Power Politics in Ninth Century Israel

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

Psalm 56, 57, [58] (Morning)
Psalm 64, 65 (Evening)
I Kings 21:1-16
I Cor. 1: 1-19
Matt. 4:1-11

Power Politics in Ninth Century Israel

Today’s passage from I Kings 21:1-16 presents a story of a king of Israel, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel, behaving very badly. The characters of our passage’s portion of the drama, with the skeletal framework of a tragedy, are Naboth the Jezreelite; Ahab, King of Samaria; Jezebel, his wife, who had been a princess of Sidon; “the elders and nobles” of Samaria, and “two scoundrels” (NRS), referred to as “sons of Belial” in KJ. A crowd of citizens, a chorus with no lines, also plays a role.

Action begins when Ahab instructs Naboth to relinquish his desirable vineyard, telling Naboth that he will either find an equivalent vineyard or pay him the land’s worth in money. These options are unsatisfactory to Naboth who explains that the Lord himself has forbidden the giving away of his “ancestral inheritance” (v.3). Depressed, Ahab returns home to sulk, but Jezebel takes offence at the denial of the King’s request and promises that she will get the vineyard for him (v.4-7)

Putting the problem in her hands plays out when she writes letters to Samaria’s highly placed citizens. On Ahab’s stationary and under the kingly seal, she instructs them to call a meeting (“proclaim a fast”) in Naboth’s honor. Under pretense of setting Naboth high, the letters specifically tell them to seat two men opposite Naboth-the scoundrels,” the sons of Belial”-and instruct them to swear that Naboth had “blasphemed the king” and then to “carry him out and stone him” to death (v.8-10). Such are the values of this worshipper of Baal (I Kings 16:31).

At the end of the passage, Ahab has taken possession of the executed owner’s vineyard and has usurped his familial authority. And there the lectionary leaves us hanging for today.

What are the issues here? The text gives us no reason to believe that Ahab genuinely thought that his offers of compensation were reasonable. As king, he surely knew the importance to his kingdom’s land owners to pass familial land to posterity. The passage doesn’t account for Ahab’s thoughts or actions as he passively allows Jezebel to instruct the elders to bring in assassins to falsely accuse and then stone Naboth to death. Interestingly, the elders and nobles seem to have no problem arranging this murder required for usurpation of Naboth’s ancestral rights. No one in the crowd seems to have challenged the lie against Naboth. Hence, the entire community shares complicity in the plan to kill the innocent land owner by stoning, causing him an agonizing death, and humiliating everyone related to him.

All this considered, the action of post-passage verses 17 and 18, in which “the Word of the Lord” goes to the prophet Elijah and instructs him to take care of the situation in Samaria, becomes God’s restoration of the moral order in tainted Israel.

Written by Written by Pamela Mellott

Pamela holds a Ph.D. in English Renaissance Literature and the History of Medicine from the University of California, Riverside. She (and husband, Kerby) have been members of St. Paul’s since September 2016, when they retired to Fayetteville from Southern California.

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