The books of First and Second Kings tell us the consequences of people within the faith community trying to use God simply to satisfy their own desires. They missed out on God’s will for them. In the end, their nation was destroyed.
These two books are called the books of “kings.” In reality, though, the central characters in these books are the prophets. The kings might have been the people who seemed to have power, but the people who keep alive awareness of who God is and what God’s will is – the people who actually express godly power are the prophets.
The prophetic faith is the heart and soul of the Old Testament. For the prophets, the biggest problem was people’s tendency to practice the wrong kind of religion. The people did faithfully attend to their religious rituals. They went to the temple regularly. They offered their sacrifices. They were, on the surface, fine, upstanding, religiously faithful people. But they were missing the mark, according to the prophets. They were deaf and blind to God’s true will.
God’s true will was that their communities be places where people lived respectfully, compassionately, honestly, and peaceably with each other. God’s true will was that their communities be places where all the people could live meaningful, fulfilling lives. When there was injustice, when some people were exploited so that others could gain more and more wealth, when the weak and marginal people (the widows, the orphans, the non-Israelite strangers) were hurt and exploited—then the nation was missing the mark. The nation was, despite being religiously active, rejecting God’s ways.
The prophets had one basic message, the same message they proclaimed for hundreds of years. The basic message of the prophets was two pronged, with a positive and a negative component. The negative part was to call people of faith to a stance of disbelief, of suspicion, of critique, toward the kings and the powers-that-be in their unjust society. The world is not the way that the kings say that it is. When the kings claimed to act in God’s name with divine approval for their policies, the prophets raised questions.
The positive part of prophetic faith, on the other hand, was to call people of faith to a stance of belief, of trust, of faith in the ways of the Lord their God. Their God is the God revealed in the exodus, the God who loves them, liberating them from slavery. Their God gave them the law to order their lives in such a way that all people (including the marginal ones) are cared for and encouraged to meaningful living.
Because God is merciful, the prophets say, be suspicious of any message that minimizes mercy, any message which says that mercy is nice when things are going well, but is secondary to self-preservation, secondary to the chance to gain in wealth and prestige. Because God says, I love and care especially for slaves and outcasts, be suspicious of any message which justifies enslaving people for the economic gain of the kings.
Because God says, trust not in horses and chariots, trust not in weapons of war and professional armies, be suspicious of kings who collect horses and chariots and build standing armies. Because God says, worship me alone, be suspicious of kings who build altars to other gods and who, for political self-interest, marry women from other nations who worship other gods. Because God says, the land is mine and you are my stewards, be suspicious of kings who try to treat the land simply as real estate and who accumulate more and more for themselves, even at the cost of rendering more and more people within the community landless and without resources for the future. God’s will was that the community be a place of genuine justice and wholeness for all the people. God’s will remains in effect even when the great king demands something else.
We see this in the story of Naboth, Ahab, and Elijah from 1 Kings 21. This story serves as a kind of paradigmatic story, illuminating both the tendencies of kings to undercut the message of Torah and the witness of the prophets against justice. What we don’t learn from the stories in the Bible, is that King Ahab was one of the greatest kings in the entire history of ancient Israel – at least in terms of power, in terms of wealth, in terms of fame in the rest of the ancient Near East.
Under Ahab, though, openness to the worship of the god Baal reached new heights. The problems with Baalism are made concrete in this story. Baal was basically a rubber-stamp god who was always on the side of the king. Under Baalism, it is not a transcendent, merciful, slave-liberating God who determines the culture’s values. Rather, it is the powerful king who determines the culture’s values, the king who takes what he wants in the name of “god.”
King Ahab, powerful and “successful” as he might have been, is portrayed as clearly acting contrary to the standards for Israel’s kings expressed in Deuteronomy 17. In particular, Ahab’s marriage to the foreign bride, Jezebel, proves to lead to problems and corruption in Israel.
That such a king would arise in the northern kingdom of Israel is especially ironic because of this kingdom’s origins in acts of resistance to the despotism of the last king of the united kingdom. When Jeroboam responded to complaints about oppressive labor practices by simply heightening the exploitation, many of Israel’s tribes banded together and formed a new kingdom. As we see, though, this new kingdom quickly took on the oppressive practices that had triggered its formation.
Ahab wanted the vineyard of an Israelite named Naboth. At first, Ahab offers to buy the vineyard or to exchange it for another vineyard. However, his offer reflects his lack of respect for the inheritance practices of Israel as outline in Torah. The vineyard doesn’t simply belong to Naboth. He can’t sell it because it belongs to God and is for the use also of Naboth’s parents and his children and their children. It’s his “inheritance.” This term, “inheritance” contrasts with Ahab’s term, “vineyard.”
“Inheritance” has to do with recognition that the land is the Lord’s. The land is the Lord’s and is cultivated by the family through the generations for their livelihood. The Lord’s will is that the land stay in the family so that they will not be dispossessed, so that future generations will not be landless. When all families have their own vine and fig tree to cultivate, the community will be healthy. That health is what “inheritance” is about.
