Philippe Guillaume expresses doubt that this account faithfully represents economic conditions during the Israelite monarchy:
First, the passivity of the king in the story clashes with the portrayal of Ahab in the annals of the Assyrians, where he appears as one of their most formidable foes.
Second, Ahab’s desire to buy a vineyard to plant vegetables clashes with the status of viticulture in the days of Ahab. Between the ninth and sixth centuries B.C.E. in the Levant, wine evolved from a luxury served sparingly at Assyrian banquets to a commodity listed among basic military supplies. In this context, Naboth’s vineyard was a strategic asset that Samarian kings like Ahab would have wanted a stake in.
Third, on the basis of the Arabic term nabata, “shoot, scion,” the name Naboth would have been understood as an apt name for the owner of a vineyard that made him famous. A vintner when wine was in demand, Naboth would be a key player in the area, not the helpless victim he has become. The archaeology of this period backs up the competitive dynamics in the story. The impressive treading floor and vats recently discovered at Jezreel point to the site as an important wine-producing center.
Fourth, the major differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text confirm that the choice of Ahab for the role of the pathetic king fits the denigration of the Israelite monarchy in the books of Kings. The change of setting of the Naboth story to the reign of Ahab and the portrayal of Naboth as a helpless victim occurred close to the time of the Greek translation of the books of Kings (third century B.C.E. at the earliest).
1 Ki 21:1 Some time later 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.
This chapter speaks of the Lord’s love of justice and hatred of injustice. The Lord sees to it that his people get justice. As Jesus declares in Lk 18:8, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night?”
An incident involving a vineyard – ‘It’s only a vineyard. The king wants the vineyard. But the king does not need the vineyard. And the owner is unwilling to part with the vineyard. Yet that is not the end of it, for coveting and sulking combine with power and cruelty to produce oppression and destruction.’ (Davis)
The possible site of this vineyard was identified by archaelogists in 2013. See this.
Jezreel – Ahab had a second residence there, some 20 miles NNE of Samaria.
1 Ki 21:2 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.”
It must be remembered that land did not belong to the individual, but to God, Lev 25:23. It was therefore not open to Naboth to sell the land in perpetuity, and Ahab’s request, though seemingly reasonable, was in fact unlawful.
Ahab’s desire to have Naboth’s vineyard to use as a vegetable garden is symbolic of a deeper desire, to make Israel like Egypt, for it is Egypt which is likened to a vegetable garden in Deut 11:10. Former kings had taken foreign wives and foreign gods, and now the desire for foreign things is taken a step further.
1 Ki 21:3 But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
Naboth’s refusal was shaped by the teaching in Lev 25:23-28 and Num 36:7-9.
1 Ki 21:4 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.
‘He knows Israelite kings are supposed to be merciful to foreigners (cf. 1 Kgs 20:31) and to their own subjects (Deut 17:14-20). They are supposed to be different from the normal ancient despot, and this knowledge, coupled with his desire for Naboth?s land, drives Ahab to despair. Jezebel has no such scruples. She finds his sulking as despicable as the reader does and decides to settle the matter. DeVries comments that she has been trained in the absolutistic traditions of the Phoenician city-states. To her Ahab seems a weakling. Jezebel tells her husband to act like a king, to be a man! She then promises to show him how a real monarch gets what he or she wants.’ (NAC)
1 Ki 21:5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
Jezebel wants to know why Ahab is sulking and won’t come down for dinner.
‘Under pretence of comforting her afflicted husband, she feeds his pride and passion, and blows the coals of his corruptions.’ (MHC)
1 Ki 21:6 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.’”
“He said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard’” – In reporting the conversation to Jezebel, Ahab conveniently misses out Naboth’s own terms of refusal – “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
1 Ki 21:7 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.”
Again, Jezebel is the one wearing the trousers. “Call yourself a king? Are you a man or a mouse? Are you a king or a wimp? Anyway, don’t worry; I have a cunning plan. I’ll get you that vineyard.”
Jezebel’s thinking represents a thoroughly Phoenician world-view: the law is whatever the king wants.
1 Ki 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.
Jezebel goes into action. She assumes Ahab’s role, his authority, even his name. She assumes that the elders and nobles will collude with her, which they do. ‘She must have looked upon the elders of Jezreel as men perfectly lost to every thing that is honest and honourable when she expected these orders should be obeyed.’ (MHC)
1 Ki 21:9 In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people.
“Proclaim a day of fasting” – ‘It may be injustice but it will be religious injustice.’ (Davis)
‘Signify to your city that you are apprehensive of some dreadful judgment coming upon you, which you must endeavour to avert, not only by prayer, but by finding out and by putting away the accursed thing; pretend to be afraid that there is some great offender among you undiscovered, for whose sake God is angry with your city; charge the people, if they know of any such, on that solemn occasion to inform against him, as they regard the welfare of the city; and at last let Naboth be fastened upon as the suspected person.’ (MHC)
1 Ki 21:10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
“Seat two scoundrels opposite him” – Jezebel insists that there will be two witnesses, just as the law required, Deut 17:6f; 19:15; Num 35:30. ‘It may be injustice but it will be legal injustice.’ (Davis)
‘The prominent seating of Naboth [v9] would reflect his status in the community and sets him up for the contention that his actions were capable of affecting the entire community. The two false witnesses are seated near him so that they can claim to have heard his words.’ (IVP Bible background commentary)
“Have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king” – They are to accuse him of blasphemy and treason.
