Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ahab & Jezebel (1 Kgs 21:1-29)

Infamous Couples in the Bible
AHAB & JEZEBEL (1 Kgs 21:1-29)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2018

Religious differences between a husband and wife can make a marriage stressful.
A young lady came home and told her mother that her boyfriend had proposed, but she turned him down because she discovered he was an atheist, and did not believe in heaven or hell. "Marry him anyway, dear," the mother said. "Between the two of us, we'll show him how wrong he is."
Religious differences between a husband and wife can make a marriage stressful. That is not really a problem for "Ahab & Jezebel." He has forsaken the Lord, and she is an idolater. Together they are one of the Infamous Couples in the Bible.

After the death of Solomon, his empire divides into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The Southern Kingdom is politically stable because its kings (which are morally mixed) come from the same (Davidic) family line. The Northern Kingdom is politically unstable because its kings (which are all morally evil) come from different (non-Davidic) family lines. One of those bad northern monarchs is King Ahab, and his pagan wife is Queen Jezebel.

I. A dispute in Israel causes corruption at the royal court.
A. Ahab wants to buy Naboth's vineyard (1 Kgs 21:1-2).
1 Kgs 21:1 There was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 Ahab said to Naboth, "Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth."
Ahab seems to make a reasonable offer to Naboth for his vineyard, either a trade for other property or an outright purchase. The king wants this particular piece because it lies adjacent to the royal palace, property he currently owns. It is a matter of convenience not a matter of necessity.
B. Naboth refuses to sell his vineyard (1 Kgs 21:3-4).
1 Kgs 21:3 But Naboth replied, "The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers." 4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, "I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers." He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
This vineyard is part of Naboth' s ancestral land that God gave to his family in perpetuity and is not subject to sale or transfer:
The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants (Lev 25:23).
No inheritance in Israel is to pass from tribe to tribe, for every Israelite shall keep the tribal land inherited from his forefathers (Num 36:7).
This is an illegal request by the king, who should know better, but he is in a sulk.

C. Jezebel plots to steal Naboth's vineyard (vv. 5-16).
1 Kgs 21:5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, "Why are you so sullen? Why won't you eat?" 6 He answered her, "Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, 'Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.' But he said, 'I will not give you my vineyard." 7 Jezebel his wife said, "Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I'll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."
The king's marriage is a political union that seals a treaty between Phoenicia and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Queen Jezebel is from one of the pagan neighbors of God's people, and is a worshipper of Baal, a person with whom God forbade intermarriage:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations.... You must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deut 7:1-4)
[Ahab] married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him (1 Kgs 16:3 1).
She has already taken advantage of her position in the royal court to eliminate religious competition by "killing the prophets of the LORD" (1 Kgs 18:13), and now she is asserting her royal authority by imposing her will on one of her subjects.
1. She slanders him profusely.
1 Kgs 21:8 So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth's city with him. 9 In those letters she wrote: "Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels2 opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death."
Ostensibly in support of her husband but really out of contempt for the Lord, Jezebel plots to use legal means to circumvent the law by eliminating the property owner in this land dispute. The elders and nobles of Naboth's town respond to the queen by declaring a fast ("as though the city had committed some great sin" (Patterson 1988:159) and by issuing letters in support of the king's claim. After conducting a hearing, she orders Naboth killed.
2. She executes him publicly.
1 Kgs 21:11 So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth's city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. 12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 13 Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, "Naboth has cursed both God and the king." So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent word to Jezebel: "Naboth has been stoned and is dead."
She provides political cover to her supporters through official written notification of the charges. Jezebel then violates Naboth's right to a fair hearing by assembling false witnesses against him. They slander him and accuse him of blasphemy, which God repeatedly condemns:
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name (Exod 20:7).
Do not swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of your God. (Lev 19:12a).
Do not profane my holy name. I must be acknowledged as holy by the Israelites. (Lev 22:32a-b)
This shows the queen's contempt for Israelite law (and the LORD), which she twists to suit her own agenda. Nevertheless, "the intention was, that at the very outset the appearance of justice should be given to the legal process about to be instituted in the eyes of all the citizens" (Keil 1988).
3. She confiscates his property.
1 Kgs 21:15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, "Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead." 16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth's vineyard.
The king is uninvolved throughout the process, giving him plausible deniability of any official interest in the outcome. After Naboth's execution Ahab is free to move against his property, which the king does by seizing Naboth's vineyard (= an early example of eminent domain).