The inheritance laws played a central in Torah’s formulation of a counter-cultural community in Israel. In contrast to the people’s experience of slavery in Egypt, where they were landless and at the beck and call of the powerful few at the top of the social pyramid, Torah intends for all the people, especially the vulnerable ones (orphans, widows, resident aliens) to be full stakeholders in the community – that is, to have land that is their own responsibility and provides for their livelihood.
“Vineyard”, on the other hand, as used by King Ahab, views the land as a commodity, something simply to be bought and sold with little concern for the wholeness of the entire community. Those who are wealthy and powerful can accumulate more and more. And the other people become landless, disinherited – a recipe for poverty and vulnerability.
Naboth refuses to part with his inheritance. He tells King Ahab no. Then the Baalism kicks in. Ahab had begun by operating at least somewhat within Israel’s values system when he offers to reimburse Naboth for his vineyard. However, when his desires are thwarted, he shows his true colors. At the instigation of his wife, Jezebel, who is remembered in the Bible as the quintessential Baal worshiper, Ahab has Naboth falsely accused and convicted of blasphemy. This charge is, of course, terribly ironic. The king who departs from the revealed will of God for the ordering of the community that he is responsible to lead has the nerve to condemn the community member who reflects God’s will for Israel.
Ahab has the power of sword at his disposal, though. He oversees Naboth’s execution. Ahab then takes the land. He acts, assuming that, since he is the king, god is on his side. That is the essence of Baalism.
Now, this word, “Baalism,” might be a strange word to our ears. The word itself is not important. It belongs to the ancient world. But the dynamics, the worldview symbolized by “Baalism” are perennial.
The basic idea of philosophies such as Baalism is that what matters most is power over other people, wealth, prestige, comfort, security. These priorities can fuel false religion. We might say that God is only on the side of the wealthy and powerful, that God has inspired the construction and use of our weapons of war, that it is God’s judgment that causes poverty, illness, and homelessness.
In contrast to the picture of reality assumed by Baalism, the Lord God of the Bible does not simply act to impose a top-down will on human beings. God works for salvation by lovingly calling for people of faith to choose to follow God. We looked above at the story of Noah and the Flood. I suggested that the Flood story stands as a kind of turning point in the heart of God. With the Flood, God decides no more to seek to impose God’s will by brute force that only leads to more chaos. God decides to do the work of salvation by persevering love and mercy.
The work of the prophets reflects God’s style of making an impact on the world. The main weapon God has against Baalism simply is the word of the prophets, reminding people of God’s will and exposing the violence and injustice of Baalism for what it is. God doesn’t use the power of the sword but the power of his truth spoken to the people.
The story of Naboth’s vineyard illustrates how God’s power in relation to the prophets works. Ahab has Naboth killed and, in 1 Kings 16, goes down to the vineyard to take possession of it. The all-powerful king will have his way. But…, not so fast. Ahab meets an old acquaintance when he gets to the vineyard, the prophet Elijah. Elijah had confronted Ahab earlier. Jezebel had promised to kill Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-3), and he had fled for his life. At that point Elijah had despaired for Israel and was ready to give up. God spoke to him, though, and reinvigorated Elijah’s sense of purpose. So it is a renewed Elijah who confronts the king anew following the murder of Naboth.
Ahab remembers Elijah. “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Ahab says, you who trouble Israel (21:20). Indeed I have, says Elijah. The Lord has told me the injustice you have done to Naboth. You are the troubler of Israel. You are the one who has disregarded the Lord’s commands. You are the blasphemer. And you will suffer the consequences. When you live by injustice, when you trust in brute power – the chances are high that you will end up being overpowered yourself.
To his credit, Ahab does respond. He humbles himself. We aren’t told that he changed his ways. But we are told that because of his response, the disaster waits until after his death. The word of the prophet did have power to shake the king in his certainties.
For Elijah, as for the prophets that followed, the basic thrust of what he had to say was to remind the people about God. He reminded Ahab of God’s will for human life, God’s commands – do justice, walk humbly with your God, be merciful as God is merciful.
The prophets certainly had a negative message – be suspicious of kings and people in power. King Ahab is all too typical. Do not blindly trust their claims but test them thoroughly in light of God’s revealed will. More so, though, the prophets had a positive message. Remember who God is, remember what God has done for you, remember what God’s will for your life is.
The prophets challenged the people to see God’s work in the world as work meant to bring justice and wholeness to all people. God gave the people Israel Torah in order to guide their community toward the ways of genuine justice. And God gave the people a calling to mediate God’s justice to all the families of the earth. When the kings clearly followed other agendas, God spoke words of challenge to them through the prophets.
The prophets, radicals in their confrontation of political power, actually at their core were conservatives, pointing back to the message of Torah. They were not innovators but rather reminders and interpreters of the truths that had long before been revealed.