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1 Kings 21:1-21a
Many of the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures are complex, and difficult to separate from their broader contexts. And so it is with the story of Nabothís Vineyard in 1 Kings.
Elijah and King Ahab have had an ongoing conflict, at the root of which has been Ahabís marriage to Jezebel, a foreign wife, who worshipped foreign gods, and caused Ahab to do likewise.
In the thirty-third verse of the sixteenth chapter of 1 Kings we read 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."
But in the twenty-first chapter we are dealing with an issue that is fundamental to scriptural teachings and, I believe, fundamental to our understanding of sin. And that is greed. Indeed, as far back as Adam and Eve in the garden, greed raised its ugly head. The first couple were granted everything in the world but one tree. And in their greed, they needed to have that one tree.
But let us return to the twenty-first chapter of 1 Kings. It begins, "Later the following events took place: 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."
Now this seems like a fairly straightforward business deal. Nabothís land is close to the palace; Ahab thinks that it would be convenient to own it; and Ahab makes him an offer for it of either cash or a trade. But there is one consideration that Ahab had not counted on.
"But Naboth said to Ahab, "The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance."
In other words, for Naboth the land is priceless. It has been handed down from his father, and who knows through how many generations. For Naboth, no amount of money can separate him from this land.
We should all be able to understand this. In a sense, weíre also talking about sentimental value. Iíll bet that each of us owns at least one thing, maybe many things, that we would not part with because of the memories attached to them.
Well, apparently, Ahab did NOT understand. "Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelilte 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."
And a business deal that did not work out is turning into an obsession. Indeed, if this were a small child, we might say that he is pouting.
But Ahab had an option. He could have pushed the price he was offering to an extremely high level to see if Naboth could be tempted. And then, if that did not work, he could act like an adult and learn to live with it.
Unfortunately for Naboth, Ahab has an accomplice. "His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?"
And that is a reasonable question. Frequently, people have been know to lose their appetites where they are lovesick, or homesick, or when they have lost a loved one. Nervousness and anxieties can cause us to lose our appetites. So Jezebel is justifiably concerned about her husband.
"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."
Now, notice what Ahab has left out. Ahab has not told Jezebel WHY Naboth refused to sell. Ahab has not told Jezebel that Nabothís Vineyard was his ancestral inheritance.
Well, Jezebel is tougher than her husband. And she is going to come to Ahabís rescue.
"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."
And what does Ahab say to this? Absolutely nothing. He does not ask, "How do you intend to do this?"
From what Jezebel has been told, she may think that Naboth is just being stubborn; and she may be angry that her husband the king has been denied his request.
But Jezebel wears the crown in this family. Ahab even worships her god, Baal, and not the God of Israel. And Jezebel wants Ahab to be able to make the fullest use of his powers and to be happy.
"So she wrote letters in Ahabís name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city."
And notice the liberties that Jezebel is taking, writing letters in her husbandís name and sealing them with his seal. She does not ask his permission. She does not tell him what she is about to do. She just takes over. This manís life is out of control. His COURT is out of control.
But then, that is not so unusual. Iíve known of Presidents of this country who, when members of their administrations were charged with criminal misconduct, claimed that they had no knowledge of what was happening.
"[Jezebel] 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."
This may remind you of another letter, a letter sent by King David to Joab, in an effort to cover up Davidís adultery with Bathsheba. In the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel we read that David "sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die."
So, just as David set up Uriah for his death, so has Jezebel set up Naboth for his death. And because of the power of the king, and the assumption that these instructions have come from Ahab, Naboth will die.
And Iím reminded of a quotation of a clergyperson in the Joplin Globe a few years ago. "Capital punishment is not a disregard for human life. It is the government carrying out its God-given authority."
And does that mean that anything a government does is authorized by God?
"The men of [Nabothís] 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."
Now, if you already know the story, or if you have your Bibles open and have read ahead, you already know how this is going to turn out and who is going to catch the blame for it in the final verse of the passage. Itís going to be all Ahabís fault.
But I think that at this point in the story we need to be asking whether anyone ELSE might have been responsible. Jezebel is obviously responsible. She wrote and sent those letters.
But what of all the elders and nobles of Nabothís city, people who knew Naboth; are they not implicated in this despicable act? Or do they use the classic response: "I was just following orders."
Back to the assembly.
"The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite [Naboth]; 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."
Naboth has been charged with blasphemy and treason, both offenses punishable by death. Two people are charging him, so the charge of one is corroborated by the charge of the other, the minimum requirement of the law. And, itís a done deal.
Actually, gossip and rumor work much the same way. If we hear something from two people we begin to believe it. Never mind that it may be nonsense; sometimes the more outrageous something sounds, the more exciting it is to believe it.
So the execution is accomplished. "Then they sent to Jezebel, saying "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead."
Maybe we need a reality check here. This really happened. Ahab was king about fifty years after Solomon. These people are following the Jewish law. Do we really want a return to the good old days?
And what would prevent US from ending up like Naboth if we got in the way of someone in power? if we had something that a powerful person wanted?
"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."
Now, you may be wondering, how could Ahab suddenly take possession of the vineyard? Didnít Naboth have a family? Indeed he did.
But according to an interpretation of the twenty-sixth verse of the ninth chapter of Second Kings, all the SONS of Naboth were killed as well.
"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."
So, all Ahab needed to do was sit around and pout while his unscrupulous wife and the unscrupulous neighbors of Naboth conspired to get Ahab what he wanted.
In this story, in this passage, Naboth is only the human victim, the most immediate and obvious victim of Ahab and Jezebelís greed. But the very principles of Israelite society have been challenged as well. The office of the king has been taken over by a foreigner, Ahabís wife Jezebel, and corrupted with the kingís consent. Neighbor has turned against neighbor.
Those entrusted with upholding justice have perverted it. The fast, a solemn religious ritual, is manipulated for a sham trial, resulting in perjury and murder. The law is manipulated to perpetrate gross injustice.
So where is God in all of this?
"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."
As the hymn says, "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep." God knows what has been happening, has established the consequences, selects Elijah, informs him of the situation, and sends him to Ahab with a message.
"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."
As I said at the outset, Elijah and Ahab have had an ongoing conflict. Elijah is not a stranger to Ahab. And when Ahab says, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" he knows that he has been called to account.
In many respects this is an ugly story. It is ugly because of what happens to Naboth and his family. But it should also be instructive for us. The behaviors and practices of the Israelites can still be found almost three thousand years later.
And finally, although God allows humans a great deal of free rein, God still holds us accountable for transgressing Godís laws.
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