Naboth’s Vineyard (1 Kgs 21) by Philippe Guillaume

1Kgs 21 begins with the story of Naboth, who owned a vineyard next to the palace of King Ahab at Jezreel. To grow vegetables, the king offered to buy Naboth’s vineyard or exchange it for a better one. Naboth flatly refused. Instead of using his royal prerogatives to expropriate Naboth, the king returned home to sulk until Queen Jezebel had Naboth convicted on false charges and stoned to death. Ahab seized the vineyard, but the prophet Elijah stepped in to foretell the downfall of Ahab’s dynasty.

How does this story reflect economic changes during the period of the Israelite monarchy?

The story features an evil queen, an innocent victim, and a god who metes out retribution. It is a favorite of exegetes, who argue that in the time of Ahab (ninth century B.C.E.) the formation of large royal estates reduced the peasantry to a landless proletariat. Naboth is a helpless victim of the capitalist greed denounced by courageous prophets, and the story illustrates God’s love for the weak. This is the message of the story according to many, but is it a faithful reflection of economic changes during the Israelite monarchy? Several points suggest that it is not.

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).

What does the story say about views of royal power?

The plot hinges around the inability of the king to force Naboth to accept an honest deal. Naboth’s rejection of the proposed deal implies that his legal status is equal to that of his royal neighbor. This fits the reigns of the last Israelite kings, who ruled from Samaria over a rump kingdom between 735 and 720 B.C.E. Once Jezreel was integrated into the Assyrian province of Megiddo, Naboth’s property at Jezreel was beyond the kings’ jurisdiction. In this scenario, Naboth is at least as rich as the king—nouveau riche, as it were—and his refusal to sell is an affront.

In premodern land-tenure systems, vineyards, like houses, gardens, and terraces, belonged to the category of private property. Unlike fields and pastures, they required major investments in resources. Naboth owned his vineyard and, as owner, Naboth could sell his vineyard if he wanted to. The fact that Naboth had inherited the vineyard from his fathers was no legal impediment to the sale. His vineyard being under the jurisdiction of the Assyrian governor of Megiddo, Naboth considered the king of Samaria a ruler who could be snubbed; he underestimated the power of Jezebel, however!

In the context of the Assyrian expansion and the resulting weakening of local dynasties, the story of a queen who secured a fabled vineyard for her weak husband and punished a commoner reflects warnings about the deference owed to royalty that recur in Wisdom Literature (Prov 8:15). The “blood of Jezreel” became a byword (Hos 1:4), a chilling reminder that royalty remains royalty despite shrinking realms.

For centuries, courtiers were regaled with stories of Jezebel and Sarah (Gen 12, Gen 20), local princesses who got what their vulnerable partners could not. In the late Persian or early Hellenistic period (circa third century B.C.E.), southern composers of the books of Kings smeared the reputation of the rulers of the northern Israelite kingdom. Using the Naboth story as an illustration, they turned the powerless king into the evil Ahab, who remained powerless. Haughty Naboth morphed into a victim of the former heroine, the archenemy Jezebel.

Philippe Guillaume, "Naboth’s Vineyard", n.p. [cited 24 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/passages/main-articles/naboths-vineyard-1-kgs-21

Contributors

Philippe Guillaume

Philippe Guillaume
Lecturer, University of Berne

Philippe Guillaume is lecturer at the Institüt für Bibelwissenschaft of the University of Berne, Switzerland. He is a staff member of the current Jezreel Expedition. His latest research focuses on biblical chronography and calendars, ancient games and divination, and an agrarian approach to the Hebrew Bible. His latest books are Land, Credit and Crisis: Agrarian Finance in the Hebrew Bible (Equinox, 2012); Studies in Magic and Divination in the Biblical World, edited with Helen R. Jacobus and Anne Katrine de Hemmer Gudme (Gorgias Press, 2013); and A History of Biblical Israel: The Fate of the Tribes and Kingdoms from Merneptah to Bar Kochba, co-authored with Ernst Axel Knauf (Equinox, 2015).

Textual, historical, and archaeological clues reveal that the prebiblical version of the vineyard story featured a smart queen and a rich Naboth.

Did you know…?

  • Farmers in antiquity, as today, often cultivated land that they did not own; they sold the produce but not the land itself. This applies to Naboth’s share of arable (nonvineyard) land mentioned in 2Kgs 9:21.
  • Ahab’s reaction to Naboth’s refusal indicates that his offer was legitimate but that he had no way of forcing Naboth to sell his vineyard. Naboth held the vineyard in full property and the king had no legal means to force him to part from it. The vineyard could only be gotten through devious means.
  • The patriarchal view of women as cunning is recurrent in biblical literature. Jezebel’s elimination of Naboth through devious means is but one illustration of this motif.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

1Kgs 21

Naboth's Vineyard
1Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria.2And Ahab s ... View more

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

The countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean sea, from the Sinai in Egypt to Aleppo in Syria.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

Prov 8:15

15By me kings reign,
and rulers decree what is just;

Hos 1:4

4And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingd ... View more

Gen 12

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 20

Abraham and Sarah at Gerar
1From there Abraham journeyed toward the region of the Negeb, and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While residing in Gerar as an alie ... View more

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

2Kgs 9:21

21Joram said, “Get ready.” And they got his chariot ready. Then King Joram of Israel and King Ahaziah of Judah set out, each in his chariot, and went to meet Je ... View more

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