Naboth had a vineyard, and King Ahab had a palace in Samaria. The palace sat on a hill Ahab’s father had bought from a local for two talents of silver (1 Kings 16:24).
Naboth had a vineyard, and King Ahab had a dream of a vegetable garden near his palace. It all sounds innocent enough. The king made Naboth an offer, “I’ll give you a better vineyard for it, or money, whichever you prefer.” It was a reasonable offer, you might even say a generous one.
Wouldn’t you trade your vineyard on the Cumberland plateau for one in the Napa valley? You get better soil, better climate, better wine – and if the Napa valley is a little too far from home for you, name your price: it’s a seller’s market, the king really wants that piece of land! Why not make a deal? Strangely, Naboth didn’t even ask, “Let me sleep on it. I’ll get back with you tomorrow.”
Naboth said no, and he did so emphatically. “The Lord forbid...” he said, invoking God in what, for a moment, looked like a standard real estate proposal. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
From Naboth’s point of view, the vineyard wasn’t a commodity to be bought and sold at will. That vineyard was land that had been in Naboth’s family for generations and would remain in his family for generations to come. Naboth remembered that the land wasn’t anybody’s personal property, but God’s. Naboth remembered that God’s people were tenants on God’s land, and that every clan in Israel had received a portion. According to God’s covenant, each family had a plot of land to farm and to enjoy the fruit of the earth. The intent was to allow every generation thrive and find peace in the shadow of their family’s vines and figtrees. The land was God’s, not a commodity.
“The Lord forbid that I should give you the land that has been in my family for generations and that will be a source of food and income for generations to come,” said Naboth. King Ahab didn’t like the answer. He went to one of his many rooms in the palace, lay on his bed, face to the wall, and pouted; he didn’t even come down for dinner. He really wanted that vineyard, and the queen was genuinely concerned—until she heard his story.
“Aren’t you the king around here?” she mocked him, “Do you want me to go and get that vineyard for you?” She was a Phoenician princess, she didn’t know how royalty in Israel were supposed to behave, or perhaps she did know and just didn’t care. “Get up, eat something, stop moping. I’ll give you the vineyard.”
She didn’t have the power to just take the land, but she had the power to play the system in her favor. She sent a couple of memos in the king’s name, and with bogus charges and the help of two scoundrels who were willing to testify anything for the right price, she had Naboth killed. Then she went to the king and said, “Go, take that vineyard, it’s yours. Naboth is dead.” And Ahab put on his straw hat, got a ball of twine and a few sticks, and went to lay out the beds in his vegetable garden.
I love this tale, and the only thing that bothers me is the tendency in biblical stories, starting with Adam and Eve, to put the blame on women when there’s plenty of blame to go around. Ahab got what he wanted, and he didn’t even bother to ask, “How did you do that, dear?”
How did the king get what he wanted?
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or anything that belongs to your neighbor, the ten commandments declare, but the king really wanted that vineyard. And who wouldn’t agree that the king’s wish should be everybody’s command?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, the ten commandments declare, but who says that kings and queens have neighbors – aren’t they all underlings?
You shall not steal, you shall not murder – but what are divine commandments when royal wishes have been made known?
In this tale, everything that keeps a society from drifting into chaos is corrupted by royal covetousness, and the king’s hankering after cucumbers, onions and leeks leads to death by judicial murder. It is ironic that the one person in the story who shows genuine reverence for God’s will is killed on a charge of blasphemy. And the king and queen get to wear the robes of righteousness in front of the public for putting down the blasphemers in Israel.
The systems of law, government, and religion not only fail to protect the innocent man’s life, they become tools in the hands of the powerful who manipulate them for their own purposes. But more is at stake here than the occasional abuse of the system by those in power to serve their own needs and desires.
In Israel’s imagination, the vineyard is a way of speaking of God’s people on God’s land; the vineyard is an image of the flourishing relationship between God and God’s people and the land. In contrast, Egypt, the land of Pharao, the land where the Hebrews served as slaves, is compared to a vegetable garden. The vineyard is planted on land watered by rain from the sky, land that God looks after, but the vegetable garden must be irrigated by foot, with hard labor ( Deuteronomy 11:8-12). The story suggests that if royal covetousness has its way, God’s people return to the house of slavery.
The story could end as it so often ends, with the vineyard gone and the king taking a walk in the royal vegetable garden. But is doesn’t.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth.
Just when Israel began to look like Egypt, the word of the Lord came to one like Moses. Just when the royals thought nobody was paying attention to what they were doing, the word of the Lord came to Elijah:
Go to the vineyard of Naboth and tell King Ahab, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Elijah, the truth-teller, found the king and said, “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” He could have just said, “You have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” but he said, “You have sold yourself.” Naboth wouldn’t even sell a piece of land out of reverence for God’s covenants, but Ahab had sold himself. Sold himself to whom or what?
A few years ago, Bob Dylan sang an answer:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be a businessman or some high-degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
That’s the kind of song Elijah sang to Ahab in the vineyard:
You may live in a palace or live on the street
You may own half of Samaria or just a vineyard
You may be the king or the king’s gardener
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
You sold yourself to idols that promise you your heart’s desire. You sold yourself to visions of power that promise you the world – as long as you give yourself to them. You have sold yourself. You imagine yourself to be free and sovereign in your refusal to serve the Lord who brought Israel out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
You say you serve nobody but yourself? You are of all slaves most to be pitied, for you have sold yourself to serve the whims of your desires. You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.
What does that ancient story have to do with you and me, with our lives? We live in a culture that has gotten used to treating greed like a virtue, a culture that depends on covetousness for its flourishing. We surround ourselves with images that tell us we are kings and queens, when in truth we are selling ourselves to powers that promise us the world. We worship at the altars of the gods of consumerism, and we imagine we can grow our way out of every problem and crisis. We live as if the earth wasn’t the Lord’s but ours—and ours to do with as we please.
We look at the disaster in the gulf and we can see the failure of systems of law and government to protect the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable families and of future generations. We can look at the mess and demand better oversight, better laws, better risk analysis, better engineering – and we should – but we’re missing the opportunity this moment of crisis presents, if we don’t hear the voice of Elijah, the voice of Jesus calling us to renewed covenant faithfulness.
We imagine ourselves to be free, when in truth we act like addicts who have sold ourselves to promises that aren’t God’s but the products of our own unbridled desires.
We’re gonna have to serve somebody, and we’re all better off if that somebody isn’t our respective myself. Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all point to the same alternative to royal covetousness and anxious selfishness: Life in covenant with the God who called Israel out of Egypt and who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Life as free men and women who serve no one but the Lord of heaven and earth, and one another in neighborly love.