Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ahab, Jezebel & A Vineyard (part 1)

In the twenty-first chapter of the first book of the Kings, the story of Ahab and Naboth is encountered.  A quick summary of the story has Ahab, the king of Israel, desirous of obtaining a vineyard that belongs to a man by the name of Naboth.  Ahab offers to purchase the vineyard or to trade a more valuable piece of land to Naboth in exchange for his vineyard that was said to adjoin the palace grounds.  This would appear to be an offer of a legitimate and appropriate transaction between two parties.

However, Naboth politely declines the offer, saying “The Lord forbid that I should sell you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3b).  As Ahab had his heart set on acquiring the vineyard, it is said that this rejection made him both “bitter and angry” (21:4).  It is at this point that Jezebel, the wife of Ahab, enters the story.  Jezebel noticed her husband’s downcast demeanor, and naturally inquired as to its source.  Ahab informed Jezebel about the situation with Naboth and his vineyard, with this apparently spurring Jezebel to take matters into her own hands to obtain the vineyard. 

It is reported that Jezebel “wrote out orders, signed Ahab’s name to them, and sealed them with his seal.  She then sent the orders to the leaders and to the nobles who lived in Naboth’s city.  This is what she wrote: ‘Observe a time of fasting and seat Naboth in front of the people.  Also seat two villains opposite him and have them testify, “You cursed God and the king.”  Then take him out and stone him to death.’” (21:8-10) 

It is not at all difficult to see what is at work here, what is left out, and what is implied.  This is a shrewd albeit vicious plan that has been hatched by Jezebel, and it is rooted in a knowledge of public sensibilities that would appear to be heavily dependent on ancient near eastern meal culture and its associated customs.  It begins with the declaration of a time of fasting, which is generally associated in Scripture with penitence on behalf of an individual or a people, though that is not the case here.  Consequently, Jezebel corrupts the practice.  Naturally, a time of fasting would be concluded by a time of feasting, and Jezebel (with it taken to be from Ahab’s hand) has given an order related to Naboth’s city. 

Though Naboth owns a vineyard adjacent to the king’s abode, this does not necessarily mean that he lived on this piece of land, but that he either worked the land himself or hired laborers to work it for him.  Owing to this, it can be presumed that Naboth is probably a relatively wealthy individual, who is likely to have possessed some measure of honor within the community that would operate on the basis of honor and shame. 

Accordingly, when considering the location of his vineyard (adjacent to the palace grounds), it would not come as a surprise to anyone in the community that Naboth is being chosen out for a special honor by the king, who is going to be hosting a community feast in honor of Naboth.  Consequently, it would be quite likely that, at this feast, Naboth would occupy the seat of honor (however that would have worked out in that time and place) at the feast that followed the fast. 

Together with this, there is also this mention of seating two “villains” opposite Naboth at this feast.  Naturally, these men will not be known to the community as villains, but rather, since this story is a decided polemic against Jezebel that seems to seek to at least partially exculpate Ahab from blame in this manner, the men are going to play the villain in the story, right along with Jezebel. 

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