Allow me to describe a certain type of behavior and see if you can put a person’s face with it. I am thinking of someone who is wealthy by the financial standards of the day. With this wealth comes power, and with this power comes the rather easy ability to manipulate, to lie, to get whatever is desired from a consumer standpoint.
The clothes have to be the latest designer fashion, the jewelry obvious and ornate, not to mention “expensive.” After all, “Life’s too short for ordinary jewelry.” Right? Nothing this person possesses is ever enough, so boredom with the current situation quickly sets in. Life is a series of always wanting more, and then doing whatever is necessary to get it. Very soon, what one has is, yet again, not enough, so life becomes a constant exercise in accumulating more and more.
In life, there are stewards, those who are willing to make good with what they have, and who basically purchase only those things that are necessary for personal sustainability. And there are consumers/users/devourers, never satisfied with what they have, who constantly dispose of things in an effort to gather for themselves even more of what they want.
Nothing is done without consideration to the drawing of attention to one’s self. And since life is spent in the public limelight, you can’t wear the same thing twice, now can you? And, of course, it has to be the best and the most expensive.
It follows that when a person is wealthy, powerful, manipulative, and unethical, and is used to getting his or her own way, there is a strong level of immaturity that goes with this behavior. On those rare occasions when this person does not get what he or she wants, the first response is to pout, then to become sullen and angry, then to set about with a plan to get what is desired. Life is a constant series of getting, never giving.
It is the Hollywood syndrome, and is described perfectly in the story we read earlier from the Old Testament book of 1 Kings.
Ahab, the son of Omri, descendent of kings David and Solomon, is now the leader of Israel. However, Ahab has inherited none of David’s courage or leadership, nor does he have any of Solomon’s wisdom. He is stupid and weak, bolstered only by his marriage to the evil and conniving Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, a worshiper of the Canaanite storm god Baal. When it comes down to a sacred marital union, Ahab does not make a good choice.
I am reminded of a scene from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Near the end, the antagonist is trying to choose from a number of possibilities what he thinks is the Holy Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. He opts for a very ornate, bejewelled chalice, but picks the wrong one because Jesus, a simple carpenter, would have used a simple cup. Because of this – and the fact that he is the bad guy in the movie – he loses his life in typical George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg fashion. The ageless medieval knight, who for centuries has been safeguarding the Holy Grail, looks at Jones and says wryly, “He chose… poorly.”
That is the essence of Ahab’s life. Though he is the king of Israel, he has gone through life choosing poorly, and one of his worst choices was to marry Jezebel. And with Jezebel, when it comes to devotion to one’s god, there was no compromise.
Bill Curry, the former football coach at Alabama and now an ESPN commentator, says that he grew up Methodist. In fact, he attended Emory seminary in Atlanta, studying for the Christian ministry. In an address to Methodist bishops in North Carolina a number of years ago, Curry explains that while he grew up a Methodist, he married a Presbyterian. So, they decided to compromise… and he became a Presbyterian.
When Ahab went to the altar with Jezebel, the worshiper of Baal, they compromised and Ahab too became a follower of Baal. Obviously, you can be either a Methodist or Presbyterian and still be a Christian. However, you cannot worship Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, and at the same time give devotion to Baal. Ahab found that out the hard way. It is just another sign of Ahab’s weakness, his inability to see the right thing to do and then act upon it. Ahab is, in the worst sense, an idolater. And, as we will see, he knows nothing of stewardship.
Ahab and Jezebel have a second home, a getaway in Jezreel, located about twenty miles northeast of Samaria, the capital city where their regular palace is located. Because it is situated closer to the Sea of Galilee, the breezes are more pleasant there, and serves as a wonderful place to visit when the political pressures become intense. One day, as Ahab walks along the terrace of his vacation home, he comes up with the idea that he would like to expand his estate.
The only problem is that his property is abutted directly by that of a man named Naboth. Naboth has a vineyard adjacent to the king’s property, and Ahab begins to eye Naboth’s vineyard with the same kind of lust that caused his ancestor David to desire Bathsheba. He wants to replace Naboth’s vineyard with a vegetable garden. The king is used to getting what he wants, and he assumes that things will be no different this time around. After all, in his lustful eyes, as far as Ahab is concerned, “everything and everyone is a purchasable commodity.”1
But, let’s be fair with Ahab. He is willing to strike a deal, and gives Naboth a rather generous offer for his property. He will trade him for another plot of land, or he will pay him a fair value in good currency. Whatever it takes, Ahab is prepared to make a deal. But Naboth flatly refuses, and the words he uses provide us a clue as to why he will not let go of his property.
“The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
According to the religious beliefs of that day, the land does not really belong to Naboth. It belongs to God. It is being held in trust by Naboth, has been handed down through the generations by his family, and is to continue to be held in trust by his descendants who follow after him. According to the levitical law, when the year of Jubilee comes along, if Naboth makes a deal with the king, Ahab would be required to return possession of the land back to Naboth or his family… something Ahab probably would not do since he has already proven an utter disregard for the laws of God. And Naboth will not be involved in the breaking of God’s law.
But Ahab is willing to trade another plot of land for Naboth’s vineyard. Yes, and when the year of Jubilee comes along – when all loans, debts, and deals are called off – that land can be claimed by someone else, who would be identified as the rightful owner, and it could be taken from Naboth. Then, Naboth or his family will have no land at all. This plot of land has been entrusted to Naboth – by God no less – and he intends to keep covenant with God. This property is not just a place where Naboth tends his grapes. It is a symbol of his filial relationship to his God. To sell or trade it would be an act of blasphemy.
