12 September 2011

"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." (v. 16)


In the long history of the kings of Israel in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, this story of Naboth's vineyard comes immediately after an account of King Ahab's victory over the Aramean king Benhadad (1 Kings 20:23-34). Ahab does not kill Benhadad but instead lets him go, thus breaking God's law (Deuteronomy 13:12-18), and for this, he brings judgement upon himself and his people.

This scene takes place in Samaria, the seat of power in the northern kingdom. Near Ahab's palace, the farmer Naboth has a vineyard on his family's land. Ahab, wanting the place for a kitchen garden, offers to buy it or to trade it for a better vineyard. Like his negotiated settlement with Benhadad, this seems a reasonable and peaceable arrangement. But it too contravenes Israelite custom and practice; each farming family was allocated sufficient land to secure their existence, and that land was inalienable. Naboth has a duty to bequeath his land to his family, and he responds strongly to Ahab's proposal, with an oath ("the Lord forbid that ..." (v. 3)) that precludes any further negotiations. Ahab, powerless to take the land, goes to his queen, Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. She had already come under attack for building a temple to the Canaanite god Baal in Samaria and encouraging Baal worship in Israel. Inventing trumped-up charges against Naboth, she succeeds in having him condemned by a local court to death by stoning. With Naboth executed as a criminal, Ahab is then able to seize his property and disinherit his family.

The story of Naboth's death and the appropriation of his ancestral land shows a scandalous abuse of power by the royal court, along with corruption in the local ruling bodies. Although Ahab could not directly contravene the rights of his people, the story shows how the power of the monarchy could be used against the people. Despite legal attempts to protect the rights of individuals (seeLeviticus 25), they were not ensured in ancient Israel against the unscrupulous use of power by the ruling class.

To Ponder

Do you think Naboth should have accepted Ahab's offer of a better vineyard? Why?

In what ways does this story throw light on contemporary political practices?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Susan Graham

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