The Tyrannical King and Poor Naboth: A never-ending story

Issue 1811

8 November 2018

“The story of Naboth is an old one, but it is repeated every day.”[1] This is how Ambrose begins the tale of poor Naboth whose death was contrived by King Ahab so that he could take possession of his vineyard. Naboth of Israel, Ahab of Samaria, his wife Jezebel and the prophet Elijah are the characters in the episode that is found in the First Book of Kings.[2] They are the protagonists of the past: the king who is powerful and all-possessing craves a small vineyard that borders on his extensive properties; the wife is the instigator of the crime; then there is the poor man who only has a small vineyard, inherited from his ancestors; and finally, the prophet who denounces the injustice and awakes consciences.

History repeated itself at the time of Ambrose in the then capital of the Western Roman Empire, which was changing profoundly and transforming itself. The powerful had immense wealth that they squandered appallingly, not only in homes decorated with gold and palaces embellished with precious stones, but also in great games to honor their children, or in banquets with hundreds of courses. Their display of wealth clashed with the poverty and the misery of the masses.

From here emerges Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, coming from a family of the senatorial class, wealthy and powerful. As a catechumen he had been prefect of the city and had personally known the games and the dishonest practices of the rich and powerful. Upon becoming a Christian, he donated all his property to the Church. The deacon Paulinus, his biographer, documents how he donated his gold and silver.

Ahab and Naboth are also characters from the history of all times and all places,[3] where power becomes arrogance, and justice has the face of corruption. Throughout history, people appear unsatisfied with what they have. We always want to possess more and more at the expense of the poor and the less fortunate. But the word of God, on which the work of Ambrose is based, has an unexpected strength, a perennial value that resonates today whenever an injustice is perpetrated against the least, the poor, the exploited and the hungry.

 

The story of Naboth

Ambrose wrote The Story of Naboth toward the end of the fourth century.[4] The biblical episode must have left a great impression on his mind since he refers to it in many works.[5] The bishop related the oppression of Ahab to the social, political and religious situation of Milan in a particularly dramatic period. He denounced, in Contra Auxentium, the instigator of and advocate for the law of 386 that restored freedom and status to the Arians. Auxentius had also called for the handing over of the Portiana basilica to the Arians. Referencing the biblical episode, Ambrose describes the drama of his conscience: “Naboth defended his vineyard with his own blood. And if he did not give up his vineyard, shall we give up the Church of Christ? If Naboth would not surrender the heritage of his fathers, shall I surrender Christ’s heritage? God forbid that I should surrender the heritage of my fathers!”[6]

For Ambrose, Auxentius is the new King Ahab who wants to strip the bishop, the new poor Naboth, of the Church that is his vineyard; Justina, the emperor’s wife, is the new Jezebel who persecuted the prophet Elijah and tried to kill him. However, the bishop refused to hand over the basilica and stayed there with a great number of faithful. Justina, fearing a mob riot, was forced to return the basilica to the supporters of Ambrose.

The text is only a few pages in length but is an authoritative witness to the life of the Church. The bishop has at heart the poor and those who are unjustly found guilty and murdered because they are a part of the Church of Christ. Although Ambrose was inspired by Basil and other ancient authors and Fathers of the Church, no writer prior to him had systematically commented on the biblical text of the First Book of Kings. This is a sign of the author’s originality and his biblical sensitivity.

 

The Biblical account

The story stands out for its drama. King Ahab should be thankful to the Lord because he received his kingdom from God. Moreover, through Elijah’s intercession, he succeeded in ending the drought that was starving everyone and destroying the kingdom. However, not only does he not thank God, but he acts like a bully toward his subjects.

The way he took possession of Naboth’s vineyard is very paradigmatic. The biblical text says: “Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money’” (1 Kings 21:1-2). Naboth refused to give him the vineyard, because it was the inheritance of his fathers.[7]

A superficial reading of the story might suggest that Naboth did wrong in not giving his vineyard to Ahab, who after all did not want to use violence. He treated it as a purchase, offering Naboth the equivalent in money and even proposing a better vineyard. But for poor Naboth, that vineyard was not simply a piece of property; it was the patrimonial inheritance of his family, and therefore of his fathers, a holy inheritance that had been received from God. To cede it meant to fail in the vocation of guardian of the land that he had received from above. Hence, his blunt answer to the king: “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (1 Kings 21:3).

The king was bitter about the refusal. Jezebel therefore takes the initiative and, with an unfair strategy, stages a farcical trial of Naboth, accusing him of blaspheming God and the king. Naboth is tried, condemned to death and stoned. The king can finally annex his vineyard.

