Prophetic Words from Jezreel

Introduction: One and the Same Man

The Old Testament passages appointed by the lectionary in May and June of this year tell the story of Elijah. Since they’re just selections, they don’t tell the whole story, of course, and this morning is a good example of what’s left out. To make sense of what I’m talking about, I’ll have to give a little preview of next week, because next week’s sermon is going to be what’s probably our favorite story about Elijah. It’s the one about what we call the “still small voice.” Elijah is in a position to hear that voice because he’s afraid for his life, and has fled from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel to the seclusion of a cave. If you just hear the stories read in church, you’d think he was fleeing because of this story about Naboth the Jezreelite, a victim of the royal couple. At the end of this lectionary passage, we hear Elijah threatening the king with some pretty vivid language. Surely the king’s anger is what has Elijah running away.

But in reality, today’s story is out of order. Way out of order. The passage about Naboth doesn’t happen until three chapters after where we’re supposed to be in Elijah’s story. Naboth comes after the still small voice.

If we really wanted to hear why Elijah fled to the cave we’re going to hear about next Sunday, we’d need to read about Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal—the servants of a god who was not God, and whom—according to the First Book of Kings—Elijah personally put to death. If you don’t want to hear that story, then I think you can understand why the lectionary committee has led us to believe that it was Elijah’s reaction to the death of Naboth that led to his flight to the cave, and not the blood shed by his own hands. For wouldn’t we prefer a prophet of God who got angry about the death of an innocent man to the prophet who himself killed 450 men, even if we believe those men to have been guilty of breaking the first commandment. The problem is, in the case of the Elijah, these two different prophets are one and the same man.

I. No Tolerance for Intolerance

This dual identity is the case with many of the world’s religions—maybe even most of them. The age in which their adherents live help dictate which side of the religion we’re allowed to see. We can look at the Elijah of next week’s sermon—an Elijah that happens to fit better with the prophet who was angered by the judicial murder of Naboth—and we can use it to advance our own religion as a religion of peace and justice. By contorting the lectionary to avoid reading about Elijah’s killing of 450 priests of another religion, we can pretend that intolerance is not part of our own history. And in so doing, we can be much more judgmental toward contemporary believers (both Christian and otherwise) who are themselves intolerant.

“Christianity is a religion of peace,” we say. But if that’s true, it’s because we are making it true. Christ was a man of peace who said that he came to bring not peace, but a sword. But it must’ve been a metaphorical one, because he refused the way of violence, even in his own defense. Once his followers came into power, however, we did not choose a metaphorical sword, but a real one. We conquered in the Name of the Christ of peace, and forced others to choose death, persecution, or baptism. Who knows? Maybe my own ancestors became Christians in this way.

I know many people—most of them Christians—who say that Islam is a religion of violence. I know many others—many of them Muslims—who say Islam is a religion of peace. Their scriptures contain evidence of both claims, just as ours do. We have chosen a story of justice to bring us to next week’s still small voice. And we rejected the story of intolerance that was the Bible’s way of getting us there. This, I think, is probably a good choice, but we should at least be aware that we made it before we decide that people who belong to other faiths don’t have the same possibilities open to them, and are even now making the same choices that we are making.

II. In His Shoes

Let’s be encouraged by this. We haven’t rejected our own Bible. But we have chosen one of the paths it offers over another. And in hoping (and praying) that people of other faiths might do the same, we’re not insulting their integrity, nor are we questioning our own religion. I’m not even going to say that Elijah was wrong to be intolerant. But if he was right, that was a path that he chose back then that I do not believe is open to God’s people today. But we’re wrong to pretend that it’s not part of our story. We shouldn’t feel too comfortable in our judgment seats.

When we think about the killing of the priests of Baal, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the number. 450 is a lot of people. Too many to know their names or anything about them, except that they weren’t on “our side.” When Ukrainians were dying by the millions during a famine caused by Soviet agricultural policy, Joseph Stalin was quoted as saying, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

The 450 have been recorded in the Bible as a mere statistic. Naboth is our tragedy. His name we know, and it’s his story that we tell. What happened to him is what we would today call a judicial murder—a death sentence carried out after a person is found guilty of an invented crime.

Naboth’s story is something we can all understand, maybe even relate to. A king wants something a commoner possesses. The commoner says No. But it’s a business transaction between unequal partners. One partner assumes that honesty and decency and the goodness of the law will protect him. The other partner is able to manipulate the law in very dishonest ways to get what he wants. And he doesn’t even have to do it himself, but has other people act on his behalf. I think we all feel like Naboths at times when we’re up against large corporations or even the government. The 450 priests of Baal are just another number. Naboth is somebody we know. We could be in his shoes.

