Third Sunday after Pentecost

The story of Naboth’s vineyard, a tale of a wealthy and powerful person (Ahab) who oppresses (to the point of death) a less wealthy and powerful person (Naboth) who is simply seeking to do the right, is rich in lessons for our world today.

June 13, 2010

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Commentary on 1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a

The story of Naboth’s vineyard, a tale of a wealthy and powerful person (Ahab) who oppresses (to the point of death) a less wealthy and powerful person (Naboth) who is simply seeking to do the right, is rich in lessons for our world today.

First, some historical background. Ahab’s father Omri was perhaps the most influential king of the northern kingdom (ca. 885-874). According to 1 Kings 16:24, Omri bought the “hill of Samaria” and founded a new capital for the northern kingdom there (recall David’s conquest of Jerusalem as a new capital for the southern kingdom in 2 Samuel 5:6-10). Archaeological evidence suggests that Samaria quickly became a prosperous city due to its extensive international trade relations. Omri is also mentioned by named in the Mesha (or Moabite) inscription as a formidable foe of the Moabites in the ninth century. Also, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III refers to the house of Omri (parallel to the house of David?) in a ninth-century inscription called the Black Obelisk. Omri’s reign, however, is given a negative summary evaluation by the Deuteronomistic Historians (1 Kings 16:25-26). The reader will recall that the Deuteronomistic Historians evaluated the merit of a king’s reign by a single criterion–whether or not they were fully faithful to Yahweh alone. 

Omri’s son, Ahab, reigned over the northern kingdom of Israel from approximately 874-853 BCE. While the account of Omri’s reign merits only a brief thirteen verses in the book of the Kings (see 1 Kings 16:23-28), the account of Ahab’s reign consumes some seven chapters in the book of 1 Kings. It begins with the words, “[Ahab] took as his wife Jezebel daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians and went and served Baal and worshiped him. . . . Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:31, 33). In 1 Kings 17, the reader is introduced to Elijah the prophet, who will be an adversary to Ahab throughout his reign.

The Deuteronomistic Historians depicts Ahab as a king who is in constant conflict with God’s appointed prophet, Elijah (see 1 Kings 18:17 and 21:20) and, who, apparently, or largely, because of the influence of his wife Jezebel, is unwilling or unable to be fully faithful to Yahweh. In 1 Kings 16:32, we read that shortly after his marriage to Jezebel, Ahab built a house and established an altar for Baal in Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom. In 1 Kings 18:19, we are told that Jezebel provided for four hundred prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah (“[they] eat at Jezebel’s table”). In the same chapter in 1 Kings (chapter 18), Elijah summoned the prophets of Baal to Mt. Carmel and demonstrated that Yahweh was far more powerful than the collective powers of the prophets of Baal. Then, Elijah one-upped Ahab by outrunning the king’s chariot on their return journey to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:20-46).

The story of Naboth’s vineyard, recorded in 1 Kings 21, can perhaps be read and interpreted as the ultimate trespass by Ahab against God’s admonition to (and the Deuteronomistic Historian’s judgment of) the kings of ancient Israel to be fully faithful to Yahweh alone. Before the “Naboth incident,” Ahab’s acts of faithlessness involved other gods and the prophet whom Yahweh sent to keep Ahab in line.

But Naboth’s story is different. He was a mere subject of Ahab’s kingdom, with no extraordinary or powerful means of recourse against the actions of his monarch.

Two issues will aid the reader in understanding the import of the story of Naboth’s vineyard–the vineyard itself and the role of the king in ancient Israel.

We will begin with the vineyard. 1 Kings 21 tells us that Naboth owned a vineyard near the palace of Ahab and that Ahab desired to have the vineyard as a vegetable garden (1 Kings 21:2). He offered to either trade the vineyard for another piece of land or to pay Naboth outright for the vineyard (verse 2). Naboth declined Ahab’s offer, stating “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (verse 3). And thus the wheels were in motion whereby Jezebel orchestrated Naboth’s death based on false accusations of cursing God and the king (verse 10).

If Ahab was willing to give Naboth another piece of land or to compensate him financially for the land, why would Naboth object with such vehement words? The issue can be summed up in one word, “land.” Naboth was not being obstinate; he was striving to protect and preserve the land–the source of income and stability–that was his family’s God-given gift. According to Numbers 33:54 and Joshua 13-19, the land of promise had been divided among the children of Israel and each family’s division was to be kept in perpetuity (see Leviticus 25:23–the provisions for the sabbatical year). Ahab’s offer asked Naboth to forsake his birthright, his own inheritance from God, for the mere sake of a whim of the king.

And that leads to the next issue: the role of the king in ancient Israel. Ahab was king; except for the pesky interference of Elijah, he seemed all-powerful. Could he simply do as he liked? Could he demand that Naboth surrender his vineyard? Psalm 72 says this about a king of ancient Israel:

        May he judge your people with righteousness,
                and your poor with justice.
        May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
                and the hills, in righteousness.
        May he defend the cause of the poor of
            the people, give deliverance to the needy,
                and crush the oppressor. (verses 2-4)

Psalm 107 continues by saying that the king is one who provides land in which:

        . . . the hungry live,
                and they establish a town to live in;
        they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
                and get a fruitful yield. (verses 36-37)

Thus the role of the king was to provide care and protection for those who were less able to care for and protect themselves. And the king’s task was provide land–space–for each person to live and thrive.

Acting out of his own selfishness, Ahab sought to deprive a subject of his kingdom of his God-given land, his security, and his ability to live and thrive. Ahab not only refused to faithfully follow Yahweh; he refused to honor the God-given human dignity of his subjects. Therefore, Elijah confronts Ahab at the conclusion of the story of Naboth and says:

Thus says the LORD: Have you killed and also taken possession?  . . . Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood” (1 Kings 21:19).

Harsh words? Yes. Words of warning to the modern-day reader? Yes. Self-centeredness and greed are pervasive in our world, especially among those who have power over others. May the story of Ahab and Naboth be a constant reminder to each of us of our responsibilities to those who are less able than us to defend and care for themselves.