When the king takes possession of the vineyard, the prophet Elijah goes to meet him and announces the Word of the Lord to him: “Have you killed, and also taken possession? … In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood” (1 Kings 21:19). Ahab repents of his sin and does penance to avert the divine condemnation. However, the penance was not sincere, and the punishment fell upon his family.[8]

 

A never-ending story

The Naboth episode is repeated continuously in history and in society. Taking inspiration from the story of Ahab, Ambrose has two intentions: he wants to denounce and expose the greed of the powerful at the expense of the poor; and he wants to persuade Christians of the relative value of wealth, proposing the use of goods in civil society in a spirit of justice and solidarity.

To the bishop of Milan, the character of Ahab not only represents a rich person, but is the symbol for the greed of all the rich: “Who among the rich do not daily desire the goods of others? Who among the wealthy do not make every effort to drive the poor person out from their little plots and turn the needy out from the boundaries of their ancestral fields? Who is satisfied with what they have? Which rich person’s thoughts are not preoccupied with his or her neighbor’s possessions? It is not just one Ahab who was born, then, but – and this is worse – Ahab is born each and every day, and he never dies. … It is not one poor man, Naboth, who was slain; every day Naboth is struck down, every day the poor man is trodden upon” (1.1).

With rigorous logic, Ambrose examined the soul of the rich and highlighted the greed. The fate of a poor subject and the unfair demand of the king eager to seize the vineyard of Naboth just to have his own vineyard next to his farms are both significant.[9] That craving for possession paradoxically shows that the rich are needier than the poor, since they are never satisfied with wealth. The phrase “give me your vineyard,” hammered insistently seven times, reveals “the fire of covetousness” (2.8) but also an interior void that nothing can fill. “Give me” is the cry of the beggar who confesses that he needs the only thing that is lacking. Ambrose comments: “The rich person scorns what belongs to him as if it were worthless, and he covets someone else’s property as if it were the most precious of things. … For he who desires to own everything wishes the other person to possess nothing” (2.9-10). Given the enviousness for the goods of others, the rich are perpetually unhappy!

However, what is more disconcerting is the reason why Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard: he wants to make it a vegetable field. Ambrose’s comment about this is sarcastic: “All this madness, all this uproar, then, was in order to find space for paltry herbs. It is not, therefore, that you desire to possess something useful for yourself so much as it is that you want to exclude others” (3.11). The rich want to possess everything, want to have everything for themselves to the point of destroying the only asset of the poor.

“Why do you claim for yourself dominion over the entire world?” asks Ambrose. “The earth was created to be shared by all, rich and poor. … Nature, which generates everyone poor, knows no wealth. … Naked it brings us into the light (cf. Job 1:21), needing food, clothing and drink. … Nature, then, … creates all as equals, and likewise it encloses all in the womb of the tomb” (1.2). Moreover, the opulence of the rich has nothing to offer: in their selfishness they are unable to use their own goods because they only think of accumulating them; and they do not permit the poor to use them, even if they have need.[10]

In addition, perverse greed makes the heart of the rich empty and separates them from human fellowship. Their logic leads them to a total rejection of society. “They flee the companionship of human beings and therefore exclude their neighbors. But they cannot flee because, when they have excluded some, others in turn take their place. … Clearly, they cannot live by themselves on earth” (3.12).

The economic points that Ambrose derives from this are significant. First of all, there is the denunciation of the accumulation of treasures as an end in itself: “You mine gold from the earth and conceal it again” (4.16), just as in Psalm 39:6: “they heap up, and do not know who will gather.” The absurdity of not even knowing how to economically manage the productivity of the wealth leads the bishop to say: “The avaricious person is always concerned over an abundant harvest, for he calculates that food will be cheap. For abundance is advantageous to everyone, but a poor yield is so only to the avaricious person: he is pleased more by high prices than by abundant crops. … Observe him as he worries lest the pile of grain be overflowing, lest in its copiousness it spills out of his granaries and in the direction of the poor, and the opportunity for doing some good be offered him” (7.35).

