1 Kings 21: 1-16 Two Competing Worldviews: Naboth and Ahab/Jezebel
1 Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2 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.” 3 But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” 4 Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite 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.
5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” 6 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.'” 7 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.”
8 So she 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.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” 11 The men of his 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, 12 they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13 The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; 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. 14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”
15 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.” 16 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.
The story of competing worldviews about land has occurred many times throughout history. As white settlers moved across the United States they understood land ownership as something that could be bought legally while the Native Americans understood their relationship with the land very differently, they were tied to the land. Similarly in this story the understanding of land as inheritance comes into conflict with the view of land as commodity. Modern readers live in a commodity-based understanding of land, and yet the covenant that Israel was to live under was always an alternative to this worldview.
The story of Naboth and Ahab takes place in Jezreel, a town in the tribal holding of Issachar roughly nine miles east of Megiddo. (Cogan, 2001, p. 477) It is unclear whether the Omri family (which king Ahab is a member of) had land in Jezreel prior to becoming a royal family or if this is land acquired after their dynasty began, but there is some royal compound here that Ahab hopes to expand. The lower elevation in comparison to Samaria has led some to label this as a ‘winter palace’ which would be warmer in the winter season (NIB III: p. 155) but Jezreel has already figured prominently in the story as the location where King Ahab returned to after Elijah’s duel with the prophets of Baal.
The last of the Ten Commandments addresses coveting that which belongs to the neighbor, and here the importance of this commandment becomes demonstrated through the injustice of the story. Ahab desires the vineyard of Naboth to be converted into a vegetable garden for his own possession. From a commodity-based perspective he offers a fair exchange for the value of the vineyard either in money or in property. The key feature of the vineyard is its proximity to the property that Ahab already owns; he will be joining his neighbor’s property to his own. It is possible that Ahab’s indication that it will be a ‘vegetable garden’ may be a subtle way to suggest the land is less value since the only other time this word is used in the Hebrew Scriptures is Deuteronomy 11: 10 which contrasts the bountiful promised land with the ‘vegetable gardens’ which require irrigation in Egypt to be productive. Regardless of appraised value Ahab’s desire to obtain the vineyard is frustrated by Naboth’s adherence to the view that the land is an inheritance which cannot be sold.
Within the law of Israel there is a deep understanding of the land as a gift from God that cannot be sold. Leviticus 25: 23-24 for example states:
The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.
Leviticus 25 outlines the expectation for families to redeem the land of their kin who have fallen into a position where they sell a piece of property. Even if the land is sold it is to revert back to the original family in Jubilee years. This concept of redeeming land underlies the actions of Boaz in the book of Ruth. The prophets often protest against the wealthy who acquire the inheritance of their neighbors and who, in the words of Isaiah: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left alone in the midst of the land.” (Isaiah 5: 8, see also Micah 2:2) Naboth stands in the tradition of the law of Israel when he proclaims that to sell his land would be a profanation of the LORD because it would be viewing the land as his possession to dispose of rather than the land that God has provided for him to work. Yet, Solomon viewed the land as a possession which could be sold off to King Hiram to pay his debts (1 Kings 9:11-13) and the kings of the Omri dynasty parallel many of the actions of Solomon which model their wisdom off the wisdom of the nations which is based on trade and accumulation rather than trusting the provision of the LORD.
Jezebel, who learned the Phoenician values of her family and nation, views the lands as a commodity which can be acquired and royal power as an implement to be used to take what the king desires. The narrative does not include Ahab explaining the rationale for Naboth’s rejection to Jezebel, he merely relates his refusal. Jezebel acts on the king’s behalf, telling him to get up eat and be cheerful as she gifts him the desire of his heart. Whether Ahab is involved in Jezebel’s action of coordinating the fall of Naboth is unclear, but she is acting in Ahab’s name and utilizes his seal to give weight to her letters. Writing letters is a way in which nobles have distanced themselves from being the instrument of death but it is clear that Jezebel and Ahab are behind the death of Naboth. Similar to David sending a letter to his general Joab with instructions that lead to Uriah’s death, Jezebel’s instructions to place two belial men opposite Naboth at the fast and to accuse him cursing God and the king. Exodus 22:28 declares that one is not to revile God or curse a leader of the people, yet the death penalty in the law seems to be reserved for someone who blasphemes the name of God. (Leviticus 24: 16) It does take two witnesses to testify against another, thus the need for two ‘scoundrels’, but the plan involves the knowing consent of the elders and nobles to put the ‘scoundrels’ in place and being complicit in the accusations that these men make at the instructions of Jezebel in the name of Ahab. It takes many accomplices for the innocent man to be declared guilty and stoned outside of town and possibly left unburied.
