Ahab/ king or cranky toddler?
Phenomenal cosmic power; itty bitty living space! This may not ring a bell for all of you, but it is one of the greatest lines from Disney’s Aladdin. It is part of Genie’s explanation of the highs and lows of the gig of being a genie. He also lists certain provisos and quid pro quos to the wishes he can grant. He can’t kill anybody, he can’t bring anyone back from the dead, and he can’t make anyone fall in love with someone else. Not only that, the only way for him to gain his freedom is for a person to use one of his 3 wishes to free him.
In the discussion from Starters for Sunday Fourth Sunday after Pentecost from the Church of Scotland, there are five themes identified for this week. From Power, Justice, forgiveness, restoration and grace they draw the discussion to the key theme, woven through the story of Naboth’s vineyard, of the sovereignty of God.
Today we read about King Ahab again. This time, though, he was being more of a petulant toddler than a king. The first people to read this scripture were probably the Israelites who were in exile and it is likely that it was written to explain to them why God had allowed their exile.
Ahab and his wife Jezebel had gone to stay in their secondary palace. Apparently, he liked gardening but when he saw the vineyard of Naboth next door he wanted to buy it from him. Naboth refused to sell the land of his ancestors. Not only was this his “family farm” but the vineyard had been granted to his ancestors when the Israelites arrived in the promised land, and when God granted that land he made it clear that the land was for their use in perpetuity, but that it didn’t belong to them. They were told that it was never to be sold permanently. Naboth was being faithful to the will of God when he refused the Ahab. He was, unlike Ahab much of the time, being obedient to the real sovereign of Israel, God.
When Ahab could not convince Naboth to sell him the land, nor trade it for even better land he was disconsolate. Most kings would not have even offered a purchase or trade, brutality was the norm for kings of the day. I don’t say that to justify Ahab in any way, but rather to highlight the difference with kings of Israel and Judah who did not rise to power through their own actions or by birth but through God’s anointing. There were a few provisos and quid pro quos. The king must not consider himself better…than any other Israelite and he must not use his position to accumulate wealth for himself (Deut 17:14-20). God made it clear that they were to live in accordance with his commandments, remain faithful to him, and imitate his heavenly rule.
When he returned from the vineyard, Ahab moped, pouted, and refused to eat. Not only was he not getting his way, but as a king he had expected to be obeyed without delay and this made him feel powerless. When she noticed him moping around the palace more like a toddler than a king, Jezebel couldn’t take it. She asked what the problem was, told him to stop being such a baby and eat, and then set about to get him the vineyard.
Unbothered by loyalty to God (she worshiped Baal) niceties or ethics, she arranged to have Naboth killed. Not only did she do such a vile thing, but so did all the people and advisors who went along with her plan. Naboth died at the hands of the townspeople for trumped up charges of cursing God and king. When he was dead the elders and nobles got word back to Jezebel that Naboth was dead and she, in turn, informed her husband and told him to go take possession of the vineyard. Problem solved!
Ahab was Israel’s king. When God agreed to have a king anointed for Israel he warned them that life under a human king would not be a bed of roses. He knew, as do we through experience that powerful people and powerful institutions may start out working for the greater good, but too many turn to using their power for personal gain of one kind or another. Some want more and more power, today New Brunswick, tomorrow the world! Some use their power to belittle and diminish others like bullies on the school ground or in the workplace.
After Ahab took possession of the vineyard, God sent Elijah to him to pronounce his judgement for this crime. He told Ahab and Jezebel that they would die horrible deaths. “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (v 19). Our reading stopped at that point, but the story continues. Ahab actually repents and lives a more godly life for a while, but in the end he and Jezebel are killed and their bodies are dumped in the vineyard they had stolen where they would be torn apart by wild animals.
King Canute was once ruler of England. The members of his court were continually full of flattery. “You are the greatest man that ever lived…You are the most powerful king of all…Your highness, there is nothing you cannot do, nothing in this world dares disobey you.”
The king was a wise man and he grew tired such foolish speeches. One day as he was walking by the seashore Canute decided to teach them a lesson.
“So you say I am the greatest man in the world?” he asked them.
“O king,” they cried, “there never has been anyone as mighty as you, and there never be anyone so great, ever again!”
“And you say all things obey me?” Canute asked.
“Yes sire” they said. “The world bows before you, and gives you honour.”
“I see,” the king answered. “In that case, bring me my chair, and place it down by the water.”
The servants scrambled to carry Canute’s royal chair over the sands. At his direction they placed it right at the water’s edge.
The King sat down and looked out at the ocean. “I notice the tide is coming in. Do you think it will stop if I give the command?”
“Give the order, O great king, and it will obey,” cried his entourage
“Sea,” cried Canute, “I command you to come no further! Do not dare touch my feet!”
He waited a moment, and a wave rushed up the sand and lapped at his feet.
“How dare you!” Canute shouted. “Ocean, turn back now! I have ordered you to retreat before me, and now you must obey! Go back!”
In came another wave lapping at the king’s feet. Canute remained on his throne throughout the day, screaming at the waves to stop. Yet in they came anyway, until the seat of the throne was covered with water.
Finally Canute turned to his entourage and said, “It seems I do not have quite so much power as you would have me believe. Perhaps now you will remember there is only one King who is all-powerful, and it is he who rules the sea, and holds the ocean in the hollow of his hand. I suggest you reserve your praises for him.”
Even some of greatest of Israel’s kings were, as are the rest of us, flawed. Regardless of who has earthly power over us, God is our sovereign, our true king to whom we owe our loyalty and obedience. Whether we find ourselves in positions of power or not, we are called to live out our lives in justice and love. This leaves us with two big questions. The notes on Church of Scotland starters for Sunday states them this way; “what does justice mean when we try to live it out relationally?” and, “what does it mean to live both justice and love in our lives?” As Presbyterians in Canada we have answer to that in our statement of faith, Living Faith section 8.4.
God is always calling the church to seek that justice in the world which reflects the divine righteousness revealed in the Bible.
God’s justice is seen when we deal fairly with each other and strive to change customs and practices that oppress and enslave others.
Justice involves protecting the rights of others. It protests against everything that destroys human dignity.
Justice requires concern for the poor of the world. It seeks the best way to create well-being in every society. It is concerned about employment, education, and health, as well as rights and responsibilities.
Justice seeks fairness in society. It involves the protection of human beings, concern for the victims of crime, as well as offenders. It requires fair laws justly administered, courts and penal institutions that are just and humane.
Justice opposes prejudice in every form. It rejects discrimination on such grounds as race, sex, age, status, or handicap. Justice stands with our neighbours in their struggle for dignity and respect and demands the exercise of power for the common good.
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