Summary: The story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth - then and now.
Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr C, 13/06/2004
Based on I Kings 21:1-21a
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Today’s first lesson is basically a story about coveting, bearing false witness, killing and stealing. It appears to begin in a rather painless way with Israel’s King Ahab seeing Naboth’s vineyard adjacent to his palace and making, what seems, at first sight, a fair and just offer to purchase it to use for his vegetable garden.
But wait a minute right there! Ahab, being king, knew very well that such an offer was not fair or just. Why? Because for Naboth to sell off the land that his ancestors passed on to him would be the same as Esau selling his birthright to brother Jacob for a bowel of lentil soup. You see, by keeping the land of one’s ancestors meant not only that one honoured one’s own family history—it also meant that one was keeping covenant with the LORD God, who, we remember, included the land in the covenant with Israel. If one sold one’s land that one inherited from one’s ancestors and, originally, from the LORD himself, was not that an act of abandoning the LORD and the covenant? As long as one occupied one’s land, one was affirming and living under the LORD’s covenant.
So, what else could Ahab expect Naboth to say to him than a firm “NO, the LORD forbids me to sell my ancestral inheritance!” However, Ahab doesn’t stop there. He responds to Naboth’s refusal to sell by going back to his palace, fasting, and going to bed to nurse his resentment towards Naboth and to pout like an immature child who fails to get what they want.
Jezebel enters the narrative at this point. When Ahab tells her about Naboth’s refusal she asks him pointedly, “Do you now govern Israel?” Jezebel had an entirely different understanding about who has a right to what. Jezebel came from Tyre. She worshipped a Baal god whose name was Melkart. Baal means “owner” and Baalism is a religion of ownership. Originally the word came to be synonymous with the aristocracy, the land owners in the big houses. Baalism came to be a religion. When the owners needed supernatural sanction to support their system they came up with a god to fit that need. Baalism was more than a cult. It was an ideology about who had the right to own what.
Jezebel had come to Israel to wed Ahab when he was crown prince. Now she was Queen and she would become Queen Mother. She was a powerful force in Israel. She was a pusher of a new mentality for she brought with her a retinue of priests of her god. A (North) American axiom reads, “It doesn’t matter what you believe just so long as you are sincere.” But it does matter! This idea that some are born to rule and own others to be owned backed by power of Jezebel was making a difference to the poor in Israel. (See Micah 2:1-2.) Beliefs do matter and theology is important!
Jezebel did not share the religious traditions of Israel, but she knew how to get what she wanted through dirty tricks. She sent letters in Ahab’s name and signed with his seal to all the elders and free people of Naboth’s city. They were instructed to proclaim a fast, perhaps because of the famine mentioned in chapter 17. That was diabolically clever for a fast would suggest that someone’s sin is responsible. Naboth was being set up even as he was ushered to the seat of honor at the assembly. Jezebel also knew that cursing the king was a capital offense (Exodus 22:8) and that the property of convicted people reverted to the crown. That no one questioned indicates the clout of Ahab’s family.