Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote:
“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard. 1 Kings 21:7-10, 15-16
While many consider the stories of the Old Testament, often framed by punishment and retribution, to be an example of God’s justice, the reality is that a comprehensive picture of justice is much more complicated. The Bible shows justice as not only an appropriate consequence for sin but also as an expression of appropriate concern for others. Righteousness before God means being in right relationship not only with God but others as well.
The story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21 shows just how much God cares about making things right. Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, gain the vineyard of Naboth through their political power as the rulers of Israel, despite Naboth’s refusal to sell. After arranging Naboth’s death through a corrupt trial, Ahab takes possession of the land. Were the story to end there, we might wonder if God truly cares about justice for Naboth. What does this mean about God’s justice for everyone?
Fortunately, the story does not end there. God sends Elijah to tell Ahab that justice is coming and, within a few years, replaces Ahab with a new king and a new government (1 Kings 21:17-19).
This story tells us that justice is about the right ordering of power and relationship. The story of Elijah in response to Jezebel and Ahab is about ensuring that every human has an equal opportunity to flourish; making things right is essential.
When we read this story, we should be reminded our world is not right in many ways, and the injustice in Israel and Palestine today is one cause for grief. God tells us in Matthew 22:39 that seeking justice is the natural result of our love and concern for others. The injustice perpetrated by the Israeli occupation towards the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is in clear violation of God’s justice. Relentless violations of international law, home demolitions, refusal to discuss the right to return, and a justice system that allows for legal discrimination both within Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) must be condemned. From a Jewish Israeli perspective, the history and ongoing trauma of anti-Semitism and the holocaust, which is ever-present, and the hostility and threat of wars coming from their neighbors and within Palestine, must be recognized and acknowledged. How can this situation possibly be made right given these two competing truths?
Ahab and Naboth’s story ends in an unexpected way. Upon learning of God’s coming judgment from Elijah, Ahab repents (1 Kings 21:27:28). God relents and shows Ahab grace instead of judgment, and Ahab escapes the disaster prophesied by Elijah. This is the Good News of the Gospel. Injustice incurred does not necessitate eye-for-an-eye justice. God is merciful and loving, and because of Jesus, we do not have to pay the price for our sins. We are all given undeserved forgiveness, and with his help, we can all practice God’s grace.
It can be easy to pick a side and entrench your views so deeply within that perspective that empathy and grace are impossible to see. But the truth of God’s justice is that there is hope for all of us. That’s true for you and me, and it is true for Israel and Palestine. So we must seek justice and be involved in making things right.
The work Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) does puts God’s justice at the forefront. We do so by sharing stories and elevating the voices of both Israelis and Palestinians who seek peace and justice. By providing opportunities for Americans to speak out against injustice via Action Alerts and meetings on Capitol Hill, CMEP provides a way forward that challenges a single narrative.
Ask God to break your heart for what breaks his. Remember that even Jesus became angry at injustice (Matthew 21:12-13)! Be alert to what is happening around you. And ask God for the courage to do something. Even if it is just reporting what you have seen, sharing an article, or posting on social media. Stand up and speak out for those who are treated unequally. During this Lent, remember love is God’s justice and mercy as it is lived out through God’s people day in and day out.
Lord, break our hearts for what breaks yours. Give us the empathy to care about injustice in the world and the anger to motivate us to seek change. Help us love those around us in spite of our perceived differences and allow that love to change us, shape us, and encourage us to make things right. Amen.
Katie McRoberts is CMEP’s Director of Communications.