Commentary on 1 Kgs 21:17-29
Our reading today follows immediately on yesterday. We see Ahab now pay the price for the murder of Naboth.
Ahab has just been told by his wife that Naboth is now dead so he immediately goes down to the vineyard he coveted so much to take it over. But just then Elijah is receiving instructions from the Lord to go and confront the king in the vineyard. He is given a strong message to pass on to Ahab: “After murdering Naboth, are you now going to take over his ancestral land? In fact, in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs will lick up your blood also.” Ahab had not directly killed Naboth but he had cooperated fully in the murder and theft planned by his wife and, as king, the ultimate responsibility was with him.
In fact, Ahab’s repentance for his actions, which will be mentioned in a moment, brought about a postponement of this prophecy. Instead, it will be the body of his son Joram which will be thrown on the field of Naboth.
More than that, Ahab is told that all his male descendants, free or slave, will be wiped out. Their bodies will either be eaten by dogs or by carrion-eating birds. The body of Jezebel, too, will be eaten by dogs. “When one of Ahab’s line dies, dogs will devour him; when one of them dies in the field, the birds of the sky will devour him.” These were terrible indignities as dogs were symbolical of all that was unclean and defiled. (We remember the poor man Lazarus in the house of the rich man. The level of his helpless destitution is indicated by dogs coming to lick his sores. He did not even have the strength to drive them away; meanwhile the rich man sat there doing nothing.)
As Elijah pronounces God’s sentence we might note the similarity with the episode of Nathan and David (where he is accused of the death of Uriah after his adultery with Bathsheba). On each occasion Yahweh defends the helpless against the powerful and, as in the case of David, there is the same reprieve for the repentant offender who is punished only through his son. But there are differences, too. David’s dynasty retains the divine promise, whereas Ahab’s is “swept away”. Nathan remains David’s prophet and blesses Solomon but Elijah is Ahab’s “enemy”.
In addition to this murder, we are told that Ahab was responsible for all kinds of abominations, connected with the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites, under the pernicious influence of his wife. He became no different from the Amorites, a reference to the idolatrous peoples of Canaan before the Israelites arrived.
To his credit, after hearing the condemnation of Elijah, Ahab deeply repents of what he has done. He rends his garments, puts on sackcloth and walks in the slow steps of the repentant person.
Because of this, the punishments against his family would be postponed until after he died. He was, in fact, killed in battle at Ramoth Gilead and, after his body was brought to Samaria, dogs licked the blood that was being washed from his chariot. His son Joram was killed and the body thrown into Naboth’s field – just as Elijah had foretold.
Reflecting on this story we can say two things:
- our wrongdoings carry with them unavoidable punishments, built into the very nature of evil actions;
- no matter how serious our faults, God’s compassion and forgiveness awaits those who genuinely repent and change their ways.