More parabolic than historic, Naboth's vineyard tells the story of Israel's decline and foreshadows the exile. Between the folkloric sources, the exilic context of the writers and editors, and the story's placement in the book, literary and historic investigations corroborate the story's allegoric nature. Rife with metaphor and foreshadowing, it is a rich story, central to the understanding of First Kings.
First Kings is a historical document continuing the epic tale of the foundation and collapse of Israel, where Second Samuel left off. (Moving from triumphalism to tragedy, the whole tale stretches over Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.) The narrative was only knit together around two hundred years after the events took place and went through almost two hundred more years of editing. This type of distance from the events leads to a scavenger mentality in the writers, they gather together as many sources as possible. Both surviving historical documents and folkloric stories passed on in written or spoken word would have found a place in the construction of these books.
Sources that confirm credibility are referenced frequently, as in Ahab's death when it is advised that the actions not recorded in First Kings are "written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel" (1 Kings 22:39). Much of the book relies on the word of mouth that survived from the period, and this less-reliable source is not cited within the text. It is safe, however, to assume many of the stories that do not affect the kingdom as a whole could not be found in the large historical sources. These stories that find their way into First Kings are generally emblematic of larger themes, such as Solomon's wisdom represented by the tale of two mothers. Naboth's vineyard is such a story. Though it has no bearing on the factual kingdom militarily or economically, it effectively summarizes the collapse of the kingdom.
The story of Naboth's vineyard particularly stands out as a prophetic legend passed on and incorporated into First Kings. It clearly functions as a stand-alone story with a self-contained arc, something a historic document wouldn't normally have. Ahab himself seems like a different character from the rest of the book. Compared to the ruthless, godless king of the rest of First Kings, the Ahab here begins as spoiled and childish and transforms into a faithful, repentant man.
Ahab is clearly used to every whim being satisfied. In an agrarian community where a man's crop is his life, it is assumed Naboth will "give [Ahab his] vineyard so that [Ahab] may have it for a vegetable garden" (1 Kings 21: 2) on the simple reasoning that "it is near [Ahab's] house" (1 Kings 21: 2). Naboth is the polar opposite of Ahab, he is a simple man who is faithful to God. Naboth refuses Ahab, even when Ahab offers a better vineyard because "the Lord forbid that [he] should give [Ahab his] ancestral inheritance" (1 Kings 21: 3). Ahab takes this as an enormous loss despite having better vineyards he is willing to give away. Unused to being denied, Ahab's response is infantile. He becomes "resentful and sullen" (1 Kings 21: 4) and lays "down on his bed, [turning] away his face, and [refusing to] eat" (1 Kings 21: 4).
Engrossed in his own desires, Ahab allows his wife, Jezebel, to order the assassination of Naboth so he may claim the vineyard for his own. When he goes to take possession, however, Elijah the prophet is there to meet him. Ahab's response to the confrontation is mature and contrite. It is, in fact, a literal transformation from his earlier self. When once he was resentful and sullen, now he is dejected. When once he lay in his bed, now he lays in sackcloth. Where once he would not eat, now he fasts. Ahab is truly repentant and God lifts his curse. This new Ahab is nowhere to be found in the chapter that directly follows this story. He has returned to his ruthless, godless self. The Ahab that is found in Naboth's vineyard is not found anywhere else. The story was clearly from a separate source than the rest of his deeds and included with an intention separate from historically documenting his kingship.
Though the story stands out from the rest of First Kings, it fits into a symbolic tradition that runs through the whole Bible. The images of the vine and the vineyard have been central to Judeo-Christian theology for thousands of years. Vineyards run all across the land of Israel. Much of the male population was employed at or owned vineyards. The environment and the work was deeply implanted in the social consciousness and came out in their writing as early as Genesis. Being a land dominated by vineyards, it is no wonder that Israel took on the image of the vineyard to represent their nation with God as their master. The relationship between vineyard and keeper matches the covenant relationship Israel paints between themselves and God in the Hebrew Scriptures perfectly. God has taken the time to prepare the land and plant the vine and has laboriously and lovingly tended it; in response Israel will grow and produce fruit.
The story of Israel, as told in the Torah, seems to mirror the symbol of the vineyard identically. Beginning as a simple seed, Abraham inherited God's promise. The early years of the vineyard were filled with struggle and turmoil but, finally, the land was prepared and the seed found purchase, the Israelites arrived in the Promised Land. The vine grew large, expanding quickly and establishing its deep taproot system. But, as Israel began to renege on their side of the covenant, the vine began producing bad fruit. Even in Deuteronomy, images of destruction are being incorporated into the vineyard mythos. Following in the Deuteronomist tradition, Naboth's vineyard is one of the first fully fleshed-out vineyard parables about judgment to be incorporated into the Bible.
Kings and Samuel share the same Deuteronomist narrative and, consequently, they share the same traditioning process. Stretching through all four books is the critique of monarchy. As an image of the hubris of the Israelites this fits into the scriptural theme of longing to be like God, explored in stories such as the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. Naboth's vineyard echoes this idea, as Ahab, the king, tries to take control of the vineyard, representing Israel. The story shows Israel changing hands from a faithful servant to a prideful monarch, leading to the same cursing from God found in the earlier stories of hubris. There is another Genesis story alluded to in this text, that of Jacob and Esau. Esau comes in from the wild, starving and exhausted, on the edge of life, to find Jacob with bread and lentil stew. Desperately hungry, Esau asks his brother for some food. The price Jacob places on the meal is Esau's birthright. The birthright bears with it God's blessing and covenant, it is the wealth and power promised to Abraham passed down, it is the ancestral inheritance of the Israelites. Desperate to survive, Esau gives up his birthright in exchange for the bread and stew.
