Walter Brueggemann: What Naboth Teaches Us Today
The story of Naboth’s vineyard is a towering, uncompromising witness to the pertinence of YHWH to socioeconomic matters. The narrative is so towering and so uncompromising that we may take it as a paradigmatic tale that functions as a lens for the interpretation of many other texts (I find this paradigmatic witness so important that it is my intention to write, after this one, three additional expositions of this text).
The story is located amid the cluster of narratives that feature Elijah and Elisha, two outsized characters who take up a lot of space in Israel’s imagination. These stories are set in the midst of the Omri dynasty, a regime in Northern Israel that exercised significant power in international politics at the time (876-842 BCE). It is striking that this cluster of narratives concerning these two figures occupies nearly one-third of the entire books of I and II Kings. They lie outside the domain of the royal regime and reflect a different social location, a different epistemology, and a different socioeconomic passion.
They articulate a social reality and a social possibility that lie beyond the control or even understanding of the royal regime.
The plot of the story is quite clear and simple. It concerns Naboth who owned and cared for a vineyard in the area of Samaria, the capitol city of Northern Israel (we may refer to Isaiah 5:2 for evidence for how a vineyard was attentively cared for). Naboth was a smalltime property owner who belonged to his land as much as his land belonged to him. He identifies his vineyard as “my ancestral inheritance.” The phrase suggests that Naboth’s economic horizon was that of tribal Israel, a system of property that antedated the monarchy (the same notion of ancestral inheritance is operative in the narrative of Jeremiah 32).
Naboth’s socioeconomic purview is quite local. He would likely have maintained distance from the royal economy and would have resented any intrusion of that economy into his steady, stable agricultural practice that was modest but adequate for him. Naboth speaks only once in this narrative. When he speaks, it is in order to refuse the proposal of King Ahab to trade another property for his vineyard because his vineyard is convenient for the king. His response is terse and to the point (v. 4).
The counter-character to Naboth in this narrative is King Ahab who is the son of Omri, the second ruler of the dynasty. Because of the capacity of the dynasty to participate in international politics and economics, it is not a surprise that Ahab thinks of property according to the rules of trade. He regards any property, including Naboth’s vineyard, as a tradable commodity available for buying and selling. He does not intend to cheat or muscle Naboth, but offers Naboth good value in a trade. It is clear, however, that he has no interest in or appreciation for the ancient tribal assumptions about the land, because such assumptions mean that property cannot be bought and sold; it can only be treasured and cared for.
Thus, the issue is joined between Naboth and Ahab, between peasant farmer and king.
But the issue is also joined between two very different notions of property. For Naboth, his property is an “inheritance;” for Ahab, the same property is a “possession” without familial, historical, or sentimental linkage. From his stance, Naboth has no option but to refuse the offer of the king. He does not hesitate or blink in his refusal to the king. For him the matter is unambiguous, even if the king cannot fathom such refusal. As the story goes, Ahab is powerless before this peasant refusal and can only fall into depression.
But then Jezebel, his queen, enters the narrative. We know that Jezebel, a foreign wife (on which see I Kings 11:2), has no commitment to Yahwism and no understanding of covenantal understandings of familial property. We know, moreover, that Jezebel was host to a number of prophets committed to religious traditions other than Yahwism (see 18:19). In our narrative, Jezebel takes the initiative on behalf of her depressed husband-king, Ahab. The king understands himself to be foiled by Naboth and so is helpless; the queen, however, recognizes no legitimacy in Naboth’s claim and has no such compunction. She promptly organizes a conspiracy to frame Naboth on false charges and so to have him stoned as one who “cursed God and the king” (v. 13). When Naboth is murdered by a mob incited by the queen, his property falls to the crown. With the report of Naboth’s death, Jezebel tersely dispatches Ahab to seize the property as his own:
Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead. (v. 15)
Ahab took “possession” of the vineyard. He “possessed” an “inheritance.” So now the king’s confiscation, made possible by his ruthless queen, gives him the land of ancient tribal inheritance that he has taken in ignoble ways.
It is clear that the narrative offers us two notions of property, two systems of economics, one that has covenantal rootage that depends upon fidelity, and the other that is purely commercial without any linkage to the fabric of society.
