King Ahab wants something. He really really wants it. It isn’t at all clear WHY he wants it. He wants a piece of land that is adjacent to his palace property in the village of Jezreel. Now, the capital and primary palace was in Samaria. Jezreel was, at best, a secondary palace. Why would anyone care so much about space for a vegetable garden near their second home? I mean, the story says that after he asked for the land and was rebuffed, he was physically ill. As one commentator put it, “King Ahab is made sick by his greed for a vineyard he cannot have.”1
Why? Because from the perspective of nearly 3000 years later, this doesn’t seem worth getting bent out of shape about. I guess that isn’t really a reasonable standard for humanity though. 😉 Most of us, most of the time, can’t really figure out if something will matter tomorrow, much less next month.
Now, King Ahab of Israel is said by the Bible to be the worst king who had ever ruled (to that point). He was particularly terrible. Six chapters of the book of 1 Kings exist primarily to talk about how awful he was.
Even given that, I’ve been trying to figure out how a person could get obsessed with having one particular property for a vegetable garden. In some ways it feels familiar, this way of obsessing over wanting something that doesn’t matter at all. It feels familiar to how I’ve watched myself function at times, and it feels familiar to how I’ve seen others function as well. There are a few ways I’ve watched us all do this:
- We decide we want something – just because we see it and think to want it. Sometimes, we then become obsessed.
- We decide we want something because we can’t have it, and that makes it attractive in and of itself. Sometimes, we then become obsessed.
- We decide we want something because someone tells us we can’t have it, and we want to prove them wrong. Sometimes, we then become obsessed.
- We decide we want something because we really need something else entirely and we tell ourselves that this will help us get what we really need. Sometimes, we then become obsessed.
- We decide we want something because some one else has it. Sometimes, we then become obsessed.
- This has been known to happen to humans – with some frequency. I suspect that most of the time, when we as humans want someTHING, we’re wrong. We don’t want that thing. We want whatever it is we associate with that thing as its meaning.
That is, I wonder what King Ahab REALLY wanted. Was he undernourished and wanting more satiating food? Was he hoping to entertain and make connections with someone and worried that the food he had to offer wasn’t sufficient? Was he continuing the normal human system of searching for safety and security through a constant desire to acquire more? Was he wanting to build community by having enough food to make gifts of it to others? Did he actually really like growing food and intend to spend time in the beauty of the space?
It seems likely his desire was motivated even more deeply than that. If he was like the rest of us, he probably wanted the land because of some story he was telling himself, that he wasn’t aware of as a story. What could the story have been? Was he looking for affirmation that he mattered by telling himself the story that if he could build a bigger secondary palace he would be more respected in the world? Was his story about trying to be as good at being king as his father was, and thinking that he could gain (posthumous) acceptance from his father by building up his holdings? Was his story about seeking a deeper relationship of love with his wife by being able to be more impressive to her? Was he trying to prove to himself that he had a purpose in the world, and needing to have a pet project at all times to feel at peace with the fact that he would die?
That’s what the Biblical account doesn’t tell us – it doesn’t tell us what the land meant to Ahab. I don’t think it is possible that the land was really about the land, because that’s not how humans work! We are, usually subconsciously, telling ourselves stories about what things mean beyond what they actually mean. And those stories that we tell ourselves impact our emotional realities in how we respond to the world.
Whatever story Ahab was telling himself was pretty big, since he was SICKENED by Naboth’s refusal to sell. Now, I think Naboth’s refusal makes a lot of sense. We need much more information to understand it. His land WAS his ancestral inheritance, which in theory at least could not be sold, and tearing down a vineyard to make a vegetable garden was pretty insulting. As one scholar points out, “The same Hebrew phrase ‘vegetable garden’ occurs in Deuteronomy 11:10 to describe Egypt in contrast to the promised land.”2 Furthermore, vineyards took many years of labor to make profitable. They were serious investments. He was under no obligation to sell to the King, and he had no reason to want to. So he said no.
Ahab couldn’t handle the no. I’m still curious if the land purchase was just a passing fancy, but being told no utterly enraged him. They stories may not have been as important as being denied something he vaguely wanted. It may be that when he was told no, he started telling himself some other stories! Perhaps stories that said being told no was a lack of respect. Perhaps stories that being told no meant he was wrong to have asked. Perhaps stories that said that important people weren’t told no. Perhaps he was shamed by Naboth mentioning the “ancestral inheritance” and some part of him told him he was a bad person for wanting the land at all. Perhaps the story suggested that he wasn’t a good man if he couldn’t convince someone to do things his way.
