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Naboth’s vineyard

‘Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’’ 1 Kings 21:19a, New International Version

For decades, many Christians in the West have been eagerly turning to their Bibles hoping to make sense of events in the Middle East. But overlooked in favour of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel are many scriptures which challenge a theology of unconditional support for modern day Israel.

One such passage is 1 Kings 21, where an incident known as ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’ is recorded. Here we see a king of Israel acting in such a way as to warrant specific prophetic condemnation, guilty of greed, false witness and corruption, culminating in murder and expropriation. On close examination, the parallels between Naboth’s Vineyard and modern day Israel/Palestine are too obvious to ignore.

The root cause of the entire incident of Naboth’s Vineyard is made quite explicit by the second verse; Ahab wishes to own more land: “‘Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden’” (v2). While the text does not infer condemnation of this motivation in and of itself, it might be worth reflecting on the ensuing consequences of Ahab’s greed.

Similarly, the religious rhetoric surrounding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can conceal the fact that what the struggle is all about is land; control, ownership, possession. It is not a millennia old grudge match between the estranged children of Abraham.

Like the approach of some pre-state Jewish settlers, Ahab does in fact seem to present Naboth with a reasonable deal, offering in exchange for the land ‘a better vineyard’ or payment for ‘whatever it is worth’ (v2). Naboth, however, is not moved by the king’s offer, and declares in strong terms that God “‘forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers’” (v3).

Naboth displays a love for his land similar in strength of feeling to the attitude of the Palestinians. Their land is not a commodity to buy and sell. In 1 Kings, Naboth may also be thinking back to the prophetic warning issued by Samuel of royal land confiscation.1 Naboth could not give up the land which gave him status in society, guaranteed his children’s future, and was a gift from God.

Ahab is forced to face the fact that his desire for more land directly conflicts the legitimate desires of Naboth; the vineyard is already occupied. An early Zionist slogan was that Palestine was ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. Yet the as yet still unresolved contradiction of Zionism is that it seeks to build a Jewish state on land already inhabited.

Unhappy at being refused, Ahab sulks in his palace until his wife Jezebel inquires about the reason for his mood. But rather than relate the frustrating truth of Naboth’s faithfulness to the Lord and his land, Ahab leaves out so much as to make Naboth appear unreasonable and intransigent: “‘But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” (v6)

Ahab has set up Naboth as the ‘rejectionist’ party, a public relations stunt that is a precursor of all those in the twentieth century who would stress a continuous history of ‘Arab rejectionism’, from the U.N. partition plan in 1948 to Arafat’s ‘missed opportunity’ at Camp David in 2000. A combination of arrogance of power and a refusal to acknowledge the narrative of the ‘other’ produces a distorted history.

The next section of the passage, from v8 to v13, is concerned with the elaborate and cleverly conceived legal charade for removing Naboth from the scene. Ahab and Jezebel, with the active collusion of city officials (v11) and ‘two scoundrels’ (v10), conspire to set up Naboth for a crime he did not commit.

As commentator John Gray writes, “the fiction of communal justice is noteworthy”, as Ahab and Jezebel go through the motions for a “show of conservative Israelite democracy”.2 This would all be too familiar for the thousands of Palestinians who have been issued ‘official’ military confiscation orders in the Occupied Territories, by a governing power that constructs a ‘legal’ apparatus for the execution of land seizure.

Jezebel is meticulous in following the letter of the Deuteronomic law.3 She ensures there are two witnesses, as required for a capital crime, and provides the false charge of blasphemy that will guarantee Naboth’s execution.4 The accusation of having ‘cursed both God and the king’ (v10) stems from the initial false report made by Ahab in v6.

Naboth is duly stoned to death, following the testimony of false witnesses (v13). Interestingly, in 2 Kings 9v26 we also learn that Naboth’s sons were also killed, in order presumably that there could be no male heir to challenge the king’s claim to the vineyard. Now nothing stands in the way of Ahab taking Naboth’s land, and he wastes no time in physically occupying the newly acquired vineyard (v16).

After the legal pretense, the real motives of the king of Israel are laid bare. The charge of blasphemy is shown to be the lie it always was, a mask for the removal of the vineyard’s owner and the annexation of his property. In 2004, the Separation Wall being built by Israel in the name of ‘security’ has resulted in the inclusion of illegal colonies on the ‘Israeli’ side, just as ‘security’ was the reason for the building of the settlements in the first place.

Ahab probably thought he had got away with it. No sooner, however, than he had gone down to gloat over his spoils, then God spoke to Elijah. The prophet was to confront the king with his crimes against God5 on the very land that cried out with Naboth’s blood: “‘Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’” (v19) Where is knowledge of an injustice, it is the duty of the God-fearer to speak truth to power.

When Ahab sees Elijah he calls him ‘my enemy’ (v20), in an echo of his earlier denouncement of Elijah as a ‘troubler of Israel’.6 It is analogous with the blanket labelling of contemporary Israel critics with the charge of anti-Semitism. Rather than repeating Genesis 12v3 like a mantra, Israel’s friends would be well advised to realise that in 1 Kings, the troublesome Elijah was in fact Israel’s best friend.

Donald Wiseman comments on this dramatic scene of prophetic judgment: “When there is injustice and oppression the only restraint on a despot’s conduct may be an appeal to the justice of God who always does what is right.”7 Let us heed the lesson from Elijah that a friend of Israel is the one who does not gloss over wrongdoings or justify the unjustifiable.

1 Samuel 8:14

2 Gray, I & II Kings, SCM, 1985

3 Dt. 17:6

4 Dt. 13:10

5 Dt. 5:17, 21

6 1 Kings 18:17

7 Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings, IVP, 1993

Published in Third Way.

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