It is clear here, as everywhere, that the covenantal practice of property is extremely vulnerable to the force of commercial interest and has few ways to effectively resist it. This clash between systems is crucial to the perspective of biblical faith. This pervasive clash between systems serves to make the Bible immediately and relentlessly contemporary, for this clash of covenantal and commercial is everywhere evident among us. Indeed, one can see that much of Israel’s Torah is designed for resistance to the commoditization of the land. This is unmistakable not least in the tenth commandment of Sinai:
Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Deuteronomy 5:21)
The coveting of a neighbor’s field is everywhere at work in ancient and contemporary society and constitutes a key accent of prophetic critique:
Alas for those who devise wickedness
and evil deeds on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
because it is in their power.
They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;
they oppress householder and house,
people and their inheritance. (Micah 2:1-2)
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for none but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 5:8)
The plot of our story is simple. It is, however, made more thick and complex in verse 17 with the arrival of Elijah in the story. Ahab addresses Elijah as “my enemy” (v. 20). In response, Elijah declares a severe condemnation of Ahab and Jezebel for their seizure of Naboth’s life and inheritance:
“I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. Also concerning Jezebel, the Lord said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the country the birds of the air shall eat.” (I Kings 21:21-24)
The fact that Elijah mitigates the harsh judgment against Ahab in verse 29 does not detract from the reality of the divine sanction.
Elijah’s dramatic appearance in the story serves to show that the issue between Naboth and Ahab is not mere economics. It is also a theological dispute, as such economic issues always are. Thus, we do well to see the connection between this narrative and the dramatic contest of the gods in chapter 18 where Elijah, on behalf of YHWH, triumphs over Baal and the prophets of Baal. When the land narrative of chapter 21 and god narrative of chapter 18 are brought together, we can see a god-land linkage that makes the matter so urgent. Thus, YHWH is shown to be the sponsor and advocate of land as inheritance, and Baal is seen to be the sponsor and advocate for land as possession:
And “Baal” is lord” in the sense of owner—the owner of the light and power of nature in and under and over the earth, and especially of the light and power or the nature of man himself…Man outside the covenant and Word of God is necessarily man fallen and pledged and committed to some such Baal (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV 1, 455).
It is inescapable in the horizon of this narrative that land rights and land responsibilities are deeply linked to a God-relatedness. Thus, the “contest at Carmel” between the gods is reiterated in our narrative as the contest between peasant and king, between inheritance and possession. It is no wonder that Elijah is seen to be “my enemy,” of the king (21:20) and elsewhere “troubler of Israel” (18:17), because Elijah represents covenantal interests rooted in YHWH that refuse the commoditization of life and property that are rooted in Baalism and practiced by the royal house. Baal is the god of commoditization in which everyone and everything can be bought and sold, used, traded and disposed of, without worth or value beyond its usefulness. While Ahab is given something of a reprieve in 21:29, the harsh judgment against the instigating queen, Jezebel (21:23-24), is not modified and is brought to fruition in due course:
But when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands. When they came back and told him, he said, “This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant Elijah the Tishbite, ‘In the territory of Jezreel the dogs shall eat the flesh of Jezebel; the corpse of Jezebel shall be like dung on the field in the territory of Jezreel, so that no can say, This is Jezebel.’” (II Kings 9:35-37)
The narrative would have us recognize that in the long run the land the enterprise of commoditization sponsored by Baal and implemented by Ahab and Jezebel cannot prevail. In the end, it is asserted that the covenantal reality willed by YHWH, enacted by Naboth, and voiced by Elijah will prevail because it is the will of the Lord of the covenant.
The narrative is uncompromising in its conviction, even if our lived experience makes it often less clear and convincing than that. That conviction shows up with clarity in the most elemental contest of the gospel:
There is a remarkable affinity between Baal, the lord and owner, the god all natural theology who helped Ahab, as it were, in his sleep—but responsibly as an unjust judge and murderer and a thief—to possess the vineyard of Naboth, and what the New Testament calls “mammon, the “Mammon of unrighteousness ...” “No man can serve two masters ... You cannot serve God and mammon ...” Ahab tried to do this, and his act of aggression against Naboth was the proof that he could not do so. Neither can any of us. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV 1, 458)
The either /or of Baal or YHWH (I Kings 18:21) shows up on the lips of Jesus:
No one can serve two masters...You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24; see Luke 16:13)
Much as we might wish otherwise, on this elemental question it cannot be both/and; it is relentlessly either/or.
From my initial exposition of the story of Naboth’s vineyard above, we can retain three important learnings:
...The narrative concerns a dispute between two systems of land ownership, inheritance, and possession.
