Fair Trade, Free Trade and the Price of Grapes in Jezreel

Proper 06 – Year C

1 Kings 21:1–21

Naboth’s Vineyard
(Textual notes are included at the end of this blog post)
On the surface, this story is a confrontation between a vineyard owner, Elijah the prophet, and the royal family of Ahab and Jezebel. But underneath the little drama is a larger drama of how trade in north Israel concentrated power and wealth into the hands of a tiny minority (symbolized here as the royal family) and took it from the ordinary farmers, whose families had lived there for centuries. 

     If you know the story (and paid attention back in Sunday School), you may recall that Ahab had already angered Yahweh when he took on the worship of Baal after marrying Jezebel, who was from Sidon, a major international trading city just north of Israel in Phoenicia. With that marriage, Ahab gave Sidon’s state religion legitimacy in Israel (1 Kings 16: 31-33). The previous stories of conflict in 1 Kings reflect this apostasy, but here the issue is injustice as well as theology: the abuse of power in order to secure land.

At the beginning of this story, Ahab is vacationing in his northern palace, up in Jezreel, near the Phoenician border. The official capital of Israel in those days was in Samaria, but after they were married, Ahab and Jezebel built a second palace up in the northern region, probably to be close to Jezebel’s family and probably to be close to the business opportunities it would afford him. While there, one day he happens to look out of his window and he sees a vineyard owned by a peasant farmer named Naboth.

He tells Naboth that he wants his land for what he calls a vegetable garden, though as we will see, it’s more likely he wants it for export crops, not summer tomatoes to share during coffee hour at church. He makes Naboth what appears to be a generous—or at least fair—offer. He even offers him silver,[1] which actually may have been useless to an agrarian peasant, but in any case payment of any kind was of no interest to Naboth and he refuses. According to Israelite cosmology, Naboth is the land and the land is Naboth. So, legally and theologically he can’t let go of it. As he puts it in his response to the offer, the land is his “ancestral inheritance” (some translations have “heritage”), and the Lord would “forbid” his giving it away for any reason.[2]

“Forbid” (ḥāliylāh) is a far more cosmic, theological term than it might appear at first. It means “forbid,” of course, but is almost always used as it is here, that is, it is not the person speaking who forbids this, but rather it is God (or the “Lord”). (Cf. 1 Sam. 24:6; 1 Sam. 26:11; 1 Sam. 14:45.) Derived from Chalal, to bore down or wound, and to profane and defile. So from the beginning it is not just that there is a rule against it, but that there is something larger, more cosmic, that is against it.[3]  

It’s important to note that Jezebel was not just a nice girl he met on college break at one of the tourist beaches outside of Sidon. She was also the daughter of Eth-baal (whose name, interestingly, means “with Baal”), who was a ruler of Tyre and the head of one of the ancient world’s largest import-export institutions.

After his rebuke from Naboth, Ahab goes home (probably back to Samaria) and pouts. The text says, “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.” Jezebel, on the other hand chides him sarcastically for his spinelessness. “Do you now govern Israel?” she asks. A more clear translation would be, “aren’t you the boss here, or did they vote you off the island for being a wuss?” She then sets out a plan to have Naboth murdered and his land taken from him.

The background of this story is that North Israel (where this story takes place) was rapidly coming under the economic influence of aristocratic mercantilists with trading ties to the powerful Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon (we all remember, of course, that Jezebel was an heiress of a major multinational import/export family from Tyre). Archeological findings in the region have found that wealthy merchant families in Tyre and Sidon (and their Israelite wealthy wannabes) had been dispossessing north Israel peasants from their land for at least a generation leading up to the time of the marriage of Princess Jezebel to King Ahab.[4] The text in 1 Kings says simply that Ahab wanted the land for a vegetable garden. Behind that innocent statement is probably the darker reality that he (and his wife) wanted it for its potential for wine exports, most likely to Carthage.[5]

Naboth, citing the theological logic of the Jubilee, says that he simply cannot sell it. He can’t because technically he doesn’t own it. It is tribal property, an “ancestral inheritance,”[6] owned by the entire family and by God, and God would “forbid” his selling it (1 Kings 21:1-3).[7]

Naboth and other Hebrew peasants understood their land to be a gift of God and they were only stewards of it, their job was to “redeem” it, while the Phoenicians, reflecting a more urban, city-state individualist view of humanity, believed that land was just a commodity and could be bought, sold and stolen by anybody. Leviticus 25:23-24 puts the theology succinctly: “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.”

It was an early conflict between theology and economics.[8] According to Walter Brueggemann, “the vineyard could not be without Naboth belonging to it. Naboth could not be without this land. That close and inalienable land linkage is likely reflected in the Jubilee practice (Leviticus 25), a social, institutional guarantee that this connection of land and family is indispensable for the functioning of society.”[9] One side believed in a family-based monotheism which by necessity produced a kind of primitive trade protectionism along with capital controls, while the other believed in a competition-based henotheism which produced winners, losers, and economic dislocation. Historically, it is very likely that this small story was preserved in the biblical tradition because it was later seen as a paradigm of protest on behalf of Yahweh ownership of land and on behalf of a whole class of dispossessed, oppressed people.

