents recognized. There is some evidence, admittedly late, that quotes Livy [59 BCE-17 CE]’s now-lost 102d book of his Roman History as saying about the god worshiped in Judea, “the god worshipped there is unknown.”...The word “unknown” could of course be a term used by a foreigner of a god that simply had a name unknown to him or her, or it could be an expression of doubt about the true name of a god, or it could be a word used to avoid misnaming a god since it was believed that to misname could bring the wrath of a god. In any of these circumstances, it is conceivable that there could have been a dedication to a particular unknown or unnamed god. Thus, van der Horst’s conclusion is fully warranted: “It is not improbable that there were altars with dedications in the singular, though it is likely that they were an exception to the rule, most dedications being in the plural.” (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 522-523)
Whatever impetus generated the object, its origins are immaterial to Paul.

Some have heard echoes of Scripture in the allusion to the unknown god (Acts 17:23). Hans-Josef Klauck (b. 1946) ascertains:

There is...a concealed biblical dimension present when Luke writes of the unknown god [Acts 17:23], since he is at the time the hidden God of whom Old Testament prophecy speaks: ‘Truly, you are a hidden God, O God of Israel, the saviour!’ (Isaiah 45:15). This inspires the prophet to hope that the Egyptians, Ethiopians and Sabaeans will come to Israel and confess: ‘God is with you only, and there is no other’ (Isaiah 45:14). The hidden God emerges from his hiddenness when he acts; he is made known in preaching and wants to be acknowledged by all, for otherwise judgement threatens. In terms of the narrative framework, we also discover that there is a gap in the Gentiles’ own structure of faith, a space left empty for ‘foreign divinities’ whom Paul is allegedly preaching (cf. Acts 17:18). But it is the Bible that supplies the matter to fill this. (Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles, 83)
Eckhard J. Schnabel (b. 1955) considers:
The reference to the “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), understood in the context of Isaiah 45:15, 18-25, implies a censure of religious pagan convictions. The prophet Isaiah, after repeating Israel’s monotheistic confession, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isaiah 45:15), narrates a speech of Yahweh in which he seeks to convert the people to worshiping the one true God. If Israel’s God appears to be hidden and thus an unknown God, Yahweh’s words prove that he is indeed not hiding at all... (Isaiah 45:18-19...Isaiah 45:20-21)...This truth leads to an invitation...Turn to me and be saved...all the ends of the earth!...For I am God, and there is no other. [Isaiah 45:22]. (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods, 174-75)
For Paul, the statue is merely a means to an end through which he can introduce the polytheistic Athenians to monotheism (Acts 17:23). The comparison serves only as a bridge; the idol represents an inexact correlation, if there is one at all.

Clinton E. Arnold (b. 1958) corrects:

When Paul says, “Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23), he does not imply by this statement that they were already unconsciously worshiping the one true God. This merely serves as a means to raise for them the most basic question of life: Who is God? (Arnold, John, Acts (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 174)
Derek Carlsen (b. 1961) assures:
Paul does not say, the little bit the Athenians claimed to know about this unknown god was correct and now all he was going to do was increase their knowledge about him. Paul chose this particular altar because it was an excellent example of the Athenians’ bankrupt philosophy [Acts 17:23]. The Athenians, in having this altar, were acknowledging that even after their multitudes of idols and different deities, they were religiously unsatisfied and unsure. (Carlsen, Faith & Courage: Commentary on Acts, 400)
Pieter Willem van der Horst (b. 1946) resolves:
The quotation of the inscription functions as a way of introducing his [Paul’s] own proclamation of the unknown god [Acts 17:23]. ‘There was, to be sure, no real connection between “an unknown god” and the true God. Rather, he is drawing their attention to the true God who was ultimately responsible for the phenomena which they attributed to an unknown god’. The altar inscription enables Paul to emphasise the ignorance of his audience concerning the true identity of God. It is not only by ἀγνοουντες [“ignorance”, NASB] in Acts 17:23 that he stresses this point, but also and again in Acts 17:30 where he says that God has overlooked the times of their ignorance...Until the coming of the revelation of God’s true nature in Christianity men lived in ignorance of him. (Van der Horst, “The Altar of the ‘Unknown God’ in Athens (Acts 17:23) and the Cult of ‘Unknown Gods’ in the Hellenistic and Romans Periods’, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II,18.2 (1989), 1454)
John R.W. Stott (1921-2011) limits:
How...shall we interpret his statement that ‘what’ they were worshipping ‘as something unknown’ he was able to proclaim to them [Acts 17:23]? Was he thereby acknowledging the authenticity of their pagan worship, and should we regard with equal charity the cultus of non-Christian religions? For example, is Raimon Panikkar [1918-2010] justified, in The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, in writing: ‘In the footsteps of St. Paul, we believe that we may speak not only of the unknown God of the Greeks but also of the hidden Christ in Hinduism’? Is he further justified in concluding that ‘the good and bona fide Hindu is saved by Christ and not by Hinduism, but it is through the sacraments of Hinduism, through the message of morality and the good life, through the mysterion that comes down to him through Hinduism, that Christ saves the Hindu normally’?...No, this popular reconstruction cannot be maintained...N.B. Stonehouse [1902-1968] is right that what Paul picked out for comment was the Athenians’ open acknowledgment of their ignorance [Acts 17:23, 30], and that the ignorance rather than the worship is underscored...Moreover, Paul made the bold claim to enlighten their ignorance (a Jew presuming to teach ignorant Athenians!), using egō of apostolic authority, and insisting thereby that special revelation must control and correct whatever general revelation seems to disclose. (Stott, The Message of Acts (Bible Speaks Today), 284-85)
Paul’s negative appraisal of the Athenians’ idolatry is evident early in his speech (Acts 17:23). Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) observes:
Within the compliment is an implicit criticism: that which you worship in ignorance, this is what I am proclaiming to you (Acts 17:23b). The Athenians had been worshiping an object, not a personal God, a “what,” not a “whom.” (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 246)
This sentiment reverberates throughout Paul’s discourse (Acts 17:23-31). Loveday Alexander detects:
This conciliatory opening might be dismissed as a preacher’s play on words, but the whole tone of the sermon, though uncompromising in its condemnation of the practice of ‘idolatry’ (Acts 17:29), tends towards the recognition that the Zeus of the Greek poets and philosophers is the same as the creator whom Paul proclaims (Acts 17:24-28). The negative side of this debate surfaces in Ephesus, where the town clerk cheerfully defends Paul and his friends against the charge of being ‘sacrilegious and blasphemers of our goddess’ (Acts 19:37), despite Paul’s reputation as a scourge of idolatry (Acts 19:26). (Alexander, Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context, 197)
Paul routinely unmasks idolatry. V.J. Samkutty professes:
Luke exposes false gods and goddesses as he has Paul refer to an inscription to the unknown god at Athens (Acts 17:23), Demetrius and the town clerk affirm the deity of Ephesian Artemis (Acts 19:26-27, 37), the Lycaonians address Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes (Acts 14:12), and in Malta, the people claimed that the just vengeance of the gods (ἡ δίκη) brought punishment upon Paul, and later on they regard Paul himself as a god (Acts 28:4, 6). (Samkutty, The Samaritan Mission in Acts, 177-78)
Instead of false deities, the true God permeates Paul’s thought (Acts 17:23-31). John T. Squires (b. 1964) deconstructs:
The focus on the providence of God is...conveyed through the syntax of the speech [Acts 17:22-31]. The analysis of Paul Schubert [1900-1969] demonstrates the centrality of God’s actions in speech. The first period (Acts 17:24-25) establishes God as the primary subject of the speech, both through the relationship between God and humanity and through God’s activities in human history. God’s actions are the focus of the first half of the second period (Acts 17:26-27), God’s relationship to humanity of the second half of this period. In the third and fourth periods (Acts 17:28-29), although humanity (‘we’) becomes the subject, ‘the exception is only syntactical, not material, for Acts 17:28-29 deal as much (from the point of view of Luke) with the proper relationship between God and men as do the others’. The fifth period (Acts 17:30-31) returns syntactically to the primary subject, ὁ θεός [“God”, Acts 17:30 NASB], and thematically to the actions of God in history. The scope of God’s activity thus encompasses the whole of history, from creation to judgement, from breath to resurrection, with individual and cosmic dimensions, focussed on the central figured of the appointed man, Jesus. (Squires, The Plan of God in Luke-Acts, 73-74)
C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) defends Paul’s use of the unknown god (Acts 17:23):
It [Acts 17:23] must be understood as a preacher’s ad hoc way of introducing his theme, and it would be unfair to hold him bound to all the theological implications of his illustration. The Athenians (those of them who were religiously rather than sceptically disposed) reverenced a considerable number of gods. The preacher could have made a note of many other σεβάσματα [ “objects of worship”, Acts 17:30 NASB] bearing the names of particular gods; he picked out this god, whose name was not given because it was not known, as the one whom, to the exclusion of all the others, he intended to proclaim. (Barrett, Acts 15-28 (International Critical Commentary), 838-39)
N.T. Wright (b. 1948) adds:
Paul was not simply constructing a would-be theology out of bits and pieces of the local culture, in order, as the phrase goes, to discover what God might be doing in this place and do it with him. According to Paul, the main thing that God was doing in Athens was shaking his head in sorrow and warning of imminent judgment. (Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 2, 88)
Though utilizing another’s beliefs as a point of contact is still good practice, Stephen P. McCutchan (b. 1941) cautions:
The major Christian seasons were transformations of pagan rituals into Christian expressions. The festival of Saturnalia was transformed into a celebration of Christ’s birth. Easter was an adaptation of a spring goddess festival. The cross was intended to be a sign of shame but was transformed into a sign of hope. Like Paul, these Christians knew that the false gods were “not gods” and therefore felt free to transform them into vehicles of faith. The danger for us, however, is that the reverse process is also possible. (McCutchan, Water from the Well: Lectionary Devotional for Cycle A, 154)
Paul’s missionary technique in interacting with the Athenians is exemplary and has been treated as a model (Acts 17:23-31). In fact, his reference to the unknown god (Acts 17:23) served as the primary archetype for missionary comparative religion in nineteenth-century southern Africa.

Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) briefs:

Many recognized Paul’s speech to the Areopagus as a model of how to relate to others’ beliefs without compromising one’s own Christian convictions [Acts 17:22-31]. Stoic thinkers could agree with most of what Paul said in the speech, although it was also biblical. Only toward the end of his speech did Paul go beyond dialogue and seek conversion, bringing up necessary and important points of difference. (Keener, Acts (Immersion Bible Studies))
Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) applauds:
Starting from a cultural value acknowledged by the audience enables Paul to engage them in the discourse [Acts 17:22-23]. Denying that this value has been realized within the present culture and calling for repentance turns this into a critical engagement [Acts 17:30]...The Areopagus speech may provide a helpful model of the delicate task of speaking outside the religious community through critical engagement with the larger world. A mission that does not engage the presuppositions and concerns of those being approached leaves these presuppositions and concerns untouched, with the result that the message, even if accepted, does not transform its hearers. The fundamental structures of the old life remain standing, and the gospel loses its culture-transforming power. Dialogue with outsiders may be risky, but the refusal of dialogue on cultural concerns results either in the isolation of the religious community or the compartmentalization of religion so that it does not affect society at large. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts, A Literary Interpretation, Volume Two: The Acts of the Apostles, 215)
Stan May (b. 1956) applies:
Paul builds bridges of understanding by acknowledging their religiosity (Acts 17:22), quoting lines from Athenian poetry to communicate truth (Acts 17:28), using their logic to present his arguments, and employing one of their altars to point them to Christ [Acts 17:23]. Don Richardson [b. 1935] says that Paul understood the story of the altar to the Unknown God and used this tool to proclaim what they worshiped as unknown [Acts 17:23]...When missionaries do not develop an understanding of the culture and worldview of their target people group, they naturally tend to view their own culture as superior to the cultures of others. This identified as ethnocentrism. The solution to ethnocentrism is to try to understand another culture in terms of its own values and assumptions and its members as fellow humans. (Mike Barnett [b. 1952], “Cultures and Worldviews”, Discovering the Mission of God: Best Missional Practices for the 21st Century, 386)
Paul meets the pagan Athenians where they are by taking their own statues and philosophers and using them to present Judeo-Christian monotheism (Acts 17:23-31). The apostle begins with a healthy respect for his audience’s position. Though not always followed, this standard should still be modeled today.

What sermons/speeches have begun with the localized observation of the speaker? What do the landmarks in your area reveal about the ideology of the region? What are the rhetorical benefits of Paul latching onto the statue of “the unknown God” (Acts 17:23)? What precautions do you take to insure that you demonstrate respect towards others’ beliefs? What analogies have you used to communicate your convictions? Where should interfaith dialogue begin? Are you familiar with the commonalities between your beliefs and competing ideologies? Do you speak differently to Christians (the initiated) than you do with non-Christians (the uninitiated); should you? What, if any, is the connection between the unknown god (Acts 17:23) and the one true God?

In recalling the Athenians’ concession to an unknown deity (Acts 17:23), Paul appeals to a basic human instinct to pursue meaning. Harry J. Aponte (b. 1935) evaluates:

Paul discovered an altar in Athens that the Greeks had dedicated to the “Unknown God’ (Acts 17:23). He believed he knew who that God was, but he spoke to the Greeks’ pursuit as to a universal human impulse. Consciously or unconsciously everyone is searching for an overarching meaning and purpose to pain and pleasure, life and death. Everyone has a spirituality. (Froma Walsh [b. 1942], “The Stresses of Poverty and the Comfort of Spirituality”, Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy: Second Edition, 127)
Lynn Allan Losie (b. 1946) enlightens:
Paul’s point of departure for his speech, using the altar “To a Unknown [agnôstô] God” to which he claims the Athenians show reverence “without knowing [agnoountes] (Acts 17:23)...picks up a theme in Stoic philosophy. On the occasion of the dedication of a famous statue to Zeus created by Pheidias at the Olympic Games in 97 C.E., the Stoic Dio Chrystostom [40-120] gave an oration in which he used the image of the god as a springboard for a discourse on “the nature of the gods in general, and especially that of the ruler of the universe.” The knowledge of this supreme god, according to Dio Chryststom, is “inevitable and innate in every creature endowed with reason, arising in the course of nature without the aid of human teacher and free from the deceit of any expounding priest.” Thus he asks, “How, then could they have remained ignorant [agnôtes] and conceived no inkling of him who had sowed and planted and was now preserving and nourishing them, when on every side they were filled with the divine nature through both sight and hearing, and in fact through every sense?” The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55-135 C.E.) echoes the same sentiment: “You are bearing God about with you, you poor wretch, and know it not!” In the introduction to his speech on the Areopagus, Paul thus builds a bridge to his audience, even in what may seem to be critical remarks. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism (Acts 17:16-34)”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 229)
Their reverence for the “unknown god” indicates that the Athenians sense that there is something more (Acts 17:23). They simply do not know what it is. Paul attempts to fill in the gap, taking the Athenians from “general revelation” (Romans 1:16-25) to “specific revelation”.

Lynn Allan Losie (b. 1946) notes:

