King Ahab covets the vineyard next to his palace. He approaches its owner, Naboth, with an offer that he cannot refuse. But Naboth does refuse. He knows that his land is a gift from God, not a commodity to be bought and sold. God has allotted this plot of land to Naboth’s family. Selling it to the king would violate God’s commandments. Naboth even states his refusal as a religious oath.
Seeing Ahab’s distress, Queen Jezebel decides to obtain the vineyard for her husband through a cynical and ruthless manipu- lation of Israel’s religious laws and institutions. She involves the elders in orchestrating an accusation of blasphemy against Naboth, a crime that carries the penalty of death. Jezebel even arranges for two witnesses to speak against Naboth because Mosaic law demands two witnesses in cases involving the death penalty. Naboth, the one person who has shown genuine faithfulness to God, is stoned to death for blasphemy.
Ahab and Jezebel, meanwhile, have wrapped their abuse of power in a cloak of religiosity and obedience to God’s law. For the writers of Israel’s history, these two characters become larger than life in their representation of an oppressive social order that disrespects faithfulness to God and justice to neighbor.
Examples of powerful people who manipulate religious values and institutions for their own selfish ends litter the annals of history. Unfortunately, religious leaders, like the elders in our story, are often complicit in this hijacking of religious faith out of concern for their own status, power, or influence. The story of Naboth’s vineyard reminds us to be ever alert to ways that human greed and sin can corrupt the spheres of church and state.
O God, may we cherish all we possess as gifts from you rather than commodities at our disposal. Keep us alert to the ways powerful people may manipulate genuine piety for their own ends, thus defeating your purposes for our world. Amen.