Israel at the time was a radically communal society. When persons lacked land, and the sense of self worth that came with it, they also lacked personhood. It was an egalitarian world based on land, community (tribe), and allegiance to Yahweh. Tyre and Sidon, on the other hand, were individualist societies, and saw land as something which could be separated from its owner by wealthy merchants, powerful land barons, or kings. By the logic of the community, you can steal from an individual, who is not you, but you cannot steal from a family, which is you. An ancient midrash on this passage says, “A man has no right to sell his ancestral field so that he can get ready capital wherewith to buy cattle, or mobillia, or slaves, or to raise sheep or goats, or even to conduct business therewith. The only circumstances in which it is permitted is if he has become penniless.”[10]

So, Ahab pouts and refuses to eat, in part because of course he is a pansy, but in part because he understands Yahwistic faith: one cannot conceive of stealing land from another because we are all a part of the same family and created by the same God. You can’t steal from someone in the family and under Yawheh religion, we are all family. So he was stuck. Jezebel, on the other hand, cannot conceive of not stealing it, because we are not the same.

She first calls for a fast. Fasts were typically proclaimed in order to announce that something important was about to happen. It was a religious act, but it was also political. There was about to be a battle, or a coronation, or a trial, etc. Naboth is then brought into the Assembly (either in the open air or in the largest public building of the village), and set at the head of the room alongside two “scoundrels” she has chosen to bring false charges against him. At this point there is no evidence that he has heard anything of the charges, and may in fact not understand the purpose for the gathering. The exact nature of the charges is unclear, but they at least include blasphemy against God and king, which was a capital offense because it is tantamount to treason. There was more than one document filed in Samaria and brought to Jezreel, so she may also have been charging him with breach of contract. If so, she may have either claimed that he had sold it to Ahab or that he promised the sale and now denies it. There was evidence that they had discussed the sale of the property and that Naboth had invoked God’s name in the conversation (which is often used in legally sealing transactions).

In any case the gathered assembly side with the two paid witnesses and pronounce him guilty, and then, following the law, they take him to the edge of town for the execution and they stone him to death. The land then reverts to the king and the story should have ended there. “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).

Note that Jezebel is not more evil than Ahab, she is just less troubled by the social impropriety of violating Israel’s humane social contract. Note too, that Ahab fasts when he doesn’t get his way, and Jezebel calls for a nation-wide fast to eliminate Naboth and get her way. In both instances a religious ritual which was created for spiritual cleansing is being used for evil purposes.

But before he can take possession of the land, Elijah appears. He just shows up, with no introduction: “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite” (v 17). God commands that he go to the vineyard, where Ahab is standing, perusing his new holdings, and they talk. Their conversation is brief, but powerful. “Thus says the Lord,” announces Elijah, “You have killed someone, and also taken possession of his property!”[11] Elijah doesn’t say more about the crime itself, because there’s no point. Ahab understands it, it is his sin. But he describes what his punishment should be. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

“Have you found me, O my enemy?” asks Ahab.

“I have found you,” he says. Then, in perhaps the most psychologically and spiritually revealing statement of the conversation, Elijah says that God will bring disaster upon Ahab “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” He hadn’t just committed a crime, but he had done so by selling himself, selling who he was and what he (supposedly) believed in. You did “what is evil I the sight of the Lord.”

He goes on to describe the punishment in more detail, and amazingly and to his credit, Ahab remembers something of his heritage of faith and repents. He begins mourning, dresses in sackcloth and ashes, and fasts. Not actions that would impress your local parishioners today, but which were very meaningful in Ahab’s. God sees this, and is moved, and says to Elijah, “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” (1 Kings 21:22-29).[12]