Ambrose also denounces the opulence of the rich as being built on the misery of the poor and fed with their blood. It leads to a physical death for the one who dies from working for the rich, and a spiritual death for the parent who, in order to pay a large debt, is in the tragic situation of having to sell into slavery a child and needing to decide which to sell so as not to make the others die of hunger (5.22).[11]

The accumulated wealth, ostentatious pomp and thirst for possessions also reveal the inner anxiety and dementia of the rich: “Covetousness arouses him, a constant preoccupation with seizing others’ property agitates him, envy torments him, delay vexes him, the unfruitful sterility of his crops disturbs him, abundance disquiets him” (6.29). The parable of the foolish rich man (Luke 12:17-19) serves as an example for those who think they have achieved happiness in life. “Rightly is that person called a fool who caters to the bodily aspects of his soul, because he knows not for whom he is preserving the things that he stores up” (8.38). This rich man does not know that the time of death will overtake him that same night. This should be a warning to those who have accumulated too much and do not give anything, as well as to those who do not know how to be administrators of the goods received and do not know how to return them to their owners. The poor and the needy should be invited since God has given the rich a great harvest so they can be generous to the poor; he gave birth and abundance to the fields through his bounty (6.32).

 

A fair use of goods

“Why then, do you make evil things from good, when you ought to make good things from evil?” (7.36). The Lord advises: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” (Luke 16:9). “For the one who knows how to use them, then, they are good; for the one who knows not how to use them rightly they are bad” (7.36). Ambrose’s observations on private property and wealth are interesting. Property in itself is neither a bad thing nor an abuse, in fact, it is legitimate. Its quality depends upon how it is put to use. It can become a crime if it is wasted in luxury and in vanity; however, it is an asset if, with it, the heart opens to the poor.

Riches are a gift from God but can become the cause of crime. Just as for evil people they are an obstacle to doing good, they are a virtue for those who use them with justice and charity. “They are good if you give them to the poor, if you open the granaries of your righteousness, so that you may be the bread of the poor, the life of the needy, the eye of the blind, the father of orphaned infants” (7.36).[12] Ambrose comments: “Be a spiritual farmer, sow what can be beneficial to you, … mercy will multiply the fruits” (7.37).

The second part of the treatise is a parenthetic discourse that aims to touch the hearts of the rich and open them to generosity. To carry out their plans, the rich also go to church, ask for God’s help and even fast. But what are the prayers and fasting that the Lord likes? They are the ones that break bread for the hungry, lead the needy and homeless to their homes, free the oppressed and destroy any false witness (10.45).

The rich are told: do not listen to the advice of the wicked Jezebel, which is motivated by greed. She is covetousness personified, the creator of crime, the fraudulent councilor. Two false witnesses, corrupted by her, accused Naboth of blasphemy, as in the trial of Susanna in the book of Daniel (cf. Dan 13:28) and in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin (cf. Matt 26:65). Ambrose contrasts the rights and the denunciation of the rich with the law of the Lord, and the false testimony he contrasts with the testimony of conscience (10.45).

 

The hypocrisy of the rich

Following the murder of Naboth, the king expressed great pain and regret, but despite the sadness on his face, he went to the vineyard of the poor and took possession of it (11.47). In reality, that pain was false and it did not take long for divine justice to be felt through the prophet Elijah who unmasked the hypocrisy of the rich: “‘You have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord’ (1 Kings 21:20), because the Lord hands over those who are guilty of crime, but the innocent he does not hand over to the power of their enemies” (12.51). Evil enslaves, obscures the truth, tries to hide, afraid of its own conscience, it is never satisfied; good, on the other hand, makes us free, opens hearts to the poor, does works of mercy, multiplies its fruits: “Whatever you have contributed to the poor, therefore, is profitable to you. What you have taken away from yourself will grow for you. … Mercy is sown on the earth and germinates in heaven; it is planted in the poor and sprouts forth in God’s presence” (12.53).

Finally, the rich are proud because they believe the goods they possess make them superior to others. Ambrose advises the rich not to be proud of what they have since they were born no differently than the poor. It should be remembered that the land and the goods are for everyone. Their palaces, riches, horses, gold and possessions are not for them. “You are, then, the custodian of your riches and not their master. You who bury gold in the ground are, indeed, its servant and not its lord. Where your treasure is, there also is your heart. Sell your gold, rather, and purchase salvation; sell your precious stones and purchase the kingdom of God; sell your field and buy back for yourself eternal life” (14.58). “Reflect that you do not possess these things by yourself. The moth possesses them with you; rust, which consumes money, possesses them. Avarice has given these partners to you” (14.59). “If you wish to be rich, be poor to this world so that you might be rich to God. The one who is rich in faith is rich to God; the one who is rich in mercy is rich to God; the one who is rich in simplicity is rich to God; the one who is rich in wisdom, the one who is rich in knowledge – they are rich to God” (14.60).

