Sermon - Pentecost 2 - Ordinary Sunday 11 - Year C | DBHome | RCL Resources Index |
Government power, justice and prophecy
The Old Testament lesson today tells of a struggle between king and commoner, in which the royal power is initially thwarted and then imposed ruthlessly through the deceptive agency of the Queen, crushing an ordinary citizen, only to find the King confronted and condemned by the prophet of God. This little drama has a cast of great characters: Ahab the outwardly successful but privately sulking self indulgent king of Israel, Jezebel his scheming foreign wife who was a believer in absolute power and a false religion, in conflict with Naboth the traditional small land owner and the tough old prophet out of the desert, Elijah.
The plot of this ancient drama is one of greed, abuse of power, murder and theft on one side, and of integrity, compassion and courage on the other. Behind these conflicting human motives was the conflict of different economic and legal systems concerning land tenure and the powers of government. The different systems of law and practice of government were associated with the competing interests of a rising merchant class in the prosperous cities and the interests of the traditional peasants engaged in agriculture; and behind those systems were different religious beliefs, especially the conflict between belief in the Lord, the one God related in a sacred covenant to Israel, and the idolatry of the people of Canaan and their neighbours. These social systems and beliefs are represented by the main characters: Ahab, Jezebel, Naboth and Elijah. Let me describe the characters of the drama before we reflect on what happened; but you might keep in the back of your mind the question, 'Is the conflict between the new beliefs of the rising merchant class in Israel and the traditional beliefs of the peasants like the what is going on in our society today?'
Elijah, the great prophet of that time, was a man of God separated from the power and wealth of a prosperous ruling class. He had been driven out of his country to live in poverty and isolation in a desert cave. In the way he lived he was a friend of the poor and the widows. In spite of the punishment he dared to speak out against the King and idolatry, fighting against the prophets of Baal who promoted the idolatrous and immoral religion sponsored by the Queen. Hiding in a cave, according to tradition, he was fed by the ravens. He showed great courage and kindness to the poor, especially to a widow who shared her last jar of food with him, and whose son he saved from death. Elijah is so well remembered that at the Jewish celebration of the Passover even today a little game is played in which an empty place for him is set at the table and at a certain point in the ceremony of the meal, which rehearses key points in the founding history of Israel, the children are sent to look for Elijah to see if he is waiting at the door. They expected his return because he was believed to have been taken up to heaven without passing through death when he passed his mantel to Elisha his successor. You may remember that when Jesus was dying on the cross they wondered if Elijah might come and save him [Matthew 27:46-49]. He is a great figure remembered from a very early time for the truth and power with which he spoke for God and the strong sense of justice his prophecy represented.
Ahab was King of Israel at Samaria in the Northern Kingdom a few generations after the division of the united nation of David and Solomon. He reigned from about 870 to 850 BC. Although the Bible tells us much more than any other source he is one of the few people of that time known to history apart from the Bible. An Assyrian inscription from that period refers to him by name as the contributor of 2000 chariots and 10,000 men to a great battle in which an alliance of small states defeated an Assyrian attempt to expand their empire to the West in 853 BC. He is also mentioned in another historical record from the neighbouring kingdom of Moab. His marriage to Jezebel was a political arrangement to cement an alliance between Israel and Phoenician Kingdom of Sidon in joint defence against Aram, with its capital at Damascus, in the territory of modern Syria, with which they were engaged in almost continuous warfare. This alliance was very profitable in trade. A new class of wealthy traders developed in Israel and urban centres prospered. Ahab was described as the builder of many cities. We know that historically Jericho had been lying in ruins for centuries and it was rebuilt on his orders. The walls of Samaria which were rebuilt at that time have been found by archeological digging to have been exceptionally well constructed. He was by conventional measures a successful political and military leader, but in other ways he was weak and unreliable. He often sought approval from advisers who would try to make themselves popular by telling him what he wanted to hear. That weakness eventually to lead to his downfall when he went to war on the advice of those who wished to please him and against the better advice of a true prophet of the Lord (1 Kings 22). Ahab respected and feared the prophet Elijah who seems to have been one of the few people with the courage to tell him the way things were whether he liked it or not.
