It is convenient to blame a foreigner, a religious outsider, a domineering woman. Who is to blame for Israel’s unfaithfulness? Who is to blame for Naboth’s death? Conveniently, we blame Jezebel.
Israel had strayed from being God’s faithful community, strayed from extending compassion toward each other. This is evident in the story of Naboth (1 Kings 21). Naboth’s vineyard is next to the lavish winter palace of Israel’s King Ahab. Ahab wants the vineyard.
Naboth reminds Ahab that his vineyard is not for sale. Land and vineyards were part of a jubilee system, which at regular intervals reverted to original families. In theory, this kept the rich from acquiring more and more wealth (Leviticus 25). Land was God’s and not to be sold permanently.
When Naboth refuses to sell, Ahab becomes resentful and sullen. Enter Jezebel.
Before we point our blame finger at Jezebel, let’s recall the circumstances of her arrival in this foreign culture. Jezebel was a Phoenician princess. To create a political alliance, Israel’s King Omri arranges for his son to wed Jezebel, daughter of Ithobaal, king of Tyre. Can we point a blame finger at Omri, who trusted in political alliances and chariots over Yahweh?
Jezebel brought along her religious loyalties to Baal and Asherah. She brought along a different view of land and kingly power. She doesn’t understand why Ahab is pouting instead of seizing the land that should be his.
Jezebel plots a solution. She uses Ahab’s seal and colludes with leaders of Naboth’s city. She calls for leaders to proclaim a religious fast, a prayer breakfast. She twists their religion to fit her agenda. The town leaders are to seat Naboth, along with two con men, at the head of the assembly.
The colluders, as ordered, present fake charges against Naboth, declaring he cursed God and the king. Naboth is stoned to death. Jezebel is informed of Naboth’s death. The king’s seal didn’t fool her allies. They knew they were colluding with evil Jezebel. Was money included in the deal? Political favors? Safety from prosecution?
Questions linger. Why did Naboth’s neighbors do the bidding of a foreign woman? Why did they stone a man who had stood up against the oppressive cravings of the king? Did they have dreams of becoming rich and found the jubilee system restrictive? Did they look at Tyre and think its domineering ruling system was superior, that its foreign fertility gods were greater? Was there anyone at the prayer breakfast who considered speaking up for Naboth?
It is easy to think that if we had been there, we wouldn’t have falsely testified against Naboth. We wouldn’t have thrown stones at our neighbor. But would we have quietly watched?
Being a quiet bystander is easy. Our king’s religion tells us tear-gassing migrants is justified. Our king’s religion tells us that Muslims are terrorists. We construct excuses. Overlooking false accusations is easy. We quietly accept reports of black youth being characterized as threatening and then shot. Gaining wealth and vineyards can slip ahead of faith. Trusting political alliances can take priority over trusting in Yahweh.
We too can lose sight of Yahweh’s vision. We too blame the Jezebels, the liberals, the conservatives, evil foreign powers, unwanted migrants, snarky women, the religiously defective. We overlook our quiet role.
What if we stopped blaming others and started speaking God’s counter message of love? Jezebel wasn’t an innocent bystander, but neither are we.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.