Ahab’s coveting of Naboth’s vineyard has led to these two ‘scoundrels’ bearing false witness while the elders and nobles maintain a conspiracy by their silence which allowed for the unjust murder of an innocent man. The death of an innocent in the land contaminates the land. Just as the blood of Abel cried out from the ground, the blood of Naboth cries of to God. This is why there is a method of making atonement for an unsolvable death (Deuteronomy 21: 1-9) so that innocent blood may not continue to testify against the people. Now the innocent blood of Naboth speaks against the entire conspiracy of the rulers that have schemed to join field to field and who have disregarded the ways of the God of Israel.
The land is not for Ahab to take, just as the booty from the LORD’s victory was not Ahab’s to spare. (NIB III: 156) Ahab and Jezebel chafe at the way the Israelite way of viewing land which constrains their power to acquire what they desire. Ahab is told to “go” and take possession, which Ahab does. Ahab, Jezebel, and the elders and nobles may feel that their actions have no consequences, but the LORD is ready to respond to the protest of the innocent blood of Naboth which cries out from the land. Desiring has led to death and death is answered by the proclamation of God’s prophet.
1 Kings 21: 17-29 Elijah Confronts Ahab and Ahab’s Repentance
17 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18 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. 19 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.”
20 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, 21 I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; 22 and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. 23 Also concerning Jezebel the LORD said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.’ 24 Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”
25 (Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD, urged on by his wife Jezebel. 26 He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the LORD drove out before the Israelites.)
27 When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. 28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.”
Elijah emerges on the scene once more to carry the condemnation of the LORD to Ahab. Elijah becomes the LORD’s voice to advocate for Naboth. Naboth’s condemnation is similar to the condemnation that David receives when he manipulates the battlefield by letters to cause Uriah’s death and takes ‘possession’ of Bathsheba as his wife. (2 Samuel 12:9) The short declaration to Elijah is essentially blood will pay for blood, the blook of the king for the blood of the innocent Naboth. One may attempt to defend the distance that Ahab introduces into the situation since Jezebel wrote the letters and the elders and nobles put the ‘scoundrels’ in place and carried out the sentence on Naboth, but in God’s view the king is ultimately responsible. His actions and his allowing Jezebel to use his name and seal are leading the elders and the nation astray.
Elijah is viewed by Ahab as his enemy, and Elijah’s role throughout his ministry has been to confront Ahab when he has turned away from the ways of the LORD. His actions are evil, and they are modeling these evil ways for the people of Israel. The LORD is repaying ‘evil’ for ‘evil.’ Ahab will bear the same fate as his predecessors who deviated from the way of the LORD, and his punishment parallels the declarations against their houses. (1 Kings 14:11, 16: 4) Some believe that the declaration about Jezebel is a later addition which parallels the story of 2 Kings 9: 30-37. Regardless Elijah’s declaration to Ahab pierces his bluster, perhaps it is the parallels with what happened to his predecessors or the thought of his own life being the cost of ‘purchasing’ the field of Naboth. Jezebel tried to make her king cheerful, but now after the confrontation with Elijah he goes about dejectedly.
The text makes a side note to indicate that Ahab, from the point of view of 1 Kings, is the singular example of doing evil in the sight of the LORD. Yet, the LORD quickly responds with mercy towards Ahab when he fasts, puts on sackcloth, and shows signs of repentance. Like David, the LORD wants to forgive Ahab. The consequences are delayed until the next generation as Ahab is given yet another chance to amend his ways. Elijah has been sent multiple times to the king to get him to change his ways, and this seems to be the nature of God. God does not want to give up on these kings, but when the choose to follow the ways of acquisition and exploitation the God must answer the blood that testifies from the land. God’s forgiveness and God’s justice are always in tension, but it is the tension of a God of hesed (covenant faithfulness) and mercy.
 Hebrew gan yaraq
 Hebrew qum (rise, get up, arise)
 This is the Hebrew word (beliya’al)that will eventually become one names for the devil or a demon (2 Corinthians 6:15). “It refers to an act that is sinful (Deuteronomy 15:9) and evil (1 Sam 30: 22; cf. Nah 1:11) that upsets “a basic behavioral norm…the violation of the relationship between the individual, community and God.” (Cogan, 2001, p. 479)
 Later in verse 19 the indication is that dogs lick up the blood of Naboth and the parallelism with the accusation in verse 24 indicate that Ahab’s curse is to be left unburied and consumed by dogs.
 Again, the Hebrew qum. The parallelism between the first time Jezebel tells Ahab to ‘arise’ and here when she again tells him to ‘arise’ is obscured by the NRSV using two words to translate this verb.
 The NRSV’s translation: I will bring ‘disaster’ obscures the parallelism in the text.