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, 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?
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, 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.” 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.”
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