Naboth’s Vineyard and the community that killed him
1 Kings 21:1-21 Click here to read the text
On father’s day we usually sing, “Faith of our Fathers” in the traditional service. Some of us were raised by fathers who had genuine Christian faith and lived it. We are the blessed ones. I am so thankful that I am among them. My father is a person of strong faith who raised me in that faith as well.
Others had fathers who were not there for them at all, or not much, or not in any way that was helpful. Our prisons right now are filled with men who never had decent fathers to guide them. Most, if not all of the men I have met on death row fit that last category.
When things go the way they should, a father is there for his children; he is not always absent, and he is there to help hand-on the traditions that he was raised in. He teaches his children by instruction of course, but more significantly, by example. Children observe everything, and draw conclusions; we all did.
We absorbed far more than we are conscious of. What we saw at home, we now consider “normal,” even “necessary,” concerning the way the world operates. Some of what we learned is good and helpful, some may not be.
My father treated me and my brothers and sister fairly, and so I learned about fairness. He worked hard and waited for the end of the pay period for his check, and so I learned about hard work and delayed gratification.
But at a far deeper level, I learned what to value as good and what to think of as not-good. I watched my father treat people of different races with respect. I watched him treat women with respect. I am sure the reason that for me, house work is normal for a man to participate in is because I saw my father do his share of housework. I don’t have much interest in watching sports, probably because he didn’t. (You can tell me if you think that’s a good or bad thing. It seems normal to me.)
In some ways, a culture is the sum total of all of that learning from our home.
The Story of Ahab and Jezebel
We just read the story of King Ahab and his wife queen Jezebel, and how they conspired to acquire the land that belonged to Naboth. We know from the context that both king Ahab and queen Jezebel had terrible fathers. Ahab’s father was Omri of whom the text says,
“Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did more evil than all who were before him.” (1Kings 16:25)
Queen Jezebel, we are told was “the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians”, so she is a non-Israelite foreigner whose father is named after the Canaanite god Baal. She was a devoted worshipper of Baal, and so then, of course, was her husband king Ahab. (We note, with regret, the implied misogyny of this ancient text that blames the woman for corrupting the man.)
So neither king Ahab nor queen Jezebel were raised to practice the traditions of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, nor to respect and follow the law of Moses. Jezebel may not even have known them at all; Ahab knew, but didn’t follow them.
The Consent of the Governed
But these two are not the only “bad guys” in the story. In fact there would be no story here if it were not the case that the corrupt king and queen were surrounded by bad guys. The whole culture had gone bad from the leadership to the lowest levels. As a culture they had abandoned the traditions and values of Yahweh, Israel’s God, and had sold them cheap, for the bowl of pottage that was Baal worship and consequent values.
The story itself shows how it happened. King Ahab wants to acquire more land. He is king. He has plenty. He doesn’t need more. But he sees something nice that is not his, and he desires it for himself. A commodity; a piece of land.
The way the author tells us this story, there are clues embedded here that allow us to read the story on a wider horizon than merely a story of an individual king and his neighbor. The land he wants belongs to a man whose name comes from the word for fruit, Naboth, and the land he owns is a vineyard.
A vineyard is a symbol for the nation of Israel: fruitfulness is what they were supposed to experience in the promised land. Each tribe was allotted territory in the
land. According to the law of Moses, the family was never to sell it. It was held by each generation as a sacred trust: a gift from Yahweh, who maintained title as owner. Every Israelite knew this: Naboth knew it; King Ahab knew it – even if he despised that sacred obligation. Although perhaps it was the case that queen Jezebel never heard of it.
Anyway, when the Israelites were promised the land, they were told that it received regular rainfall, and so was unlike the land of Egypt which had to be watered like a vegetable garden. King Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s sacred land, a fruitful vineyard, to make a vegetable garden out of it. He’s not a health-nut, he’s acting out the values of an Egyptian. He resembles the tyrant, Pharaoh. (see Deut. 11)
King Ahab makes a fair offer for the piece of the commodity that Naboth holds in sacred trust. Naboth turns him down on a values basis. It’s not just about money. You cannot commodify the promised land. It means more than money. That land was granted to us by covenant. We are its tenants; the owner is the Lord.
“3 But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
Ahab has been check-mated by the Law of Moses that he was trying to ignore. Queen Jezebel, on the other hand, feels no qualms about trampling the faith of Israel’s fathers.