...The dispute between land systems is rooted in a dispute between YHWH and Baal. YHWH is the champion of land as inheritance; Baal is the sponsor of land as possession that leads, in turn, to commoditization.
...This unequal struggle between these two land systems is interrupted by the sharp, critical appearance in the story of Elijah who is a truth-speaker who exposes the unsustainable folly of royal patterns concerning commoditized owners.
On the basis of these learnings, I propose to consider the life and work of Oscar Romero through a reading of Blood in the Fields: Oscar Romero, Catholic Social Teaching, and Land Reform, by Matthew Philipp Whelan (I strongly commend this book to you, dear reader). In what follows, I intend to read in two directions, so that the Naboth story may illuminate Romero, and so Romero’s faith and passion may let us read the Naboth story more deeply and knowingly.
Romero was an ordained Catholic priest, became bishop of a poor rural diocese (Santiago de Maria) in 1974, and became archbishop in San Salvador in 1977, to be murdered in 1980.
His experience in that poor rural diocese was decisive for him as he witnessed the rigged economic system that exploited the peasants and kept them in hopeless debt. A most remarkable fact about Romero is that as a liberation thinker, unlike almost every other prominent liberation theologian, he made no appeal to the economic analysis of Karl Marx. Rather, his critical passion for social justice and, consequently, land reform is based singularly on the Bible and the social teaching of the church.
We may identify three major accent points in Romero’s social analysis and prophetic witness. These reference points, of course, were triggered for him by his own pastoral experience with a social system that oppressed and terrorized vulnerable peasants who constituted his pastoral charge. That exposure permitted and indeed required him to reconsider biblical and church teaching with a critical awareness that he would not otherwise have had. This is made evident in the fact that prior to that pastoral experience in Santiago de Maria, his inclination was conservative with a reluctance about a liberation hermeneutic. All of that was changed for him by the truth on the ground in Santiago de Maria, a truth his faith would not let him deny or disregard.
First, Romero is a theologian.
For him the defining claim of biblical faith is that the earth belongs to the creator God. It does not belong to greedy human possessors. It all belongs to God, and God intends it for all creatures, that they may together enjoy its abundance. Second, Romero is a baptized, ordained Catholic who is grounded in Catholic teaching, most especially its social teaching. This means that he is informed, in his pastoral horizon, by the teaching of Pope Leo XIII, the great pope who responded prophetically to the Industrial Revolution, the teaching of Vatican II, and more recently by the work of John Paul II. Whelan pays attention to the way in which Romero was guided by the encyclical Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II:
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples…Whatever forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own, but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. (Whelan 66)
Third, from that it follows that all things are to be held in common. The church of course affirms private property; at the same time, however, the church recognizes that there is also a “social mortgage” on private property so that the resources of creation are to serve the common good, and therefore the good of those who are excluded from the security and well-being of private property.
From these three accent points of creation, Catholic social teaching, and the common good, Romero offers an acute social analysis that led him to focus on land reform, that is, the redistribution of the land of San Salvador so that immense estates of property would be divided to give access to land to those who are left dangerously exposed and vulnerable.
Romero’s social analysis included the following points:
...Propelling the unjust distribution of the land is “the idolatry of wealth and property.” It is an idolatry that has led to widespread latifundism through which the economic elite engage in “geophagia,” that is, “the eating of the earth,” and the devouring of everything and everyone in the land with an insatiable appetite.
...Such idolatry in turn has produced institutional violence that is the root of all other violences. The large landowners control the instruments of power and policy, and so could enact their uncurbed greed in policies and institutions before which the landless are vulnerable and helpless.
...The greed of the ownership class has caused food production to be distorted and skewed. No longer is agriculture designed to provide food for subsistence peasants in society as heretofore, food such as maize, corn, sorghum, and rice. Now food is designed for export (and so profit)! That means primarily coffee. When agriculture serves primarily export for profit, there is less food for the indigenous population.
...The development and maintenance of policies of greed has resulted in laws of “enclosure” that fence off property so that the poor can no longer forage in the land. As a result, the landless have become more and more dependent upon the economy of the great estates, reduced to “wage labor,” and subject to intense and hopeless debt. The loss of access has produced a large population for which political-economic agency is denied.
...The outcome of such extravagant wealth has eventuated in a careless “throw-away” culture of waste and self-indulgence. And of course a practice of “throw away” has meant that landless people are also “left-overs” to be disregarded, thus denying the elemental reality of a commonly shared life including both haves and have-nots.
