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Ahab’s Garden

So it was, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab got up and went down to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite (I Kings 21:16).

 Ahab had a purpose in mind for the vineyard, the land adjoining his own place, and confiscated by a cowardly murder. Jezebel had handled the preliminaries to acquiring the property— the false witnesses and the execution of Naboth—enabling Ahab to take possession of the vineyard for precisely the reason he said he wanted it.

Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near, next to my house; and for it I will give you a vineyard better than it (I Kings 21:2).

Ahab already owned a better vineyard than Naboth’s, one he proposed to swap for the property he coveted next to his house. He planned on tearing out Naboth’s grape vines, uprooting the fruit trees, knocking down the stone structures and planting vegetables.

Vegetables? What was the man thinking?

In a time when grapes and fruit trees signified wealth, and vegetables were held in low regard,[1] was he dreaming of another Eden? Did he imagine his own land flourishing with rows of onions and sweet muskmelons as in Egypt? Did he assume it would be easy to transform the land into a garden, as easy as it was to take it from Naboth?

For the land which you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and watered it with your feet, like a garden of vegetables. But the land which you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drink water by the rain from heaven (Deuteronomy 11:10-11).

Because of the scarcity of water and the hilly terrain in Israel, most people didn’t plant vegetables, tending instead to gather what grew in the wild. The exception to the practice of not planting a vegetable garden was an individual who lived near enough water to irrigate or carry water by hand. Ahab was an exception it seems, convinced he had enough water near his house, enough manpower to pull down the vineyard and enough wisdom to cultivate the soil—he controlled everything necessary for a gardening venture.

What did his garden grow?

Garlic & Onion

Garlic & Onion (Photo credit: Ruby’s Feast)

If Ahab had followed through and demolished the vineyard, what vegetables would he have planted in its place?  In an Old Testament list of vegetables found in Numbers 11:5, Israel yearns for the foods they ate in Egypt and lacked in the desert.

We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.

Scholars of ancient agriculture believe these same vegetables probably grew in Israel, but rotted produce, unlike hard goods like stone, tools, and pottery, doesn’t leave evidence. Although researchers found watermelon seeds in extremely dry areas around the Dead Sea,[2] they’ve come up with no other vegetable remains than the seeds and a few dried bulbs. As agricultural scholars admit, “a definite identification [of vegetables grown in ancient Israel] based on the information available is impossible.”[3] Students studying agriculture in Hebrew and Greek texts find descriptions of leafy green salad-like plants, spicy grass, garlic, onions, four species of cucumbers, and two types of melons (muskmelon and watermelon), all grown in Egypt and probably cultivated in Israel.

“The small number of vegetable samples from Iron Age deposits does not indicate that vegetables were a minor component of the daily diet during that period. However, as I [author Oded Borowski] pointed out above, the small number of references to vegetables and the low regard in which vegetables were held suggest very strongly that vegetables were not considered very nutritious and did not constitute an important part of the Iron Age diet in Eretz-Israel.”[4]

Spiritual growth?

 The Bible doesn’t say if Ahab uprooted the vineyard and planted vegetables, but the whole affair is lamentable.  If vegetables were not highly valued in ancient Israel, if people were well-nourished, primarily by fruits, grains, dairy, and meat, then Ahab’s excessive overreach—all of it, seizing the property, murdering Naboth, destroying priceless vines and fruit trees—was for something of incredibly less value. It’s a wretched story but it’s worth reading to the end. It leads to Ahab’s encounter with God’s judgment, and then with God’s mercy (I Kings 21:20-28).—Mary Hendren

 

 


[1] Borowski, Oded “Agriculture in Iron Age Israel,” p. 135

[2] Same source, p. 137

[3] Same source, p. 138

[4] Same source, p. 139

The Power of the Ring

Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther and Mordecai the Jew, “Indeed, I have given Esther the house of Haman, and they have hanged him on the gallows because he tried to lay his hand on the Jews. You yourselves write a decree concerning the Jews, as you please, in the king’s name, and seal it with the king’s signet ring; for whatever is written in the king’s name and sealed with the king’s signet ring no one can revoke.”

