Proper 06 – Year C

1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14) 15-21a

Naboth’s Vineyard
This is another confrontation between Elijah and the royal family of Ahab and Jezebel. As you may recall (from last week’s reading), Ahab had already angered Yahweh when he married Jezebel, who was a foreigner from Sidon, and for giving Sidon’s state religion of Baal worship legitimacy in Israel (1 Kings 16: 31-33). The previous conflicts reflect this apostasy, but here the issue is injustice as well as theology: the abuse of power in order to secure land. The two themes together make a larger point that is worth noting, which is that idolatry produces injustice. The worship of other gods inevitably results in abuse of others. When one worships Yahweh, one respects the covenant of creation.

At the beginning of this story, Ahab is vacationing in his northern palace, up in Jezreel, near the Phoenician border. The official capital of Israel in those days was down in Samaria, but after they were married, Ahab and Jezebel built a second palace up in the northern region of the country, probably to be close to Jezebel’s family and to the business opportunities that proximity would afford him. While there, one day he happens to look out of his window and he sees a farm owned by a peasant named Naboth.

He goes and talks to Naboth and tells him that he would like that land for what he calls a vegetable garden, though as we will see, it’s more likely he wanted it for export crops, not summer tomatoes to sell at the local farmers' market. He makes Naboth what appears to be a generous—or at least fair—offer. He even offers him silver, which sounds nice, but actually may have been useless to an agrarian peasant.[1] In any case payment of any kind didn't interest Naboth and he refuses. According to Israelite cosmology, Naboth is the land and the land is Naboth. It's false to make a distinction between them. So, both legally and theologically he can't let go of it. As he puts it in his brief response to the offer, the land is his “ancestral inheritance” (some translations have “heritage”), and the Lord would “forbid” his giving it away for any purpose.

This passage from Numbers 27:4-11 makes it clear that land must remain in the family. Note the frequent use of the word “inheritance” (emphasis added), which refers to land, not the family's bank account.
5 Moses brought their case before the Lord. 6 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 7 The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father's brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. 8 You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. 9 If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. 10 If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father's brothers. 11 And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”

When thinking about the role of Jezebel in all of this, it's important to note that she was not some nice girl he met on college break at one of the tourist beaches outside of Sidon. She was the daughter of Eth-baal (whose name, interestingly, means “with Baal”), who was a ruler of Tyre and the head of one of the ancient world's largest import-export institutions.

So, when Naboth turns Ahab down, he goes back home again (probably back to Samaria) and evidently just pouts. One might dispute that term being used of a King of Israel, but the text says “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.” It's hard to read that and not say he goes home and pouts. It's possible he was also murmuring “Mommy” under his breath, but that can't be verified for certain. Jezebel, on the other hand, chides him sarcastically for his spinelessness. “Do you now govern Israel?” she asks, meaning something like, “Hey, aren't you the boss here, or did they vote you off the island for being a wuss?” She then sets out a plan to have Naboth murdered and his land taken from him.

The background of this story is that North Israel (where this story takes place) was rapidly coming under the economic influence of aristocratic mercantilists with trading ties to the powerful Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon (remember that Jezebel was an heiress of a major multinational import/export family from Tyre). Archeological findings in the region have found that wealthy merchant families in Tyre and Sidon (and their Israelite wealthy wannabes) had been dispossessing north Israel peasants from their land for at least a generation leading up to the time of the marriage of Princess Jezebel to King Ahab.[2] The text in 1 Kings says simply that Ahab wanted the land for a vegetable garden. Behind that innocent statement is probably the darker reality that he (and his wife) wanted it for its potential for wine exports, most likely to Carthage.[3]

Naboth, citing the theological logic of the Jubilee, says that he simply cannot sell it. He can't because technically he doesn't own it. It is tribal property, an “ancestral inheritance,”[4] owned by the entire family and by God, and God would “forbid” his selling it (1 Kings 21:1-3).[5]

Naboth and other Hebrew peasants understood their land to be a gift of God and they were only stewards of it, their job was to “redeem” it, while the Phoenicians, reflecting a more urban, city-state individualist view of humanity, believed that land was just a commodity and could be bought, sold and stolen by anybody. Leviticus 25:23-24 puts the theology succinctly: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.”