The final advice takes up again the parable of the judgment from the Gospel according to Matthew: “It makes your debtor the Son, who says: ‘for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing.’ For he says that whatever was given to any of the least ones was given to him.”[13]

 

“The poor are the true treasure of the Church”

The work of Ambrose closes with praise to God. Psalm 75 celebrates the Lord who protects Israel from the power of the Assyrians, the symbol of people possessed by riches. They do not own the goods, but they are possessed by them; they are not their masters, but they are their slaves. The Lord has upset the designs of the wicked, the rich, the powerful and the great. Therefore, he receives praise from the poor because only those who are truly poor praise the Lord in their heart, a place of peace and communion. The poor, in fact, are richer in faith, and more practiced in sobriety (15.63).[14]

The story of Naboth is therefore a story that has no end; it is always current. It is a story of greed and abuse of power, of false accusations and killings, robberies and injustices. However, it is also a story of honesty and truth, loyalty to the traditions of the fathers and passion for justice and truth marked by martyrdom.

The purpose of the work is clear: wealth, combined with avarice, constitutes humankind’s true misery. Ambrose declares that the earth belongs to God and that the Lord has given it to all. No one can own it as their own, no one is its master: we are all stewards of what is entrusted to us, and we will need to give account of our administration. There are few ecclesiastical writers who have formulated a doctrine on the problem of wealth that is so bold and disturbing. It also reveals the radical nature of the Gospel.

Ambrose was always a defender of the poor and, when necessary, did not hesitate to sell the riches of the Church to help those who lived in misery. For him, the material goods of the Church were the patrimony of the poor. In fact, he loved to say: The poor are the true treasure of the Church.[15]

 

Predilection for the poor

Sixteen centuries after Ambrose, Pope Francis, in his homilies at Casa Santa Marta, recalled the ancient episode while commenting on the liturgy of the Word that included 1 Kings 21. He took up the same words of the bishop of Milan: “[The story of Naboth] continually repeats itself in people who have power, material power, political power or spiritual power. But this is a sin: it’s the sin of corruption.” And how does it corrupt a person? “It corrupts on the very road to security. First, wellbeing, money, then power, vanity, pride, and from there everything, even murder.” The pope continues: “It is a daily temptation into which a politician, a businessman, a prelate can fall.”[16]

“But who pays for corruption?” he asks. “The poor pay for corruption! … Naboth paid for King Ahab’s corruption. Naboth, the poor man, faithful to his traditions, faithful to his values, faithful to the inheritance received from his father.”[17] The poor of today pay for it. Naboth is the first of many “martyrs of corruption.”

The pope then focused particularly on corruption in the ecclesiastical world, because even here it is dramatically present: “Who pays for the corruption of a prelate? It’s paid for by the children, who don’t know how to make the sign of the cross, who don’t know the catechism, who aren’t cared for; it’s paid for by the sick who aren’t visited; it’s paid for by the imprisoned who don’t receive spiritual attention.”[18] Ultimately, it is always the poor who pay for corruption, the materially poor and the spiritually poor, the poor who lose values and are deprived of their quality of life.

The pope also indicates a way out of corruption, referring to the confession of King David: “I have sinned.” He then cried and did penance; he repented. But he also adds the Gospel example of Zacchaeus: “I’ve stolen, Lord. I’ll give back fourfold what I’ve stolen.”[19]

Pope Francis, referring to Ambrose’s commentary, uses his words. History repeats itself again today. But like the bishop of Milan, he recalls that the way to salvation is the preference for the poor, for the little ones, for the “martyrs of corruption.” It is an invitation for everyone to conversion of heart and to pray for the powerful and the corrupt.[20]

In the encyclical Laudato Si’, the pope acutely reformulated the situation of King Ahab, adapting it to our time: “The current global situation engenders a feeling of instability and uncertainty, which in turn becomes ‘a seedbed for collective selfishness.’ When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears.”[21]

Pope Francis has recently returned to the story of Naboth. It is “paradigmatic of many martyrs of history. It is paradigmatic of the martyrdom of Jesus; it is paradigmatic of Stephen’s martyrdom; it is also paradigmatic, from the Old Testament, of Susanna; it is paradigmatic of many martyrs who are condemned thanks to a slanderous set-up.”[22] But “this story is also paradigmatic of how to proceed in the society of so many people, of many heads of state or government: they communicate a lie, a slander and, after destroying both a person and a situation with that slander, they judge that destruction and condemn. Even today, in many countries this method is used to destroy free communication.”[23]

Francis then concludes by saying that “the just Naboth … only wanted one thing: to be faithful to the legacy of his ancestors, not to sell the inheritance, not to sell history, not to sell the truth,” because “the legacy was beyond that vineyard: a legacy of the heart is not


[1] Ambrose, De Nabuta 1,1 CSEL 32/2, Vienna – Prague – Leipzig etc., 1897, 469-516; Id., Il prepotente e il povero. La vigna di Nabot, edited by M. G. Mara, Bologna, EDB, 2015. In the parenthetical citations, the first number indicates the chapter, the other the paragraph.