So the king’s scribes were called at that time, in the third month, which is the month of Sivan, on the twenty-third day; and it was written, according to all that Mordecai commanded, to the Jews, the satraps, the governors, and the princes of the provinces from India to Ethiopia, one hundred and twenty-seven provinces in all, to every province in its own script, to every people in their own language, and to the Jews in their own script and language. And he wrote in the name of King Ahasuerus, sealed it with the king’s signet ring, and sent letters by couriers on horseback, riding on royal horses bred from swift steeds.  (Esther 8:7-10)

One of the most powerful pieces of ornamentation mentioned in the Bible is a ring—particularly the signet ring. It was worn not as an accessory, but rather the wearing of it represented the personal legal signature or status of the owner. For Mordecai to have access to the king’s own signet ring indicates the trust and power he had been afforded, and his badge of office.

Cylinder seals

A signet could be shaped as a ring to be worn usually on the right finger, or as a cylinder or rod of metal suspended from a cord worn around the neck. Exodus 28:9-14 indicates that signets were engraved, in this case, on stone. Cylinder seals  were incised on many hard surfaces, from baked clay to lapis lazuli, gold, silver, carnelian, blue chalcedony, rock crystal, pink marble, jasper, shell-core, ivory, and glazed pottery.[1]

When an ancient letter-writer had finished his message on a clay tablet, “he had the sender and any witnesses remove from around their necks their own small cylinder seals and roll them over the still-wet clay to make their signatures.”[2] Often these were written by professional letter-writers—some of whom were women—who stationed themselves at the city gates.

Signed, sealed, and delivered

The Babylonians used cylinder-seals to insure safe shipment of valuable papers or commodities  to distant destinations. Items were inserted into a jar which was then covered with cloth and tied with cord at the neck. The sender covered the binding cord with soft clay and rolled his cylinder-seal across the wet mud. If the jar arrived with the seal intact, its contents had arrived secure.

Hundreds of such cylinders have been found at various archaeological sites, and it seems that T. E. Laurence was himself an avid “seal-hunter,” searching for these small treasures to send back to his friends in England.

Matters of state

The principle uses for the signet ring were to provide legal signatures, and/or   proof of authority. A hard, flat substance associated with the ring—perhaps a precious stone, a bit of marble, or the metal of the ring itself—was engraved with its owner’s unique symbol or signature. The resulting inscription could then be pressed into wax or clay as needed, leaving an impression which amounted to a seal of authorship or authority.

When Joseph was appointed vizier or governor in Egypt, Pharaoh took off his signet ring and put it on Joseph’s finger (Genesis 43:42), clothed him in fine linen (court dress), and further rewarded him with a gold chain. In effect Joseph was awarded the accouterments to signal him as the second in command.

Used for good …

One of the most-loved of Christ’s parables concerns the return of the prodigal son to his ever-watchful, ever-hopeful father. After an emotional reunion and period of reconciliation, the father called for the best robe and put it on his beloved son. Then he put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. The celebration culminated with music, dancing, and the killing of a fatted calf. (See Luke 15:20-24.) The Woman’s Study Bible, in a note on Luke 15:17-24, comments that “the best robe was a sign of position; the ‘ring’ indicated authority[3], the ‘sandals’ [a sign of freedom and luxury] put on his bare feet set him apart from the barefoot slaves.”

…Or ill

When authority is wrested by evil hands, wickedness is sure to follow. Jezebel well understood power, and she was not afraid to use it, especially when her husband Ahab was in a funk. A prophet of God had given him terrible news. Because he failed to obey God’s instructions concerning Ben-Hadad, the prophet said: “”Thus says the LORD: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people'” So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria” (1 Kings 20:41-43).

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Na...

