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Politics of Scripture

Naboth’s Vineyard and the Politics of Highway Construction—1 Kings 21:1-21 (Robert Williamson Jr.)

Ahab’s murderous appropriation of Naboth’s vineyard is an example of rulers’ assault upon and destruction of local wealth built up over generations. A contemporary analogy to Ahab’s sin can be found in government treatment of Black communities in highway construction.

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, “Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?” He said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it’; but he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” His wife Jezebel said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10 seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out, and stone him to death.” 11 The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12 they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13 The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” 15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 16 As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18 Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19 You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?” You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” 20 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21 I will bring disaster on you

This week’s Old Testament lectionary tells the familiar story of Naboth’s vineyard, which is taken from him by the treachery of the Israelite king Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel.

The story is often read as a case of a wealthy king exploiting a poor commoner, though it is doubtful that Naboth was in fact poor—after all, he owns a vineyard adjacent to the royal summer palace in Jezreel. Rather, the story might better be read as a case of a powerful ruler using deceptive means to confiscate land and destroy the local wealth built up over generations.

The exchange between Ahab and Naboth in 21:1-4 is key to understanding the text. For Ahab, the value of the piece of property is its proximity to the royal palace. He wants it because “it is close to my house” (21:2), and he wishes to plant a vegetable garden. In fact, Ahab at first makes what appears to be a fair offer for Naboth’s land: “I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money” (21:2).

However, Naboth’s response reveals the deeper economic dynamics of this exchange. Naboth adamantly refuses the offer, protesting “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (21:3). In Hebrew the phrase translated “ancestral inheritance” is nachalat avotai, or “inheritance of my fathers.”

For readers familiar with Deuteronomy, the term “inheritance” (nachalah) holds particular resonance, not only as the general term for wealth passed down from one generation to the next, but more importantly as the term describing God’s gift of the land to the people of Israel. Eight times in Deuteronomy describes Israel as the land “that the LORD your God is giving to you as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 4:21; 15:4; 19:10; 20:16; 21:23; 24:4; 25:19; 26:1).

One’s inheritance is one’s connection to the land, insuring not only one’s own well-being but also contributing to the social fabric of the community as a whole. Thus, when Naboth refuses Ahab, he is thinking not only of his own bottom line but also of the wealth and the stability of community, built up over generations and ultimately bestowed by God.

In fact, in the time of Ahab, Jezreel had only recently become the summer residence of the royal family. Built during the reign of Ahab’s father Omri, the summer palace had presumably already displaced other inhabitants of Jezreel, whose land inheritances had likely been confiscated to build the royal dwelling. The royal dynasty was willing to disrupt the local community in order to enhance their own wealth and convenience.

By contrast, Naboth remained committed to the traditional apportionment of land, even though he himself might have been compensated fairly for giving up his vineyard. He seems to have understood God’s apportionment of ancestral inheritances was not to be exploited for the economic benefit of the few, but rather to be used for the economic stability of the community as a whole.

While Ahab seems at first to have conceded to Naboth’s insistence on retaining his property (21:4), the Phoenician queen Jezebel is having none of it. As an outsider to the Israelite community, Jezebel does not seem to share Naboth’s concern for the preservation of the ancestral allotments that sustain the community’s wealth.

Either unaware or unconcerned about the generational significance of Naboth’s vineyard, upon hearing Ahab’s pitiful tale, Jezebel immediately schemes to take the man’s land by treachery. She writes letters in the king’s name to the “elders and nobles” of Jezreel (21:8), asking them to stage an accusation against Naboth that he has “cursed God and king” and stone him to death, so that the government can confiscate his land. As soon as Naboth has been killed, Ahab takes possession of his land (21:16).

While murderous schemes of Ahab and Jezebel to seize Naboth’s ancestral land may seem distant to us today, in fact we do not have to look far to find examples of wealthy elites disrupting the generational wealth of local communities for their own gain. One particularly poignant example in the news recently concerns the ways in which the U.S. interstate system was designed to disrupt low-income Black communities just as they began to prosper in the mid-twentieth century.

As reported earlier this year by Alan Pyke of ThinkProgress, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, has been raising awareness of the devastation caused to Black communities by the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system. According to Foxx, in only the first two decades of the highway system’s construction, nearly half a million families were displaced by highway construction, with African Americans being disproportionately affected.

Foxx points to his home city of Charlotte, NC, as a typical example. There a thriving community known as Brooklyn was targeted for eradication by white city leaders, who wrote that “far-sighted men believe that eventually this section, because of its proximity to the center of the city, must sooner or later be utilized by the white population” (Pyke). This task was accomplished by the construction first of Charlotte’s Independence Boulevard, and then by I-277, which bifurcated the prosperous Black community and destroyed the wealth that had developed there—all for the convenience and benefit of the white population.

The same story can be told of many American cities, including my own town of Little Rock, Arkansas. Here the 9th Street corridor was a thriving African American community from the early 1900’s until about 1960, when it began to be dismantled to make way for the new I-630, which was finally completed in 1985, leaving thousands displaced and disrupting the prosperity that had been developing for the better part of a century.

It is unusual in our time to find a leader as openly treacherous as King Ahab, who so boldly stole the inheritance of his neighbor. And yet the story of Naboth’s vineyard continues to be re-enacted in ways yet more devious and far more pervasive, as city leaders across America use city planning as a means of disrupting thriving communities that have just begun to develop generational wealth—destroying them to preserve the privilege of white elites. Naboth’s vineyard is no longer threatened by the king’s henchmen bringing false charges, but by city councils planning highway routes in the interest of “progress” for some at the expense of others.

“The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance,” said Naboth. And the LORD forbid that we should allow our highway systems to destroy the inheritance of others.

Robert Williamson Jr. is Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. (USA) and the pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, which provides a place of welcome especially for those living on the streets.

Photo: Washuotaku via Wikimedia Commons

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