1 Kings 21.1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
1 Kings 1-17 tells about the acts of various kings. Chapters 1-11 tell of Solomon’s succession to the throne and his reign. Chapters 12-17 tell of the secession of the northern tribes and the formation of two nations—Israel (north) and Judah (south)—and their various kings. The record of these kings was generally bad. Time after time, we hear that the king did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.
In chapter 16, we read about Ahab, the son of Omri, assuming the throne of Israel. He ruled for 22 years, and “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh above all that were before him” (16:30). “He took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. He reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. Ahab made the Asherah; and Ahab did yet more to provoke Yahweh, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:31-33).
Then, in chapter 17, Elijah the prophet came on the scene to pronounce Yahweh’s judgment on Ahab—a terrible drought. This was a direct challenge, not only to Ahab, but also to Baal, the storm god—the god responsible for bringing rain. The drought came as Elijah predicted, and lasted three and a half years (James 5:17).
Then, in chapter 18, Yahweh (through the person of Elijah) made an even more direct challenge to Ahab and Baal. Elijah challenged Ahab to bring all four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah to Mount Carmel. The people would prepare a sacrifice, and the prophets would call down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. The one who succeeded would be revealed as the true prophet. Elijah won that contest handily, and killed the prophets of Baal.
But in chapter 19, Elijah fled from Jezebel, who had threatened to kill him. Yahweh reassured Elijah that he was not alone. Elisha became Elijah’s disciple.
Chapter 20 tells about Ahab’s wars with the Arameans. The Arameans had assembled a mighty army, but Yahweh gave Ahab the victory as a way of demonstrating that Yahweh was truly God. The Aramean king, Benhadad, begged for mercy, and Ahab spared his life. As a result, Yahweh’s prophet pronounced judgment on Ahab for failing to kill the man whom Yahweh had put into Ahab’s hands.
Thus, when we come to the treachery of Ahab and Jezebel regarding Naboth’s vineyard, we have no cause to be surprised. Neither Ahab nor Jezebel worship Yahweh, and we would be naïve to expect anything good from them.
1 KINGS 21:1-4. NABOTH THE JEZREELITE HAD A VINEYARD
1 It happened after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near to my house; and I will give you for it a better vineyard than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money.” 3Naboth said to Ahab, “May Yahweh forbid me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you!” 4Ahab came into his house sullen and angry because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He laid himself down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.
“It happened after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria” (v. 1). This verse sets the stage for the conflict which is to follow. Naboth has a vineyard adjacent to Ahab’s palace in Jezreel. If Ahab wants to expand the gardens surrounding the palace, Naboth’s vineyard is a natural place for him to look.
The city of Samaria, built by Ahab’s father, Omri (16:24), is Ahab’s primary residence (16:29), so his palace in Jezreel is an additional residence—perhaps a winter home. The elevation of Samaria is higher than Jezreel, so the winter temperatures in Jezreel would be more comfortable. Jezreel is located about 20 miles (32 km.) northeast of the city of Samaria, midway between that city and the Sea of Galilee.
“Give me your vineyard” (v. 2a). Vineyards are important in the Old Testament. The Torah includes a number of laws regarding the care of vineyards (Exodus 25:5; 23:11; Leviticus 19:10; 25:3; Deuteronomy 22:9; 23:24; 2421). A man who has planted a vineyard but has not yet enjoyed its produce is excused from military duties (Deuteronomy 20:6). Isaiah speaks of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard (Isaiah 5:1, 3, 5, 7).
Unlike a vegetable garden, which can be planted in one place this year and another place next year, a vineyard is a long-term proposition. It takes time for vines to grow sturdy enough to produce grapes, and it takes careful nurture to get good grapes. A person who has planted and nurtured a vineyard to maturity is like an entrepreneur who has started a business and brought it to maturity. The vineyard is his “baby”—the fulfillment of his vision. A person who inherits a vineyard receives not only land and vines but also the dreams and sweat and toil of his parents—and their parents—and so on back to the beginning. A vineyard is a heritage. It also represents the family’s future.
“that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near to my house” (v. 2b). The only other reference to a vegetable garden in the Old Testament is Deuteronomy 11:9-11, where God contrasts the Promised Land—”a land flowing with milk and honey”—with “land of Egypt, that you came out from, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of herbs.” Unlike Egypt, the land to which God is leading them is “a land which Yahweh your God cares for: the eyes of Yahweh your God are always on it, from the beginning of the year even to the end of the year.”