Jezebel came from Tyre the Phoenician city on the coast which was a centre of international trade across the Mediterranean, in touch with Egypt and the early Greek civilization. Phoenicia was among the most technically and economically advanced societies in the world at that time. Some elements of its culture have come down to us, mainly through the Greeks. The alphabet we use was developed from Phoenician writing. Jezebel was the daughter of their King, and he was not only a king but a priest in the cult of a pagan goddess, an important figure in the fertility religion of Canaan. As a royal princess Jezebel would have had the right to continue to practice her religion when she moved to Israel as Queen. This she did with great enthusiasm gathering her own entourage of prophets, whom she fed and protected while driving out the prophets of the Lord. Shrines were built for the worship of Baal and Ashera; and Ahab, to please the Queen, even gave them houses built in his capital. The image of the bull, an idol of Baal, was commonly acknowledged and served the fertility interests of an agricultural society. Jezebel became such a strong symbol of false teaching so that a thousand years later her name was used in the book of Revelation for one who beguiled Christians into idolatrous practices:
Not only did she bring her polytheistic fertility religion with its immorality, which was always competing with the more austere religion of the one God; she also brought her views of how an oriental monarch should act with ruthless devotion to absolute rights, and that is where the difficulty arose for poor Naboth.
Naboth represents the simple righteous man who farms his land with integrity and tries to keep the law of Moses. He is far removed in outlook from the newly sophisticated court of Ahab and Jezebel with its ivory palace and cosmopolitan ways. The stage is then set for a clash of cultures and beliefs, when Ahab wants Naboth's vineyard for a garden. It is interesting because Ahab is enough a son of his father to know what was expected of a king in Israel. (In fact his name means father's brother, probably because he looked like him.) Israelite kings did not have absolute rights because they ruled as stewards under God. They could never encourage belief in themselves as gods, as other many other ancient kings were known to do.
Kings of Israel were anointed by a man of God to serve God and his people in the way they governed. So when Naboth said, `No', refusing his proposition to sell his land Ahab accepted his right to refuse. Not only did commoners have rights, they had responsibilities. Land which was inherited was expected to be maintained within the family to safeguard the livelihood of future generations in an agricultural economy. Indeed, if a man was forced to sell because of poverty he or his relatives were obliged if possible to buy it back again: this was to prevent the creation of a dispossessed class who would become enslaved to the wealthy. So Naboth was entitled to sell, but there was a strong constraint on him not to do so, and Ahab knew what it meant when
The trouble was that Ahab now moved in a different circle who had much less traditional ideas about property and money. Jezebel's way of thinking saw land as a tradable commodity, and as it was finally the right of the king there were no safeguards against rapacious social policy of the strong against the weak. In that understanding social power is distributed as one can seize it. This view offers a sharp contrast in economic theory to the view held by Naboth. The new understanding was a contrasting view of human reality at the base of which some were entitled to social power over others, especially a monarch over the other landowners. [Bruggermann, A Social Reading of the Old Testament, p.239.] So the question was who is entitled to what kind of social power in the form of land? Naboth insists on exercising the freedom not to sell which the old law gave him. Ahab knows it well enough to accept his right but is annoyed, perhaps even ashamed or embarrassed not to be able to follow the free market principles of his wife and social peers, so he sulks like a spoiled child:
But Jezebel would have none of this. When she found out why he was so depressed,
Then comes the conspiracy. Given her ideas about the absolute rights of kings it was only a question of the means to an end. She wrote letters in the King's name, sealing them with his seal. (Incidently, the historical reality of the circumstances is brought home to us by the archeological finding of Jezebel's own seal, [Wiseman commentary 1993 ref. Avigad, EIJ, 1964] but on this occasion she used Ahab's seal.) To have him condemned two witnesses had to found to say that he Naboth had cursed God and the king [as the law required: Deut 17:6; 19:15]. This was done by proclaiming a day of fasting, a procedure for identifying the person responsible for some catastrophe. [Joshua 7:16-26; 1 Samuel 14:40-45]. The witnesses, a pair of scoundrels were provided by local officials, they were literally `sons of Belial'; and Belial was a name later used of Satan [2 Cor. 6:15] as the personification of wickedness. On their word Naboth was condemned and stoned to death outside the city.