I don’t know what stories he told himself, but the text seems to indicate that the stories were pretty potent. They sickened him. Then comes Jezebel. Now, Jezebel makes me squirmy, because she is ultimate anti-heroine, and I don’t like it when evilness is associated with women. This isn’t just a vague woman thing about not wanting to be associated with evilness, this is because we are associated with evil way too often and in ways that do harm to humanity. Yet, no fairy tale nor Disney movie has ever been able to make a character as utterly evil as Jezebel. I’m not even sure Lady Macbeth is as bad, and if she is, I suspect it is because Shakespeare modeled her in part on Jezebel.
Worse yet, part of the way Jezebel is so darn evil is because she is such a powerful woman willing to use her power to get what she wants. In this story, what she wants is a false accusation that would lead to a stoning. That is, she wants a murder, and she has the tools to get it. Actually, likely, she got several murders because the accusations that she brought would have gotten both Naboth and his male descendants killed. This she gave to her husband as a gift so he would feel better because he got his stupid garden. She’s the worst, and she’s female, and I can’t fix it.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the acquisition of this garden, even through these means, seemed to ACTUALLY sooth Ahab’s spirits. Clearly getting what he had decided he wanted mattered to him more than the means of acquisition. As hearers of the story though, we might hope that it wouldn’t end there. We don’t want the anti-hero and the anti-heroine to win in the end. It almost seems for a moment that they have. They got away with murder. They got the land he was seeking. He’s the king, and he has all the power and all the privilege, and it has just been proven that saying “no” to the king is a a death sentence.
When he gets to the land, God’s prophet was there. The prophet’s role was usually to tell the king when the king had acted unjustly. Therefore, the-king-who-was-the-worst-in-history-to-that-point responded to the-prophet-who-kept-having-to-tell-him-he-had-messed-up-again with “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Did I mention that my take on Ahab is that he wasn’t particularly self-aware, nor good at differentiating reality from the stories he tells himself? A good leader might see the person who most often whistle-blows their work and think “Ut oh. I must have messed up again!” A great leader would see the same person and say, “I wonder what I can learn now.” A poor leader would simply think, “I’m in trouble now.” Ahab was terrible. He actually saw the person whose job it was to call for God’s justice AS HIS ENEMY. Talk about stories we tell ourselves!!
Of course, I really hate what Elijah said to Ahab. It doesn’t sound like God’s justice to me at all. It sounds like a threat and a punishment. This is one of those cases where I choose to believe that the people who wrote and edited the story were more interested in good story telling than they were in considering what they were implying about God. The story will go on to tell a gory and miserable account of Ahab’s death. Likely some people thought it was fitting after the life he had led. As the story was told through the ages, that sentiment became a part of the story itself. I think that reflects a human longing for justice and a world that makes sense.
In life these characters reflect all of us at times. Sometimes we are irrationally obsessed with the acquisition of something, like Ahab, and we can’t even figure out why we care so much. Sometimes we are going about our normal life when someone else’s whims end up ruining everything (EVERYTHING) like Naboth. Sometimes our desire to make someone we love feel better motivates us to do great harm to someone else, like Jezebel (although almost always to a lesser degree). Sometimes we are the voices of justice who have to call for accountability, like Elijah.
But, truth be told, while each of these aspects of life are real in each of our lives, they aren’t all proportioned equally. Some people have more power, like Ahab and Jezebel. Some have significantly less power and are more vulnerable to injustice and the whims of others, like Naboth. Some of have more privilege, and many have less. Our various levels of privileges intersect in multiple ways.
Yet, we can rest assured that God still works and moves in the world toward justice, and calls us to account for the ways power is used. Injustice is still a reality in the world, but God is never at peace with that. Thanks be to God. May we learn to be speakers of truths, and to call for justice like Elijah (although maybe we can do it with few less threats!) Amen
1Carolyn J. Sharp “Theological Perspective on 1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14), 15-21a”, p. 122 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
2Marsha M Wilfong “Exegetical Perspective on 1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14), 15-21a” , p. 125 of “Feasting on the Word Year C Volume 3” edited by Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2010).
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
June 12, 2016