This will sound like a very non-21st-century idea: There are some things money can’t buy. Apparently, that was also a very non-9th-Century-BCE idea, as well. We quickly learn in this week’s OT lectionary reading that King Ahab didn’t get the memo, either:
Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat. –1 Kings 21:1-4 NRSV
This interesting tale within the longer story of the prophet Elijah will be completely baffling to those in our own day who still contend that everything can be bought; it’s just a question of finding the right price. The chief problem in transferring that concept to ancient Israel is that real estate was not something to be bought and sold. The underlying reason was that all of creation properly belongs to God and that we humans are, then, stewards of it. Furthermore, land in ancient Israel was considered a stewardship to be passed down within families from one generation to another.
Naboth wasn’t being unreasonably stubborn when his next-door neighbor Ahab ordered him to sell his vineyard so that Ahab could have another vegetable garden. That land was a sacred trust handed down to him from his father and his father before that–all the way back to when the twelve tribes of Jacob/Israel settled in the land promised centuries before to their ancestor Abraham.
Ahab, it should be noted, was weak-willed, self-centered, spoiled, often depressed, and quite possibly passive-aggressive. And so when Naboth said “No,” Ahab retreated to his bedroom to pout, refusing to eat. At that point Queen Jezebel, a Phoenician by birth and a major advocate of the fertility god Baal, entered the story:
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.’ ” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 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. –1 Kings 21:5-16 NRSV
First of all, the obvious comment about King Ahab: What a weazel!
Maybe back in Jezebel’s homeland the understanding was that all land was the property of the king, who doled out “ownership”–or at least stewardship–of the land according to his whims. But that still doesn’t excuse Queen Jezebel first of all from ignoring Israelite law and custom, undergirded as they were by theological realities. That would be bad enough on its own but then she hatches a vile plot to get Naboth stoned to death so that in the end Ahab can take position of his vineyard without even having to buy it. That’s just one awful crime heaped on another and then compounded with more. At this point the prophet Elijah, Ahab’s old nemesis, enters the picture:
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you…. –1 Kings 21:17-21a NRSV
Elijah certainly didn’t mince words, accusing Ahab of selling himself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Can there be a worse accusation than that?
Think about all the individuals, groups, nations, and corporations today who feign innocence but in the end reap hefty rewards from unjust actions against those who “got in the way,” who stood for principles and justice–and were sacrificed nonetheless. Just because we remain quiet or contend we’re at least at arm’s length away from injustice doesn’t mean we, too, haven’t sold ourselves to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. Maybe we even try to explain it all away by saying those folks are, regrettably, “collateral damage.” Such a pity. Too bad. But life goes on. The survival of the fittest and all.
At times Ahab and Jezebel come across almost as caricatures. But they can just as easily become a mirror to life in the 21st-century world we inhabit. When that mirror is held up, what and whom do we see?
*Reprinted from the 2013 ForeWords archive