A recent episode of the quiz show Jeopardy! had a category called “Poly-Esther.” The writers had found six women named Esther sufficiently famous to write clues about them. The name Esther has been in the top 500 names for girls in the United States ever since such statistics have been kept. (The name placed 153rd in 2018.) In the Bible, Esther’s role in the Purim story made her so familiar to Jews and non-Jews that the writers of the play Fiddler On the Roof turned the Sabbath blessing for girls into “may you be like Ruth and like Esther.” (The traditional blessing is, “May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”) On the other hand, the name Jezebel, in that form, ranked 3,383rd in popularity in 2018, and didn’t rank anywhere at all before 1994. Since that date a total of 284 girls in the United States have been named Jezebel. (In 2018 the more popular variant of the name, Isabella, was ranked number 4, and in 2009 it was the most popular name for newborn girls.)
Taken at face value, both names are innocent enough. Esther means star. Jezebel/Isabella (the accent in Hebrew is, incidentally, on the next to last syllable: Ye-ZAH-vel) means pure. Their popularity, though, is affected by the characters of the women with those names in the Bible. That Jezebel is hardly pure.
The book of Esther is about the institution of the holiday of Purim (February 26 in 2021). From a casual reading, one would think the book should be named for Mordechai. For the first several chapters, Esther, when mentioned at all, appears to be inconsequential. When her people are threatened, however, she becomes brave and resourceful. The enemy of her people, Haman, was a clever man. He had used his shrewdness to threaten an entire nation. He did not count on the cleverness of one woman.
Esther had to defend the Jewish people. She knew it would be difficult to just accuse Haman directly. She manipulated the situation to where she could present his crime to her husband in such a way that Haman could not escape. It is this cleverness that has made Esther a common name even to this day.
Iezavel, on the other hand, was the embodiment of evil. It used to be said that nobody named their child Jezebel, and that is still mostly true. A simple change of pronunciation made the name much more popular.
Jezebel was in some ways the opposite of Esther. She clearly wore the pants in the family; Ahab was wishy-washy at his best. She caused a significant portion of the Israelites to continue in sin by worshiping the Baals. She even had 450 prophets of Baal on the government payroll. (1 Kings 18:19) Like Esther, she was clever; but she turned that cleverness into cruelty, as in the taking of Naboth’s vineyard. (1 Kings 21) Her name became so synonymous with evil that it was used in the Revelation to John to symbolize all that God hated. (Rev 2:20)
Some people think reputation is not all that important. They think nothing of besmirching the family name. After all, it’s just a name. But is it? Esther and Jezebel may just be names, but because of what two women did, those names have taken two completely different paths. It has taken almost 4,000 years for the name of Jezebel to begin to recover. Which leads one to wonder, what am I doing with my name?