The speech on the Areopagus [Acts 17:22-31] acknowledges the existence of general revelation and uses it as the basis for an evangelistic appeal. Ironically, the “unknown god” [Acts 17:23] is, in fact, the God who is known. (Robert L. Gallagher [b. 1949] and Paul Hertig [b. 1955], “Paul’s Speech on the Areopagus: A Model of Cross-cultural Evangelism (Acts 17:16-34)”, Mission in Acts: Ancient Narratives in Contemporary Context, 232)
Alister E. McGrath (b. 1959) agrees:
The fundamental point being made is that a deity of whom the Greeks had some implicit knowledge or intuitive awareness is being made known to them by name and in full [Acts 17:22-31]. The god who is known indirectly through his creation can be known fully in redemption...On the basis of a detailed survey of the biblical material, it seems that a knowledge of God, however limited, is indeed presupposed. Yet there is no sign of any endorsement of the view that God can be known, fully and authentically, by any mode other than revelation. (McGrath, The Science of God: An Introduction to Scientific Theology, 79)
Cleophas J. LaRue (b. 1953) proclaims:
Without revelation we wouldn’t be Christians at all; we would be Athenians, like those whose altar Paul discovered outside Athens, inscribed, “To an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Without revelation he would be to us an unknown god. But we believe that God has revealed himself, not only in the ordered loveliness of the created universe, but supremely in his Son Jesus Christ, and in the totality of the biblical witness to Christ. Without that revelation expressed in speaking – human speech is the model that God has chosen to indicate what is meant by revelation – without it we would know nothing of him. (Michael P. Knowles [b. 1956], The Folly of Preaching: Models and Methods, 115)
Some have argued that Jesus has been present in Athens (general revelation) and that Paul is merely unveiling him (specific revelation). Dandapati Samuel Satyaranjan (b. 1939) trumpets:
God is present in the presence of Jesus Christ in the midst of humanity in its exercise of faith in the world. He is like the ‘Unknown God’ unidentified in Acts 17:23. D.T. Niles [1908-1970] stresses the need to “uncover a presence which has been there even though unidentified; indeed, a presence that was forgotten and lost, if not denied.” Religious history speaks of the “known gods.” What is truly present is God who is “unknown”, who needs to be discovered. Therefore, Niles says, “It is the present tense, the way in which God is contemporarily present, which needs to be discerned and named. That this present tense has always been present is what makes the name of Jesus appropriate for it.” (Satyaranjan, The Preaching of Daniel Thambirajah (D.T.) Niles [1908-1970]: Homiletical Criticism, 81)
Karl Rahner (1904-1984), a leading Roman Catholic “inclusivist”, writes:
Human life does of itself present a kind of anonymous Christianity, which explicit Christianity can then interpret, giving a person the courage to accept and not run away from what one experiences and undergoes in one’s own life...This would be putting into practice what St. Paul said of his preaching: ‘What therefore you worship (really worship!) without knowing it! (as consciously and explicitly interpreted), that I preach to you.’ (Acts 17:23) (Rahner, Mission and Grace Vol. I: Essays in Pastoral Theology, 160)
When presenting Jesus to someone who has not yet heard of him, one might find that Christ is already there. Rob Bell (b. 1970) updates:
Have you ever heard missionaries say they were going to “take Jesus” to a certain place?...The issue isn’t so much taking Jesus to people who don’t have him, but going to a place and pointing out to the people there the creative, life-giving God who is already present in their midst...If you do see yourself carrying God to places, it can be exhausting...God is really heavy...Some people actually believe that God is absent from a place until they get there. The problem with this idea is that if God is not there before you get there, then there is no “there” in the first place. (Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, 088)
Gerald O’Collins (b. 1931) expands:
As regards the universal presence of Christ, we can extend the language of Luke about ‘the unknown God’ (Acts 17:23) to speak of the unknown Christ who has been and is active everywhere, for everyone, and in the history of all cultures and regions—albeit often hiddenly. He may be unknown, but never absent. He has mediated revelation and salvation through particular historical events and persons, and continues to mediate to all the revelatory and saving self-communication of God...Many object to such a vision of Christ being truly present, but less visibly, in the lives of those who adhere to other religions. (O’Collins, Rethinking Fundamental Theology, clxiii)
Tony Campolo (b.1935) illustrates:
Billy Graham (b. 1918), at the 1987 Urbana missions conference, told about going to a monastery in China to talk to some Buddhists. When he got there, he saw one particular monk in deep meditation, and felt led by the Spirit to go and talk to the man about Jesus. With his translator, Dr. Graham opened the Scripture and explained the way of salvation, giving the details about what Jesus had done on the cross and how giving one’s life over to Christ would give a person eternal life...Dr. Graham could sense that this Buddhist monk was taking all of this in, and was so moved by it that there were tears in his eyes. He said to the monk, “Are you willing to invite Jesus into your life right here and right now as we pray together?”... The monk looked back at him in dismay and said, “Accept him into my life? I would accept him, but you must understand that he is already in me. He has been in me for a long time. I didn’t know all the things about him that you have just told me, but this Jesus that you have been telling me about is within me, and as you spoke, his Spirit within me was confirming everything that you said. I believe in what you said because the Spirit has convinced me that these things are true. I would accept him, except that he is already within me.”...That story left open this question: was Christ alive in that monk before Billy Graham ever got there? (Shane Claiborne [b. 1975] and Campolo, Red Letter Revolution: What If Jesus Really Meant What He Said?, 53-54)
Paul’s use of the statue of the unknown God allows for the possibility that God is active in the lives of people who do not yet even acknowledge God (Acts 17:23). Though no one has a complete picture of God and there are still aspects of the Christian God which remain unknown, thankfully, the one true God is knowable because God makes Godself known. Perpetually.

Why did the Athenians not know the one true God? Is there a divine spark in all of us that simply need be ignited? When did God become known to you? Do you think that you knew God before you formally met? Is God at work in the lives of those who do not profess Christianity; in other religions in and of themselves? To whom do you proclaim God to whom God is unknown?

“The mission and evangelism of the Church would be much more effective if we were better able to build upon that instinct for God...which is so widely dispersed in our society.” - Peter Forste (b. 1950), Bishop of Chester, 2003

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jezebel: Gone to the Dogs (II Kings 9:35-37)

Who got thrown out of the window and eaten by the dogs? Jezebel (II Kings 9:30-37)

Jezebel is one of the quintessential biblical villains. From the time she debuts in the biblical text (I Kings 16:31) until her excessively gruesome death (II Kings 9:30–37), the wicked queen is depicted operating antithetically to the aims of Yahweh. The arch-nemesis of the prophet Elijah actively promotes the worship of the false god Baal in Israel and is deemed personally responsible for the death of many of God’s prophets (I Kings 18:4, 13; II Kings 9:7).

When Jezebel incriminates innocent Naboth to secure his coveted vineyard (I Kings 21:1-16), her fate is sealed. Elijah pronounces a death sentence against the queen (I Kings 21:17-29). In spite of her ghastly ruination (II Kings 9:30-37), Jezebel has resonated throughout history and continues to be typecast as the villain, her name having become synonymous with debauchery.

Josey Bridges Snyder (b. 1983) observes:

Jezebel is one of the few biblical characters treated almost uniformly negatively both in the biblical text and in the subsequent interpretive tradition. The daughter of a Pheonician king, Jezebel becomes queen over Israel through her marriage to Ahab (I Kings 16:31). From this introduction, we know that the Deuteronomistic editor thinks poorly of Jezebel. The fact of her marriage is sandwiched between two negative statements: first, that King Ahab’s sins exceeded those of Jeroboam and, second, that Ahab served Baal. The biblical text does not indicate direct causality between Ahab’s taking Jezebel as a wife and his sinfulness or worship of Baal. Still, the proximity of the statements in I Kings 16:31 creates the association in the mind of the reader—an association strengthened by a later verse that does directly blame Jezebel for Ahab’s misdeeds (I Kings 21:25)...After her death [II Kings 9:30-37], Jezebel is neither mourned nor buried, and the text never speaks of her again. And yet her character is not silenced. Her influence, perhaps greater than any other woman’s in the course of Israelite political history, continues to live on (for better or worse!) in the course of interpretive history. (Carol A. Newsom [b. 1950], Sharon H. Ringe [b. 1946] and Jacqueline E. Lapsley [b. 1965], “Jezebel and Her Interpreters”, Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated, 180)
Tina Pippin (b. 1956) acknowledges:
The image of Jezebel is difficult to identify iconographically; her portrait and scenes of her life are rare. Still, she is imaged as the temptress. Both men and women are drawn to her. Even though II Kings 9:37 pronounces that “no one can say, This is Jezebel,” the irony is that “This is Jezebel” is exactly what people said ever since this Deuteronomic proverb. (Pippin, Apocalyptic Bodies: The Biblical End of the World in Text and Image, 35)
Timothy K. Beal (b. 1963) characterizes:
Elijah’s archenemy and the Deuteronomist’s quintessential other, or “not us,” is Jezebel, a powerful woman, from another land, representing and serving other gods (hundreds of the prophets of Baal and Asherah eat at her table; I Kings 18:19). As the other within, a strong woman married to an often weak and insecure Israelite king [I Kings 16:31], she stands for admixture and emasculation, the ultimate embodiment of threat to Israel’s identity. (Stephen R. Haynes [b. 1958], “Teaching the Conflicts, For the Bible Tells Me So”, Professing in the Postmodern Academy: Faculty and the Future of Church-Related Colleges, 188)
Denise Lardner Carmody (b. 1935) understands:
The biblical authors especially stigmatized her [Jezebel] because she was a foreigner and a woman. Under both headings, they saw her a seducer. By the time the Deuteronomistic history entered the biblical canon Israel was trying to reconstitute its national life after return from exile. Foreign elements seemed to threaten its historic relationship with God, so the reformers Ezra and Nehemiah proscribed marriage with foreigners [Ezra 9:1-15; Nehemiah 13:1-3]. Jezebel, like the foreign wives of Solomon [I Kings 11:1-8], made useful propaganda. Representing femininity turning all its wiles against God and luring Ahab (her obvious inferior in intelligence and will) to his doom, Jezebel encapsulated in one word the worst scenario the reformers could envision. Thus, she greatly helped their cause. (Carmody, Biblical Woman: Contemporary Reflections on Scriptural Texts, 50)
Despite her decidedly negative image, some interpreters have gleaned some positives from the queen’s life. Jill L. Baker (b. 1964) appreciates:
Although Jezebel had effectively ruled a part of Israel for a short time, she is not recognized as such in the king lists. Her official standing would have been that of queen mother, upon the accession of her son, Ahaziah [I Kings 22:40]. Jezebel serves as an excellent example of a woman serving in the highest position possible. She was educated and cunning; she demanded and obtained the respect of the military, religious leaders, and most of the people. She was, for the most part, a great leader. Her failure was her unwillingness to worship only God, maintaining the Baal and Asherah cults. Because of this she was condemned to death, denied a traditional burial, and her memory defiled [I Kings 21:23; II Kings 9:10, 30-37]. Jezebel serves as both a positive and negative example to women in leadership positions. (Catherine Clark Kroeger [1925-2011] and Mary J. Evans [b. 1949], The Women’s Study Bible: New Living Translation Second Edition, 441)
Jezebel’s death is especially remarkable for its sensational gore (II Kings 9:30-37). The queen is mutilated with only her skull, feet and hands surviving (II Kings 9:35).
They went to bury her, but they found nothing more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. Therefore they returned and told him [Jehu]. And he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which He spoke by His servant Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘In the property of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; and the corpse of Jezebel will be as dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel, so they cannot say, “This is Jezebel.”’” (II King 9:35-37 NASB)
Emboldened by being anointed king (II Kings 9:1-10), the revolting Jehu is on the war path. After killing Joram (II Kings 9:23-26) and Ahaziah (II Kings 9:27-29), he sets his sights on Jezebel (II Kings 9:30-37). The coup d’état will be complete with the death of the queen.