As a result of this Deuteronomic reference, some scholars see this vegetable garden as a symbol of Egypt—and Ahab’s desire to have it “as a garden of herbs” as a desire to lead the nation from the vineyard of Israel back to the gardens of herbs of Egypt (Provan, 157-158; Leithhart, 154; Hens-Piazza, 206).
“and I will give you for it a better vineyard than it. Or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its worth in money” (v. 2c). To his credit, Ahab does not simply expropriate the vineyard without compensating Naboth. He offers Naboth a fair price or a better vineyard in exchange for the vineyard near his palace.
However, it will soon be clear that Ahab sees Naboth’s vineyard very differently than does Naboth. For Ahab, this is a simple monetary transaction—the purchase of something that has caught his eye. For Naboth, his vineyard is more important than money—is a family heritage—a sacred trust.
“May Yahweh forbid me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers to you” (v. 3). While the Torah does not forbid the sale of land, it regards land as Yahweh’s property, held in trust by the family that owns it. They are forbidden to sell land in perpetuity, because it doesn’t belong to the family but instead belongs to Yahweh (Leviticus 25:23). If a family is forced to sell its land, “then his kinsman who is next to him shall come, and redeem that which his brother has sold” (Leviticus 25:25). If the land cannot be redeemed in that manner, the person to whom it is sold is required to return the land to the original owners in the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:13). A person selling land is required to take this into account when setting the purchase price, because the buyer will have use of the land only until the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25:14-17).
Given Torah law (religious law that Ahab does not observe), Ahab’s offer puts Naboth in a real bind. If he accepts Ahab’s offer of money, he (or his descendants) will have to approach Ahab (or Ahab’s descendants) in the year of jubilee asking for the return of their land—a request unlikely to be honored. If Naboth buys another vineyard or accepts Ahab’s offer of another vineyard, he can expect that the previous owner will approach him during the year of jubilee asking for his land back. A likely scenario would be for Naboth to end up with empty hands after the year of the jubilee.
So this is, at its heart, “a dispute between conflicting theories of land ownership” (Brueggemann, 257). For Ahab, land is a commodity to be bought, sold, or traded. For Naboth, it is a sacred trust.
“Ahab came into his house sullen and angry because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He laid himself down on his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread” (v. 4). This verse gives us considerable insight into Ahab’s character. He is quite capable of evil deeds, but fails to use the power at his disposal against Naboth. Rather than acting, he responds passively, sulking and refusing to eat. He is weak—a pitiful excuse for a king.
1 KINGS 21:5-7. I WILL GIVE YOU THE VINEYARD OF NABOTH
5But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said to him, “Why is your spirit so sad, that you eat no bread?” 6He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ He answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” 7Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be merry. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
“Why is your spirit so sad, that you eat no bread?” (v. 5). They say that opposites attract, and that seems to have been the case with Ahab and Jezebel. Ahab’s natural impulse is to sulk, but Jezebel’s natural impulse is to take the bull by the horns. Presumably, Ahab finds Jezebel attractive because she has the strength to solve problems when he is stymied. It seems likely that his refusal to eat was his way of asking her to solve his vineyard problem. It did get her attention. Her question gives Ahab a chance to hand her the vineyard problem.
“Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite, and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ He answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard'” (v. 6). Ahab accurately reports his offer to Naboth—money or a new vineyard. However, he does not accurately report Naboth’s response. He makes no mention of Naboth’s concern for his ancestral inheritance. He makes it sound as if Naboth was simply being difficult.
Of course, it is possible that Ahab never really heard Naboth’s concern. It wouldn’t be difficult for an insensitive man like Ahab to miss the significance of a vineyard owner’s ancestral inheritance.
And, of course, if Ahab had understood Naboth’s concern and had reported it accurately, it would have made no difference to Jezebel. This queen wouldn’t care about such niceties as ancestral inheritance.
“Do you now govern the kingdom of Israel?” (v. 7a). Jezebel’s first response is contemptuous—the Old Testament equivalent of “Are you a man or a mouse?” She reminds Ahab that he is the king—the one in charge—the one who makes the rules. Why is he sulking in his room because of the refusal of a simple vineyard owner!
