The story of Naboths vineyard is at the core of the Elijah narrative. Everything that has gone before comes to its culmination here, anything that has not been brought quite so clearly to the surface so far, is laid bare here, the evil that constitutes Ahabs reign, the consequences Baal worship entails.
Naboth the Jizreelite had a vineyard in Jizreel
It could be the start of a fairy tale ..
The vineyard in the Bible is the image of the promised land, it is a vision of good and abundant living that takes shape in the life of those who live with God. God, the keeper of the vineyard, looks after it, helping it to produce good and abundant fruit.
The fruit of the vineyard produces the wine of the Kingdom which flows into the world filling it with the warm glow of abundant mercy and love. A vineyard, in scripture, can never be just a grape growing place, but always comes loaded with all the connotations of life in Gods Kingdom, under his care. That this particular vineyard is in Jezreel gives the whole picture even more meaning: the word Jezreel means something like The place where God is sowing. And of course we all know what God sows: justice, mercy, love, hope, grace.
So this vineyard in Jezreel should be a good place, brimming over with all the good things God sows amongst his people.
Next to that vineyard is the palace of Ahab, King of Samaria, the most evil of the kings of Israel so far. His eyes wander over the vineyard of Naboth, and he likes the look of it. A perfect place for a vegetable patch!
Naboths vineyard however is not meant to be a vegetable patch nor can it be for sale. It is nachala, ancestral inheritance. It is a piece of land given to his family, way back, when they entered the promised land by God. It is land to live from, land to prosper on, land to hand down to offspring, land that enabled every Israelite to be his own man. Everybody was given a part of the land at the time. It could not be taken away and would secure each and everyones future as part of the inheritance God had given his people. It could not be used for speculation or the accumulation of private wealth.
This is clearly a concept that is beyond Ahab. He wants Naboths vineyard, and hell pay good money for it.
So what is the problem?
Ahab, the King, who should be the mirror image of God when dealing with his people finds it hard to accept a no from them, even where it is the consequence of someone trying to do kingdom living.
He goes home, resentful and sullen. Lays down on his bed, turns his face to the wall and wont eat. What kind of King does that? Is that what Gods mirror image looks like? Throwing tantrums like a toddler: I want it and I want it badly!
Ever felt that way? Or are you so thoroughly spoiled that you will mostly get what you really desperately want anyway?
What is the matter with you? Jezebel the loving and supportive wife enters the room. There is nothing like a good marriage is there? Together they get so much more done!
Someone said no to me!
In his recount of his endeavour to purchase Naboths vineyard Ahab neatly leaves out this vineyard happens to be Naboths ancestral inheritance. From a faithful man trying to live according to Gods commandments, he changes Naboth into a backward headstrong farmer who has unduly thwarted the brilliant plans of the king to have a vegetable garden on the other side of his palace wall.
"No worries, leave it to me" says the wife, "get up, eat, drink and be cheerful". Words that remind us of the words of the angel that supported Elijah in the desert and of other occasions where angels have come to the rescue of those in difficulty. Coming from the mouth of Jezebel, they become a travesty, as the whole story is a travesty of true Kingship and a reign that will do Gods vineyard justice.
The queen knows exactly how to get her dear husband out of his predicament, she sets Naboth up. Assuming at least an appearance of justice the city is called to fast, a proven way to prepare when grave and serious decisions need to be made. Then the council is called and Naboth put before them. Two scoundrels bring in false evidence against him and before anybody knows what is happening he has been condemned to death.
A chasm opens in those few verses: The system that has been devised to protect the poor and let justice reign is used to do the contrary. All under the appearance of righteousness and compliance with Gods commandments. Not only is this bad for Naboth, it means that from now on nobody will be safe, any vineyard can be stolen, and taken for anothers benefit. The system of social security that was there to protect and care for all, turned into yet another tool to satisfy the greed of the wealthy and the powerful.
The charge against Naboth is blasphemy, the cursing of God and King. The word that is used is a word that literally means: to remind someone of their purpose, of who they really are. And the funny thing is that it can also mean blessing, as well as curse, depending on the context.
Naboth seeks to remind Ahab of his purpose: to protect the ancestral inheritance of Israel, to care for Gods vineyard and not to make it into an asset to be owned and used for personal satisfaction and the increase of wealth.
Naboth brings back to mind who God is. Someone who wants all his people to be part of his Kingdom, who likes them all to have a place to live and prosper, who loves justice and is there to protect the poor and vulnerable.
To Ahab this is curse, to those of God it is blessing.
For his supposed blasphemy Naboth is stoned to death, and again there is a bitter twist in the story with once again Jezebel playing the system to perfection. The possessions of any criminal condemned to death fell to the king. So by having the city council condemn Naboth she not only keeps up the appearance of justice and respect for law and order, but also, quite neatly, places Naboths vineyard irrefutably into Ahabs hands. All correct procedures followed, there is nothing to take exception to by anyone!
This is evil at its worst. Where the system that was there to protect is used to do the opposite!
The city council, one should note, do not utter one squeak when this is going on. Silent witnesses that may benefit in the future of this new and exciting way of expanding ones possessions I imagine.
A painful story isnt it? Especially for people who live in a world like ours where everything is for sale, with faithfulness and moral behaviour often more of an impediment than an asset for making it big in the world, with the interests of the poor and vulnerable not that close to the top of political agendas and personal priority lists, and many getting away with all sorts of wrong doing by letting "the system" work for them.
"You killed and took possession of my inheritance"
says the Lord. Naboth had received his land from God, as part of the inheritance God had made available for his people to enable them to live in prosperity and peace in the land he had given them. Anyone who seeks to take that for his own gain dispossesses God.
We talked about the wrath of God last week. Here, dispossessed, his inheritance taken away from him by the greed of Ahab, God stands up for those whose fate he has come to share: the poor, the vulnerable, all who have suffered the Kings injustice.
There is no place for you Ahab, in the land of Gods promises, not even dead! And there wont be any permanent space for any of your offspring either. Especially those of them that "water against the wall"! In the vineyard of Jezreel, where God has sown the seeds for abundance and righteous living long ago, the seed of Ahab will come to nothing and will not find a place to rest, even in death.
The story comes to an unexpected conclusion:
Where Naboths vineyard and Ahabs palace are beside each other at the beginning of the story, at the end we find Ahab goes down to take possession of his vineyard. Elijah goes down as well, to tell Ahab what God thinks of him. So by the time Ahab goes down on his knees with sackcloth over his bare flesh we have arrived at the deepest point in the narrative where he comes level once again with Naboth: there is to be no inheritance, no future, no security for him.
And then Ahab repents.
Have you seen it? Asks the Lord Elijah. Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself? Have you seen his remorse? And God had mercy.
And we may wonder: Who was this story really about?
About the righteous Naboth who lost his vineyard and his life to the evil king Ahab and his wicked queen Jezebel?
About the wicked King Ahab who is brought to repentance?
Or is it a story about the God who puts himself in the same boat as the vulnerable and oppressed and stands up for them in righteous and terrible anger but is moved to grace and mercy by the repentance of the most evil of Kings?
The God who so loved the world that he gave his only Son for our salvation?