[1] The text is usually translated “money,” but the word is keseph, or Silver. For many among the currency classes (though maybe not peasants) money and silver were synonymous.
[2] “Possession of the land had been a gift of the covenant. Distributed to tribes, clans and families, the patrimonial landholdings constituted each family’s part of the covenant promises and benefits… Documents from both Mari and Ugarit attest to a practice of perpetual ownership of land and strict rules about the transfer of property.” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000].)
[3] Numbers 27:4-11 make it clear that land must remain in the family.
Moses brought their case before the Lord. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance among their father’s brothers and pass the inheritance of their father on to them. You shall also say to the Israelites, “If a man dies, and has no son, then you shall pass his inheritance on to his daughter. If he has no daughter, then you shall give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. And if his father has no brothers, then you shall give his inheritance to the nearest kinsman of his clan, and he shall possess it. It shall be for the Israelites a statute and ordinance, as the Lord commanded Moses.”
[4] Clinton McCann, Texts for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1994, p. 362.
[5] See “Search for Phoenician Shipwrecks,” Biblical Archaeology Review Vol. 12, No. 5 (Sept./Oct 1999), p 16; and James D. Newsome’s Hebrew Scripture essay for Proper 6, Ordinary time 11, in Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press: 1994) pp. 282-284.
[6] The Hebrew word for “inheritance” is nahala and could also be translated “sacred patrimony” or “heirloom.”
[7] See Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophet as a Destabilizing Presence,” in A Social Reading of the Old Testament: Prophetic Approaches to Israel’s Communal Life, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) pp. 221-244.
[8] Brueggemann, A Social Reading of the Old Testament, p. 239-242.
[9] Brueggemann, Ibid., p. 239.
[10] Barrett, C.K., ed. The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, Rev. Ed. (NY: Harper and Row, 1989), pp. 7-8.
[11] My paraphrase. Though phrased in the NRSV as a question, it’s actually an implied declaration of Ahab’s guilt. See Clinton McCann, Texts for Preaching (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1994, p. 384). Other translations that agree are the CEV, ERV, GNB. The Oxford Bible Commentary calls it an “accusation,” not a question.  
[12] The passage goes on here to say that the punishment will happen to Ahab’s son instead. Many commentators believe that this was added by the much later Deuteronomic editor/author who wrote generations later, and who wanted some kind of justice to explain why Ahab’s son did in fact suffer and die in a way similar to this pronouncement. I don’t believe it is important or helpful to the meaning of this particular story. 

1 Kings 21:1–21
Naboth’s Vineyard
21 Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel,[1] 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[4] that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”[5] 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.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” 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.’ ” 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.”[6]
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles[7] who lived with Naboth in his city. 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.
Elijah Pronounces God’s Sentence
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18 Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rulesa 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; ]

[1] “The palace at Jezreel was excavated in the early 1990s. The rectangular enclosure covers about eleven acres and is surrounded by a casemate wall with towers at the corners. It featured a six-chambered gate, a moat and earthen ramparts. The moat was cut from rock and averaged thirty feet wide and at points was nearly twenty feet deep. The moat used in Palestine was a dry moat (called a fosse) probably intended to prevent tunneling under the walls of the city. Jezreel was about twenty-three miles from Samaria.” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[2] Samaria was built by King Omri as the capital of the Northern Kingdom. The first six years of his reign, he lived in the city of Tirzah, much further south. Samaria was near the border of Phoenicia, and on a hill about 11 km north West of Shechem at the cross roads of the main trade routes through the Esdraelon plain. He probably named it after its owner Shemer (1 Kings 16:24). But since it is on a hill, about 100 m high and almost impregnable (2 Ki. 6:24), the name (šōmerôn) may also be related to the Hebrew for “watch-post.” (D. J. Wiseman, “Samaria,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 1050.
[3] “Money”  (keseph) Silver. A metal desired because of its value. Universally used as a form of money for the wealthy. Unclear if a peasant farmer from Jezreel could have much use for it.
[4] “Forbid” (ḥāliylāh). “An adversative interjection of strong emotion.” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, AMG International, Inc., Chattanooga, TN [1992]). It means “forbid,” of course, but almost always used as here, that is, it is not I who forbids this, but rather it is God (or the “Lord”) who forbids it. (Cf. 1 Sam. 24:6; 1 Sam. 26:11; 1 Sam. 14:45.) Derived from Chalal, to bore down or wound, and to profane and defile. So from the beginning it is not just that there is a rule against it. But that there is something larger, more cosmic, that is against it.     
[5] “Ancestral inheritance” (nachălâh, n. fem.). “Ancestral inheritance” (נַחֲלָה nachalah). Better would be “inheritance (or heritage) of my ancestors.” Like an heirloom. This emphasizes that the loss of land would not just be to Naboth, but his ancestors as well.
 “Property that was given by means of a will or as a heritage. It denoted the land of Canaan given to Israel and distributed among the tribes (Num_26:53-56; Eze_48:29); a portion or state of blessing assigned by God to His people (Isa_54:17)” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, AMG International, Inc., Chattanooga, TN [1992].
[6] “This passage is believed to represent a true distinction between the rights extended to the king in Israel and those current in Phoenicia. Differences involve issues concerning (1) the ultimate ownership of land and (2) the absolute power of the king. In the first category, Israelites believed that all the land was Yahweh’s land, while the Phoenicians would have seen land as royal fiefdoms—all land was on grant from the king. In the second category, Israelite kingship was designed to be less despotic than most monarchies—the king was not above the law. Jezebel would not have been accustomed to such niceties.” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[7] “Elders and Nobles.” “They were the civic authorities of Jezreel, and would, in all likelihood, be the creatures and fit tools of Jezebel. It is evident that, though Ahab had recently been in Jezreel, when he made the offer to Naboth, both he and Jezebel were now in Samaria (1Kings 20:43). A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown. See Deut. 16:18 for reference to the king establishing local authorities in small communities, though the terms “Elders and Nobles” is not used.
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