A. Graeme Auld (b. 1941) contextualizes:

The last words of this chapter (II Kings 9:30-37) belong to Jezebel who has overshadowed the whole narrative ever since I Kings 16:31. She had dared threaten the great man from Tishbe (I Kings 19:1-2) and her death appropriately occurs now just as predicted by Elijah (I Kings 21:23-24). (Auld, I & II Kings (Daily Study Bible), 185)
The queen’s demise is startlingly graphic (II Kings 9:30-37). Paul R. House (b. 1958) summarizes:
As when killing Joram [II Kings 9:23-26] and Ahaziah [II Kings 9:27-29], Jehu wastes no time. He identifies two or three “eunuchs,” or “court officials,” willing to betray her and orders them to throw her down [II Kings 9:32-33]. They comply. She bounces against the wall, lands in the street, and dies when horses trample her [II Kings 9:33]. Satisfied that she is dead, Jehu goes to eat [II Kings 9:34]. Almost as an afterthought and contrary to the prophet’s word (II Kings 9:10), he orders some men to bury her, since she was a king’s daughter [II Kings 9:34]; but they find “nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands” [II Kings 9:35]. Dogs have eaten the rest of her. Jehu recognizes that Elijah’s predictions about Ahab and Jezebel have finally all come true [II Kings 9:36-37]. Naboth’s death has been avenged [I Kings 21:11-16]. The only remaining prediction of Elijah regards the fate of Ahab’s descendants [I Kings 21:20-24]. (House, 1, 2 Kings (New American Commentary), 291)
Keith Bodner (b. 1967) interprets:
With an alliance in mind, Jezebel arranges her hair and paints her eyes [I Kings 16:30], only to skydive without a parachute courtesy of a couple of nearby eunuchs who throw her down [II Kings 9:32-33]...Consequently, Jezebel ends up as food for rabid dogs [II Kings 9:35] and fertilizer for the fields of Jezreel [II Kings 9:37] more or less as the student prophet declares as he creatively expands the terse words of Elisha into an oracle of queenly doom [II Kings 9:36-37]. (Bodner, Elisha’s Profile in the Book of Kings: The Double Agent, 141)
The exchange between Jehu and Jezebel is revealing (II Kings 9:30-37). T.R. Hobbs (b. 1942) praises:
The details of the death of Jezebel show remarkable dramatic skill and character development [II Kings 9:30-37]. Both Jezebel and Jehu are revealed in their cynicism and callousness. (Hobbs, 2 Kings (Word Biblical Commentary), 118)
Robert L. Cohn (b. 1947) characterizes:
The character of Jehu comes alive...When he first denies to his military comrades he has been anointed, they call him a liar, a fitting prophetic epithet for a man who is exposed to the reader as someone who selectively conceals information [II Kings 9:11-12]. Even when he finally admits the truth to his men, for instance, he omits mention of the oracle against the house of Ahab and proceeds on his own to Jezreel to surprise the unsuspecting Joram [II Kings 9:12-14]. Identified by the lookout as crazed (II Kings 9:20), Jehu verbally evades the messengers of the king. Then, bearing out the messenger’s identification, he slays not only Joram [II Kings 9:23-26] but Ahaziah as well [II Kings 9:27-29]. His subsequent meal within Jezebel’s house while the dogs outside eat Jezebel herself underscores his coldly calculating character [II Kings 9:34-35]. With equal ruthlessness he bullies the protectors of Joram’s descendants to behead their own charges and then slaughters them as murderers, proclaiming his actions the fulfillment of prophecy (II Kings 10:1-11). And the innocent kinsmen of Ahaziah walk into his line of sight, so he commands, “Take them alive!” (II Kings 10:14). In both cases he expresses his vengefulness in his own words. In the case of the annihilation of the followers of Baal the narrator reveals Jehu’s duplicity (“Jehu was acting with guile,” II Kings 10:19). Despite the writer’s clear distaste for Jehu’s conniving and violent character, he has Yhwh praise Jehu’s acts of violence (II Kings 10:30) even as the narrator condemns his cultic sins (II Kings 10:29, 31). (André Lemaire [b. 1942], Baruch Halpern [b. 1953] and Matthew Joel Adams [b. 1979], “Characterization in Kings”, The Books of Kings: Sources, Composition, Historiography and Reception, 102-03)
Jehu has a singular focus which Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) presumes is misguided:
What Elisha says to the young man is this: “Lead Jehu to an inner chamber, anoint him with the oil of kingship, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, I anoint you king over Israel,’ then flee, do not tarry” [II Kings 9:2-3]. There is nothing more, no address. The message to Jehu is both radical and also very terse. But this is not the way the young man delivers it. Instead of fleeing at once, he gives an address (as the church often does), and he adds on his own invention: “You shall strike down the house of Ahab...I will avenge on Jezebel the blood of the prophets...the whole house of Ahab shall perish, every male, bond or free...The dogs shall eat Jezebel...” [II Kings 9:6-10] In sum, the young man outlines a program of action for Jehu, which is undoubtedly using the prophecies of Elijah (I Kings 21:19-24), but Elisha does not tell him to do this. It is on this false transmission that the whole career of Jehu is based. We are usually struck by the fierce and bloodthirsty character of Jehu, and this is clear enough. But another and no less decisive element should not be missed, namely, that all Jehu’s work is done in a situation of ambiguity and misunderstanding. (Ellul, The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, 98)
Jezebel knows her assassin is en route and prepares: “She painted her eyes and adorned her head and looked out the window” (II Kings 9:30 NASB). The queen faces her fate by applying makeup.

Patrick T. Cronauer researches:

When Jehu entered the city we are told that Jezebel heard about it and that, עיניה בפוך ותשם (“she put eye-shadow on her eyes”) [II Kings 9:30]. The noun, פוך, is defined as “antimony, stibium, black paint, eye-shadow.” It is a very rare term in the Old Testament, occurring only five times and it is considered to be a Late Biblical term. In I Chronicles 29:2 and Isaiah 54:11 it appears with the meaning of antimony or stibium, that is, a type of dark or black precious stones. In Job 42:12 it is found as part of a proper name, הפוך קרן. In its remaining two occurrences [II Kings 9:30; Jeremiah 4:30] appears with the meaning of “eye shadow.” (Cronauer, The Stories about Naboth the Jezreelite: A Source, Composition and Redaction Investigation of 1 Kings 21 and Passages in 2 Kings 9, 55-56)
Matthew B. Schwartz (b. 1945) and Kalman J. Kaplan (b. 1941) consider:
Even in facing the coup that would topple Ahab’s family from rule, Jezebel remains astonishingly cool — every inch the queen. She dresses well, puts on her makeup, and stands defiantly at an upper-story window [II Kings 9:30]. Perhaps, with this show of queenly disdain, she hopes to retain the loyalty of her own people and to face down Jehu. As Jehu approaches the palace, she calls out to him, reminding him of the failed plot of Zimri [I Kings 16:9-20] against King Elah years before [II Kings 9:31]. (Schwartz and Kaplan, The Fruit of Her Hands: A Psychology of Biblical Woman, 153)
Robert L. Cohn (b. 1947) informs:
Some critics have suggested that both eye-painting and hair-arranging were preparations for love-making and that Jezebel intended to seduce Jehu [II Kings 9:30]. The word zimrî they take as a common noun meaning “hero” [II Kings 9:31]. But the parallel between Jehu’s treason and Zimri’s is too strong to be ignored [I Kings 16:9-20] and the epithet “murderer of his master” [II Kings 9:31] is hardly designed to flame Jehu’s desire. Jezebel adorns herself because in her own eyes she is still the queen mother, the power behind the throne. From that regal position, looking down from her window, she challenges the authority of the traitor Jehu. (Cohn, 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 70)
Like billionaire Benjamin Guggenheim (1865-1912) donning his best clothes knowing the ill-fated RMS Titanic was sinking and purportedly claiming, “We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”, Jezebel dresses for the occasion of her death.

