Commentary on 1 Kgs 21:1-16
Today we have the story of Naboth’s vineyard – an example of corrupt and shameless use of power. The main characters are King Ahab and his Sidonian wife, Jezebel. We have seen both of them before and the general impression is that Ahab is weak, while his wife is corrupt and ruthless. It was she who introduced the worship of Baal into Israel and had wanted to avenge the execution of the Baal priests by killing Elijah.
The story begins on a reasonable enough note. King Ahab asks Naboth to exchange his vineyard which adjoins the king’s property for another one or, alternatively, to be given its value in money. This property was in Jezreel, where Ahab had a second palace, in addition to his main one in Samaria.
In spite of his position, the king could not confiscate land. The king’s power in Israel was limited by the Law so Ahab was unable simply to take over privately held land, as was customary with Canaanite kings (not to mention kings and governments in our own time!).
Naboth, however, refused because the ownership of the land was a sacred tradition handed down through generations. Naboth’s refusal to dispose of his land was based on the conviction that the land belonged to the Lord and that a perpetual lease had been given to each Israelite family. This was to be jealously preserved as the family’s permanent inheritance in the promised land. (One of the central issues in the ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians today is precisely who has prior right to the ownership of the land, especially where outsiders have come in to take it over.)
Ahab, like many people of power when they do not get their way, went into a sulken depression and refused even to eat. In some ways, of course, his behaviour arose out of his respect – or his fear – of the Law which he did not want to violate.
His wife, Jezebel, however, saw things differently. As a Canaanite, she was not used to seeing kingly power challenged and she satirically mocked her husband’s weakness. “A fine king you are!” A sarcastic remark of incredulity spoken by one accustomed to the dictatorial practices of Phoenician and Canaanite kings, who would not hesitate a moment to use their power to satisfy personal interests. Something we see all too often even in these times. She tells him to get up and cheer up because he is going to get the vineyard he covets so badly.
Writing in the king’s name, she shamelessly sent off letters to the aristocracy and the leaders of the people ordering them to proclaim a fast (as if there had been a national calamity) and to put Naboth on trial (as its cause), accusing him of cursing God and the king, both charges carrying the punishment of death by stoning. In effect, the leaders of the community become collaborators in the crime; they could very well have known or suspected the real circumstances.
In addition, they were told to produce two witnesses – as required by law – to make the charges stick, where a capital offence was involved. These men were to give false testimony in order to give a veneer of legality to the proceedings. Naboth was to be accused of cursing both God and king, for which the mandatory sentence was stoning. It seems also that the possessions of those condemned to death went to the king – the main purpose of the whole charade.
It is possible that there may, in fact, have been some form of calamity at the time, such as a drought or famine, which gave Jezebel the excuse to get rid of Naboth. She wanted to create the impression that a disaster threatened the people, a disaster which only be averted if they would humble themselves before the Lord and remove any person whose sin had brought God’s judgement on them.
Everything was done to the letter as Jezebel, in the name of the king, had ordered. The two witnesses gave their false testimony and Naboth was stoned outside Jezreel, as the law required. (Jesus, too, was brought outside the city for his execution.) From references in the Second Book of Kings, it seems that Naboth was actually stoned on his own land and his sons were stoned with him. This eliminated the heirs who might make claim to the land, thus leaving it for the king to take over.
With the vineyard now ownerless, Jezebel told her husband, as king, to exercise his right and take it over for himself. The reading ends with Ahab going down to Naboth’s vineyard to take it over but, as we shall see in tomorrow’s reading, there is an unpleasant surprise in store for him.
This story has overtones of the trial and death of Jesus much later on. Jesus himself, in a parable, will tell of tenants who will take over a vineyard and kill the son of the owner. Jesus, too, will be accused of cursing God and the Roman emperor and will be executed – not by stoning but by death on a cross. In his case, too, scoundrels will be brought forward to make charges of blasphemy against God and sacrilege against the Temple. And, like Naboth, the execution will take place outside the city.
We need to be constantly on our guard that people are not falsely accused even if it is “only” a matter of gossip but even more so if it is a serious matter. And we might ask to what lengths we would be prepared to go simply to have something we want but do not need.
We live, too, in a world where there is a great deal of scapegoating (the ‘blame culture’) and corrupt justice at many levels of public and private life. Let us not be part of it in any way.