The commentator Carolyn Sharp explains that “the irony of human power” is that “power weakens those who are most eager to exploit it. The powerful are vulnerable not only to those who would wrest power from them, but also to the corrosive force of their own greed.”
You may remember the ancient Greek story of King Midas who wanted everything he touched to turn to gold. His greed knew no bounds until he started to starve to death because all the food he touched turned to gold too. He loses his beloved daughter when he embraces her and she turns to gold. King Midas didn’t make a very good choice for his life and suffered the consequences.
The same thing happens in our scripture passage from 1 Kings as King Ahab and Queen Jezebel make particularly poor choices in the eyes of God. As Rodger mentioned last week, Ahab was one in the line of kings who ruled in Israel, the northern kingdom of what was once united as one nation under King David with the southern kingdom of Judah. The Old Testament historical books like to divide the kings of Israel as good, faithful to God, and evil, unfaithful to God.
King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, was a princess and she was the daughter of Ethbaal, King of Sidon, also known as the empire of Phoenicia, a foreign land. Her people followed the god Baal and she persuaded King Ahab to forsake the God of his ancestors in order to follow Baal. Of course, this was extremely displeasing to the one, true God of Israel. This is the context for our story.
The story plays out much like a contemporary soap opera in its makeup of strong emotions and tragedy. “The main characters, in the first act of this soap opera text as they enter the stage of biblical writing, are Naboth, a good citizen and faithful tender of his vineyard; envious, weak Ahab; conniving Jezebel; a jury of (ruling) citizens; two scoundrels paid off to give false witnesses; and God, the Lord of all. The drama unfolds throughout chapter 21 in 1 Kings. And it is a quite the story of intrigue and wrongful death followed by the horrible, justifiable- to the writer of the story- deaths of the King and Queen.
Our story continues on from the story of Ahab and the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Rodger preached about last week. So… what mischief is King Ahab in this week? It seems he wants property that is owned by a man named Naboth, the Jezreelite. Jezreel was an ancient city and fortress and the meaning of the city’s name is significant here: ‘God sows.’ This land has been in Naboth’s family for generations. He inherited it from his family and cannot sell it. This is a law recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers wherein the new land of Israel was divided between the 12 tribes of Israel who escaped the clutches of Egyptian slavery. It was important that the people of Israel honor the ancient tribal divisions of land, seen as ordained by the Creator God. A critique of Ahab is implied here for failing to recognize the division of this inherited land as part of the Law of Moses.
King Ahab wants Naboth’s land because it is close to the 2nd palace he has, the first and primary found in the capital city of Samaria in the northern kingdom. He covets the land–one could point out that he disobeys one of the ten commandments. Ahab wants the vineyard for a vegetable garden which is likely for an herb garden. Herbs were used in worship of the god Baal. Again from the commentator Carolyn Sharp, “‘The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance’ (Naboth proclaims to Ahab), suggests that a great deal is at stake for the Jezreelite in protecting what belongs to him. The sulking king, by contrast, is shown to be both capricious and immature.”
We find out in our story that King Ahab is rather high strung and is distraught by this minor setback of being forbidden to purchase a rather small parcel of land. Jezebel finds him in his bed, sullen and depressed, refusing to eat. She reminds him that he is king and says that she will take care of giving him Naboth’s land. We in the audience may now think “Uh oh, something terrible is about to happen.” We know how wicked Jezebel has been in the whole story of Elijah and Ahab. The Queen orders the elders and noblemen of Jezreel to put together a fast, in which the people of the city gather together, and then to place Naboth in a seat of honor (ironically) at the head of the assembly. She wants him seated beside two villainous men who will falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy. The penalty for blasphemy is stoning to death–a violent and horrible death. Naboth is in fact stoned to death and the petulant Ahab gains the object of his desire as he goes to Naboth’s ancestral land and takes possession of it.
As often happens in Old Testament stories, the wrath of God is almost immediately known. Now, into our dastardly plot enters the prophet Elijah who must go to King Ahab, with some trepidation, since Ahab is already displeased with the prophet. Elijah condemns Ahab for this heinous act, telling the King that he will meet an untimely and dreadful death, as will his wife, Jezebeel. This terrible drama unfurls the fabric of their lives. The end of our part of the operatic story leaves us hanging with only a promise of recompense. We don’t get to see justice done unless we read on in chapter 22. It is there we find out the prophet Elijah’s prediction to the King is fulfilled. Ahab’s death takes place upon the battlefield of a war. He is shot by an errant arrow and takes some time to die, propped up in his chariot. While dying, he instructs his chariot driver to take him home and, once again ironically, dies on his way home on Naboth’s ancestral land. We also find out that Jezebel too dies a bloody death.
In the historical, biblical book of Deuteronomy, God proclaims “Vengeance is mine,” and that divine vengeance is fulfilled in the conclusion to our extended opera. Even though Naboth has already died, this story teaches us that the weak are upheld and requited by the Lord and the strong who abuse their power suffer astoundingly awful consequences. We discover that power is easily corrupted and that God does not tolerate harassment of the poor and socially marginalized. That kind of harassment goes against God’s mandates to take care of the resident alien, the widow and the orphan, the blind and the oppressed also found in Old Testament Law book of Leviticus known as the Holiness Code. Today, what might that say about how we treat immigrants, legal or not, or the poor whether they are poor by birth family, bad decisions or by societal constructs? Both the stories of Kings Midas and Ahab express that the holiness of God, and therefore the holiness of the Lord’s faithful, requires mercy and compassion.
Lest you think that we can disregard the Old Testament as no longer relevant because we live by grace alone, Jesus proclaims in Matthew 5, “”Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, what does this mean for Jesus’ followers? It means that we can still learn much from the stories and mandates of the Old Testament. They are quite good at instructing the believer in the areas of behavior and character.
In Luke’s Gospel we find out that Jesus teaches the poor are blessed heirs of God’s Realm. In Matthew’s Gospel we are instructed that the poverty of spirit which is the extreme opposite of over-acquisition is desirable. Our holy God is the Lord of mercy and the poor and abused are beloved by our compassionate Lord, as Jesus exhibited time and again. We need to be reminded of these teachings, and so many more in the New Testament, because in our more comfortable lives we forget the struggles of many in this nation and even more so in undeveloped and war-torn nations.
In today’s climate, we wonder if joy will ever come for there is so much war, destruction of property, beautiful beaches being washed away, and an excessive amount of gun violence. Hearing or reading the news, we are ever so conscious of the increase of hatred and anger, both for and toward individuals or whole groups of people sometimes simply because they think differently from us or live in a way alien to the dominate cultural. With the proliferation of social media, we live in a time of outright, untrue and unjustifiable slander and consequently destroying lives, of power being used for political and social-climbing gain, and of privilege used as a way to wall oneself off from the struggles of other races and ethnicities, sexuality, or belief systems and ways of living.
How do we end this madness which seems to be careening out of control? Well— by following Jesus,of course–and understanding what our God-given scripture tells us as we study stories in their historical contexts for the meaning in its time period and ancient thought processes, understanding word usage from the original languages of our Bible, remembering to read and seeking to understand a story or teaching within the surrounding context, dutifully looking at a passage within the framework of the whole of the Bible, and dissecting what all that means for living in our own day and age.
We find out that, within reason, we must turn the other cheek and not seek an eye for an eye or revenge, something Jesus interpreted differently from Old Testament Law. We will find ourselves going against what is popular and accepted societal norms in order to show love and compassion for “the other.” We are to be generous of spirit and of pocket to assist and enable those in need, providing more opportunities for those who are denied them because they are a minority or because of where they live. We are to rein in our unruly tongues and social media meanderings and gossip. The biblical instruction to us to be slow to anger, is very meaningful today. I came across a pithy, anonymous quote to expound on this point: “Be slow to anger for this is what you don’t do. Don’t let the world make you utter false and unfeeling words. Don’t let actions of other people turn you cold inside. When something happens to hurt you, have a good cry but don’t let those moments make you unkind.”
We must pray for Christ’s Spirit’s guidance to guide our words and actions, and our behaviors and character. We are to be holy as God is holy but we don’t have to flounder around on our own. Make good decisions through the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit. From the website GodFruits.com: Always pray to have eyes that see the best in people, a love that forgives the worst, a mind that forgets the bad and a soul that never loses faith in God. Zelma De Perez prays what I will close this sermon with: “Jesus, let me see people through your eyes. Amen.”