YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between June 12 and June 18 if after Trinity Sunday)
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
The Books of Kings were probably organised in their present form in the sixth century BCE. They record the history of Israel from the death of King David to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 CE. There is an editorial framework for each king’s reign. It begins with a biographical description, and ends with an obituary. Each king is compared with David, the editor’s ‘ideal’ king. Most are compared unfavourably, especially kings of the northern kingdom, Israel, such as Ahab. Only a few kings of the southern kingdom of Judah, notably Josiah and Hezekiah, receive a favourable account.
The fact that these stories have an historical flavour should not divert us from their main purpose which is to comment theologically on the reign of these kings and their impact on the keeping of Israel’s faith. As we have seen with Ahab, the account in Kings is not so much concerned with the king’s success in terms of military prowess or economic expansion. It had much more to do with the king’s faithfulness, or unfaithfulness, to Yahweh. In this regard the story of the ‘word of the Lord’ as it comes through the prophets is extremely important and much more attention is given to the life and work of the prophet Elijah, than to any one monarch. We read the beginning of Elijah’s story last week with its emphasis on the power of the word of the Lord.
Today’s passage includes a narrative about the powerful influence wielded by Jezebel over her husband, Ahab. Jezebel, a princess of Phoenicia (1 Kgs 16:31), has already been introduced into the narrative in chapters 18 and 19. Her presence in this story is not only that of a powerful and ruthless influence over the king but that of one brought up in a foreign place who worships a foreign god, Baal. She represents a set of political and religious assumptions which are foreign to Israel. The story is not so much about power and influence at the individual level, although it has some things to say about that, but about the clash of political and religious expectations.
The tensions existing during Ahab’s reign are already noted at the start of his story. We are told that he succumbed to Jezebel’s influence early on (1 Kgs 16:31-34) where together they are said to have built an altar to Baal in Samaria. The editor adds the note that: ‘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.’ (v. 32) On the other hand, the fact that we are told of Obadiah, who is in charge of Ahab’s palace and remains a staunch worshipper of Israel’s God in spite of Jezebel’s influence (1 Kgs 18:1-16), points to the fact that faith in Yahweh could still be strong even at the heart of the royal household. Scholars have also noted that Ahab gives his children good solid Yahwistic names (e.g. Ahaziah) indicating that he has not abandoned faith in Yahweh entirely. Ahab personally bears the tension between worshipping Yahweh and worshipping Baal. The story set for this week about Naboth’s vineyard makes that tension all the clearer.
1 Kings 21 takes us to Ahab’s home base of Jezreel in Samaria, where we are told that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard right next to Ahab’s palace. When Naboth refuses what seems like a reasonable offer from Ahab to purchase his vineyard, the tension behind the story is brought to the fore. Naboth’s reason for refusing the offer is that the land is his ‘ancestral heritage’ and he cannot imagine that selling it would be acceptable to God. It is not just that the land has been in Naboth’s family a long time. The presumption is that the land was considered to be a gift from God for the livelihood and sustenance of Naboth’s family. Two political and religious systems and their implications for land possession are operating here. The one sees the land as Yahweh’s given as gift to the people and which cannot be bought and sold as a commodity. The other, which becomes clearer in Jezebel’s later action, presumes that the king has claim to the land and can redeem it when he wants. Ahab has the desire of the second but in his reluctance to push his own claim on Naboth shows he still has some adherence to the former. We hear the prophet Isaiah speaking against such acquisition of land by purchase in Isa 5:8-10.
Jezebel is not inhibited by ancient Israelite principles of land tenure. She is willing and capable of taking Naboth’s plot by foul means. With the help of two ‘scoundrels’ she arranges to have Naboth charged with cursing ‘God and the king’. Jezebel still has to go through the legal procedures of a trial against Naboth in order to achieve her end. She is not totally a tyrant who simply murders openly to achieve her ends. However, she is powerful enough to bend the legal system to get her way. In summary fashion Naboth is stoned to death (and we learn later also his sons, 2 Kgs 9:26). After that Jezebel advises Ahab that he is now free to go and take possession of the vineyard. In the end we see him like a little child enjoying his new gift without any thought for how it has come to him (1 Kgs 21:16).
The story is pivotal to the approaching end of both Ahab and Jezebel. There is a glaring comparison between Ahab’s gross betrayal of Yahweh, and the fidelity of Naboth. In refusing to give up his divine inheritance for gain, Naboth remains faithful to the covenant with Yahweh. This is in stark contrast with Ahab’s willingness to succumb to the influence of Jezebel. There is also a stark contrast around the plot of land in terms of Naboth’s attitude and that of Jezebel and Ahab. The former sees the land as a divine gift with eternal implications. The latter also see it as a gift but one that is something that can be traded and worse still gained through injustice and murder.
The news of Ahab’s betrayal of Yahweh and dreadful behaviour reaches Elijah. The all controlling word of the Lord comes to Elijah telling him to go and meet Ahab, who happens to be walking in the stolen vineyard (v. 17). The words of Elijah to Ahab are clear and chilling. Not only Ahab, but also Jezebel, will be killed and left for the dogs to eat, just as happened to the body of Naboth. As is common in many prophetic statements of judgment, the punishment fits the crime. While there may be an element of legal principle operating here there is also a literary convention. In proclaiming the punishment, the prophet also exposes the crime that has been committed. It is the prophet’s task not just to proclaim a punishment but to expose injustice where it occurs.
At the end of the chapter is the picture of a finally remorseful Ahab tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and sitting in ashes. But his remorse is not brought about by a sudden compassion for Naboth. It is an attempt to escape God’s condemnation of him and his whole household. There is no sign of repentance concerning the unfortunate vineyard owner. Ahab has allowed Jezebel’s influence and her religious and political assumptions to prevail. While he has shown some prevarication on his part (in his sulking and reluctance to act) he has in the end let his power be misused in his name and for his gain. But even having been confronted with this reality, he seems to have little concern for justice as does Yahweh and his prophet.
One commentator (Richard Nelson) makes a simple yet profound statement at the end of his comments on today’s passage: ‘The community which accepts this story as Scripture must read its newspapers and then ask itself hard questions. Who are the Ahabs and Jezebels? Who are the Naboths? What is the shape of the conspiracy this time?’
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