[2] Cf. 1 Kings 21:1-28. The episode is a part of the cycle of Elijah, a crucial time in Israel’s history, where the prophet calls for fidelity to the covenant, compromised by the polytheism that was penetrating the life of the people, and the new economy that promoted the circulation of money and trade in goods, uprooting the familiar structure of the economy and ruining the poorest.

[3] The protagonist of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick (1851) is called Ahab. Driven by an excessive lust for power, the captain is faced with the mysterious power of the white whale, dragging the entire crew to ruin with him. Only Ishmael, the humble crew member who respects the mystery, is saved.

[4] Ambrose, La storia di Nabot di Jezrael, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1952; Id., Opera omnia. VI. Elia e il digiuno, Naboth, Tobia, Milan – Rome, Biblioteca Ambrosiana – Città Nuova, 1985; G. De Simone, La miseria del ricco. Esegesi biblica e pensiero sociale nella “Storia di Naboth” di Ambrogio, Catanzaro, Ursini, 2003.

[5] Ambrose, La storia di Naboth, L’Aquila, Japadre, 1975, 29-34; Id., La vigna di Naboth, M. G. Mara (ed), op. cit., 38-44.

[6] Id., Contra Auxentium 17: PL 16, 1012B.

[7] The Mosaic law has it that landownership does not leave the family: “no inheritance of the Israelites shall be transferred from one tribe to another; for all Israelites shall retain the inheritance of their ancestral tribes” (Num 36:7, 9). The introduction of the monarchy in Israel led to a new trading economy that destroyed the one based on territorial possessions linked to the original tribe.

[8] For the story of Ahab in the Old Testament, see V. Anselmo, Fece ciò che è male agli occhi di Yhwh. La figura narrative di Acab in 1 Re, Rome, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2018.

[9] The latifundism of Ambrose’s time and the contrast between the wealth of a few and the poverty of the many created a disparity that could lead to absurdity. For example, it is known that Symmachus, the senator who helped the young Augustine conquer the rector’s chair in Milan to counter the fame of Ambrose, had three palaces in Rome, three villas on the outskirts and others in the agricultural areas of Laurentum, Naples, Pozzuoli and Cumae; even Ambrose’s family owned a palace in Rome and several properties in Sicily. The power of the large landowners was such that it compelled the owners of small properties to surrender their possession in exchange for protection. To understand the drama, one must not forget the dynastic struggles and the barbarian invasions that sadly complete the picture (cf. V. Paglia, Storia della povertà. La rivoluzione della carità dalle radici del cristianesimo alla Chiesa di papa Francesco, Milan, Rizzoli, 2014, 156).

[10] “Oh rich, you seize everything from the poor, you remove everything, you leave nothing. … The poor, to be sure, do not have what they could use, but you neither use it yourselves nor permit others to use it” (4.16).

[11] Ambrose takes a page from Basil; cf. the homily In illud dictum, Destruam: PG 31, 268 C – 269 A. “A sermon on the words of the rich man in Luke’s Gospel, ‘ I will destroy my barns. . . ‘ ” (Luke 12:18)

[12] In the commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Ambrose makes a relevant reflection: “You cannot chase away all the bankers (nummularii, which includes all the money changers), there are also good ones” (Exp. Ev. sec. Lucam 9,18).

[13] Matt 25:35-36, 40; Ambrose, La storia di Nabot, 14.59.

[14] The concept comes from Stoic controversy: cf. Seneca, De vita beata, 22 and 26; Valerius Maximus, Dictorum factorumque memorabilia libri IX 9, 4 ext. 1.

[15] Cf. V. Paglia, Storia della povertà…, op. cit., 156.

[16] Francis, Homily of June 16, 2014, in http://w2.vatican.va.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., Homily of June 17, 2014, in http://w2.vatican.va.

[20] Pope Francis, during the Spiritual Exercises of the Curia in Lent 2014, proposed the reading of Ambrose’s text La storia di Nabot, una storia infinita. Cf. B. Secondin, Profeti del Dio vivente. In cammino con Elia, Padova – Vatican City, Messaggero – Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 2015, 107-116.

[21] Francis, Encyclical letter Laudato Si’, No. 204. The initial quote is from John Paul II, “Message for the 1990 World Day of Peace,” No. 1, in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 82 (1990), 147.

[22] Cf. “Dictators manipulate communication,” in Oss. Rom., June 18-19, 2018, 8.

[23] Ibid.