This convergence of social facts has evoked Romero’s singular passion for land reform. He has understood most clearly that without access to land and its resources, the landless people can have no value in a throw away economy of greed and violence.
It was Romero’s witness, based on his acute social analysis, that led to his murder.
It should be evident then that Romeo, in his witness and passion, reiterates the narrative of Naboth. It is easy enough to see that the agricultural peasants in San Salvador play the part of Naboth, and that the greedy landowners assume the role of Ahab and Jezebel. Like that ancient king and queen, the landowners worship a god of ruthless greed and entitlement. Romero, moreover, is surely cast in the role of Elijah, surely the voice that the landowners would define as “my enemy.”
We already know from that old story that the acquisition of land by the greedy will readily evoke whatever actions are necessary for the acquisition. It is clear enough to read the story forward to Romero to see that such ruthless greed, in prophetic horizon, cannot go uncurbed. Like Elijah, Romero speaks against the greed on behalf of the creator God who intends that the land should be treasured as a common inheritance and not debased as a fungible possession.
Thus, Micah after Elijah, in his condemnation of such destructive greed, anticipates a new division of the land (at the behest of the Assyrians) that will exclude the greedy:
“Now, I am devising against this family an evil
from which you cannot remove your necks;
and you shall not walk haughtily,
for it will be an evil time.
On that day they shall take up a taunt song against you,
and wail with bitter lamentation,
and say, “We are utterly ruined;
the Lord alters the inheritance of my people;
how he removes it from me!
Among our captors he parcels out our fields.”
Therefore you will have no one to cast the line by lot
in the assembly of the Lord. (Micah 2:3-5)
This later poet anticipates the displacement of exile and the reassignment of land that excludes the greedy owners. This is indeed “land reform” from the top! This poetic anticipation goes beyond the specificity of Elijah; the trajectory in any case is the same. Greedy ownership will, soon or late, be curbed by the intent of the creator God who ultimately governs the land.
It is equally compelling to read backward from Romero to Naboth.
When we do that, we sense that the Naboth narrative is no one-off incidental transaction. This is rather a window into the systemic practices that pervaded ancient Israel. The urban elites in the capitol cities of Samaria and Jerusalem depended on the produce of subsistence peasants. Such inequity of surplus and subsistence is not sustainable in the long run. It is not sustainable for practical reasons because cheap labor will tolerate exploitation only so long; but it is also unsustainable because the creator of the land will not tolerate such injustice.
The reduction of the land to a fungible commodity is sure to bring big trouble on society from which the owners will be able to claim no exemption. Thus, we may be grateful for the life and witness of Romero and, at the same time, appreciative of the narrative of Naboth as we ourselves live in an economy where the gap between haves and have-nots grows daily. The gap is everywhere among us, supported by (1) the idolatry of wealth and property, (2) institutional violence of policing, tax codes, and rigged financial arrangements, (3) food from agribusiness designed for export and profit, (4) privatization of public land to the exclusion of the landless, and (5) a throw-away culture of extravagance that is ready to dispose of unneeded folk as well as other commodities to the great detriment of the environment.
Given this evident economic reality now as then, it is urgent that the church learn to reread its text in more knowing, compelling, and courageous ways that are appropriate to the urgency of the moment that God has entrusted to us.
On the basis of these learnings (above, Part 2), I want to reflect on an earlier book by Fred Pearce, The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Land (I commend this book as well to you). The question of who owns the land is an urgent one among us even as it is an ancient question. As early as King David in the Old Testament, the question is posed by Abner, the general who led the forces of Saul who posed a threat to King David. He puts the question directly to the king:
To whom does the land belong? (II Samuel 3:12)
I take the question by Abner to be a mocking challenge to the king: “So you are a king; act like one and claim the land!” It was an old practice that kings could preempt property from others according to their own will and whim (see II Samuel 10:9-10). The contemporary mode of that practice is that those with money and power characteristically can have property that belongs to others, whether by paying huge irresistible prices (gentrification!) or by “eminent domain” and other legal acts. Land tends to gravitate toward those who have socioeconomic, political leverage.
The gist of Pearce’s book is that he traces a most remarkable contemporary economic reality whereby nation states that lack adequate food resources are in process of buying up the land of others and using it to produce food that is exported back to the home state. This practice is most prevalent among the oil rich states of the Persian Gulf. The leader among those states who have money but lack food resources is Saudi Arabia. The Saudis tried to grow food and operate dairies in their desert land, but it was too expensive and required too much of the limited ground water. As an alternative, the Saudis turned to Africa and have bought up huge tracts of land for food production to be exported for the Saudi population. And, of course, because the Saudis are rich in oil they have the resources to offer extravagant prices for land that local leaders in Africa cannot resist.
