The Oldest Land Grab?

Growing Cucumbers

land grab poster

land grab poster

King Ahab lived in Samaria in a royal palace.

King Ahab liked growing things.

The palace gardens were full of fruits
and vegetables. There were beans and
apples and grapes and dates and figs
and melons and leeks and olives and
lentils and pomegranates and onions
and pistachio nuts. The problem was
that the garden was so full of fruits
and vegetables that there was no
room to plant anything else, and King
Ahab fancied having a go at growing
cucumbers. What could he do? There
was nothing for it. He needed a bigger
garden.
Next door to the palace lived a man
called Naboth. Naboth liked growing
grapes and making wine and Naboth
had a big vineyard. Ahab asked Naboth
if he would sell him his vineyard. Naboth,
whose family had owned the vineyard for
years, said no.
King Ahab went home. He was cross and
then he was sad and then he curled up on
his bed and cried.
That night Queen Jezebel, Ahab’s wife,
waited for Ahab to come down to dinner
and he didn’t come. Jezebel was hungry so
she ate her dinner and then went to find
Ahab.
She found him in his bedroom and asked
him what was going on. Ahab told her all
about wanting a new vegetable garden in
which to plant his cucumbers and about
Naboth telling him he would not sell his
land.
Jezebel was not impressed. “You’re a king,”
she told Ahab, “You can have whatever
you want. Now stop crying and go and eat
your dinner and leave Naboth to me.”
The next day Jezebel found some men
who she paid to tell lies about Naboth.
Then she forged Ahab’s signature on some
royal documents and had Naboth killed
and his lands given to the king.
That night Jezebel told Ahab what she’d
done.
Ahab was shocked. He knew what
Jezebel had done was wrong. But he had
got his new garden and that was what
he really wanted. Did it matter how he’d
got it?
The next morning Ahab went next door
into Naboth’s vineyard. He walked along
the paths between the grapevines and
began to plan where he was going to
plant his cucumbers. He turned a corner
and he met Elijah the prophet.
Elijah was not interested in cucumbers.
He was there to tell Elijah that God said
that hurting people to get what you
want was wrong.
And King Ahab knew that Elijah was
right.

(from Spill the Beans Issue 8)

Who said that the Old Testament is irrelevant today? Well, actually, many people – sometimes myself included. For, with its complex stories of strange customs, religious laws and palace intrigues, it seems at best ‘dated’ – a bit in the mould of Austin, Dickens or Trollope.

Yet the Bible portion above ise bang up to date. For, there is no greater generic global problem than with disputed land ownership. We see it big-style in Zimbabwe and Burma, we cannot forget Israel-Palestine and it is even here in minor ways in Bonnie Scotland.

Yet, the Holy land is a good place to start. Since there is huge irony in this story of the illegal taking of land, as Elijah’s ancestors did exactly that to the original Canaanite population! And whilst I do not think, claiming divinely ordained ownership is at all helpful in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East, we do at least see certain issues of justice being played out in these readings – played out in a way that speaks volumes for our own times.

Because certainly Naboth owned his land – ground that he indeed considered to have been given him by God himself. And although King Ahab’s initial offer was fair even generous, it was well within the vineyard’s owners rights to refuse. It is the next episode that is the problem. For, Ahab reigns over his people through the divine covenant – the rule of law if you like. In modern parlance then, there is a legal framework in place to prevent arbitrary acts of injustice. However, now enters Jezebel who by being foreign was always likely to be cast as a nasty piece of work. She comes from a race where despotic rulers are the norm. And so she would dearly like to do as she likes without legal restraint. She can’t – so she uses the law to her own ends. She stirs up some impression of a national crisis thus the need for a day of fasting. Then she trumps up charges against the unfortunately Naboth which carries the death penalty under the law of Moses. As a result, he is executed and she gets the vineyard. Game, set and match we might say.

Proof then that using, bending or abusing the law to unjustly gain land is a wheeze that is as old as the hills.

But our bibles make also clear that such acts of chicanery are seen by God. Moreover, they are judged by God’s own sense of innate justice. For Elijah pronounces that it is not only land that is gifted by the divine but so is power and wealth, inheritance and even life itself. In fact, he makes all too clear that we forget this to our peril.

Not unpredictably then – in due course Ahab comes literally to a stick end at the battle of Ramoth Gilead. Afterwards his chariot was turned into his hearse with dogs licking up the spare blood! Elijah’s milk curdling foresight indeed had gruesomely come to pass.

Nevertheless, we do say quietly to ourselves I couldn’t possibly stand in Brook Street blaring our fiery damnation! A stiff letter to the Courier in ‘Elijah speak’ would raise too many eyebrows. Worse still, what happens when I denounce the powerful thieves of this world and they remain unscathed!

But with thought, we realise that Elijah’s prophecy is less crystal ball gazing than telling how it tends to be. Bad people don’t always have their come up pence but they often do. And their seeds of their destruction are usually in through their own hands. Their arrogance goes a step beyond the law. Their overturning of the law leaves them as vulnerable as their victims. The sword they live and profit by finds an even more lawless wielder. Or, as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s ‘Man for all seasons’ counsels an ardent supporter keen to overthrow the law this time for a good purpose:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

Put more directly, we just need to keep any eye out from injustice and then say – in the Lord’s name I warn you – I warn you that he who lights the fire must surely burn.

And this takes us strangely to the Amazonian rain forest. For the Kayapo tribe are an indigent people living in the depths of the jungle. However, their homeland is about to be flooded for a hydro electric dam. They fought the land grab by their government through the courts and in the public media. They cited the law that native peoples cannot be moved. But their rulers have stated that this is trumped by national security and so an area three times as bio-diverse as Europe is to be lost. Also over 40, 000 humans lose their homes and their unique way of life.

Elijah I suspect would have something to say about the misuse of the law. He would have spoken out for God’s justice not least for those unable to resist the powerful and greedy. Yet he probably would not have given the warnings we can. For knowing civilisation’s way of progress, we need to proclaim that any government’s survival is directly proportional to how it treats all its peoples. With history’s witness, we can point out that prosperity based on unjust if technically lawful actions is no lasting wealth at all. And right up to date, we could ask, backed by science, with the loss of so many rare species of plants, how many cures for diseases that you might one day need are you destroying?

A man asked this week in a newspaper – should he leave his well paid but morally bankrupt job behind? Elijah has for him an answer. And so to rulers, who are similarly tempted to be devoid of humanity, honesty and integrity have Elijah’s answer. And it is be warned by Naboth vineyard. It is to fear God’s judgement and always to think of a just harvest.  Indeed it is to plot less for the dregs of greed and cultivate more the finest vintage of a more lawful kingdom.

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