English: Jezabel and Ahab Meeting Elijah in Naboth’s Vineyard Giclee. Print by Sir Frank Dicksee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As if that weren’t enough, the petulant king coveted a piece of property that belonged to his neighbor Naboth. It had been passed down as an inheritance in his family for generations, and Naboth stubbornly refused to sell.

Ahab did not handle rejection well. The scripture says, “And he [Ahab] lay  down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” (21:4).

Tiring of her husband’s fit of depression, Jezebel took matters into her own hands. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent them out. The missives contained orders that eventually led to the death of innocent Naboth. But as an unintended consequence, her actions also sealed the fate of the despicable pair—ignominious deaths.

Its power endures

Alan King, in his Ezine article, “Signet Rings Have Significance Today,” comments that “in Europe the rings were commissioned by nobility and created by artists. Therefore, they were works of art, often made of gold and very much valued for their beauty as well as for their material value. Sometimes they were even embellished with designs and calligraphy on the side to add to the appearance. The rings were guarded and treasured by the owner, and passed on to successive generations in much the same way that a crown would be passed on to a prince or princess. They were a symbol of authority and power, indicating that the owner had the right to bear arms (the crest or shield) in medieval Europe. The Pope’s ring was kissed to honor the supreme authority of the position, and when a Pope died, his ring was destroyed to symbolize the clearing of the way for a new Pope.”

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a...

Medieval gold signet ring from England, with a ruby and the arms of de Grailly, now in the British Museum. Tag reads: “Signet ring with the arms of de Grailly.” and “About 1351-99, England, Gold, ruby. PE 1982,0501.1”. See British Museum Database entry for further details. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He further explains that the tradition surrounding the signet ring continues to this day. In Europe, each country (and its nobility) has its own preferences as to how the ring is to be worn, on which finger and on which hand. “French, German, and some Spanish nobles wear it on the ring finger of their left hands. The Swiss wear signets on the right hand, and nobles of the United Kingdom wear them on the little finger of the left hand. Of course, it is worn with the impressing outward to enable the wearer to turn his hand over and press it into the wax.”

From ancient times to modern day, the signet ring has endured and continues to symbolize power and authority.

***

For further study, the following scriptures may be of interest concerning this topic. Some contain historical references; others are viewed metaphorically.

Genesis 38:18 Tamar requests Judah’s signet and his bracelets and his staff.

Exodus 28:11, 21, 36 engravings of a signet

Isaiah 3:18-23 jewelry worn by the haughty daughters of Babylon

Song of Solomon 8:6 Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm.

Haggai 2:23 God’s statement to Zerubbabel: ” . . .will make you like a signet ring: for I have chosen you. . . .”

Revelation 7:3-4 servants of God sealed in their foreheads

 


[1] Miller, Madeleine S. and J. Lane, Encyclopedia of Bible Life (1944), p. 134

[2] Ibid., pp. 127, 134

[3] It is the author’s opinion that this was likely a signet ring.

Evil meets its end

In the last post, Israel’s decline into Baal worship accelerated at Jezebel’s behest. What was the attraction that kept luring Israel into idolatry?

It’s about weather

For one thing, Baal was associated with weather, and his consort, Asherah, with fertility. Since rain was essential for survival, keeping in Baal’s good graces was imperative to staving off drought and famine.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “The worship of Baal in Syria-Palestine was inextricably bound to the economy of the land which depends on the regularity and adequacy of the rains. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, which depend on irrigation, the Promised Land drinks water from the rain of heaven (Deut. 11:10–11). During the summer months the rains cease, but the temporary drought is no threat unless it is abnormally prolonged. Figs and grapes ripen during the dry season and the grain harvest also takes place before the rains resume. In a normal good year, when the rains come in due season, there is no hiatus in productivity, for the land yields its increase, the trees produce their fruit, the threshing overlaps, the vintage overlaps the sowing, and there is food aplenty, prosperity, and peace (Lev. 26:4–6). But not all years are good, and in a bad year, or a series of bad years, when the rains fail, the skies become like iron, the land like brass, and man’s toil is futile for the earth will not yield its increase (Lev. 26:19–20). A series of bad years, which were apparently believed to come in seven-year cycles (cf. Gen. 41; II Sam. 1:21), would be catastrophic. Thus in any year anxiety about the rainfall would be a continuing concern of the inhabitants which would suffice to give rise to rites to ensure the coming of the rains. Thus the basis of the Baal cult was the utter dependence of life on the rains which were regarded as Baal’s bounty.”

