Note: At the moment my family is traveling, celebrating my father who retired Sunday after 46 years of ministry. As you can probably imagine, lugging my computer around and writing a post didn’t evoke “celebrating” quite well enough. Here’s what I meant to say on Sunday, however.
1 Now it came about after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard… beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden because it is close beside my house, and I will give you a better vineyard than it in its place; if you like, I will give you the price of it in money.” 3 But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” 4 So Ahab came into his house sullen and vexed… and he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food.
— 1 Kings 21:1-4 (NASB)
Ahab coveted Naboth’s field, and was a bit ridiculous about it. Being a generally evil king of course, he goes on to possess it after his wife, Jezebel, arranges for Naboth’s death. Then Elijah appears and condemns Ahab and his entire family, saying that God is going to cut off Ahab’s line and make it extinct. In a time before any real conception of an afterlife, a time when children were a person’s immortality, its a devastating sentence.
With Ahab being an evil king, it’s easy to overlook how devastating it is; no one minds when things end poorly for the villain of the story. If we ignore everything else we know about Ahab and only look at this story in Kings though, it can be startling. After all, even though Ahab killed a man and took his field, David killed a man and took his wife, but David’s line wasn’t extinguished.
The writer of 1 Kings even seems to feel that the punishment might seem unjustly harsh. Right after it’s delivered by Elijah, there’s a break in the story while the narrator explains:
25 Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife incited him. 26 He acted very abominably in following idols, according to all that the Amorites had done, whom the LORD cast out before the sons of Israel.
— 1 Kings 21:25-26 (NASB)
It’s as though the writer is saying, “Ahab is a bad guy, so you don’t need to worry when bad comes to him.”
This is what I find interesting though: God typically employs what most would call “poetic justice.” It’s justice that fits the crime. As a good example, when David killed Uriah to claim Bathsheba, God accused him of exploiting war and taking another man’s wife. God’s response then can be summarized (loosely) as, “If you want war, you can have it for the rest of your reign, and since you took another man’s wife, someone will take your wives.” (2 Samuel 12:9-12, essentially.)
How does the extinction of Ahab’s family relate to killing a man for a field, though? A hint lies with Naboth. He refused Ahab because the field was his inheritance. He didn’t want to trade for a better field, because the better field wasn’t his inheritance. He didn’t want to sell the field because inheritance didn’t have a price. It wasn’t just a field at all, it was something altogether richer, deeper, more connected, and more important.
Inheritance, especially the inheritance of land, was a critical concept for the ancient Israelites. The land had been promised to them by the LORD–hence the term “Promised Land”–then given to them as part of the LORD’s covenant with his people. Each family had been given a portion of it, and their ownership of that portion was (theoretically) everlasting, continuing with their family for as long as the covenant lasted. In this way they each received an inheritance that granted them both income, security, and a physical reminder of God’s relationship with his people.
This is what Naboth is saying to Ahab. He received his field from his father, who received it from Naboth’s grandfather, et cetera back to the time of Moses and Joshua. Naboth’s great ancestor had been given the land from the LORD. In a real sense, Naboth had been given it by the LORD, and he would give it to his own children who would pass it on to their own children. Forever.
I mentioned earlier that the ancient Israelites had only a fuzzy understanding of the afterlife, so they viewed children as their future, their legacy, their immortality. The inheritance of land was then a way of providing for that future.
But Ahab only saw a field. He didn’t care about what it meant, what it was a part of, what it was supposed to do. It was just a thing, so he took it, but by doing so he robbed Naboth of his future, robbed Naboth’s father of his future, robbed Naboth’s grandfather of his future. He robbed an entire family of a promise the LORD had given especially to them.
Sadly, Ahab probably thought he was being generous. (Right up until the murder, anyway.) After all he offered Naboth some pretty good terms: cash or a trade for something better. As he was moping in his bed, it’s easy to imagine him thinking, “Why is Naboth being so stubbornly wrong-headed?”
From the outside we can see that Ahab was the wrong-headed one, though. That’s the danger. It’s so easy to develop a skewed system of evaluations, to miss what’s actually important because we imagine other things are more important. Once we get to that point, it’s fiendishly difficult to see the truth again. Ahab offered wealth for convenience, because wealth and convenience were what he valued. Naboth’s language ought to have reminded Ahab of the LORD’s covenant and promises, but Ahab was too otherwise focused to understand.
It’s far too easy nowadays to value things wrongly too. Wealth and convenience are still popular, especially in affluent countries; it’s easy to pursue them without recognizing the cost. Modern society also tempts people to value things like absolute liberty and a nebulous sentimental love, regardless of what evils they may inspire. The more we value things like this, the harder it becomes to recognize Naboth when we see him, and the easier it becomes to ignore him to our own detriment.