Melakhim Alef Chapter 21
Navot of Jezreel owns a vineyard that is located adjacent to Ahav’s palace. Ahav attempts to persuade Navot to give him the vineyard in exchange for a superior one; alternatively, he offers to pay him a handsome sum of money for it. Navot refuses on religious and traditional grounds, wishing to preserve the ancestral heritage of his family.
Ahav returns home depressed and forlorn, lying in bed and refusing to eat. When Izevel asks him what is troubling him, Ahav explains that he desires the vineyard of Navot but that Navot rejected his offer to purchase it. Izevel encourages Ahav to hold his head high and promises that she will make sure that he receives the vineyard.
In collaboration with the elders of Jezreel, Izevel orchestrates a plot to have Navot killed. Corresponding with them in the name of Ahav, she orders the elders to declare a fast day and to have two unscrupulous men stand up before the entire congregation and accuse Navot of cursing Hashem and the king. The plan is implemented and Navot is carried out of the city and stoned to death.
As soon as Izevel receives word that Navot has been executed, she informs Ahav that Navot is dead and urges him to arise and take possession of the vineyard for which he had been pining. Ahav arrives at the vineyard and is met there by Eliyahu, whom Hashem has sent to confront the king with the famous phrase “have you murdered and also inherited?”
Ahav is at first rudely dismissive of the rebuke delivered by Eliyahu, which includes a prediction that the king will die and dogs will lap up his blood. Eliyahu then pronounces a condemnation of the entire house of Ahav which, like the royal lines of Yarovam and Baasha, will utterly perish, leaving no survivors.
Ahav is genuinely moved and responds by tearing his garments, wrapping himself in sackcloth and fasting. Hashem informs Eliyahu that in the merit of Ahav’s humbling himself before God, the destruction of his household will be postponed until the next generation and will not occur during his lifetime.
The impression of Ahav that we gather from this story is quite complex. On one hand, Ahav himself seeks to obtain the vineyard of Navot through legal and amicable methods. Although he is devastated by the rejection of his offer of purchase, he accepts the rejection as final and respects it. The language used to describe Ahav’s reaction to the bad news is the same language used in the previous chapter to describe his acceptance of the prophetic message delivered in the wake of his release of Ben-Haddad; in other words, he acknowledged the right of Navot to tell him “no”.
(Interestingly, even Izevel seems to feel beholden to the rule of law, arranging for Navot to be executed “legally” rather than simply murdered; apparently, outward gestures of fealty to the law were expected of royalty in Israel.)
Ahav does not attempt to acquire the vineyard by force, nor does he conspire with Izevel in her plot against its owner. The text indicates that he had no knowledge of the process by which Izevel managed to arrange Navot’s demise.
At the same time, Ahav seems to have blinders on and to remain intentionally oblivious to the actions of his nefarious wife. Even if he could not have imagined the immoral lengths to which Izevel would go to secure ownership of the field for her husband, he seems a bit too blissfully ignorant of the plot unfolding around him. He never asks how Izevel could possibly promise him the vineyard, nor does inquire how Navot died or whether Izevel had a hand in his death. Certainly he must have realized that something not-so-kosher had transpired, yet he chose to stifle whatever lingering concerns may have tugged at his heart and to proceed with his acquisition of the vineyard. Ahav’s deliberate removal of himself from the situation enabled Izevel to commit treachery in his name and to take an innocent life.
I have not seen any commentaries remark upon the similarities between Eliyahu’s confrontation of Ahav here and Natan the Prophet’s confrontation of David after the sin of Batsheva; however, upon reflection, they seem clear. In both cases, a man was killed by presumably “legal” means in order to secure an “inheritance” desired by the king. In both cases, a leader who generally attempts to comport himself in accordance with the law and to serve his subjects loyally compromises his principles for personal gain. And in both cases, the consequences decreed upon the transgressor are severe.