Ahab posits a similar problem to Naboth. First offering a better livelihood and then threatening Naboth's life, Ahab attempts to bargain for the vineyard but is faced with, unlike Jacob, stony resistance. Naboth seems to understand the value of the vineyard as his "ancestral inheritance" (1 Kings 21: 3) and so sacrifices his life to protect it. Though Naboth has a stronger faith than Esau, 1 Kings mirrors the breach of God's promise found in the story of Jacob and Esau. Faith is pitted against greed with disastrous results. The greed of Ahab is truly abhorrent. Just as many of the kings used Israel to indulge their own egos and to gorge themselves on power, Ahab plans to cheapen the God-given vineyard into a vegetable garden. While the vineyard is the source of Naboth's livelihood, Ahab longs for the vegetable garden out of convenience. The birthright, once meant to be the essence of life and the centre of the covenantal faith, is transformed into simply land and power.
The story continues to find further violations of the Israelite's faith tradition. The monarchic rule led to rampant idol worship, morphing the beautiful ceremonies of the Jewish religion into grotesque mockeries. In the same way, Jezebel and Ahab corrupt the pious ritual of fasting into an assassination. By establishing a fast for the nation, Ahab gathers an assembly and sits Naboth at the head of the table. Here, "two scoundrels opposite him" (1 Kings 21: 10) accuse him of cursing God and the king. Even God himself is perverted here and equated with Ahab. This allegation against Naboth is enough reason for the people to take "him outside the city, and [stone] him to death" (1 Kings 21: 13).
Naboth's horrifically tragic death contains the final piece of the puzzle. This man, who may be taken as the everyman of Israel in contrast to the singular king, is taken outside of his home and killed. He is murdered outside of his homeland and his vineyard is stolen.
Longing for Home
Home was a core theme for the Israelite people. Adam and Eve were forced out of the garden. Abraham was forced to wander into the wilderness, sacrificing his livelihood and risking his family to seek out the land promised to him and his descendants by God. The Israelites found themselves in captivity in Egypt for over 200 years. Finally, led to freedom by their greatest prophet, they were guided to the Promised Land. After years of war they finally established their home. This home, Israel, had a place in the very foundation of their religion: the covenant with God. This home meant everything to the Israelites and they watched it divide and collapse over power struggles and wars with other nations. The northern kingdom, Israel, where Ahab was king, was the first to be completely annexed by the Assyrians. Once more Israelites were in captivity. In this time of chaos and brokenness, the first drafts of these histories were being gathered together. By the time the final form of this story was constructed the southern Kingdom, Judah, too had been invaded, by Babylon, and the editors themselves were in exile.
Naboth's story of sorrow and loss was one that the Israelites were brutally close to when this book was completed. Every reader would have felt the pain of a power greater than them invading their own sacred space. Just as the vineyard was taken for Ahab's personal gain at the expense of Naboth, Israel was taken for the wealth of Assyria and Judah for Babylon, with no thought to the fate of the Jewish people. More than a sympathetic story, however, there is something courageously confrontational in it: all of the characters are Jewish. Ahab is their king; he is not an outside power. He has been given the responsibility of their protector and their caregiver and he has failed. Within this story there is an indictment of the Israelite people, they have failed to maintain their covenant and are suffering the consequences.
Elijah the Tishbite, a prophet of great renown in Judaic history, voices this judgment. It is made clear in chapters leading up to this that Elijah is not the normative Israelite but an outsider. Twice Ahab has driven him from Israel into the wilderness and now, he returns again, sent by God. Before Elijah, most prophets were advisors and assistants to kings. In Elijah begins the tradition of prophets speaking from outside of the political power. Elijah serves more as a mouthpiece for God's judgment than a redemptive figure of Israel.
The curse Elijah brings is devastating. Through Elijah, God passes on the message that "in the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up [Ahab's] blood" (1 Kings 21: 19). The King of Israel, according to Elijah's curse, will die outside of his own kingdom. In Elijah's curse, the image of birthright reemerges as well, as he continues to declare that
"Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have cause Israel to sin"
(1 Kings 21: 20-22).
Ahab has sold himself and his descendants into the ways of evil and brought death and destruction upon his head.
This final curse indicates the story is to be understood as a key that unlocks the meaning of the Israelite history and their exilic context. It is not for the murder of a man that God brings down this curse upon Ahab. Before and after this chapter, Ahab acts despicably, often on par with this and sometimes worse. God is punishing Ahab and the nation for trusting a man to rule them instead of their God and following this leader in acts of evil and idol worship. The anti-monarchial editors imply that this story answers the question of why their kingdom collapsed and why they are in exile.
Ahab's uncharacteristic transformation is all that keeps God from destroying the entire nation then and there. The repentance of Ahab alone cannot wipe clean the generations of iniquity Israel has undergone but it is enough to move God. God speaks to Elijah again, mercifully this time:
"Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son's days I will bring the disaster on his house" (1 Kings 21: 29).
These final words may translate, almost directly, as a prophecy of the exile to come. God has moved the curse from Ahab to his descendents. It is not this generation of Israelites but the ones that follow who must die outside of their homeland. Israel's epic story of struggle and exile is contained in this simple, beautifully written parable of a vineyard and a greedy king. A hidden gem in the historical documents surrounding it, the story of Naboth's vineyard harkens back to a parabolic tradition seen in the first books of the Torah. This imitation of an early allegorical style indicates immediately that the story should be read with a keen eye. Buried inside, are images and ideas that unveil an entire theological understanding that is the backbone of the Deuteronomist tradition and, consequently, First Kings. The documents are constructed around a critique of monarchy and idolatry as the destructive forces that turned Israel away from its covenant God and brought the kingdom into ruins. Naboth's vineyard is a simple, distilled articulation of this idea.