Application: The formal setting of a court should above all be fair. In making judicial decisions, allow no bias to sway the proceedings regardless of who the plaintive is—"Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly" (Lev 19: 15). The primary task of a court is not to right wrongs but to render justice. Social engineering is outside the purview of the judicial system. Similarly, the informal setting of personal relations should be fair. Unlike Naboth's critics, do not malign an individual's character without sufficient and factual evidence—"Do not give false testimony against your neighbor" (Exod 20:16). As Jesus says, "Do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matt 7:12). From the prophet Zechariah comes this admonition—"These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts" (8:16). So, if ever you testify in a court of law, speak the truth.

II. A dispute in Israel brings condemnation against the royal court.

The primary task of God's prophet is not to predict the future, although he may do that, but to tell God's people where they are going wrong. Often that means addressing Israel's leaders, because as the king goes so goes everyone else. In that way, a prophet's responsibility is the ultimate version of "speaking truth to power."
A. Elijah accuses the monarchy of committing murder (1 Kgs 21:17-24).
This is a capital offense, punishable by death. But who will carry out the sentence when the guilty party is the highest official in the land? At that point, the task falls to God, and His prophet issues the order.
1. He pronounces judgment on the king.
1 Kgs 21:17 The word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 "Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth's vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, 'This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?' Then say to him, 'This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth's blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!"
King Ahab may have hoped to escape the legal complications of his land grab. He may have hoped his wife's leading role in the proceedings would provide him with political cover. But Ahab is the primary beneficiary of this transaction, and he is ultimately the guilty party in Naboth's death. The penalty for pre-meditated murder is execution. King Ahab will not die honorably (e.g., in battle) nor will he have the pomp of a state funeral or be buried "with his fathers." His death will be disgraceful and disgusting, attended by "dogs" (v. 19).
2. He pronounces judgment on the queen.
1 Kgs 21:20 Ahab said to Elijah, "So you have found me, my enemy!" "I have found you," he answered, "because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. 21 'I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel-slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.' 23 "And also concerning Jezebel the LORD says: 'Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.' 24 "Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country."
This Israelite administration does not have a good relationship with the prophetic school.
  • The king calls Elijah the "troubler of Israel" (18:17), and the prophet condemns the king's apostasy, "You have abandoned the LORD's commands and have followed the Baals" (18:18c).
  • The queen attempts to eliminate Elijah's disciples, "killing off the LORD's prophets" (18:4), even as Elijah slaughters many "prophets of Baal" (18:4).
Tensions get so bad (and unbalanced) that Elijah says, "I am the only one of the LORD's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets" (18:22).

Eventually, the king and queen conspire to eliminate the prophet:
Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them." (19:1-2)
Nevertheless, the queen's death, like the king's death, will also be disgraceful and disgusting (involving packs of dogs).
B. God accuses the monarch of fomenting mayhem (1 Kgs 21:25-29).
1 Kgs 21:25 (There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.) 27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. 28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son."
Ahab and Jezebel encourage each other to behave "in the vilest manner by going after idols" (v. 26). Fortunately, the king has a change of heart later in life, which delays God's judgment on the Northern Kingdom, but those rulers who succeed him on the throne are universally bad, making the effect of his reformation short lived.

Application: Do not ignore the influence you can have on others, whether for good or for ill. Of course, God expects you to present a good example, one that others can and will emulate." You may think that no one is watching, but, as Paul writes to one church, "You yourselves are our letter...known and read by everybody" (2 Cor 3:2). Like it or not, others are forming their understanding of God and His people from what they see in you. Be sure to give them an accurate picture.

"Ahab & Jezebel" are bad examples of how a monarchy should not govern, as it exists under one of the Infamous Couples in the Bible, how it must not exploit God's people. It also demonstrates how a country can go awry, even if it has the additional guidance of God's prophet. Such an advantage will not prevent bad decisions, but it may help to keep God's plan on track in the long term. This passage serves as yet another reminder that God guides His people despite their disobedience.

For the Footnotes and Bibliography see the pdf here.

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Relevant and civil comments are welcome. Whether there will be any response depends on whether Dr. Manuel notices them and has the time and inclination to respond or, if not, whether I feel competent to do so.
Jim Skaggs