Monday, May 20, 2013

James 3&4 - Two Tales of Kings, War & Peace, Greed & Righteousness (part 2 of 3)

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The second tale: Ahab and Naboth’s Vineyard

As earthy and flawed and even corrupt as David may have been as king, he is the closest any of the Bible’s kings come to being truly just. In this fact we are reminded that such a government never was God’s best, but was only allowed by God because the people themselves demanded it. Even when the prophet told the people on God’s behalf that a king would be corrupt and violent and oppressive, they still demanded it to satisfy their need to be like the powerful nations around them (1 Samuel 8). But during David’s reign the children of Abraham were given a promise of a better king to come. This new and better king, their Messiah, would be entirely just, serving the people and setting them free. The story of David and Araunah the Jebusite is one of many in scripture that show a type and shadow of the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah to come. Though David the king is incredibly flawed, of all the kings he is held up as the best ideal of a human king, foreshadowing his descendant, Jesus, the King of kings.

The Corruption of the Kings: From David to Ahab

David’s story is mostly told in the second book of Samuel in the Bible. But if David is as good a king as it gets in the story of scripture, we can imagine that things only get worse after him. This is exactly so. The Book of First Kings (right after Second Samuel) begins with the death of King David. After describing more than six generations, civil war, and a division of Israel into two nations, it ends with the death of King Ahab. The book vividly compares the corruption of the governments of the world with the justice of the Kingdom of God. The governments of the world apart from God are always corrupted. God is worthy to be the King of kings. But God’s rule has been rejected by the kings of this world. In First Kings, God is the true king of Israel. But God’s just authority is not reflected in the government.

In 1 Chronicles, David’s purchase of Araunah’s threshing floor (1 Chronicles 21) is followed immediately by preparations for the building of Israel’s first temple on that very land (1 Chronicles 22). David’s son, Solomon, becomes king after David, rules in a time of peace and prosperity and builds the temple on Mount Moriah, on the hill in the land of the Jebusites. After this high point in the history of the kings, everything goes downhill. Solomon’s success and wealth leads to pride and power, and from there a violent and corrupt dictatorship (1 Kings 12:4). Israel is turned into an empire like Egypt, the empire from which they were rescued. The people are treated as slaves, as they had been before they were an empire, while under the burden of Egypt. All of this is just as God had warned the people when they first demanded a king in 1 Samuel 8.

After Solomon, it goes from bad to worse. The nation splits in two, with David’s line ruling Judah in the south, and a new line of kings ruling Israel in the north. They are both a line of violent dictators. Some make reforms that temporarily appear to heal the nation, but they are always patchwork attempts and temporary. By the time of Ahab, Israel is entirely apostate, nothing at all like they were before the time of the kings, living under a feudalistic system, controlled by a king married to Jezebel, representing an unholy alliance with the worshippers of the Ba’als.

For Each Greedy and Violent King, 
a Righteous and Peaceful Prophet

Though God’s just rule has been abandoned by the government and the mainstream culture in the nation, it is still kept alive and communicated through the prophets. Each story of a corrupted king has a parallel of a righteous prophet, strange men often living on the margins of society, counter-cultural to whatever degree the government and the culture following it has abandoned justice and righteousness. These lights in the darkness speak Truth to power, boldly revealing the wickedness of the government to itself and to the people, calling the government and the nation to repent, to turn around, to go back to being the just people they once were. In the time of Ahab, this prophet is Elijah (1 Kings 17-21).

Elijah vs. Ahab

Like a single loud activist ever-present at a corrupt premiere’s every press conference, so was Elijah an offense to the selfish and greedy King Ahab. The two men had several confrontations in 1 Kings, often with Elijah presenting some piece of performance art or witty message that would expose Ahab for a fool (activists take note). The most well-known of these confrontations is probably when Elijah predicts a drought (1 Kings 17:1), punishment by God wrought upon the king for “doing more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” (1 Kings 16:32, ESV). After nearly three years of drought, Elijah confronts Ahab again. Irritated, Ahab calls Elijah “the troubler of Israel”, for which Elijah exchanges the zinger “I have not troubled Israel, but you have … because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Ba’als.” (1 Kings 18: 17-18, ESV – activists take note again: good mirror-messaging*). After this witty exchange is the oft-told account of Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. They each make an offering on an altar, and ask their god to burn it up. Elijah’s burns. The prophets are killed (1 Kings 18:20-40).

