Self centeredness and greed are pervasive in our world, especially among those who have power over others. There is an old saying that “A fish rots from the head.” It means that when a society starts degrading, it must be the fault of the leadership. Ahab has proved to be that fish that rots from the head. Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:31, 33). Yet by end of this narrative we are faced with the reality that while this head should have been chopped it was spared by God.
What happens when a wealthy royal king covets and seizes the only possession of a commoner? God decides to get involved! The narrative revolves around Naboth’s vineyard and the king’s desire to buy it in order to extend the gardens around his palace and make a vegetable patch (v. 2a). The king presents Naboth with a generous offer which Naboth declined stating “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (verse 3).
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 nurturing to get good grapes. 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.
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. Land was rarely bought and sold, and when it was done, it was only done to people within the kin.
Ahab now covets the vineyard of Naboth that was adjourning his palace, for he wants to cultivate vegetables. The palace under discussion is not in Samaria, but in the same area as the vineyard. The city of Samaria was built by Ahab’s father, Omri (16:24). According to 1 Kings 16:24, Omri bought the “hill of Samaria” and founded a new capital for the northern kingdom there. Samaria was Ahab’s primary residence (16:29), so his palace in Jezreel is an additional residence—perhaps a winter home. Jezreel is located about 32 km northeast of the city of Samaria, midway between that city and the Sea of Galilee. It is here that the vineyard is located.
This matter has now become an issue not of need but of greed. Despite being King of Israel and having access to all the commensurate royal perks and privileges, Ahab sees and covets a neighbouring plot of land; and Naboth is at the receiving end. He was a mere subject of Ahab’s kingdom, with no extraordinary or powerful means of recourse against the actions of his monarch.
With the refusal, the kings response is to be “angry and sullen.” Strangely, the king’s passivity contrasts with the boldness of Queen Jezebel, who both admonishes the king (“Do you now govern Israel?”) but does it with a comforting assurance (“be cheerful”). She devises a plan to obtain the land . She knows that the only way to get the land which is not up for sale is through the death of the owner. Thus the wheels of evil were in motion. Jezebel orchestrated Naboth’s death based on false accusations of cursing God and the king (verse 10). Upon the death of Naboth, Jezebel expectedly tells Ahab to claim the land. But the Lord sends Elijah to condemn the action.
The penalty will match the offence. 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).
Strangely, this king who has turned away from God time and time again and who has worshipped and promoted false god’s. This, the most wicked King who realises he is to die, repents. Ahab repents and God relents….again. Yahweh grants him a temporary reprieve (21:29). To those seeking justice, this narrative leaves you feeling angry. To those who have experienced mercy, this passage is a reminder that even saints have a past and sinner can have a future. This narrative is presented to shows us the character of God’s mercy: it is given to the undeserving. By nature, the innocent does not need mercy. Ahab was a great sinner, on this occasion he won great mercy through his repentance. The worst sinner should not disqualify himself from receiving God’s mercy, if that sinner should only approach God in humble repentance.
However, while Ahab may experience the mercy of God he is not spared his judgment. In chapter 22, Ahab ignores the voice of the prophet 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). The tragic thing about selling oneself to do evil is that it always ends up being selling oneself for nothing! Judas got no benefit for the thirty pieces of silver. Ahab received no blessing from the vineyard of Naboth.
Reflecting on this story we can say two things. That our wrongdoings carry with them unavoidable punishments, built into the very nature of evil actions; yet no matter how serious our faults, God’s compassion and forgiveness awaits those who genuinely repent and change their ways.