BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Women, Windows, and Death

Women at the window in the ancient Near East

Furniture plaque carved in relief with a “woman at the window”. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Furniture plaque carved in relief with a “woman at the window.” Made of ivory and dating to the ninth–eighth centuries BCE, it most likely comes from the site of Arslan Tash in northern Syria. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Woman at the Window” is an intriguing artistic motif that was popular among the elite of the ancient Near East during the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BCE). Discovered at various sites including Nimrud and Khorsabad in Iraq, Arslan Tash in northern Syria, and Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, these carved pieces of ivory once adorned various types of furniture that graced wealthy homes and palaces of the day. As popular as this motif seems to have been, its exact meaning still escapes us today. Some have suggested the woman represents the goddesses Astarte or Asherah, although her adornments and jewelry are more typical of noblewomen rather than deities. Perhaps a clue to the identity of this mysterious woman can be found in ancient Near Eastern literature, most notably the pages of the Hebrew Bible.

A particularly memorable episode in the Book of Kings concerns the death of the infamous Jezebel, idolatrous queen of the Northern Kingdom (2 Kings 9:30–37). Prior to her demise, we are told that her son Joram, the king of Israel, is nursing his wounds at Jezreel. The king had likely come to stay with his mother while he recuperated, and Jezebel’s grandson Ahaziah, king of Judah, came to visit his uncle. Soon after, the newly anointed Jehu rides to Jezreel to go about the bloody business of a military coup and assassinates Joram. He then chases down the fleeing Ahaziah and ends the life of that king as well.


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Jezebel, knowing full well what had just transpired, puts on her makeup and adorns her headdress before taking her place at the window to proudly address the traitorous general who had just committed double regicide by killing her son and grandson. Jehu ignores Jezebel’s cutting words and orders two of her servants to toss the queen out of the window to her death. After Jehu is done celebrating his victory with Jezebel’s own food and wine, he orders his servants to go and bury the queen’s body, even though most of it had already been eaten by scavengers.

Openwork furniture plaque with a “woman at the window” from a royal building at Nimrud. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Openwork furniture plaque with a “woman at the window” from a royal building at Nimrud. The openwork technique is typical of Phoenician craftsmanship. The drilled pupils were perhaps once inlaid with glass or semi-precious stones. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another noblewoman at a window is referenced in the victory song of Deborah in Judges 5:28–31. There, we find the mother of the Canaanite general Sisera standing at a window, waiting for her son to return home victorious from battle. Instead, he lies dead at the feet of Jael, the brave woman who drove a tent peg through his skull.

As Lacy K. Crocker Papadakis notes in the Winter 2023 Issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, “In the Bible, the window serves as the space between life and death, danger and safety. The women illustrate their shifting societal places and the need to guard and protect. Through their liminality, these women mediate the danger posed by the impermanence of life.”

Open windows seem to have carried with them a strong sense of mortality in the ancient Near East and the inescapable nature of death, even among the gods. This can be seen in an episode within the famous Baal Epic discovered at Ugarit. After Baal is victorious over Yamm (the Sea) and his dreaded sea-serpent Lotan, the storm god is made king of the gods and builds a palace for himself on the heights of Mt. Zaphon. The gods’ master builder suggests putting in a window but Baal refuses for reasons that remain a mystery. Baal eventually agrees to put in the window, his fears seemingly put to rest. The act seems to imply some sort of challenge to death himself (the god Mot) and soon after Baal goes to face Mot, only to be swallowed up by the gaping maw of death.

Whether or not the “woman at the window” motif had such a macabre meaning, the imagery proved to be very popular among the rich and powerful of the ancient Near East. Jezebel herself would have most likely been familiar with it, since such ivories have been discovered at Samaria, where she ruled as queen. Perhaps they even adorned pieces of furniture within her palace at Jezreel, where she stood before her open window, and like her patron deity Baal, defiantly stared down her impending death.

To learn more, read Lacy K. Crocker Papadakis’s article “Understanding the Woman in the Window” in the Winter 2023 Issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article, “Understanding the Woman in the Window” by Lacy K. Crocker Papadakis, published in the Winter 2023 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Deborah and Jael in Full Color

Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?

How Bad Was Jezebel?

Jezreel Expedition Sheds New Light on Ahab and Jezebel’s City

Canaanite God Baal Found in Israel

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Who or What Was Yahweh’s Asherah? Startling new inscriptions from two different sites reopen the debate about the meaning of asherah.

Fit for a Queen: Jezebels’ Royal Seal

Jezreel—Where Jezebel Was Thrown to the Dogs

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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1 Responses

  1. Mike Suarez says:

    Interesting article. I would offer the following explanation. The headdress on the woman looks to be adorned and styled in a way that is probably not available to the common woman. And the window does not look like just any window but instead might even be a balcony or portico. Which suggests a multi level structure, again not indicative of just any common house. Furthermore, people of the Levant, being highly superstitious would probably not be carrying around a motif signifying a tragic consequence. It seems more likely to me that the motif signifies wealth and good luck instead of tragedy.

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1 Responses

  1. Mike Suarez says:

    Interesting article. I would offer the following explanation. The headdress on the woman looks to be adorned and styled in a way that is probably not available to the common woman. And the window does not look like just any window but instead might even be a balcony or portico. Which suggests a multi level structure, again not indicative of just any common house. Furthermore, people of the Levant, being highly superstitious would probably not be carrying around a motif signifying a tragic consequence. It seems more likely to me that the motif signifies wealth and good luck instead of tragedy.

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