Patricia Dutcher-Walls (b. 1952) discerns:

As one who grew up in a royal household and lived all her life in the courts of kings she would have been familiar with the brutal ways in which power could be transferred in agrarian monarchies. She does not fail to understand the implications of Jehu’s actions and greets him using the name of a previous traitor, Zimri [II Kings 9:31], who had murdered the king who was his master [I Kings 16:9-20]. Sociologically we must also imagine that she understands that her fate as queen and queen mother of the ousted dynasty is final. She too will die. This would suggest that her makeup and adornment are not preparation to seduce the new king, but to meet him in a full regal fashion [II Kings 9:30]. (Dutcher-Walls, Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen, 135)
Jezebel is defiant until the bitter end. Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) critiques:
The story of her [Jezebel’s] death reveals a woman of courage. Facing the murderer of her husband’s family, the queen makes herself up to look her best and calls Jehu a murderer, comparing him to a long-ago royal assassin who ruled only a week before being assassinated himself [II Kings 9:30-31]. She speaks with dignity, defiance, and grace. Nevertheless, we readers almost cheer when her servants throw her out the window to be eaten by dogs [II Kings 9:33-35]. Her motives may have been pure, but Jezebel has done everything wrong. She is not evil herself, but she is the embodiment of Evil, and the arch-villain of Israel. (Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories, 214)
Jezebel’s well groomed body is thrown from a window by her attendants where she is then trampled (II Kings 9:33). August H. Konkel (b. 1948) clarifies:
Though the versions say she is trampled by the horses, the Masoretic text is singular, indicating that she is trampled by Jehu (II Kings 9:33). Jehu goes on to celebrate (II Kings 9:34), possibly a meal in which he secures the support of the leaders at Jezreel and assures them of his goodwill. (Provan, 1 & 2 Kings (NIV Application Commentary), 478-79)
Unfazed by his murderous carnage, Jehu enters Jezebel’s home where he proceeds to dine (II Kings 9:34). Robert L. Cohn (b. 1947) assesses:
Jehu’s cold resoluteness is expressed in his reaction to Jezebel’s death: “He went (inside), he ate, and he drank” (II Kings 9:34). While her blood is splattering on the wall, (an allusion to the idiom for the males of the house of Ahab, “pissers against the wall” [II Kings 9:8]), Jehu is filling his stomach. As his horses trample Jezebel, he drinks in her house. When he does order her burial, it is with heavy irony, for he calls her both “an accursed thing” and “a king’s daughter” [II Kings 9:34]. The irony deepens when she cannot be found, and only the skull, feet, and hands remain (II Kings 9:35); the body of Jezebel has been devoured while Jehu himself was devouring her food in her house. (Cohn, 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 70)
While eating Jehu orders Jezebel buried on account of her status as “a king’s daughter” (II Kings 9:34). Patricia Dutcher-Walls (b. 1952) considers:
In referring to Jezebel’s royal status not as queen or queen mother, her status in Israel, but as a “king’s daughter” [II Kings 9:34], he [Jehu] may be recognizing the international connections that came with Jezebel when she married into Israel’s royal house [I Kings 16:31]. Jehu is radically and abruptly turning Israel away from those connections in taking over the thrown and eliminating the faction that supported them, but he may be cognizant of not deliberately adding insult to his actions by debasing the queen’s body. (Dutcher-Walls, Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen, 136)
As Jehu is now a king, it is in his best interests to accommodate monarchs. Richard D. Nelson (b. 1945) appraises:
Already showing a king’s solidarity with royalty (cf. Saul with Agag [I Samuel 15:1-34] and Ahab with Benhadad [I Kings 20:1-43]) in ordering her burial, his evaluation, “accursed woman” [II Kings 9:34], agrees with that of God and the narrator. (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 203)
Matthew James Suriano (b. 1970) directs:
On the political implications of this passage (as related to burial), note the brief quote: “Royalty, even if of foreign origin, including the royal women, were awarded special treatment in death.” From Norma Franklin, “The Tombs of the Kings of Israel,” 2. (Suriano, The Formulaic Epilogue for a King in the Book of Kings in Light of Royal Funerary Rites in Ancient Israel and the Levant, 127)
In the meantime, Jezebel’s body has been devoured by dogs (II Kings 9:35). Iain W. Provan (b. 1957) comments:
Unmindful of the prophecy (cf. II Kings 9:10), or perhaps simply aware of the stereotypical nature of much prophetic utterance (cf. I Kings 14:11, 16:4) and not taking his part quite literally, Jehu (some time later) orders her burial [II Kings 9:34]. While he has been eating and drinking, however, the dogs have also been at their dinner (II Kings 9:34-36; cf. the link with Ahab’s end in I Kings 22:38). Most of Jezebel is gone. Prophecy has again been fulfilled; it is just as Elijah said (I Kings 21:23; cf. II Kings 9:10). (Provan, 1 & 2 Kings (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
Walter Brueggeman (b. 1933) questions:
Does Jehu, now royalty himself, begin to ponder that royalty must respect royalty, for she is “a king’s daughter” (see I Kings 16:31) [II Kings 9:34]? Or does he cynically know beforehand that with trampling horses and hungry dogs it is much too late for royal honors? (Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 388)
Dogs have a recurring presence in the story arc of the Book of Kings. Iain W. Provan (b. 1957) catalogs:
Dogs feature prominently throughout: licking up Ahab’s blood instead of Naboth’s (I Kings 21:19); devouring Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel (I Kings 21:23); eating Ahab’s family (with the birds, I Kings 21:24). Ahab’s house is to suffer the same fate as the houses of Jeroboam and Baasha (I Kings 21:22; cf. I Kings 14:10-11, 16:3-4), because Ahab, like them, provoked the LORD to anger and caused Israel to sin (cf. I Kings 14:9, 15-15, 16:2, etc.). (Provan, 1 & 2 Kings (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
Janet Howe Gaines (b. 1950) analyzes:
When the death of Ahab...dogs (הכלבים) lick his blood [I Kings 21:19]. Now when Jezebel’s decomposing body is left in the Jezreel streets, dogs again appear on the scene to consume the corpse [II Kings 9:35], which is an intentional insult to the memories of both monarchs, for in the Middle East, dogs were not the pampered pets of today’s Western nations...Dogs were thought to be dirty animals in biblical times. They were the scroungers and refuse eaters of Israelite society and both The Iliad (book 24) and The Odyssey (book 3) indicate that Homer [800-701 BCE]’s Greece also regarded dogs as animals assigned to chewing the rotting corpses of cursed people. Yet there is an even more disturbing, albeit highly improbable, interpretation of the biblical “dogs,” A homonym for the Hebrew word for “dog” means “servant” and is used in biblical days to denote a temple functionary who attends to religious rituals. In the Mount Carmel contest, Jezebel’s priests serving Baal ritually cut themselves during their ecstatic dancing around the altar [I Kings 18:28]. Perhaps, then, the dogs that lick Ahab’s blood and eat Jezebel’s body are really Baal’s temple servants who consume raw flesh as part of their religious ritual (Othniel Margalith [1916-2013] 230). The moral of the story then becomes a warning to those who condone Baal worship practices, including the blood rituals, that they may become victims of those pagan customs. (Gaines, Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages, 88-89)
There may also be some irony at work. William Barnes (b. 1950) records:
Deborah Appler [b. 1959] (2008) has recently suggested that since dogs served as healers and guides to the afterlife in Canaanite myth, the present account acts also as an Israelite parody of that tradition. (Barnes, 1–2 Kings (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary)
Lesley Hazleton (b. 1945) adds:
Dogs, the animals that in Phoenecian tradition heal the sick and lead the dead safely into the afterlife, have instead turned on Jezebel. The very creatures she believed would protect her have devoured her [II Kings 9:35]. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 186)
The dogs ravage the queen’s corpse (II Kings 8:35). This is not an isolated incident. The Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery surveys:
The behavior of the wild dog most frequently noted by the Bible’s authors is its propensity to lick blood from the dead or dying and to consume carrion. When a person is the object of this behavior, it is considered to be a sign of grave disrespect, because no one has stepped in to prevent this unclean animal from delivering this unseemly service. The disobedience of kings can mean that they and their families will experience this indignity. Both the house of Jeroboam and Baasha are told that their remains will be consumed by dogs (I Kings 14:11, 16:4). A bit later in Kings, Ahab and Jezebel conspire to execute the innocent Naboth and allow the dogs to lick up his blood [I Kings 21:18]. Consequently, the wanton disrespect experienced by Naboth would come home to roost on the day of their deaths, for dogs would lick up the blood of Ahab and devour the remains of Jezebel (I Kings 21:19-24, 22:38; II Kings 9:10,36). The Lord taps into this same behavior of the feral dogs when delivering a prophecy against his chosen people. He will send the “sword to kill and the dogs to drag away” (Jeremiah 15:3). Thus to be eaten or licked by this unclean animal is, in the Bible’s perspective, to be abandoned by all who might otherwise care to save one from this indignity. In the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus, the latter’s pitiful condition is clearly marked by these words: “Even the dogs came and licked his sores” (Luke 16:21). (John A. Beck [b. 1956], Zondervan Dictionary of Biblical Imagery)
Burke O. Long (b. 1938) supports:
Her [Jezebel’s] body will suffer the curse of nonburial, ignobly eaten by dogs; cf. I Kings 14:11, 16:4, 21:23-24; note similar language in ancient Near Eastern treaty curses, e.g. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 538, § 47; Delbert R. Hillers [1932-1999], Treaty-Curses and the Old Testament Prophets [Biblica et Orientalia 16; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1964]. (Long, 2 Kings (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 118)
Jezebel’s mutilation is the culmination of this motif. T.R. Hobbs (b. 1942) reviews:
The reference to her scant remains bring to a ghoulish conclusion the prophecies against Jeroboam (I Kings 14:11), Baasha (I Kings 16:4), and Ahab (I Kings 21:19-24). Her husband also had dogs present at his death (I Kings 22:38). (Hobbs, 2 Kings (Word Biblical Commentary), 118)
The phenomenon is not unique to the Hebrew Bible. Burke O. Long (b. 1938) notes:
The motif of dogs eating a desecrated and abandoned corpse, II Kings 9:10 (also I Kings 14:11, 16:4, 21:24), is found regularly in the maledictory sanctions attached to international treaties, primarily Assyrian, from the ancient Near East; see Moshe Weinfeld [1929-2005], 131-38; Othniel Margalith [1916-2013]. (Long, 2 Kings (Forms of the Old Testament Literature), 124)
Peter J. Leithart (b. 1959) compares:
