Naboth’s Vineyard: Land, Power, and Violence

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.
 

Conclusion?

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?

shallow-focus-photography-of-purple-grapes-162672

NOTES

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. “Lekh Lekha: The Travails of Faith” and “Va-yera: Language and Silence.” Genesis: the Beginning of Desire. Philadelphia: JPS, 1995.
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OBSESSION

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
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CLASS
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.

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Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah [“going up” Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?
To what are you opening?

Entering the Torah Service
Here in this Torah Service we travel the wilderness in the company of the Ark, stand again at Sinai, and re-enact the process of transmission and interpretation as multiple individuals rise to bring the Torah from script to voice. Time collapses. We join the ageless chorus reciting verses that challenge and comfort, awe and enrage, perplex and command. We feel the presence of Jews who have experienced much, in endurance and in celebration, preserving these words. We feel the call of future Jews depending on us to grasp this Tree of Life and hold it for them.

At this expansive point we pray that our hearts open to the essence of Torah and ask for the gift of God’s good light to guide us through our daily lives.

In this precious, liminal moment, fear and need merge with strength and hope. May we all, particularly those observing lifecycle events at the Torah, emerge from this service with a renewed sense of blessings. Let the divine flow of communication represented here bring to us, and to all whom we touch, peace, mercy, sustenance, and gratitude. Thank you for this good teaching. Amen
–Virginia Spatz

More on Opening the Ark

My prayer, above, is based in part on language and themes found in several prayers, including B’rich sh’mei [blessed is the Name], recited at the start of the Torah service.


בריך שמה דמרא עלמא
Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe

(from Zohar, parashat vayakhel)

The Zohar says, “Rabbi Shimon said: When the scroll of Torah is removed from the ark to be read to the congregation, the heavenly gates of mercy are opened and love is aroused in the world above. Here a person adds….”B’rich sh’mei d’marei alma…. [Blessed is the name of the ruler of the universe!…]”

Blessed is the name of the Master of the universe. Blessed is your crown and your place [v’atrach] May You love your people Israel forever. Reveal the salvation of your right hand to your people in your sanctuary. Lead us to discover the goodness of your light, and accept our prayer in mercy. May it be your will to prolong our lives in happiness.

I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I relay, nor upon angels [or “messengers”] do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
–See My People’s Prayer Book


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אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרֹג כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַּעֲרֹג
Soothing songs and poems I weave because my soul longs for You.

I was also inspired by a woman’s kavvanah [intention] associated with Anim Zemirot. This hymn is recited when the Ark is open, sometimes early morning, sometimes in concluding prayers; sometimes on Shabbat, often on Festivals. It is not included in the Shabbat Mishkan T’filah, but it does appear in the Weekday/Festival edition. Here’s a link to the full text of Anim Zemirot, sometimes called “Shir HaKavod [Song of Glory],” as well as several recordings.

Here is the women’s meditation from Aliza Lavie’s collection:.


Master of the universe. Just as the Holy Ark is opened here, so may a window be opened in heaven: the gates of mercy. May my prayer be accepted among the other pure prayers that are surely accepted before You, and may it be a crown for Your head….Remember me, my husband, my beloved children, and dear ones, at the time that is called a time of favor and a time of success, so that our lives may be called lives of joy, lives of sustenance, lives of blessing, lives of peace, lives of mercy, and of Your good teachings. Bless us with the three keys that have never been handed over to any emissary, but come about only through Your own blessing. With this I conclude; hurry to my aid, God of my deliverance.

…Protect us all from that which my heart fears, and spare me, my husband, and my children from mortal charity. Hear my prayer [name of worshipper], daughter of [mothers name], as You heard the righteous Hannah and the other righteous women. Amen. Selah
A Jewish Woman’s Prayer Book. Aliza Lavie NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2008


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More Thoughts on Opening the Ark

A few more thoughts, from two different prayer books, on opening the Ark and taking out the Torah…

We approach the Torah slowly. First we open the ark so that the Torah is visible. We look at the Torah but refrain from touching. Next, the Torah is removed from the ark and held by the service leader. Later the Torah is carried through the congregation, and everyone can touch the Torah. This demonstrates that the Torah is not the property of those leading the services; the Torah belongs to the Jewish community. Finally, the coverings of the Torah scroll are removed, allowing us a privileged intimacy with the words we hear.
– Dan Ehrenkrantz, Kol Haneshamah [Reconstructionist] siddur

The verses we sing when we take the Torah scroll from the Ark and when we return it recall the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, when they carried the Ark with them….We are a people defined by history. We carry our past with us. We relive it in ritual and prayer. We are not lonely individuals, disconnected with past and present. We are characters in the world’s oldest continuous story, charged with writing its next chapter and handing it on to those who come after us.
–Jonathan Sacks in Koren Sacks [Orthodox] Siddur, p.xxxiv-xxxv

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Key Footnote

I asked local scholar Norman Shore for help with understanding the “three keys.” Here are the sources he provided, shared with gratitude.

R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy One blessed be He has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the Key of Rain, the Key of Childbirth, and the Key of the Revival of the Dead. The Key of Rain, for It is written, ‘The Lord will open unto thee His good treasure, the heaven to give the rain of thy land in its season,’ (Deut 28:12) The Key of Childbirth, for it is written, ‘And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.'(Gen 30:22) The Key of the Revival of the Dead, for it is written, ‘And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves.’ (Ezek 37:13). In Palestine they said: Also the Key of Sustenance, for it is said, Thou openest thy hand etc. (Ps 145:16) Why does not R. Johanan include also this [key]? — Because in his view sustenance is [included in] Rain.
— Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 2a-2b

And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land (1 Kings 17:7). Now, when [God] saw that the world was distressed [because of the drought], it is written, ‘And the word of the Lord came unto him (Elijah), saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath’ (ibid 8ff). And it is further written, ‘And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick’ (ibid 17). Elijah prayed that the keys of resurrection might be given him, but was answered, “Three keys have not been entrusted to an agent: of birth, rain, and resurrection. Shall it be said, ‘Two are in the hands of the disciple[1] and [only] one in the hand of the Master?’ Bring [Me] the other and take this one, as it is written, ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’ (ibid 18:1).”[2]
–Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 113

Footnotes, like text, from Soncinco, public domain edition:
1) Since the key of rain was already in Elijah’s possession, and now he was asking for the key of resurrection too.

2) I but not Thou. The whole passage is adduced to shew how God, having given the key of rain to Elijah, obtained its return, and that the illness of the widow’s son was for that purpose.

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Not Quite Pi

Among Temple fixtures is a “molten sea,” a metal, fountain-type structure (1 Kings 7). It is described as 10 cubits across and 30 cubits “to compass it round about.”

The Babylonia Talmud uses this text to argue a general conclusion that circumference is three times dimeter (Eruvin 14a). This has long been discussed as an inexact approximation of pi.

Steven Dutch, a natural and applied sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, explores this concept in some depth. See “Pi in the Bible?”
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