Fascinatingly, this may be why the Midrash comments on a certain connection between King David and King Ahav – both were great leaders who were sincerely devoted to their citizens and who strove to make decisions and enact policies that were in the best interests of their people. Of course, the schemes of Ahav were based upon flawed ideas and distorted values, but his heart was genuinely set on the good of his kingdom even when his methods were misguided. In the words of the Rabbis, Ahav was an “Ohev Yisrael”, he loved Judaism and the Jewish people, and he cared deeply about the land of Israel and the future of the nation of Israel.
Nonetheless, Ahav sinned in the matter of Navot, putting his personal, petty concerns ahead of the sanctity of life and the principles of justice. Ahav stuck his head in the sand during the entire episode so that he could position himself to get what he wanted without having to carry a burden of guilt. But in recusing himself from the situation – just like David’s command to Yoav to send Uriah to the front lines and pull back a bit, allowing Uriah to be killed – Ahav seals the fate of Navot, ensuring that his death is all but inevitable. As HaRambam tells us, it was this act of bloodshed caused by Ahav that sealed his own fate – it was the sin that eclipsed all of his previous transgressions and brought the Divine wrath upon him once and for all.
Ahav’s bitter response to Eliyahu’s initial appearance gives way to contrite repentance. What happened here? Apparently, Ahav was unwilling to acknowledge his culpability for the death of Navot, and wished to assert his right to his newly acquired vineyard. When Eliyahu accused him of murder, he denied or brushed aside the charge. However, when Eliyahu places this act of evil in the context of Ahav’s whole history of deviation from the Torah, abandonment of Hashem and endorsement of idolatry, and then predicts the disintegration of the House of Ahav altogether, this is more than Ahav can handle.
The thought that his entire career was a waste, that all he had worked for and built up would go up in smoke, was devastating for Ahav. He thought of himself as a servant of the people who had restored political stability and economic growth to Israel. He had dedicated himself to the welfare of his citizens to the extent that he understood how. Being informed that his glorious dynasty was destined to become obsolete was not just a criticism of a particular sin or instance of immoral behavior – it meant that his whole existence and his life’s work had been for naught.
This instilled humility in Ahav and inspired him to fast and repent before the Almighty, at least temporarily. And because it was the total destruction of his royal line that was most fearsome to him, Hashem decided to spare Ahav the pain of having to witness it during his lifetime.
Placing this story in the chronology of Ahav’s life and career is difficult. Assuming that the text follows a linear progression would entail that this episode occurred toward the end of Ahav’s life. However, this is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, what is Eliyahu doing in the story, and why would Hashem have sent him rather than another available prophet? Eliyahu, after all, has already retired from public life and begun training his disciple, Elisha, to assume his prophetic role. Plus, in the kingdom of Israel, Eliyahu has been declared by Izevel a “wanted man”.
Second, in the previous chapter, Ahav seemed to have been on a positive trajectory from a religious standpoint, liberated from the influences of Izevel; here, in our chapter, she is once again at the forefront of his political and personal life.
Of course, we can still accept the timeline of the text and simply explain that Eliyahu returned to the scene for some reason or other, and that Ahav had a setback or two in the meantime. However, it is also possible to suggest that this narrative took place earlier in the reign of Ahav, perhaps even prior to the drought declared by Eliyahu. It may have been included here for one of two, or both of the following reasons.
One is in order to juxtapose the prophecy of Ahav’s downfall with the fulfillment of that prophecy in the following chapter. The other is to juxtapose Ahav’s failure as a king in his handling of the situation with Navot with the description in the previous chapter of his mishandling of the situation with Ben-Haddad. In that story, Ahav begins at a relatively high point, seeking Hashem’s wisdom and attempting to follow his will, and only falters at the end when selfish concerns interfere with his better judgment. Here too, Ahav starts out a fair, just and principled king who is unwilling to encroach upon the legitimate rights of Navot, but he winds up succumbing to his greed and allowing Izevel to commit terrible crimes in his name for the sake of satisfying his avarice.