1 Ki 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.
1 Ki 21:12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people.
1 Ki 21:13 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.
They took him outside the city and stoned him to death – 2 King 9:26 reports that Naboths sons were also killed, no doubt in order to free up the inheritance from any family claims. ‘It was slick work. And it only cost a little postage.’ (Davis)
1 Ki 21:14 Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”
1 Ki 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.”
As usual (1 King 18:19f, 41f; 20:14-17) Ahab does what he is told.
1 Ki 21:16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
Davis suggests that the preceding narrative (vv1-16) represents an example of the treatment believers can expect from the rulers of this age. See Mk 13:9-13; 1 Pet 4:12. Government does have a God-ordained role, Rom 13:1-7, but it frequently becomes the oppressor of the people of God, as with the king of Babylon in Dan 3, the Medo-Persian government in Dan 6, and with Roman officialdom in Rev 2-3. Ordinarily, we are required to submit to government, but we are right to be wary of it.
Davis also points out that Jesus trod the path that Naboth trod, Mt 26:59-61. If something similar should happen to us, then we can take comfort from the fact that the Christ who has shared Naboth’s suffering is united with us in ours, 2 Cor 1:5.
Then again, (Davis again) injustice flourishes not only by wickedness, but by weakness; not merely from a lack of goodness but from a lack of guts. The local magistrates stood by and let the injustice happen. They entered no protest, they offered no defence of Naboth. After all, they had families and livelihoods to think about, and who could tell what would be their fate if they crossed Jezebel?
1 Ki 21:17 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite:
It looked as though the perfect crime had been committed. But God will intervene to bring about justice for his oppressed people, vv17-26. As far as Jezebel and Ahab are concerned, the job is done. But then God interferes and disturbs the ‘peace’.
1 Ki 21:18 “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.
“Go down and meet Ahab king of Israel” – ‘No one is exempt from the scrutiny and judgement of God’s word. In Israel, like it or not, the prophet as bearer os Yahweh’s word stands above and over the king and queen. No one, whatever his status, whatever her success, can wiggle, squirm, or run beyond the boundaries of that jurisdiction.’ (Davis)
1 Ki 21:19 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!’”
“In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” – Indicating a thoroughly dishonourable death.
The Lord’s commitment to justice is undisputed in this passage. But is it not too late? After all, Naboth is already dead. Why did God allow many infants to die at Pharaoh’s hand, though Moses was saved (Ex 1:22; 2:1-10)? Why were baby boys killed by Herod around Bethlehem even though Jesus escaped (Mt 2:16)? John the Baptist received the Naboth treatment because of another weak king, Mk 6:14-29. James is killed, Acts 12:1f, while Peter enjoys a miraculous escape, Acts 12:6-11. Why does God often hold back his justice (Psa 74:11a)? And yet the narrative is clear that God does intervene to bring justice to his wronged people. It may be a long time coming, but come it will. What 1 Kings 21 tells in narrative, 2 Thess 1:6f gives as doctrine.
Ahab ‘is as much to blame in his passivity as is Jezebel in her activity.’ (Provan)
1 Ki 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.
Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” – But, as before, Ahab hardly gets a chance to speak.
The Lord’s case against Ahab concerns both his immediate crime, vv17-19 and the more general context of evil within which this crime was committed, vv20-24.
1 Ki 21:21 ‘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.
1 Ki 21:22 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.’
1 Ki 21:23 “And also concerning Jezebel the LORD says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.’
1 Ki 21:24 “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.”
1 Ki 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.
1 Ki 21:26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.)
1 Ki 21:27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
1 Ki 21:28 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite:
1 Ki 21:29 “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.”
The same God who is trenchant in justice also delights in mercy. ‘It is as if the Almighty nudges Elijah in the ribs and exclaims, “Did you see that?” And we are left wondering if Yahweh has gone soft, that he so readily gives in to the apparent repentance of an absolute scumbag of a king. But note: judgement is not cancelled, it is only postponed. We may assume that Ahab’s repentance was sincere, but not complete. It is best seen as remorse, for apparently Ahab never did reliquish the vineyard. And again, we may view the Lord’s delay in meting out punishment as an invitation to go on to deeper repentance.
It had always been the Lord’s desire to bring Ahab to his senses. The 3-year drought was no doubt sent with that aim (ch17), as was the ‘god contest’ of ch 18.