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.