She [Jezebel] is a feast for dogs [II Kings 9:35], like the harlot of Revelation (Revelation 19:1-2, 19-21), and is reduced to refuse (II Kings 9:37). Her blood “sprinkles” the wall (הקיר-אל מדמה ויז) (II Kings 9:33), a verb normally used for sprinkling atoning blood on the altar. Having offered his “peace” sacrifice, Jehu goes to eat and drink [II Kings 9:34], celebrating the “supper of the Lamb” now that the harlot is destroyed (Revelation 19:6-10). (Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 221)
The dogs leave only Jezebel’s skull, hands and feet (II Kings 9:35). Joseph Robinson (b. 1927) comments:
The skull, the feet, and the palms of the hands [are]...the parts of the body that were inedible. (Robinson, The Second Book of Kings (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 91)
Veterinarian David Paxton speculates:
Given the short span of time between her death and Jehu’s order to bury her body [II Kings 9:33-35], it seems more likely that the dogs dragged parts of Jezebel off to be eaten in peace, rather than devouring her on the spot. It also seems likely that, had the dogs not been disturbed, her extremities also would have disappeared. (Paxton, Why It’s OK To Talk To Your Dog: Co-evolution of People and Dogs, 121)
The dogs leave Jezebel’s skull (II Kings 9:35). Patrick T. Cronauer examines:
The term הנלנלח means “the skull” [II Kings 9:35]. The lemma, הנלנל, occurs twelve times in the Old Testament. This is another Late Biblical Hebrew term that might even be an Aramaism. The root can also mean, “a census, poll, count, a shekel,” and these are the senses found in the majority of the cases. It is found only three times as the object of a verb—in Judges 9:35, II Kings 9:35 and I Chronicles 10:10. It is only in these three cases that it also has the meaning of skull. In Judges 9:35 it refers to “the skull” of Abilmelech whose head was crushed by a millstone dropped from above. In both II Kings 9:35 (Jezebel) and I Chronicles 10:10 (Saul) the term refers to heads which have been detached from the rest of the body. That this is a probably a late usage is seen by the fact that in the older parallel account to the story of Saul’s death and dismemberment in I Samuel 31:10, the text does not speak of dismemberment of the head and of its being attached to the city wall, but rather, it speaks of his entire body being stuck to the wall. (Cronauer, The Stories about Naboth the Jezreelite: A Source, Composition and Redaction Investigation of 1 Kings 21 and Passages in 2 Kings 9, 59)
Regarding Jezebel’s hands and feet (II Kings 9:35), Patrick T. Cronauer scrutinizes:
The plural form כפות occurs a total of nineteen times. Of these, it is in reference to a ritual utensil ten times (see Numbers 7:84, 86, etc.) It is used in reference to the “soles” of the feet, six times, and it is found three times with reference to the “palms” of the hands (I Samuel 5:4; II Kings 9:35; Daniel 10:10). Only twice does it occur in the sense of hands, or palms of the hands, which have been cut off—in I Samuel 5:4...and II Kings 9:35...The fact that the only two texts that recount the palms of the hands being dismembered from the body are texts dealing with “foreigners” is significant. In I Samuel 5:4 it happens to be Dagon, one of the gods of the Philistines, and in II Kings 9:35 to Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians [I Kings 16:31]. In the mind of the anti-Jezebel redactor, the issue of Jezebel’s “foreignness” is crucial, and he alludes to it throughout his redaction. (Cronauer, The Stories about Naboth the Jezreelite: A Source, Composition and Redaction Investigation of 1 Kings 21 and Passages in 2 Kings 9, 59)
Though Jezebel is seemingly desecrated beyond recognition, there is enough left of the queen to make a positive identification (II Kings 9:35). In his landmark 1892 book on fingerprints, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1913) cites Jezebel’s case:
We read of the dead body of Jezebel being devoured by the dogs of Jezreel [II Kings 9:35], so that no man might say, “This is Jezebel” [II Kings 9:37] and that the dogs left only her skull, the palms of her and, and the soles of her feet [II Kings 9:35]; but the palms of the hands and the soles of her feet are the very remains by which a corpse might be most surely identified, if impressions of them, made during life, were available. (Galton, Finger Prints, 113)
There has been speculation as to why these particular anatomical parts are left as a remnant (II Kings 9:35). Lesley Hazleton (b. 1954) theorizes:
When Jezebel asked her attendants to prepare her to meet her assassin, they painted her with henna as the sign of rank used regularly at the time by high-status women, especially for ritual events such as temple festivals and royal celebrations [II Kings 9:30]. In the Phoenician epics, henna was the war paint of the warrior goddess Anat, who applied it before she went to do battle with Mot, and it must have been in that spirit that Jezebel had it applied on her forehead, her hands, and her feet for the ritual of her own coming death. Today, henna is still used in many parts of Asia and the Middle East, especially for brides; but it is never used around the mouth since its active agent—a tannin dye—is intensely bitter to the taste, so strong that some people claim they can tell when food has been prepared by someone with hennaed hands...Dogs with their highly developed sense of smell and taste, would certainly never touch anything with henna on it, which is why the wolf-dogs of Jezreel left precisely what they did [II Kings 9:35]. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 187)
Janet Howe Gaines (b. 1950) considers:
Jezebel’s death scene is an excellent example of the Bible’s application of talion laws. When Jehu rides into Jezreel to kill the queen, a great deal of attention is paid to her body parts [II Kings 9:35]. When interment is finally ordered, nothing but a few odd bones—skull, feet, palms—can be located. It is possible that, in preparing to meet Jehu at the window, the queen had just rubbed her face, feet and hands with henna, a reddish dye often used in cosmetics of the day [II Kings 9:30]. The natural scent of henna serves as an animal repellent (L.J.A. Loewenthal [1903-1983] 21) and could explain why those particular body parts are not consumed by dogs. Furthermore, the Talmud suggests that the one good thing Jezebel did during her reign was to use her hands and feet while fulfilling the commandment of dancing with a gladdened heart before a bride. Ergo, God did not allow those body parts to be devoured by dogs. Traditionally, the fate of the queen’s mutilated remains is inexorably linked to Naboth’s mangled corpse [I Kings 21:19]. The talion law demanding life for life has literally been fulfilled. (Gaines, Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages, 87-88)
The Bible does not record the fate of Jezebel’s limited remains. Lesley Hazleton (b. 1945) laments:
We still have no idea what happened to Jezreel’s heads, hands, and feet (II Kings 9:35). Were they left where they were to rot? Were they gathered up and buried? Were they thrown outside the city walls as trash? The Kings account never tells us. They float dreamlike in history, uneaten and unaccounted for. The ancients were right: unburied, they haunt us still. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 187)
What cannot be denied is that much more of Jezebel is gone than survives (II Kings 9:35). Liz Curtis Higgs (b. 1954) amplifies:
Her [Jezebel’s] wicked heart was history. Ditto with her evil smirk. Everything that made her female was destroyed. The only parts that remained were unidentifiable as belonging to Jez...Today we could check fingerprints and dental records. But back then, hands, feet, and skulls were a dime a dozen. (Higgs, Bad Girls of the Bible: And What We Can Learn from Them, 186)
The result is that Jezebel’s carcass rests as “dung on the face of the field in the property of Jezreel” (II Kings 9:37 NASB). Gail Corrington Streete (b. 1949) judges:
Almost gloatingly, the text describes the once-powerful queen reduced to an unidentifiable collection of disjecta membra, a skull, soles of feet, palms of hands, “like dung on the field” (II Kings 9:35-37). Her daughter Athaliah meets an end that echoes Jezebel’s; she is dragged from the Temple in Jerusalem to the palace, where she is killed at the “horses’ entrance” (II Kings 11:15-16). (Streete, The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible, 65)
Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) interjects:
Dogs devoured her flesh; hence, her corpse would be like dung (NIV “refuse”) in the plot at Jezreel [II Kings 9:37]. The “plot” was the area surrounding the city wall, the place where everyone deposited trash and digestive waste. There, all dung looked alike. Future generations would be unable to say “This is Jezebel” [II Kings 9:37]. (Hubbard, First & Second Kings (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 174)
There may also be wordplay involved in this remark (II Kings 9:37). John Gray (1913-2000) notates:
There is, as James A. Montgomery [1866-1949] recognizes (International Critical Commentary, p. 407), possibly a word-play between ‘dung’ (dōmen [II Kings 9:37] and zebel (meaning also ‘dung’ as in the Arabic cognate) in the Hebrew parody of an original element zebūl in the name of the queen (Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary, Second, Fully Revised Edition (Old Testament Library), 551)
Lesley Hazleton (b. 1945) editorializes:
Jehu’s judgment reaches for a perfect fit, with Jezebel at last made to match the Hebrew corruption of her name: -zevel, “woman of dung.” One would almost call it poetic perfection, and indeed it was doubtless intended to be exactly that, were the image no so deliberately crude [II Kings 9:37]. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 188)
Jezebel’s “god” will soon suffer the same fate as its devotee. James Richard Linville (b. 1959) follows:
As Jezebel was reduced to dung [II Kings 9:37], so the house of Baal has become a latrine (II Kings 10:27). (Linville, Israel in the Book of Kings: The Past as a Project of Social Identity, 193)
The depiction of Jezebel’s demise is unequivocally excessive (II Kings 9:30-37). Carey Walsh (b. 1960) exclaims:
In Jezebel’s case, what a death [II Kings 9:30-37]! After having been thrown out of the window by eunuchs [II Kings 9:32-33], Jezebel was eaten by dogs [II Kings 9:35]. Only her skull, feel, and palms remained (II Kings 9:35)...With Jezebel’s death, the dogs did more than lick up her blood. In fact, it first splashed around on the wall and next on the horses, which trampled her (II Kings 9:33). The dogs then devoured her corpse, leaving only the skull, feet, and palms (II Kings 9:35-36). It is genuinely hard to imagine a scene of greater overkill than this death in Israel’s cultural memory. There is perhaps a faint allusion to Jezebel’s death by having Athaliah killed in ‘the horses’ entrance’ (II Kings 11:16), but otherwise, the text mentions no burial for her. (Diana V. Edelman [b. 1954] and Ehud Ben Zvi [b. 1951], “Why Remember Jezebel?”, Remembering Biblical Figures in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods, 327-329)
Walter Brueggeman (b. 1933) agrees:
The narrative is at pains to portray the death of Jezebel dismissively with as much shame and humiliation as can be mustered [II Kings 9:30-37]. Her death contrasts with that of Ahaziah who is accorded the honors befitting a king (II Kings 9:28). (Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 388)
The overkill is almost comical. It parallels Vincent Ludwig (Ricardo Montalbon [1944-2007])’s death in the slapstick farce The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) in which the villain is hit with a stunning cufflink dart and falls from a baseball stadium before being run over in succession by a bus, a steamroller and the USC marching band.

