“The Story of Naboth’s Vineyard” - August 4, 2019

II Kings 9:26

            There are parts of the Bible that were not meant to be read in sections but that were written as entire books, and although we can look closely at individual episodes we lose something if we don’t also consider the wider design.  The history books that include the First and Second Books of Kings and Chronicles are like that.  In order to do justice to this series of sermons on II Kings, this morning I’m going to do things a little differently from usual, and instead of one, short reading and a separate sermon, I’m going to sort of combine it all into one longer chunk. 

            Go back to I Kings 21:1-24 and you’ll find this story:

“Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.” He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

 

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.”’

 

His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’ So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’ As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

 

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’ Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. Also concerning Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”’”

            The incident is left there, although the strife between Elijah on one side and Ahab and Jezebel on the other continues.  The history goes on and almost a generation passes.  Elijah trains Elisha to succeed him and is carried away to heaven.  Ahab dies.  Elisha gains respect as a prophet.  Jezebel hangs on as the aging Queen Mother.  The kingdom of Israel is repeatedly invaded, and Elisha helps guide the resistance to the invaders, all the while urging faith in God, while the kings put politics first.

            And a lot of what the Bible records sounds like the usual round of alliances and wars, but we get occasional glimpses of the people who are caught up in them.  Mostly it is the kings and generals, with the prophet Elisha showing up every so often to perform a miracle among the people who, because of these wars, are caught up in famines and shortages.  At one point we hear about a siege that reduces people to cannibalism.  There are reminders that, as the proverb says, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

            Then the day comes that Elisha does something out of character for him.  He sends one of his servants to find one of the king’s generals.  The servant calls him out of a meeting and pours oil on his head, announcing that the general, Jehu, is thereby anointed as the new king of Israel, and then runs away.  Jehu reports the incident to his officers, who proclaim him king, and a palace revolution is underway.

            Ahab’s son, Joram, tried to face the rebellion down and his army meets Jehu’s army outside his capital city, on the land where Naboth’s vineyard had once been.  Joram takes an arrow between the shoulders as he is racing his chariot to escape and dies immediately. 

“Jehu said to his aide Bidkar, ‘Lift him out, and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite; for remember, when you and I rode side by side behind his father Ahab how the Lord uttered this oracle against him: “For the blood of Naboth and for the blood of his children that I saw yesterday, says the Lord, I swear I will repay you on this very plot of ground.” Now therefore lift him out and throw him on the plot of ground, in accordance with the word of the Lord.’”  [II Kings 9:25-26]

A series of what we would call war crimes follows.  Ahab had seventy other sons, and Jehu arranges for their massacre.  Jezebel is thrown from a window and her body is trampled by horses then eaten by dogs.  Jehu then arranges a festival for all the followers of Baal in Israel and once they’re together in the temple of Baal, he locks them in and slaughters them all.  Jehu ruled Israel for the next twenty-eight years.

            The message is for the powerful and the powerless alike. 

            The injustice of a ruler does not go unnoticed or unseen, even if it is arranged privately and carried off flawlessly and appears on the face of things to be totally legal.  God sees all.  And God has time that we do not.  If human beings call out the wickedness and the ruler denies it, and has the power to go on as if nothing has happened, God remembers.

            But the longer that human beings ignore even one small crime, the more trouble compounds before it is corrected, and the more innocent people become drawn into the vortex.  Those people, too, might be the ones who seem to have benefited from the deed.  It was not God whose decision condemned Ahab’s descendants to bloody executions.  It was Ahab’s establishment of the might-makes-right, I’m-the-king-and-what-I-say-goes atmosphere that laid the groundwork for people like Jehu to kill in their self-interest, the way that Ahab had done.  We are responsible not only for our actions, but for the unknown consequences they carry.

            We see this when we examine the histories of the Old Testament in their whole breadth.  We see that there is an element of tragedy built into things, where we come into a world tainted by the deeds of people long dead.  In our day, we wrestle with the results of the slavery brought to an official end in 1865, but whose effects are all around us, whether we want to see that or not.  And centuries from now the world will judge us for how we conduct ourselves in light of the dangers of changing climate and rising seas begun by decisions made innocently enough long before we were born.  We are embedded in the time that we are born, no less than Elijah and Elisha and the kings and queens of Israel. 

Yet I would suggest looking not only at those histories, but the entirety of the scriptures for one more point that must not be lost. 

We can, if we let ourselves, become trapped in the notion that there is no way out of this running account of injustice, evil, and oppression.  (Let’s just use the shorter word “sin”.)  We can put ourselves into the line of those who explain that our choices are captive to the choices of those before us.  We can push things back and back and back to the primeval sin, that Adam and Eve moment when everything first fell apart and blame them.

            But that’s been dealt with already.  God stepped into human history in a decisive way, and did it within the very people who produced both Naboth and Ahab, Elijah and Jezebel, Elisha and Jehu.  God became subject to all that we face when he was born in the person of Jesus.  He was dispossessed by Herod and the Romans, who took his very life.  And in letting that happen, he destroyed the cycle by not playing into it in the way that even a righteous man like Elisha did.

            Jesus, on the cross, put an end to the power games and the revenge, absorbing all of that and carrying the sin of the world himself in a way that lifts it from us, and leaves us free to put the past behind.  Sometimes it even means we leave the present behind, refusing, like him, to accept anyone’s ways but God’s.  Said Paul,

“If, because of one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” [Romans 5:17]

It’s at the cross that anybody’s old story ends and their new story begins.