Her response reflects a view of the law that is quite different from that of the Hebrew scriptures. In the Jewish tradition, “the law (is) rooted in the nature and character of God, and the king must be submissive to it” (Anders, 178). In Jezebel’s view, the king makes and enforces the law—the law reflects the will of the sovereign.
“Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be merry. I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (v. 7b). But then Jezebel reassures Ahab. She will do what he should have done in the first place. She will take care of the problem. She will find a way to secure the rights to Naboth’s vineyard, and then she will present it as a gift to Ahab.
1 KINGS 21:8-14 JEZEBEL WROTE LETTERS IN AHAB’S NAME
8So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were in his city, who lived with Naboth. 9She wrote in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. 10Set two men, base fellows (Hebrew: bene·beliy·ya·al – sons of worthlessness – ne’er-do-wells), before him, and let them testify against him, saying, ‘You cursed God and the king!’ Then carry him out, and stone him to death.” 11The men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, according as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them. 12They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. 13The two men, the base fellows, came in and sat before him. The base fellows testified against him, even against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king!” Then they carried him out of the city, and stoned him to death with stones. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned, and is dead.”
“So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were in his city, who lived with Naboth” (v. 8). Jezebel assumes the king’s authority—writes letters in his name—signs them with his seal, the sign of the king’s authority—tasks the elders and nobles of the city to carry out her bidding. These officials will be hard-pressed to refuse Jezebel. They know the power that she wields, and they know her lack of scruples. If they refuse to do her bidding, they might be next in line for execution.
“Proclaim a fast” (v. 9a). A fast, at its core, is a religious observance—”a sign of penitence (1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kgs. 21:27) and an accompaniment to prayer (2 Sam. 12:16-17; Ps. 35:13; Tob. 12:8), and … a means of preparing oneself to receive divine revelation (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9; Dan. 9:3; 10:3; cf. I Sam. 28:20; Matt. 4:2 par.)” (Myers, 377). But in Jezebel’s hands, a fast is a tool for achieving her nefarious objective—”a religious occasion…used for irreligious purposes” (Fretheim, 118).
“and set Naboth on high among the people.Set two men, base fellows (bene·beliy·ya·al – sons of worthlessness – ne’er-do-wells) before him, and let them testify against him, saying, ‘You cursed God and the king!'” (v. 9b – 10a). Rather than deal with Naboth directly, Jezebel devises a scheme to insulate Ahab from blame. The officials that she tasks to conduct the fast are to locate two unscrupulous men who will bring false witness against Naboth—accusing him of cursing God (blasphemy) and cursing the king (treason). The Torah requires two witnesses to secure a death sentence (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15; Numbers 35:30).
“Then carry him out, and stone him to death” (v. 10b). The penalty for blasphemy is stoning (Exodus 22:28; Leviticus 24:16; Deuteronomy 17:5-6).
There is precedent for taking a person outside of town to perform the stoning so that the town is not defiled (Numbers 15:36). Jesus will be taken outside of Jerusalem when he is crucified (Hebrews 13:12).
“The men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, according as it was written in the letters which she had sent to them” (v. 11). The city officials, either to curry Ahab’s favor or to avoid Jezebel’s disfavor, carry out Jezebel’s plot and murder Naboth.
1 KINGS 21:15-16. ARISE, TAKE POSSESSION OF THE VINEYARD
15 It happened, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, 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 It happened, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
“It happened, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead'” (v. 15). Even if Naboth is dead, his land would not automatically go to the king. However, 2 Kings 9:26 suggests that Jezebel had Naboth’s sons killed as well so that they could not inherit the land.
It would be interesting to know the tone of Jezebel’s voice as she delivers this message. It sounds like an order—and Jezebel clearly wears the pants in the palace—but it seems likely that she would have a note of glee in her voice as well. Her scheme has worked as planned—without a hitch—and she must be smugly satisfied with herself. After all, she has done what the king hadn’t been able to manage.
“It happened, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it” (v. 16). Note that Ahab hesitates not at all. He immediately does what Jezebel has told him to do. That is, in part, because she is the stronger and more authoritative of the two. But it also seems likely that it is, in part, because he has been hoping all along that Jezebel would solve his vineyard problem. Now that she has done so, he is happy to go and examine the fruits of her labors.