And if he sells the land to Ahab, he will have treated the land as a capital investment. To the ancient Hebrews, that is not what land is about. God owns the land, and they are merely stewards of it. The land is to be treated as a sacred trust, just the way God intended it.
Any way you look at it, from Naboth’s point of view, what Ahab offers him is a bad deal and he will have nothing to do with it.
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So when he doesn’t get his way, the stunned Ahab – who is used to getting everything he wants because he is king – goes to his bedroom, falls on his bed, turns his face away from any and all unwanted visitors, refuses to eat, and pouts because he has not gotten what he wanted. Why? Just because a land deal went sour? Well, obviously, there is more to it than that.
To be refused by a common man like Naboth is a slap in the face to Ahab. Despite the fact that he is king over Israel, this petty little incident illuminates his weakness. Wait until the leaders of the neighboring countries hear about this. They will laugh at Ahab, realize just how powerless he is, and no doubt take political advantage of it. Israel is headed for real trouble, and Ahab knows it. And if Israel is in trouble, needless to say, so is he. So he falls on his bed and pouts like a sulky teenager.
Do you get the connection? Now, do you see the Hollywood syndrome?
It is in complete contrast to the mature and well-thought-out behavior of Naboth. Compared to the king, Naboth is a simple man. But he understands his place in the sun. His responsibility is not to the king but to the sacred trust that has been placed in his hands, and he responds appropriately and in good and strong faith. “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
The story could have ended there. The story should have ended there.2 Naboth would go on about the business of tending to his vineyard and Ahab would learn to be happy with what he has. But it doesn’t work out that way, does it?
You see, power – especially political power – does not always yield to truth.3 The only thing Ahab knows is power, and the manipulation and treachery that often go with it. But what he has done – in his weakness – is allow that power to be vested most fully in his scheming wife Jezebel. And it is with her that the worm in this story really turns.
Jezebel does not know the God of Israel. She knows nothing of sacred trusts or ethics, of Levitical law or provisions of Jubilee. She is a princess, the daughter of a Phoenician king. She only knows how to operate according to the example set before her, and what she has witnessed in her royal household is that when a person of power wants something, he just takes it.
Jezebel makes Hollywood actresses look like rank amateurs. She knows only one way to get what she wants. If murder is involved, so be it. She knows how to get things done in her world, and is willing to go to any measure to get the job accomplished. It is the price you must be willing to pay for being powerful and rich… and a royal.
“Do you now govern Israel?” she says to her husband. “Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” Jezebel promises to give to her husband something she herself does not possess. It is another indication of the Hollywood syndrome, taking that which belongs to another as if it was meant only for you. Jezebel sets up a frame job against Naboth, has him accused of being disloyal to God and his king, and sees that Naboth is stoned to death outside the gates of the city.
Now, Ahab can have his little vegetable garden.
And once again, the story could have ended there. But God intervenes in his prophet Elijah, Ahab’s and Jezebel’s thorn in the flesh.
This is not a world of subtlety or nuances, where negotiation is the name of the game. God’s way has been violated, and the only possible result is bloodshed. One receives what one gives, and if Ahab and Jezebel want something so badly – even just a little bit of land – that they are willing to resort to violence in order to have it, they will discover that God’s vengeance can be violent too.
This is not, if you are sensitive about such things, a sweet story for little children. According to the stony-faced prophet Elijah, the same dogs that licked the blood from the rocks that claimed Naboth’s life will lick their blood too. Ahab and Jezebel will meet a terrible fate.
Yet, we are told, Ahab did repent of his wrongdoing. We also learn it will not get him off… not entirely. It just goes to show that even in a story like this there is at least some hope for reconciliation. However, we might be doing an injustice to this story by interjecting our modern sensibilities into it and expecting people like Ahab and Jezebel to behave the way we think they ought.
We have been told – if the media can be trusted – that Hollywood, during this most recent incarceration, has found God. This is not the time or place to pass judgment on that. But it is the time and place to acknowledge that reconciliation can occur when there is a true spirit of repentance. And that, I think, is where our lesson lies in this story.
What we can take from it, I think, is that faith-filled stewardship of all things is based on a humbling spirit of repentance. That is why the story from Luke’s gospel about the sinful woman, accepted by Jesus but not by his Pharisaic host, is a partner to this account of Ahab and Naboth. God, and God alone, has the ability to look deeply within our hearts and determine what is there.
When God looks into our hearts this morning, what does God find? Let us hope it is nothing like Ahab – and not even poor Hollywood (and she is quite poor, isn’t she?) – but instead reflects the spirit of the One who gave his life to redeem us. A spirit of self-giving, of stewardship, of faith and love. Now, that’s a syndrome we can live with, don’t you think?
Lord, as your divine gift toward us, give us a spirit of repentance… and of stewardship, and of the mature faith that goes with it. And if we have not yet arrived at that point, walk with us in the journey until we do. In Jesus’ giving name we pray, Amen.
1 Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text (Minneapolis: Fortress Books, 2004), p. 7).
2Ibid, p. 8.
3Ibid, p. 7.
Copyright 2007, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.