Lesley Hazleton (b. 1945) recounts:

Jezebel has been submitted to abjection not once, but three times: she has been thrown to the dogs, then eaten by them, then excreted by them [II Kings 9:35, 37]. The degradation has finally reached its limits. What the individual body rejects is rejected by the body politic; Jezebel is beyond the pale. Now the dogs’ dung will dry in the sun, to be eroded by the wind into dust, invisible to the human eye. There will be nothing left of Jezebel—no tomb, no monument, no shrine. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 189)
Perhaps Jezebel’s greatest degradation is that her scant remains prevent a proper burial (II Kings 9:35). Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) discusses:
The burial is thwarted when only parts of her corpse are found [II Kings 9:35]. There is no mention of what happened to the rest. It is assumed, rather, that the reader will still remember Elisha’s pronouncement in I Kings 21:24, which was already repeated in the redactional verse II Kings 9:10a. Elisha prophesied that Jezebel would have no burial so that her spirit would wonder restlessly forever. Thus she has received the most severe punishment that was imaginable in ancient Israel...This redactional addendum clearly states the fulfillment of the prophecy: without burial Jezebel is “like the dung of the field” [II Kings 9:36-37]. This fate amounts to the destruction of a human life that can no longer exist in the shadowy realm of the dead. (Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary, 287)
Walter Brueggeman (b. 1933) connects:
The contrast is that the body of the despised queen is not only dishonored and turned over to the most brutalizing and ignoble of all animals, but is left without a trace for any possible funeral rite [II Kings 9:35]. Her “burial,” or one like it, is perhaps a basis for Jeremiah’s anticipation for a disgraced king in Jerusalem [Jeremiah 22:18-22]. (Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 388)
Burial was especially important in Hebrew culture. Joseph Robinson (b. 1927) reports:
The Hebrews did not regard death as meaning the separation of the spirit and the body. The spirit was still linked with the body, and its existence in the afterworld of Sheol was dependent upon the continuing existence of the body or at least the bones. Hence proper burial was a matter of great importance, and for a body to be left unburied and, therefore, a prey for birds and wild beasts, was regarded as being the greatest curse that could fall upon any person or family. (Robinson, The Second Book of Kings (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 91)
Throughout history, failure to bury the dead has often been deemed demeaning. Lesley Hazleton (b. 1945) chronicles:
In both Greece and Rome, suicides and criminals would be deliberately left unburied, to be eaten as carrion, and later still, in medieval England, the bodies of executed traitors would be drawn and quartered, and the pieces strung up to rot. (Hazleton, Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen, 186)
Carey Walsh (b. 1960) philosophizes:
Graves...are important markers of cultural memory used to advance a sense of social continuity. Jezebel was denied this quite explicitly: ‘so that no one can say, “This is Jezebel” (II Kings 9:37). She did not receive a burial because there was not enough of her left to bury. She is then denied the security of a grave and the cultural memory it occasioned, of resting with her people, like Ahab had in Samaria...The grave of Moses was also unmarked, but unlike Jezebel, he had one (Deuteronomy 34:1-6). In his case, there presumably was an intact corpse for burial. The cultural memory of Moses was thereby not erased or desecrated in any way. Instead, it was circumscribed to Israel’s past. Moses remained in an unmarked grave in sight of the Promised Land so that the people could continue to their future in that Promised Land. In this way, Joshua could lead the people into the land without the overwhelming memory of Moses hindering their new chapter. The detail of Moses’ grave also served an important ideological function for the post-exilic community...Those living in Yehud could draw comfort from the notion that Moses’ grave, though unmarked, was in sight of the Promised Land, and so symbolically watched over it...With Jezebel, there was no grave marked or unmarked: ‘so that no one can say, “This is Jezebel”’ [II Kings 9:37]. The imagined utterance is itself a shaped memory whereby the story located the loss of reaction subsequent generations would have. It was, in other words, a memory of how she would not even be remembered. She was denied a place in the land of Israel she sought to tamper with as queen. Jezebel was literally dismembered, not to be remembered, yet the Deuteronomistic History’s gory spectacle in fact rendered her unforgettable. The unintentional message was that there is real pleasure to remembering wickedness, and this undercuts the scribal ideological agenda to quell it. Jezebel’s memory flies well beyond Samaria where her husband Ahab was buried [I Kings 22:37] and is vividly recalled in the Deuteronomistic History’s account of her disgraceful, effacing end. There, Jezebel is more memorable than any grave could ever have rendered her. Gore and ignominy guarantee it. (Diana V. Edelman [b. 1954] and Ehud Ben Zvi [b. 1951], “Why Remember Jezebel?”, Remembering Biblical Figures in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods, 327-28)
Jezebel serves as a cautionary tale. Carey Walsh (b. 1960) evaluates:
Clearly, the social memory fashioned in Jezebel’s death was about the horrors of exclusion and erasure with the denial of customary burial. Her death would have been understood by people in the Persian period and beyond as a disgraceful and desecrating end [II Kings 9:30-37]. The social memory constructed around Jezebel’s death was admonitory to subsequent generations, to avoid this at all costs...The scribal aim of finishing Jezebel off was shaped for greatest effect for remembering rather than forgetting her. Jezebel was so hated that she would have been better off forgotten by the community. (Diana V. Edelman [b. 1954] and Ehud Ben Zvi [b. 1951], “Why Remember Jezebel?”, Remembering Biblical Figures in the Late Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods, 329)
Jezebel’s death supplies one of the most graphic scenes in all of scripture (II Kings 9:30-37). Though difficult to read, the Israelites see the queen’s ignominious death as the end of a reign of terror. The implication is clear: Though evil may win some battles, it does not pay off in the end.

