1 Kings 21 (NIV)✞: Naboth’s Vineyard
In this passage we encounter a man who owns a vineyard in the city of Jezreel, named Naboth. Ahab has a palace in Jezreel, and Naboth’s vineyard is so close to the palace that Ahab wants to purchase it from him to make a vegetable garden. So Ahab approaches Naboth with an offer for the vineyard, and, in truth, it seems to be a pretty fair offer.
Except for one thing: when God portioned out the land to the Israelites, back when they were one nation, He allocated them portions based on their tribes, with strict instructions that land given to a tribe stay within that tribe. There are even rules about what should happen if someone does sell their land to someone from a different tribe, and how the land is to return back to the original tribe in the Year of Jubilee1. The thing is, Naboth would have no reason to believe that any land sold outside of his tribe is going to be returned; it’s not like the rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel are being strict about following the LORD! So he does the only thing he can do: he refuses to sell the land because it’s the inheritance of his ancestors.
At this point, the author(s) of the book of Kings get downright savage in their treatment of Ahab:
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
They’re definitely not trying to paint a portrait of a powerful ruler…
Jezebel notices his sulkiness, and when she asks him about it he tells her what’s going on. “Is this how you act as king over Israel?” she asks (verse 7 (NIV)✞), and then goes into action: in the king’s name she sends instructions to the elders of the city of Jezreel, telling them to have a feast, and then, in the middle of the feast, have some “scoundrels” (v. 10 (NIV)✞, v. 13 (NIV)✞) accuse Naboth of blasphemy so they can take him out and stone him. They carry out Jezebel’s commands exactly, and Naboth ends up dead. Jezebel informs Ahab that he can have his vineyard now, since Naboth is gone, and Ahab immediately heads over to take possession of it.
Meanwhile, God sends Elijah to confront Ahab about this:
17 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”
As usual, Ahab is not happy to see Elijah, saying, “So you have found me, my enemy!” (verse 20 (NIV)✞). Elijah then delivers God’s prophecy:
20b “I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’
23 “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’
24 “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.”
If this seems harsh (though it probably doesn’t, unless this passage is being read in total isolation of the rest of 1 Kings), the author(s) go out of their way to mention why this is happening:
25 (There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.)
After all this, the passage ends with one of the most surprising endings I can think of in the Scriptures:
27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
Except, if we’re reading the Scriptures correctly, including the Old Testament, this shouldn’t be surprising at all…
I think it’s a fool’s game to say some passage of Scripture “exists for this reason” or “for that reason,” but… it really feels like this passage of Scripture exists just to illustrate how evil Ahab and Jezebel are. Which is why it’s all the more surprising when we get to the end, and find God giving Ahab a reprieve!
Except it shouldn’t be surprising, actually. I’ve said in a number of posts lately that we should never be reading the Old Testament as if it’s a series of “character lessons,” designed to teach us how to live in order to be pleasing to God. Even for the isolated parts—the ones that feel like they can be read that way—we have to be very careful; we’ve all heard the story of David and Goliath presented as the underdog defeating the strong, but that is emphatically not what the passage is about! It’s not about David defeating Goliath, it’s about God defeating Goliath through David; the text is very clear about that, and so is David himself.
Was Ahab an evil man? Yes, the Bible is very clear about that, and the author(s) of Kings go out of their way to be specific about it in verses 25-26 (NIV)✞. Was he so evil that he couldn’t repent? Nobody is! Is he going to continue to sin after this? Probably; in the next chapter he’s going to die in battle (spoiler alert), but in the intervening time between his repentance and his death he probably continued to sin. Probably even to the point where we’d look at him and consider him “evil” (even if not quite as evil as he was before). That’s how sin works; it’s how humans are.
The Bible—including the Old Testament—continually illustrates that nobody is good. Take a look, for example, at Romans 3:9–20 (NIV)✞ (New Testament), for example, which is quoting from Psalm 14:1–3 (NIV)✞ and Ecclesiastes 7:20 (NIV)✞ (Old Testament). The Scriptures have called out flaws for David, Samuel, Moses, and, in recent passages, Elijah. Reading the Old Testament as saying “be like David” or “be like so-and-so” is completely missing the point. But reading the Old Testament as saying “there are people like Ahab who are really evil and you shouldn’t be like them” is also missing the point.
Seeing it through a Christian lens, knowing about the salvation provided by Jesus, we should be reading the Old Testament as a history of a flawed/sinful people (just as I am flawed/sinful), under the protection of God (even when they don’t deserve it, just like me), who continually receive His Grace (just like I did). In other words, if we read the Bible as if it’s about people we’ll always miss the point, but if we read it as if it’s about God we’re much closer to gleaning its wisdom.
It’s easy to assume that the laypeople of the northern kingdom of Israel have forgotten about the LORD, since their rulers obviously have, but I shouldn’t make assumptions like that. It’s quite possible that there are faithful people—maybe even a lot of them—in Israel. God definitely didn’t: whenever He or His prophets interact with the Israelites they seem to take it for granted that the Israelites should be following Him.
Naboth has remembered his God, and is trying to keep the Law – even down to what I’m assuming would be a very obscure rule about land ownership! (Though I could be mistaken about the obscurity.) We all know we’re not supposed to murder and we’re not supposed to steal, but would the average layperson be meditating on God’s rules about land ownership?
- I’m positive this fact is right except for the part about the Year of Jubilee being the time when the land reverts; it’s possible I’m mixing up two things, and it would take too long to comb through the Mosaic law to find it. (For me. Others could probably find it immediately.) I’m sure about the rule for land returning to its rightful tribe, just not 100% sure about it being in the Year of Jubilee. ↩