1 Kings 21 tells the story of King Ahab and a man named Naboth who owned a vineyard adjacent to the king’s palace. Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard but Naboth refused to give it to him. Eventually, Ahab’s queen Jezebel arranged for Naboth to be murdered and God sent his prophet Elijah to denounce the king’s actions.
Modern interpreters tend to view this story through the lens of economic exploitation and use words like “fairness” and “justice” to describe the situation. A close reading of the text, however, reveals that the authors are not primarily concerned with wealth and poverty. The story is about covenant faithfulness and the land of promise.
Nothing in the story indicates that Naboth was particularly poor. He was obviously less powerful than the king, but at the very least he owned a piece of productive land. And if the king is to be believed, Naboth would not have suffered economically by doing business with Ahab. Ahab offered to give Naboth a better piece of land or to give him a fair price in cash. And doing business with the king would certainly create additional benefits for Naboth down the road. The king would “owe him one.”
The key to understanding the passage is found in 1 Kings 21:3:
But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
Naboth is not just a stubborn homesteader. Rather, he is a faithful son of the covenant. The piece of dirt on which his vineyard sat was that apportioned to his family by God himself when Israel took possession of the land of promise. The land itself was a core component of God’s gift to Israel, and each family received its inheritance by divinely-guided lot. Families were not free to do with the land whatever they wanted. Under the covenant, the land was never to be permanently transferred to someone else. Israelites lived in covenant faithfulness as they remained married to the land God gave them, for better or for worse. The land and the people whom God had joined together, no one should put asunder.
This arrangement was not economically advantageous for everyone. Some people’s land was better than others. Neither did it offer people economic freedom. If you were born a farmer on a certain piece of property, that’s where you would remain for your entire life. See my essay, Jubilee, Poverty and the Land for more information. For our purposes, however, all you need to know is that the permanent possession of the land was not primarily a matter of economic fairness or justice. It was simply a matter of covenant faithfulness.
By resisting Ahab’s economic temptation, Naboth proved himself to be a faithful Israelite. For Ahab to even suggest such a property swap reveals how far he had fallen. At the urging of Ahab’s Phoenician, Baal-worshiping wife, the king’s covetousness turned to murder.
Instead of leading his people to keep God’s covenant, Ahab acted like every other near-eastern king. He took what he wanted by force, simply because he could. As the author of 1 Kings puts it, “There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife.”