Ahab, the King of Israel and Naboth

Ahab’s rule in Israel is a lifetime of selfish, violent corruption, addiction to power, greed, and occasionally embarrassing self-pity. Along the way, God’s prophet Elijah is there to reveal to the king his own injustice, and to call him to repent and turn the nation back to righteousness. Nowhere is Ahab’s cruelty and selfishness more clearly seen than in his treatment of his subject, Naboth of Jezreel (1 Kings 21). Ahab kept his capital in Samaria (today’s Palestinian territory), but also maintained a palace in the land of Jezreel (33 kilometres to the north**). Ahab notices a vineyard near his palace, and approaches Naboth to buy it from him. Naboth tells Ahab that he cannot sell the land by conviction. It is his family’s traditional land, and he believes that to sell it would be wrong. We do not fault Ahab for offering to buy the land, but when Naboth refuses to sell it, Ahab’s privilege as king is offended.

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, finds her sulking husband lying curled up in bed with his face to the wall, refusing to eat. After he whines his story of rejection to her (leaving out the part about Naboth’s conviction not to sell because it was traditional family land), Jezebel promises to get the land for him. Her appeal for justification is that Ahab is king of Israel. In Jezebel and Ahab’s world, a king may do whatever he pleases.

Jezebel did exactly as she promised. With Ahab’s blessing, she sets up a mock trial in which Naboth is accused of treason and stoned to death. Once he is dead, Jezebel returns to Ahab with the news, and Ahab takes over Naboth’s vineyard for himself. Right away, Elijah arrives with God’s accusation of the king. Elijah calls Ahab twice condemned for his actions, for murder and for theft. He pronounces God’s judgment on Ahab and Jezebel both for their sin, predicting that they will both die dishonourably, and that in their deaths Naboth would be vindicated.

Two Kings, Two Pieces of Land

Ahab’s story is a near mirror image of David’s. While David could have easily justified taking possession of a threshing floor by the power of his position, he does not. Ahab has no justification whatsoever for claiming the vineyard as his, yet he takes it. David possesses the threshing floor to build an altar of sacrifice to God. At best, Ahab’s only intention for Naboth’s vineyard is to increase the beauty of his home. At worst, the text suggests that his intention to plant a “garden of herbs (literal)” may have been for the purpose of Ba’al worship (which uses garden herbs). While David finds himself commanded to possess the land while lying prostrate, repentant and humble before God, Ahab responds to Naboth’s rejection by curling up on his bed and sulking selfishly. David responds to Araunah’s generous offer of free land by nobly insisting to pay him well for it. Ahab responds to Naboth’s rejection of an offer to sell the land by manipulating his wife to murder.

From these two parallel stories are revealed much about the nature of greed, of injustice, violence and war, of humility, of peace, and of just and righteous community.

Of all these things, James tells us this:

James 3:16-4:6
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Because any one of us can be an Ahab, kings in our own little world.

Or, submitted to the justice and righteousness of God, we can live for the glory of God alone, our lives a sacrifice for the eternal kingdom.


*(On Mirror Messaging)
A good technique for activists to use when engaging the media. When faced with an accusation, or accusatory leading question (usually a yes or no question), follow the ABCs:

Acknowledge the question
Bridge through a common term/notion if possible
Communicate your message

Q: Isn't it criminal to be occupying private property?
A: Well, I don’t know about that, but what I do know is that it is criminal for the 1% to continue to benefit from a system that oppresses the 99% of us.

** (On Jezreel)
Joshua 15:56 – Jezreel is part of a long list of lands in the inheritance of the tribe of Judah from the hill country.
Judges 6:33  - One example of many times that Jezreel is mentioned as a strategic place of war.
1 Samuel 25:43 – King David married a woman from Jezreel.
1 Kings 18:45-46 – Elijah runs past Ahab to escape the rain until they reach Jezreel, possibly indicating that Ahab already lived there by this point.

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