The Queen was notified of Naboth's death. She triumphantly directed Ahab to go and take possession of the dead man's vineyard. There was precedent for that [cf. 2 Kings 8:3]. He had what he desired and Jezebel's way of life seemed successful and secure. End of story! But was it? Does it end in death, usurpation, confiscation? Has the new system of free trade and sharp practice triumphed over the old one of social responsibility? Has compromise with the new gods paid off for the King? Do you see the relevance of the question for our day?
What have Ahab and Jezebel to do with us? Their history was recorded for our benefit. Through it God reveals his way of dealing with people and how they suffer if they do not relate to each other in the way that he has provided. The issues at stake are live issues still today. For example, should there be any limits on the power of government? Can land rights be taken away? Is commercial consideration sufficient compensation for the removal one's family heritage? Should smart practice, cheating on the weak, be rewarded? Is human life always to be valued and protected? Is prosperity to be sought at the expense of human welfare? Back behind these questions there is for us today as for them then a set of deeper questions about our basic beliefs and values. Must we stay with traditional teaching about one God who demands exclusive devotion, allowing no competitors for our loyalty, or can we compromise, seeing value in a range of different beliefs, cultural symbols and religious practices?
A few years ago, a minister of Wesley Church in central Melbourne, then Dr. Robin Boyd, invited to the Church to reflect upon their experience a group of a hundred or so protesters from Albert Park, where they had been trying to protect a public park from commercial development favoured by the State Government. They were not church people. At the simple service he read the story of Naboth's vineyard. Most of them had no idea there was a story like that in the Bible; some even thought he made it up for the occasion! Many church people protested at the invitation to the church of such a group of anti-government protesters who were concerned about the abuse of government power. Dr. Boyd believed that justice required the voice of God to be heard, and he was certainly taking a risk for there were people who thought God was on the other side. It is never easy to tell at the time, in the messy circumstances of real politics and everyday life. So it must have been in Ahab's day. The injustice of what happened to Naboth might not have been obvious to everyone at first, but it was obvious to one man, the old prophet Elijah, who turned up unexpectedly, right there in the vineyard to greet the king with a moral warning:
Ahab recognized his old challenger:
So it was not the end of the story. As following chapters tell, it was not long before Ahab went to war again, against the advice of the prophet of the Lord, Micaiah, and he died in his chariot -- and if you want the gruesome detail it all is there:
The line of Ahab, his dynasty, disappeared after a few years, although its end had been delayed for a while by Ahab's repentance. The idols and their associated immorality were banished, the worship of one God and the rights of the people as children of God were restored. As for Jezebel, Elijah prophesied a horrible fate for her:
Many years later that is what happened to her. When a new reforming king, Jehu, was entering the city she was thrown out of a high window to him and her body was left in the street. When they went back later to bury her they found her body had been eaten by the dogs [2 Kings 9:31-37]. We might not like to think of such things, and we tend to omit these parts when reading the Scriptures; but the old prophets had no illusions about the consequences of idolatry and injustice.
In the end, of course, it was not the way of blood and horror which established Kingdom of God with justice for all, but the way of the suffering servant. For when the Messiah came that was the way he chose, but at no point did he tolerate injustice and he warned the exploiters of punishment no less severe than in the warnings of Elijah. It was part of their belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah came. Jesus had said that John the Baptist was, if you will, Elijah [Matthew 11:13-14;17:11-12], but that was not generally known. Elijah's was the same sense of justice for the poor and the weak that Jesus pointed to in his own work when he sent a message to John the Baptist to show that he was the Messiah:
In Elijah and his work we see a forerunner of the great events in the lives of John the Baptist and Jesus especially that were to unfold nine hundred years later. The Lord is the same God, yesterday, today and forever. Amen.
[RCL Resources Index] © David Beswick, 1995, 2001
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