1 KINGS 21:17-19. THEN THE WORD OF YAHWEH CAME TO ELIJAH
17The word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 18“Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who dwells in Samaria. Behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone down to take possession of it. 19You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”‘ You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs will lick your blood, even yours.”‘”
“The word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite” (v. 17). Prophets are responsible for conveying Yahweh’s revealed word (Isaiah 38:4; Jeremiah 1:14; 7:1; 16:1; 18:1; 25:1; Ezekiel 1:3). It matters little how they received this word—whether as a voice from heaven or a vision or a dream. It matters only that the Lord speaks his word to them and that they convey that word faithfully to the intended recipient. This is not the first time that the word of the Lord has come to Elijah (17:2, 8, 16; 18:1; 19:9).
We don’t know where Elijah was when Yahweh came to him. When we last saw him, Yahweh was directing him to go to the wilderness of Damascus (19:15), but a good deal has happened since then.
“Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who dwells in Samaria. Behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone down to take possession of it” (v. 18). Ahab is enjoying the fruits of Jezebel’s scheme. He has gone to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard, and is most likely planning how it will look once he has removed the vines and installed his vegetable garden. Yahweh calls Elijah to confront Ahab at the scene of the crime.
“You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”‘” (v. 19a). Ahab is guilty of three offenses. The first is murder (Exodus 20:13). The second is coveting (Exodus 20:17). The third is theft (Exodus 20:15).
“You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs will lick your blood, even yours “‘” (v. 19b). The penalty will match the offense. Ahab will die the kind of violent death that he (through Jezebel) inflicted on Naboth. He will also be subject to the indignity in death of dogs licking his blood, just as Naboth was. Nor will Jezebel escape punishment. She will be eaten by dogs (21:23) and denied a proper burial (2 Kings 9:33-36).
1 KINGS 21:20-21a. I WILL BRING EVIL ON YOU
20Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, my enemy?”
He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh. 21a Behold, I will bring evil on you .”
“Have you found me, my enemy?” (v. 20a). Ahab earlier addressed Elijah as “you troubler of Israel (18:17). Now he addresses him as “my enemy.”
Ahab has regarded Elijah as an enemy since the beginning of their relationship—since Elijah prophesied drought (chapter 17) and defeated and killed the prophets of Baal (chapter 18). However, the truth is that Ahab has made himself the enemy of Yahweh, and Elijah is only the spokesperson for Yahweh.
“I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do that which is evil in the sight of Yahweh “ (v. 20b). Elijah accuses Ahab of evil. “But there was none like Ahab, who sold himself to do that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. He did very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites did, whom Yahweh cast out before the children of Israel” (vv. 25-26).
“Behold, I will bring evil on you” (v. 21a). This is unusual. Elijah expresses Yahweh’s judgment in the first person—”I will bring evil on you”—as if he has so completely identified with Yahweh that Yahweh’s word becomes his own. In v. 21b, he expands Yahweh’s judgment to include “everyone who urinates against a wall, and him who is shut up and him who is left at large in Israel.”
1 KINGS 21-22: POSTSCRIPT
Ahab surprises us by responding to Elijah’s judgment with repentance. He tears his clothes, wears sackcloth, fasts, and goes about dejectedly (21:27). As a result, Yahweh grants him a temporary reprieve (21:29).
However, in chapter 22, Ahab ignores Micaiah’s prophecy and goes to battle with the Arameans. In that battle, he is wounded, dies, and is buried (22:37). “They washed the chariot by the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up (Ahab’s) blood where the prostitutes washed themselves; according to the word of Yahweh which he spoke” (22:38).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Devries, Simon J., Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Kings, Vol. 12 (Dallas, Word Books, 2003)
Fretheim, Terence E., Westminster Bible Companion: 1-2 Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
House, Paul R., New American Commentary: 1, 2 Kings, Vol. 8 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Longman, Tremper III, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Nelson, Richard D., Interpretation Commentary: I and II Kings (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Seow, Choon-Leong, The New Interpreters Bible: 1-2 Kings, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Smith, Norman H. (Exegesis) and Sockman, Ralph W. (Exposition), The Interpreter’s Bible: Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan