Dr. Brennan Breed
Leith Lecture Sermon
February 9, 2020
Standing up for Naboth
As you know by now, I’m an Old Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. This means, of course, that I am a nerd who loves dead languages and ancient history. It also means that I am well acquainted with awkward conversations in airplanes that follow from the well-meaning question, “So, what do you do?” When people hear “Old Testament,” they immediately think of fire and brimstone, doom and gloom, harsh judgment, and a particularly angry God that was somehow replaced by a God of love and peace and cotton candy that Jesus told us all about.
You’ve heard the hackneyed comparisons, right? The Old Testament God of judgment, versus the New Testament God of mercy; the God of law versus the God of grace; the God of retribution versus the God of forgiveness.
Well, thankfully for my job, but more importantly for the well-being of the Church, within a few generations of Jesus’ disciples the most prominent Christian theologians were calling this division between an Old Testament God and a New Testament God a heresy. Thank God — quite literally, I say, thank God, because without the Old Testament we would misunderstand God, we would misunderstand Jesus, we would miss the context and full flavor of the gospel message. God has always, and will always, be a God of both judgment and mercy, law and grace. God delivered the Hebrews from bondage under Pharaoh—that’s grace!—and gave them instruction, usually translated as “Law,” so that they could build a community of love and mutual flourishing.
But when people take God’s gracious gifts for granted, and twist their society into one of horrific abuse of the poor, the vulnerable and the migrant worker, then God gets righteously angry at them. Sometimes, the God of anger and the God of mercy are the exact same God at the exact same time: it just depends if you’re the one stepping on the other person’s neck when God yells at you to let them up.
The God of the Bible gets judgey sometimes precisely because God cares—about everybody. And this is why ancient Israel was strange people, because they worshiped this strange, judgey and lovey God.
0Ancient Israel’s neighbors generally agreed that there were lots of gods, and these gods had created the world and humanity to produce food so that all the gods could rest. Humans, then, were fundamentally slaves for the gods. Of course, a few people needed to run the system and bring the food to the gods so that they could eat—namely, the aristocrats, the royal family and the priestly establishment, and those same leaders were entrusted with keeping order so that the system ran smoothly and the gods received their food in their temple-palaces without interruption.
Ancient Israel, in contrast, believed that all humans were created in the image of the one God, that all humans were then of infinite worth, that they were all of equal status and innate dignity, and that humans did not exist to feed God — no, humans farmed to feed themselves, and they existed to flourish and take care of creation and each other. Even more radical was the idea, found in Moses’ instructions from God, that every person has a God-given right to a piece of land which will stay in their family forever.
So, then, every person is born with access to the ability and tools to create a life worth living for themselves, and that if there are members of the community who are vulnerable or weak or incapacitated, or if there were wandering foreigners in need who showed up within the community, well then, the whole community should provide what those vulnerable people needed. These were the values and principles that defined the law of Moses within its ancient Near Eastern context.
There are some surprising, even shocking things about the law of Moses in its ancient setting: first, no ancient people besides Israel is known to have made a covenant with their God. No one. This was for two reasons: first, because making contracts with people was seen as demeaning to a divine being, but second, because no god in the ancient world besides Yahweh ever addressed a people. Normal ancient gods addressed kings, or priests, or individual people with power—but not a whole people. This might give people the idea that they were a community, that they might act for something like the common good, that they all had access to their god, that they all stood on essentially the same level in view of their god. So, politically this was a dangerous thing to do. Even more politically dangerous was the fact that the laws in Exodus do not mention a class of nobles or aristocrats who get preferential treatment, and peasants whose lives are naturally worth less, like we find in the other law codes of the time. But also, in the ancient world the only law code to provide explicitly for widows and orphans, to create structures to take care of poor, to even mention, let alone command that the people provide for, the wandering refugee, was the law of Moses.
These are radical things to talk about today, but they were earth-shattering principles within the context of the ancient world when Moses taught them to the Israelites.
However… we all know that, even if we all desire to be such a community, we are mere people, and so we will find ways to break our trust with God and each other, and so were the ancient Israelites. Over time, the Israelites began to shift away from the ethos of community and neighborly care that Moses passed on in Yahweh’s instruction. Eventually, the kings of Israel and Judah used their power to shape Israel into something that looked more like a typical ancient kingdom, with aristocrats and peasants, with large royal landholdings farmed by displaced sharecroppers, and without even a gesture to the practices of Sabbath and Jubilee that were supposed to protect and give dignity to the masses. This disloyalty to the ancient ways of Israel, and the values that were given by God, were seen as idolatry: idolatry, the worship of foreign systems and the gods who were responsible for them, trying to be like the nations around them, abandoning what made them unique. The covenant, Yahweh claimed, was exclusive, precisely because the other gods had other things to teach you about the value and dignity of human life.
But when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah began to shift, God called a series of messengers to confront the powerful and demand changes. These changes weren’t just radical new reforms: no, they were calling Israel back to its founding values that it had forgotten — really, that it had never fully lived up to even when it was newly formed. These messengers, sent to call the people back to the values of the law of Moses, were the prophets.
One of these messengers was Elijah the Tishbite, who breaks on to the scene in 1 Kings 17. Tishbite means “wanderer,” someone who was themselves displaced, and Elijah himself seems at home both everywhere and nowhere. He’s also described as a “Man of God,” an “‘Ish Elohim” in Hebrew, and this is a technical term, like a job title. Most prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, might see and hear special things, but they don’t walk around performing miracles — they are divine messengers who talk and act out God’s words. The “Man of God,” though, is different — he performs miracles and does strange things that reveal God’s tremendous power. Elijah, a “Man of God,” begins his ministry by causing a drought, which was meant to threaten the king’s power, his economic productivity, and also his reliance on the Canaanite storm god, Baal, who the king thought was responsible for the agricultural profits that accrued to the elite.
After causing the drought, Elijah then scuttled off to Sidon, a foreign city in the land of the Phoenicians, where he found a poor widow and her son, struggling to survive. Instead of yelling at them for identifying with a foreign power or for not working hard enough to support themselves, Elijah creates an abundance of food, and even raises the boy back to life when he suddenly died. Elijah, the Man of God, is like a portal through whom the power of God flows to bring life and dignity to all members of the community, particularly the vulnerable. This is the power of God, the power to bring blessing and a flourishing life to all the families of the earth, which is precisely God promised to Abraham in Genesis 12.
This is the same power that flowed through Jesus Christ, who about a thousand years later reenacted Elijah and Elisha’s miracles, like raising dead children and multiplying loaves for hungry people with leftovers — yes, that’s right, when Jesus feeds the 5,000 and the 4,000, that’s a repeat of Elisha and Elijah’s miracles of multiplying food for the needy. Jesus was showing that he was a Man of God, a portal through whom the power of God to bring about abundant life flowed. And as Paul says, this is the same power that we pray and that we hope flows through us into the world even today.
A part of this life-giving power, however, is witnessing to those who have been harmed and standing up to those who are actively subverting God’s principles of the innate dignity and infinite worth of every human being, of the flourishing of life. And the prophets are the ones who model for us this sacred task. We find a moving story of this practice in 1 Kings 21, the story of Naboth the Jezreelite.
Naboth was a simple farmer who was blessed with a vineyard in the beautiful Jezreel valley, the most fertile area in ancient Israel. Unfortunately, his plot happened to but up against King Ahab’s newly finished royal palace in the recently constructed city of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab, like many kings before and after him, took a peek over his wall and noticed that the grass seemed greener over there in that peasant Naboth’s yard. So Ahab strutted over to Naboth and gave him an offer.
If we read the text closely, though, we might notice that Ahab phrases his offer in a strange way. He tells Naboth that he’ll either trade his vineyard for a better piece of land, or he will give money in exchange — literally in Hebrew chunks of silver, since coinage hadn’t been invented yet.
Let’s think about this a moment. Do you ever have to explain to the cashier at the grocery store that you are willing to exchange paper backed by the US government for the food products that you have picked off the shelves? Or have you ever found yourself at the car dealership carefully explaining that you’re willing to exchange your car for one of equal value? No, because everyone in a grocery store already knows how cash exchange works, and trading in cars is a fairly common practice.
But the fact that Ahab has to explain the nature of a proposed land transaction should tell us something: namely, that this isn’t a common thing to do in ancient Israel. And Naboth’s terse reply to his king explains just why that is. As Naboth puts it: “Yahweh has forbidden me from giving you my family’s inheritance.” It’s not that Naboth thinks this is a bad deal for him, or that he likes the view from the land, or that he’s sentimental, or that he wants to stick it to the king. No, Naboth tells us that Yahweh rejects the concept of buying and selling land. It was forbidden. Ahab’s question is purely economic: he wants to exchange commodities. Naboth’s response is purely theological: God forbids it.
But why would God forbid selling land? The key to this question is that strange word translated “inheritance.” It’s the Hebrew word nachalah. This word has nothing to do with inheriting Aunt Linda’s silverware or your parent’s grandfather clock. Nachalah, inheritance, describes the gift of land in perpetuity that God has given to each family in ancient Israel, and that they must persevere and hand down to their children to ensure that each generation of their family that follows has a shot at surviving.
In Numbers 26, God told Moses that the land of Israel shall be divided equally among the tribes and their families into these inheritances, and the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 ensure that each generation of Israelites in perpetuity has a chance to regain their family’s ancestral inheritance if it should be squandered or otherwise lost.
It is important to note here that, in ancient Israel, land wasn’t for building a single family home with a nice front yard. Land was the only way to produce the things that families needed to survive in the ancient world, and if families were to remain free, and not be forced to sell themselves into debt slavery, then they needed to own their own land. Yahweh commanded that all people in ancient Israel would have access to farmable land, each their equal nachalah, because this was the only way to not return to the system of cruel domination that the Hebrews had known under Pharaoh, and from which Yahweh had rescued them. For his part, Pharaoh claimed to own all land in the Nile valley, which reduced most of the Egyptian farmers to the status of sharecropping peasants. This also seems to be the status of the Canaanite peasants who had supported the city-state system that existed before the emergence of Israel. In order to sustain a community that allowed for the possibility of the dignity and equality of its inhabitants, for the flourishing of all people, God instituted the radical practice of inalienable access to land for each family in Israel.
For us today, perhaps we might think of the nachalah in terms of access to the things that constitute a flourishing life and society. What would you picture in your mind as elements of a flourishing life? Perhaps things like dignified work that pays a living wage, physical and emotional safety, free time and the possibility of rest, social connections, fair treatment by the authorities, a clean environment, and so on. I know that, for many in the United States today, these seem impossible to guarantee for all the people living within our borders. And yet, collectively, we are the wealthiest group of people ever to exist on the face of the planet. We live in a world of sheer abundance. Perhaps it isn’t our economic poverty, but rather a poverty of imagination, or empathy, that closes down conversations about the flourishing of our communities, particularly when it comes to the vulnerable.
Yet sometimes the vulnerable stand up for themselves, reminding us of the principles that we have forgotten. In Numbers 27, for instance, we find the bold group of women, Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah, and Tirzah, known together as the Daughters of Zelophehad, who did not have any brothers and were as yet unmarried when their father died, and so we about to lose out on their family’s land inheritance, their nachalah, precisely because of gender-specific inheritance laws in the Bible. Just because of their gender, they would be landless and vulnerable. God’s law said, so it must happen, right? Yet these brave women challenged God’s law in front of Moses and all the elders of the community, and in response God issued a new law that allowed women to inherit land. The daughters of Zelophehad were bold enough to demand changes to the God-given ethical and legal structure that did not accommodate their experience. There was no provision for them under the current law, but their testimony led to God making explicit room for them, and for others after them, to protect them and include them as members of the community with access to the rights and possibilities for life that had been denied to them.