It was an early conflict between theology and economics. [6] According to Brueggemann, “the vineyard could not be without Naboth belonging to it. Naboth could not be without this land. That close and inalienable land linkage is likely reflected in the Jubilee practice (Leviticus 25), a social, institutional guarantee that this connection of land and family is indispensable for the functioning of society.”[7] One side in this dispute believed in a family-based monotheism which by necessity produced a kind of primitive trade protectionism along with capital controls, while the other side believed in a competition-based henotheism which produced winners, losers, and economic dislocation. Historically, it is very likely that this small story was preserved in the biblical tradition because it was later seen as a paradigm of protest on behalf of Yahweh ownership of land and on behalf of a whole class of dispossessed, oppressed people.

Israel leading up to this time had been a radically communal society. When persons lacked land, and the sense of self worth that came with it, they also lacked personhood. It was an egalitarian world based on land, community (tribe), and allegiance to Yahweh. Tyre and Sidon, on the other hand, were individualist societies, and saw land as something which could be separated from its owner by wealthy merchants, powerful land barons, or kings. By the logic of the community, you can’t steal from someone in the family, because the family is you. An ancient midrash on this passage says,
A man has no right to sell his ancestral field so that he can get ready capital wherewith to buy cattle, or mobillia, or slaves, or to raise sheep or goats, or even to conduct business therewith. The only circumstances in which it is permitted is if he has become penniless.”[8]

So, Ahab pouts and refuses to eat, in part because of course he is a pansy, but in part because he understands Yahwistic faith: one cannot conceive of stealing land from someone else because we are all a part of the same family and created by the same God. On the other hand, Jezebel cannot conceive of not stealing it, because we are not the same.

She first calls for a fast. Fasts were proclaimed in order to announce that something important was about to happen. It was religious, but it was also political. Fasts were usually called when there was about to be a battle, or a coronation, or a trial, etc. Following that, Naboth is brought into the Assembly (either open air or in the largest public building of the village), and set at the head of the room alongside two “scoundrels” she has chosen to bring false charges against him. At this point there is no evidence that he has heard anything about the charges, and may not even have understood the purpose for the gathering. In fact, the exact nature of the charges is left unclear, but they at least include blasphemy against God and king, which was a capital offense because it is tantamount to treason. There was more than one document filed in Samaria and brought to Jezreel, so she may also have been charging him with something like breach of contract. She may have either claimed that he had sold it to Ahab or that he promised the sale and now denies it. There was at least some evidence that they had discussed the sale of the property and that Naboth had invoked God's name in the conversation (which is often used in legally sealing transactions), and that could have been used against him.

In any case the people gathered in the assembly side with the two paid witnesses and they pronounce him guilty, and then, following the law, they take him to the edge of town and stone him to death. The land reverts to the king, as the representative of the people as a whole, and all should be well. And as for Ahab, “As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it” (v. 16).

Note that Jezebel is not more evil than Ahab, she is just less troubled by the social impropriety of violating Israel's humane social contract. Note too, that Ahab fasts when he doesn't get his way, and Jezebel calls for a nation-wide fast to eliminate Naboth and get her way. In both instances a religious ritual which was created for spiritual cleansing is being used for evil purposes.

But before he can take possession of the land, Elijah appears and proclaims: “Thus says the Lord: You have killed, and also taken possession!” (Dennis McCann, says that in spite of the translation in the NRSV, what Elijah says is a declaration, not a question.)[9] Elijah doesn't say more about the crime, because Ahab understands his sin. He quotes God's impending punishment, but what is important is that “you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord” (v. 20 emphasis added). Ahab may think that Elijah is his enemy, but in the end, Ahab’s worst enemy was himself.

[1] The text is usually translated “money,” but the word is keseph, or Silver. For many among the currency classes (though maybe not peasants) money and silver were synonymous.
[2] Clinton McCann, Texts for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1994, p.362
[3] See “Search for Phoenician Shipwrecks,” Biblical Archaeology Review Vol. 12, No. 5 (Sept./Oct 1999), p 16; and James D. Newsome’s Hebrew Scripture essay for Proper 6, Ordinary time 11, in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press: 1994) pp. 282-284.
[4] The Hebrew word is nahala and could also be translated “sacred patrimony” or “heirloom.”
[5] See Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophet as a Destabilizing Presence,” in A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) pp. 221-244.
[6] Brueggemann, A Social Reading of the Old Testament, p. 239-242..
[7] Brueggemann, Ibid., p. 239.
[8] Barrett, C.K., ed. The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, Rev. Ed. (NY: Harper and Row, 1989), pp. 7-8.
[9] Clinton McCann, Texts for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1994, p.384.

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