III. Jesus Is the Answer

By the way, do you know what Naboth’s name means? If you ever took a Hebrew class, you’ll probably immediately recognize the last three letters of his name (-oth) as being a plural ending. The first three letters are also kind of easy, since the main reason to study ancient Hebrew is to read more than half of the Bible in its original language; and one whole section of the Old Testament is written by this or that prophet, or nabi. And so Naboth is a name that means prophecies, or prophetic words.

It sounds like a rather odd name, but it makes me wonder, if Naboth’s name means prophetic words even though Naboth wasn’t a prophet, what might the words of his life say, or of whom do they speak?

As I think we all know by now, Jesus is the answer.

We relate to Naboth because we can imagine ourselves in his shoes—an innocent victim of eminent domain gone horribly wrong, or the target of a billionaire who has everything a human being could possibly want, but still has a need to trick us out of our meager life savings. And so, in a very real sense, Jesus of Nazareth really was in his shoes. Arrested on a trumped-up charge and put to death by a government that knew full well he was innocent of any crime, he is the ultimate fulfillment of the words of prophecy that Naboth spoke when he tried to look after his heritage, only to have it taken from him in the most violent way possible.

In the cases of both Naboth and Jesus, the powers that be were envious of them: Naboth had a vineyard and Jesus had the respect of the people. In more than one place in the scriptures, the people of Israel are spoken of as a vineyard. And so, in this way, too, the story of Naboth helps us look ahead to Jesus, who promised to keep God’s people safe and deliver them ultimately to God.

Conclusion: In Christian Terms

And so Naboth the Jezreelite helps us put our faith in perspective. First of all, in choosing Naboth’s death over the deaths of the 450 priests as a way to tell the story of Elijah’s life, we need to be aware that we’ve papered over an aspect of our faith that we’d rather not acknowledge: namely, that some of the most meaningful moments in our heritage have come about as a result of violence—the kind of violence we do not actually condone. If we’re unaware that we make this choice, then we aren’t always aware of of our hypocrisy when we judge others for being intolerant. Our religion, too, has been maintained by intolerance.

And in Naboth the Jezreelite, we see Jesus of Nazareth: a man who was unjustly put to death for having done too good a job at maintaining his heritage. If we were to tell the story of Naboth as the kind of parable that Jesus might have told, we see a man who had a vineyard that was given to him by his father. When the prince of this world told him that he would give him money if the man would hand over ownership of his vineyard to him, the vineyard owner refused: His responsibility to both his father and the vineyard were more important to him than money. And so the covetous prince paid others to bear false witness and call the man a traitor. After he was put to death, the prince could move in and take what he wanted.

Thus, the words used to tell the story of Naboth become prophetic words that point us to Jesus Christ. By ending the story told in 1 Kings 21 where the lectionary does, and by then going backwards in time and using 1 Kings 19 as next week’s reading from the Hebrew scriptures, we are led to believe that Ahab got angry with Elijah for judging him so harshly, and that that’s why Elijah ended up in the cave. But, in fact, Naboth’s death led to Ahab’s life. According to Elijah, he should have died. And he would have. But he repented. He fasted. He decked himself in sackcloth and ashes. And he lived, thanks to what happened to Naboth. And because the king was spared, so was the entire nation… at least for one generation.

This, too, helps us look ahead to Jesus, who also died—not that one person might live, but that all might live who believed in him. He died not to spare one nation from calamity for a few years only, but that all creation might be renewed for eternity.

This is Christian theology: The Son of God was given ownership of God’s vineyard. When the powers of the world did their utmost to drive him out of the vineyard and take possession of it themselves, all to no avail, they killed the Son. And yet that wasn’t the end of the story. For the vineyard wasn’t a simple plot of land, it was the people of God. And the death that Jesus of Nazareth died was not the end of God’s guardianship of God’s people, but the beginning of an eternal relationship.

In Naboth, the king was shown what he had done (or at least what had been done on his behalf), and he repented and lived. In Jesus Christ, we look at the cross and see what we did (and what was done on our behalf), and we are called to repentance—to think more deeply about the outcome of our actions, the extent to which God has gone to free us from that outcome, and in our sorrow to find life beyond life.

—©2016 Sam L. Greening, Jr.