God responds to the voices of those who speak up about the ways in which divine commands exclude certain people from the community and at times create unjust imbalances. God is serious about giving everyone access to their nachalah.
And yet, I know it’s hard to believe, but those with power in ancient Israel were tempted to acquire more than their own nachalah, to take the inheritance of others. At first, King Ahab tries to buy the land off of Naboth, but Naboth thinks of both God’s principles and his own family’s future and declines the king’s offer. In Ahab’s words, Naboth told him, “I will not give you my vineyard,” which isn’t what Naboth said. It’s as if Ahab didn’t hear Naboth’s references to God, as if he’d forgotten the bedrock principles of the Israelite covenant with God.
At first, Ahab moped around the palace, but his Queen soon reminded him why it’s so good to be the King, and promised that Ahab would get the vineyard in short order. So Queen Jezebel conspired with the nobles who lived near Naboth and pressured them to fabricate false accusations and then she used the court system to justify Naboth’s execution—and the resulting seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. Somehow I don’t think it’s the first time, nor is it the last, that the powerful have used their political leverage and the legal system as tools to dispossess the less fortunate of what they need to pursue a life of flourishing. It’s a kind of hunting: the predation of people, the rapacious hunger to have more at the expense of others, the lack of care for what happens to them after we get what we want — that just isn’t my problem, I suppose, because what I’m after is the land, the object, the thing, the commodity. It’s tempting to forget that the things that we own represent the lives of the people who made them, their families, their futures, their yearning for health and happiness, their wholeness.
It’s easy to convince ourselves that we aren’t really a community, we aren’t really responsible for our neighbors — after all, am I really supposed to take care of my neighbors? I guess I mean to say: am I really my brother’s keeper?
Well, when Jezebel tells Ahab of the plan’s success, he sets off to take the vineyard. But just then, when there seems to be no hope of anyone stopping the King’s plan, no hope for Naboth’s family, for his descendants, who will grow up landless and without access to the ability to provide for themselves, God speaks to Elijah. Just when we think that no-one sees, that no one notices, that no one has the power or the courage to intervene, God’s word abruptly breaks into the story.
God tells Elijah to go and confront the King, to stand up for Naboth even though Naboth is no longer standing himself. Elijah is told to publicly accuse the King of murdering Naboth and stealing his land. As Elijah puts it, King Ahab “sold himself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD.” All that talk of Naboth refusing to sell, and it was Ahab who ended up selling himself and his responsibility to do what was right.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, when Ahab heard these convicting words, he repented, humbling himself in the sight of God and his own subjects. Though the texts says that Ahab was one of the worst kings Israel ever endured, he nevertheless transformed when confronted by the prophetic message of Elijah.
Likewise, the New Testament is full of stories of people like Zaccheus, who used his power to deprive others of their inheritance and their dignity, who nevertheless found the strength to repent and make amends when confronted with Jesus’ life-giving message. As Jesus describes it, this is what it looks like when salvation arrives. And as we heard in the gospel reading, Jesus reminded Zaccheus of his covenantal identity as a “Son of Abraham,” part of the covenant community, despite his predatory behavior.
Perhaps there is hope yet, just as there was hope for the Daughters of Zelophehad when their future seemed bleak. But it always requires someone to stand up and speak the truth, to hold God and our neighbors and ourselves accountable to the values that we claim to hold. Perhaps there is life-giving power yet in God’s message of the innate dignity and infinite worth of every one of our human neighbors, of the responsibility we all share to be our neighbor’s keeper, of the blessing that God strives to bring to all the families of the earth. May we find ourselves moved to proclaim the kingdom of God, the creator, sustainer and redeemer of the world.