The story of Naboth the Jezreelite and his vineyard was brand new to me when I encountered it through a recent Hebrew class assignment. The class is designed to focus on land and labor, but a variety of circumstances drew my attention instead — or in addition — to the violence and uses of power in the story. (NOTE: Post slightly edited 11/22/19, 3 p.m. Eastern, shortly after initial publication.)
Ownership and Angst
The story opens with:
And it happened after these things
וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה
va’y’hi achar ha-d’varim ha-eleh
Robert Alter notes: “As elsewhere, this vague temporal formula introduces a new narrative.” In Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s commentary on Genesis, however, this phrase carries important psychological tension, linking one story — in the text itself or in midrash — with what follows. Her view suggests an interesting comparison between Abraham’s story and this one.
“After these things,” Zornberg argues, twice signals resolution of an incident with worrying implications for Abraham regarding his covenant with God: the battle with the four Canaanite kings (Gen 15:1) and the Akedah (Gen 22:20); a third use, at the start of the Akedah (Gen 22:1), closes a midrash — a story between the lines — full of more existential/covenantal angst on the part of Abraham. In short, broad strokes: Abraham frets over God’s control of fates, family lines, and futures, but comes to greater faith in God’s promises and providence.
Prior to the vineyard story’s “after these things,” Ahab battles neighboring king Ben-Hadad, allowing the leader to escape, and then hearing from the Prophet Elijah: “Thus says YHVH: …therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people” (1 Kings 20:42). Ahab returns home “סַר וְזָעֵף [sar v’zaaf] — translated as “sullen and morose” or “resentful and angry” — a phrase used only here (1 Kings 20:43) and then four verses later. In the second usage (1 Kings 21:4), Ahab, King of (Northern) Israel, is “sar v’zaaf” over a failed real estate proposition.
Naboth the Jezreelite refuses to sell the vineyard, a family inheritance abutting Ahab’s heichal [הֵיכַל, “palace” or maybe “fortress,” more literally “big house”] (21:3). Is he obsessing on what he lacks? Behaving “like a petulant adolescent” as Alter and others have it? Or is Ahab suffering an existential/covenantal crisis of his own — realizing that nearby land belongs ultimately to God and in perpetuity [לִצְמִתֻת litzmitut] to the assigned tribal owner (Lev. 25:23), limiting his kingship?
Perhaps Ahab is troubled by something akin to recognizing that Naboth will always be “milk in last,” as is the custom of those with fine china, while he, for all his might, cannot buy his way out of being “milk in first.” “Naboth,” for additional background, means “fruits,” and “Jezreel” means “sown of God,” emphasizing his connection to the property which he tells Ahab is family inheritance that he is forbidden to sell (Leviticus again). When Ahab announces his desire to use the vineyard as a vegetable garden, is he furthering a new land-use policy? or is he simply out of step with the Land? In short, broad strokes: Ahab’s relationship to the Land, the People he rules, the neighbors, and God seems so precarious that a random land-grab is of a piece with his whole story.
Varieties of Power
When her husband seems unable to act, Jezebel makes use of several forms of power, based in structural/state violence, to obtain the land:
- political clout: Jezebel has no qualms about setting in writing a command to misuse the legal system, and scoundrels, elders and nobles alike immediately comply;
- religious authority: Jezebel calls for a fast, a misuse of public religious ritual to create the impression of blasphemy on Naboth’s part;
- local corruption and individual perfidy: Jezebel counts on individual scoundrels [“worthless fellows” — בְּנֵי-בְלִיַּעַל, bnei-bilyaal] to perjure themselves on demand and expects the larger process to ask no questions;
- judicial authority: Jezebel arranges the judicial killing of Naboth (and, some commentators suggest, extrajudicial killing of his offspring);
- religious and civil intimidation: Naboth is denied burial, his body desecrated, and his blood licked by dogs;
- legal loophole: With Naboth and descendants gone, Jezebel convinces Ahab that it is his right to confiscate the land.
Ahab himself employs a range of more personal powers:
- Ignorance: The king employs ignorance — real or feigned — of Jezebel’s schemes to his advantage;
- Physicality: The king moves to physically occupy the land;
- Personal ritual: The king performs acts of atonement, garnering a stay of retribution from God for himself but not for his descendants.
God, speaking through Elijah:
- curses Ahab and descendants, after Ahab does not kill Ben-Hadad, calling for “your life instead of his” (1 Kings 20:42);
- promises to “cut off every pisser against the wall of Ahab’s” (more politely: “every man-child” or “every last male,” 1 Kings 21:21);
- consigns Ahab’s descendants and Jezebel to a fate similar to Naboth’s in terms of body desecration (1 Kings 21:22-24).
Violence in Jezreel
In the narrative of ancient Israel:
- Jezreel was the site of Gideon’s victory over the Midianites, the Amalekites and the Kedemites, or “the children of the east” (Judges 6:3);
- Jezreel was the site of Saul’s defeat by the Philistines and death in battle (1 Sam 29:1-6);
- Jezreel becomes the site of Jehu’s coup against Joram, Joram’s ally Ahaziah, and against Jezebel (2 Kings 9), and the land sees desecration of the losers’ bodies.
It is worth noting that the bodies of Joram and Jezebel are “cast to the portion of the field of Naboth the Jezreelite.” That is, the property originally identified at Naboth’s vineyard, keeps that identity and does not bear Ahab’s name or that of the state.
Not clear at all on what to make of this except to note that each player in this story has a sort of power to wield and does so. And to ask: Is the Land, or a specific piece of it —
- an object of various power-plays?
- a conduit for others’ power?
- or does it wield its own?
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. “Lekh Lekha: The Travails of Faith” and “Va-yera: Language and Silence.” Genesis: the Beginning of Desire. Philadelphia: JPS, 1995.
Abalienatus et indignabundus; off the hooks,* as we say, and in a great discontent; his heart did more afflict and vex itself with greedy longing for that bit of earth, than the vast and spacious compass of a kingdom could counter comfort. So Haman could say, All this availeth me nothing, &c. And Alexander, the monarch of the world, was grievously troubled, because ivy would not grow in his gardens at Babylon. The devil of discontent, whomsoever it possesseth, it maketh his heart a little hell, saith one.
— John Trapp (1601-1669)**
* i.e., unhinged or disturbed, rather than contemporary “off the hooks” meanings
** English Anglican Bible commentator recommended to me for certain books of the Bible by Norman Shore
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.
See also Dr. Norma Franklin, Zinman Institute of Archaeology, Haifa University:
The Bible names the owner of the vineyard as Naboth the Jezreelite. The use of this gentilic implies that he resided somewhere else as well, otherwise he would not have required a qualifier. A person with a residence in one place and a vineyard in another is a wealthy person, and one might imagine that such a person lived in the capital city, Samaria. Whether or not the “Naboth the Jezreelite” is a historical character, whoever owned that plot of land and its vineyard was certainly well off and not a simple, poor farmer.
—The Story of Naboth’s Vineyard and the Ancient Winery in Jezreel
More on the excavation at Biblical Archaeology and Jezreel Expedition.