Whatever it takes

Slavish adherents participated in fertility rites (temple prostitution), and offered human sacrifices in hopes of blessings. “Corrupt, sensual practices involved in the worship of Baal were observed throughout the country, as Jezebel demanded that her god be considered equal to Israel’s God. Her insistence on the equality of Baal with God brought her into direct conflict with Elijah, the prophet of God” (The Woman’s Study Bible, topic “Jezebel”).

Who is the God of rain?

Clearly the Lord God of Israel had had enough (1 Kings 16:33). He answered the effrontery of this vile couple in no uncertain terms. First, He sent Elijah to Ahab with an ominous message: “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Jezebel responded by ordering the massacre of the prophets of the Lord (18:4).

In a second meeting with Ahab, Elijah (by God’s instruction) issued a challenge: Gather the children of Israel, the 450 prophets of Baal, and the 400 prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table (18:18-19), and let’s see whose God/god is God. The rest of the chapter chronicles dramatic events confirming the power of YHWH. Israel, convinced by His miracles, proclaimed,“the Lord, He is God!” (v 39), and Elijah summarily dispatched the odious prophets of Baal (v 40). In His mercy, the true God of rain ended the distress of a three-year drought.

The queen was not amused

Frustrated and incensed by the humiliating failure of her priests, Jezebel continued on a murderous course. She threatened Elijah’s life (to no avail), and schemed to take Naboth’s vineyard for her husband, a plot that ended in the murder of an innocent man (1 Kings 21:1-15). The latter spelled the demise of both Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah’s ensuing message to Ahab was grim: “Thus says the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (v 19).  Three years later he was dead, just as Elijah had foretold.

So ended the life of a wicked man, one of whom the Bible records, “But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to wickedness in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up” (v 25).

Like father…and mother

Ahab’s son Ahaziah assumed the throne, and stubbornly continued in the way of his parents, serving Baal and provoking the Lord God of Israel to anger (1 Kings 22:52-53). Two years later he suffered injuries when he fell from an upper room. Instead of turning to YHWH, he called on Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to come to his aid. The Lord charged Elijah once more with a message: Because of his idolatry, Ahaziah would fail to recover and die (2 Kings 1:15-17).

Soon after, Jezebel’s vile atrocities ended when some of her servants threw her out a window to her death. Ravenous dogs consumed her body leaving only her skull, feet, and the palms of her hands—a violent end for a violent woman (2 Kings 9:30-37). There are no indications that she ever flagged in her devotion to her impotent god.

A woman of infamy

Jezebel is mentioned once more, this time in the book of Revelation:  “Nevertheless I have a few things against you, because you allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. And I gave her time to repent of her sexual immorality, and she did not repent. Indeed I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds. I will kill her children with death, and all the churches shall know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts. And I will give to each one of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:20-23).

Opinions vary about this figure: She was a literal person of the time; she personified false prophets who troubled the current church and used the same tactics as Jezebel of old; and there are questions of prophetic ramifications. If nothing else, this is one more testimony of God’s uncompromising condemnation of idolatry and all its trappings. It also illustrates how long an infamous example can last.

 Jezebel through several lenses

Jezebel holds a certain fascination for Bible students and scholars. Some even champion her as courageous as she stubbornly pushes her agenda and when she meets her death. For most, though, she represents the embodiment of evil. Her name lives on today and has its own entry in most dictionaries as an offensive term for a women regarded as sexually immoral or manipulative (Encarta Dictionary online) or any woman regarded as shameless, wicked, etc. (New World Dictionary of the American Language, 2nd college edition).

What a sorry legacy.

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