But this is the crucial part: even queen Jezebel can do nothing without help. She will not succeed without the cooperation and participation by the people. She is relying on the consent of the governed to pull off her plan. And they all roll over and cooperate without the slightest hesitation.
8 So [queen Jezebel] 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. 9 She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10 seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’
All of them, from the “elders and the nobles” to the scoundrels have accepted the commodification of the land and the corruption that requires them to “go along to get along.”
Naming the Crimes
What’s going on here? Let’s name it: official corruption, deception, forgery, conspiracy, phony religion paraded around by people who really despise it, false charges – that is – judicial corruption, perversion of justice, and it ends in state-sponsored homicide. All of these a consequence of the commodification of the land. Money was now God.
The faith of the fathers of Israel had been abandoned, and with it, the values of Israel also. Israel was supposed to tell a story about how one Creator-God made the world and every human in God’s image. All people, all human life was sacred and the land was sacred. No one can be swept aside with impunity for the sake of someone else’s insatiable need to acquire. Furthermore, no one could think of themselves as a mere consumer of commodities. God did not make consumers; he made people. And all of them have dignity and value, rights and obligations.
God’s covenant with the people of Israel included a plan of community organization that was a radical departure from anything that came before it. There was not supposed to be a wealthy king and court served by a multitude of impoverished peasants, as in all the other nations. Each of the 12 Tribes of Israel was allotted enough land to ensure that all of them could have the dignity of being productive providers for their families.
If, by whatever reason: war, famine, drought or disease, a family had to sell their land, the sale was supposed to be considered a lease – not a permanent sale. It was a lease, valued by the number of harvests remaining until the next “Year of the Lord’s Favor,” or Jubilee year, in which all leases expired and the land was returned to the family, so that the next generation could start afresh. No permanent underclass could ever develop by such a plan. Poverty could be eliminated instead of being generationally perpetuated.
All of this is totally subverted when everything is commodified. When economics is the only rule-book that is followed by the fathers, the children learn to despise their inheritance. Then anything and everything is possible.
“You cannot serve both God and money.”
A Modern Story
This is one of the most modern-sounding stories in the whole bible. When the lust to acquire more and more is considered “normal,” the sins of the fathers have already been transmitted to the children. When commodities are considered sacred, nothing else is: not God, not humans, not the air, the land, the rivers, nor the oceans. Every kind of evil is on the table when the criteria is solely monetary.
In that commodified world, you can build a garment factory filled with human beings, and build it on the cheap. As long as it’s standing, you can pay them wages.
no one could live on, and when it falls down and crushes them, you try not to get caught.
You can put a chemical plant with explosive and toxic material in range of homes and schools. Why not? It’s normal to think this way in a commodified culture. Thinking any other way would require things like more inspectors, but that would cost us all more money!
Every health regulation and every environmental regulation has been opposed on the basis that adopting them would make us less competitive, regardless of consequences to human beings and the planet they live on. Every pipeline and every oil well drilled has been claimed to be safe by people who stand to profit from them, even though history tells the opposite story.
Do we even require the companies doing all the fracking to divulge what kind of chemicals they are pumping down there to force out the natural gas? No, that’s a trade secret, but rest assured it must be harmless.
These maybe the values of Ahab and Jezebel, but they are not the values of the God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This may be the way the world works, but it is not the way of justice and righteousness.
All over the world people are being abused, oppressed, trafficked, and enslaved because somebody is making money from it. And all over the world, otherwise decent people have been seduced into considering themselves acquirers of commodities – or, more commonly, as “consumers.”
We are not consumers; we are human beings! Our purpose in life is not to go out and buy things; it is to live as Jesus taught us to live: with compassion as our highest value, not accumulation nor consumption.
We believe, as Jesus said, that a person’ life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
- We believe that it is knowing the truth like this that does indeed make us free.
- We are free of the distortions and deceptions that seek to commodify that which is a sacred trust: ourselves and our planet.
- We are free to know ourselves as human beings whom God made for a lot higher purpose than any “bottom line” sum.
- We are free to treat each other as human beings, with compassion and concern, regardless of potential earnings, even and especially, the “least of these brothers of mine” as Jesus taught us.
Free to really live according to the “faith of our fathers.”