Summary: Ahab goes one step too fr and God decides to act in judgement of him and Jezebel. Yet even then God's mercy is to the fore.
Reading through the story of Ahab and Jezebel, I occasionally feel a bit sorry for Ahab. He gets a glimpse every now and then of what’s the right thing to do. You feel like he’d really like to do the right thing, but he’s made so many bad decisions in the past that he just can’t get there. His worst decision of course was to marry Jezebel and let her get away with polluting the worship of Israel with her own worship of Baal. In fact you’d have to say that he even encouraged her by building a temple to Baal in Samaria itself. He comes across as such weak character doesn’t he, particularly compared with the strong character of Jezebel? And even when he realises the truth of his situation or the justice of a matter, he allows Jezebel to overrule him. It’s ironic that Jezebel criticises him for not acting as king, but gladly overrules him when she doesn’t like what he’s doing. We saw that with the aftermath of the demonstration of Yahweh’s power on Mt Carmel. Ahab appeared to be convinced but Jezebel was unmoved and acted independently to avenge the prophets of Baal.
We’ll see a similar scenario in our passage today, but first, let me fill in the gap between last week and this.
We’ve skipped over chapter 20 where the army of Syria twice try to capture Samaria. The first time a prophet of Yahweh tells Ahab how they can be defeated. And they’re miraculously delivered. The second time the king of Syria decides that he lost the first battle because Yahweh is a god of the hills, so he’ll start his battle in the valley. And again the prophet of Yahweh announces that the vast army of Syria will be defeated so Ahab will know that he is Yahweh - the LORD. The only trouble is Ahab doesn’t care that God is delivering the king of Syria into his hand to be not just defeated, but executed. Instead Ahab decides there’s value in making a treaty with him. Perhaps he can be useful in some conflict with one of his other neighbours. But as a result God announces that Ahab’s life will stand in the place of the life of the king of Syria that he’s spared. And that brings us to today’s reading.
Ahab has built a country retreat at a place called Jezreel, about 30km north of Samaria. This country palace is next door to a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. And Ahab thinks to himself, that spot would be perfect for a vegetable garden to supply my palace. So he makes Naboth an offer; a perfectly reasonable offer you’d think. He’ll give him another piece of land in exchange or he’ll pay him a suitable sum of money.
The trouble is, Naboth is a serious Israelite. He knows and respects God’s law. He’s a true believer. He knows that God has given each person in Israel a portion of land to be their possession in perpetuity. He’s even made laws about how in the year of Jubilee the land is to go back to the family to whom it was given in the first place. So Naboth tells Ahab: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” There’s such a strong contrast here between Naboth who’s insistent on obeying God’s law, even if it might be at some financial cost and Ahab who’s only interested in his own comfort.
But give Ahab his due. He knows that Naboth is right. He can’t compel him to sell his property. But what does he do? He goes home in a huff, climbs into bed and sulks, refuses to eat.
Enter Jezebel - again! “What sort of a king are you? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” She’s been around long enough to know how to deal with troublemakers. Ahab’s problem is he thinks he has to act within God’s law. Jezebel figures that the king is the law. You see she’s grown up in a pagan world where the king was the highest authority. This Israelite concept of an authority higher than the king was completely foreign to her way of thinking. So off she goes to fix it, while Ahab has some lunch.
But notice how she goes about this underhanded bit of scheming.
First she does it under the pretense of religious indignation. Naboth will be accused of blasphemy, cursing both God and the king and he’ll appear to get what he deserves.
Then she makes sure the legal niceties are followed. She makes sure there are two witnesses to accuse him, that the elders of the city are present, that it’s all done in public and that the penalty fits the crime. Don’t worry about the fact that they’re going to lie about Naboth. Justice must be seen to be done.