Why does the Bible document all of the gory details of Jezebel’s death (II Kings 9:30-37)? What is the worst aspect of the wicked queen’s obliteration? Historically, who died the worst death? How important is the way in which one dies? Why do the dogs specifically leave Jezebel’s skull, feet and hands (II Kings 9:35)? Do you care what becomes of your body after you die; why? What does it say of Jehu that he can eat immediately after the assassination of Jezebel (II Kings 9:34)? Are Jehu and Jezebel more alike than different? Is Jehu a hero?

Jezebel’s death closes the book on her in more ways than one (II Kings 9:30-37). Patricia Dutcher-Walls (b. 1952) resolves:

Jezebel’s death scene narratively completes the story of the queen both by “ending” her life and by bringing to a close the prophetic judgments against her [II Kings 9:30-37]. (Dutcher-Walls, Jezebel: Portraits of a Queen, 135)
Jehu declares that Jezebel’s downfall marks the fulfillment of prophecy (II Kings 9:36-37). Richard D. Nelson (b. 1945) elucidates:
Jehu interprets this circumstance as a fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecy [II Kings 9:36-37]. This is the second time Jehu himself has interpreted his own actions as prophetic fulfillment [II Kings 9:25-27]. The reader will find out in II Kings 10:17 and II Kings 10:30 that both God and the narrator agree. There is no insistence on an exact mechanical correspondence between prophecy and fulfillment; dung was not mentioned at all in I Kings 21:23. (Nelson, First and Second Kings (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 203)
Jehu’s reading of the day’s events has generated debate (II Kings 9:36-37). Iain W. Provan (b. 1957) concedes:
The end of the chapter throws up a particularly difficult problem, even as it is claiming...fulfillment [II Kings 9:36-37]. The majority of Hebrew manuscripts at I Kings 21:23 have Elijah saying that Jezebel would be eaten by dogs “by the wall” (Hebrew hēl) of Jezreel.” The Masoretic Text at II Kings 9:36 (and also II Kings 9:10) has her eaten on the plot of ground (Hebrew hēleq) at Jezreel. This is most puzzling, when so much is being made here of the link between the two texts. An easy way out of the difficulty would be to argue that I Kings 21:23 has suffered textual corruption. Although a few Hebrew manuscripts do read hēleq there, however, the accidental omission of a q is very difficult to understand in the context. Did the authors mean us to understand, then, that Elijah used both words in talking of Jezebel? (Provan, 1 & 2 Kings (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))
This alleged discrepancy is not as trivial as it appears on the surface (II Kings 9:36-37). Janet Howe Gaines (b. 1950) corrects:
Actually, I Kings 21:23 predicts that the dogs will consume Jezebel’s body בחל, in the “moat of Jezreel” (JPS translation) and “within the bounds” of Jezreel (NRSV translation). Moving to the II Kings description of where the event actually occurs, the Hebrew word is spelled one consonant different, בחלק, which means “plot of ground” [II Kings 9:36]. In other words, the two texts indicate a slight difference of opinion about where the retribution against Jezebel occurs. Since it is important that Elijah’s prophecy be carried out exactly, this small point matters. It is appropriate for dogs to devour Jezebel “within the bounds” of Jezreel, for therein lies Naboth’s vineyard. (Gaines, Music in the Old Bones: Jezebel Through the Ages, 88)
Gina Hens-Piazza (b. 1948) accuses:
Jehu is quick to define this dreadful destiny as fulfillment of divine oracle (I Kings 21:23). However, his citation of the word of the Lord far exceeds the judgment and punishment of Jezebel specified in the original oracle [II Kings 9:36-37]. One begins to think this sounds more like someone covering his own tracks. (Hens-Piazza, 1–2 Kings (Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries), 293)
The results of Jehu’s actions comply with the spirit of Elijah’s prophecy (II Kings 9:36-37). Thomas L. Constable (b. 1939) defends:
Jehu’s commentary on the prophecy (II Kings 9:37) is in harmony with Elijah’s words [I Kings 21:17-29]. The king’s complete lack of respect for Jezebel in her death reflects how he and God, as well as the godly in Israel, viewed this callous sinner who had been directly and indirectly responsible for so much apostasy and wickedness among God’s people. (John F. Walvoord [1910-2002] and Roy B. Zuck [1932-2013], The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, 557)
The link to prophecy justifies the killing and places it squarely within the auspices of God’s will. Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) situates:
The sixth episode [II Kings 9:31-37] portrays Jehu’s killing of Jezebel with combination of contempt and irony in its efforts to demonstrate that Jehu acts with the authorization of YHWH [II Kings 9:36-37]...It...provides the occasion to illustrate the fulfillment of Elijah’s oracle that the dogs would eat the flesh of Jezreel in the property of Naboth the Jezreelite (see I Kings 21:23). The citation reminds the reader that Jehu acts on the basis of YHWH’s will as communicated by Elijah. (Sweeney, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 336)
In referencing Elijah’s oracle, Jehu asserts that justice has been served (II Kings 9:36-37). Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (b. 1943) presumes:
Though horrifying to modern readers, Jehu apparently viewed Jezebel’s death as the just, inevitable end of her defiant life [II Kings 9:36-37]...Jehu explained that Elijah had predicted Jezebel’s disappearance (II Kings 9:36; I Kings 21:23). (Hubbard, First & Second Kings (Everyman’s Bible Commentary), 174)
Denise Lardner Carmody (b. 1935) concurs:
Jezebel finally came to a bad end, her flesh eaten by dogs [II Kings 9:35]...In the sight of the biblical authors, her death was simple justice, as it was simple justice for priests of the false foreign gods to be slain...Jezebel she had lived a robust hater. (Carmody, Biblical Woman: Contemporary Reflections on Scriptural Texts, 50)
Jill L. Baker (b. 1964) grants:
Jezebel suffered a death that was commensurate with her great disobedience to the LORD. (Catherine Clark Kroeger [1925-2011] and Mary J. Evans [b. 1949], The Women’s Study Bible: New Living Translation Second Edition, 441)
This sense of retributive justice complies with the book’s theology. Alice L. Laffey (b. 1944) positions:
Jehu’s response to this news is to remark that the word of the Lord through Elijah the prophet concerning Jezebel’s death has been fulfilled (I Kings 21:23) [II Kings 9:36-37]...According to Deuteronomistic theology, one could only expect that Jezebel’s evil behavior would result in evil consequences. (Laffey, First and Second Kings (New Collegeville Commentary), 116)
Cameron B.R. Howard (b. 1980) pronounces:
This scene [II Kings 9:30-37] marks the ultimate triumph of the anti-Jezebel vitriol that has permeated the book of Kings, a release of violent rage not simply by the eunuchs or Jehu, but by the narrative itself. It is as if, by her evisceration, her mutilation, the erasure of her very face, the Deueteronomists could erase the apostasies Jezebel represents from the unfolding history of the fall of Israel and Judah. Yet the idolatry, like the memory of Jezebel herself, persists. (Carol A. Newsom [b. 1950], Sharon H. Ringe [b. 1946] and Jacqueline E. Lapsley [b. 1965] Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated, 177)
As gruesome as Jezebel’s death unfolds, in Jehu’s mind it is justified (II Kings 9:36-37). The queen has merely reaped what she has sown (Galatians 6:7). And the gory consequences of what she has sown leave Jezebel forever etched in the tradition’s collective memory.

Do you think that Jehu fulfills Elijah’s prophecy the way that God intended (I Kings 21:17-29)? Have you ever thought you were on a mission from God? Is justice served in Jezebel’s death? Is it ever our place to dole out God’s justice?

“Deserves death! I daresay he [Gollum] does. Many that live deserve death. And some die that deserve life. Can you give that to them? Then be not too eager to deal out death in the name of justice...Even the wise cannot see all ends.” - J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), The Lord of the Rings, Part Two: The Two Towers, p. 246