The outcome of such a policy is at least two-fold. On the one hand, the practices of local agriculture are disrupted. As more food is produced for export, less food is available for the local population. On the other hand, the urgency of production means that the land is exploited and overused and thereby depleted, thus in contradiction to traditional farming methods that allowed the land its normal processes of recovery and restoration. Thus, the land grabbers may secure food, but they do so at an enormous cost for the indigenous population and for the land.
It is a clear case of land as possession and not as inheritance. The example of the Saudis is reiterated by many other cases that Pearce fully documents. In practice, the old question of Abner to David is given: the land belongs to those who have means and resources. Those who have long occupied the land are profoundly vulnerable to the pressure of such demand (as vulnerable as Naboth!) and are without means to resist or to protect their land.
I suggest that we may pause, in light of the Naboth narrative, to reflect on the “land grabbers” who have skewed the political economy. Ahab, in the narrative, is such a land grabber. To be sure, he only wanted land for a “vegetable garden” (I Kings 21:3). The assumption of Jezebel (and derivatively of Ahab), however, is that they could have possessed much more of Naboth’s land, as much as they wanted, by the privilege of the royal office. Ahab grabbed only a little, but Naboth would be helpless if the king had grabbed a lot more of his inheritance.
We may reflect, for a moment, on two well-known and dramatic land grabs. The first is the coming of white Europeans to the Americas. While the arrival of white Europeans in the Americas is a complex narrative that admits of many “explanations,” the simple fact is that it was a moment in which to seize, occupy, and possess land that was home to others.
Long behind that historic land grab that gave it important impetus is the papal decree of 1493 called “The Doctrine of Discovery.” That papal declaration handed the new world over to Spain and gave Spanish adventurers and the Spanish government the right to occupy the land and to possess its resources, and the freedom to either convert the “natives” to Christianity or to kill them if they did not conform. The “doctrine” assumed that a land “discovered” by Europeans could be occupied and possessed, with permission to dispose, as deemed necessary, of the extant population. While the “doctrine” is very ancient and pertained only to Spain, in practice it was soon generalized to apply to all Europeans in their colonizing reach.
By the 1820s, moreover, the “doctrine” was written, by the Supreme Court, into U.S. jurisprudence that became the basis for the aggressive “removal” policies of President Andrew Jackson. The “Doctrine,” alas, remains technically in effect even today! The outcome of the action of the land grabbers was a genocide in the United States, all on the basis that white Europeans who occupied the land had entitlement to the land by “discovery” and could remove present inhabitants as necessary either by death or by relocation.
The notion of U.S. exceptionalism, already articulated by Cotton Mather, provided the ideological grounds for the policies and actions of the land grabbers, all made religiously legitimate and resounding with patriotic piety. That ideology of exceptionalism made appeal and reference to the great land grab of the Bible that has echoed in subsequent legitimacy.
Second, as a basis for the legitimacy of the white European land grab, the biblical narrative of the Book of Joshua has provided theological grist and grounds for such action by Europeans in the New World. In the Bible (as in the biblical commentary of Cotton Mather), the narrative of the land grab is given theological foundation as the performance of the promise of God. Thus, in the Bible behind the book of Joshua is the promise to Abraham and his heirs of a new land given by God:
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
“To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, and Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:18-21)
“And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:8)
The articulation of “Greater Israel” is traced out in the promise of chapter 15. That articulation is one that continues to haunt the contemporary state of Israel with its dream of a “greater Israel.” The promise to Abraham affirms that the land is a gift given by God to Abraham’s family. By the time of the book of Joshua, of course, what is given now must be taken, so that the promise is transposed in the text to an effective land grab. The Bible is never able to reconcile the generosity of what is given to the forcibleness of what is taken, any more than Americans can reconcile “the discovery” of the new land with the violent disposal of indigenous people.
In her recent brilliant commentary on the Book of Joshua, Carolyn Sharp (Joshua: Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary 2019) meets the issue of genocide in the Book of Joshua head on:
Joshua is a genocidal and colonizing text. What drives the plot is the project of the Israelite army taking territory from the indigenous Canaanite inhabitants, killing or enslaving them as necessary for Israel to establish permanent control of the material resources and political spaces represented by the regions of Canaan. The book of Joshua proclaims the rightness of militarized colonization, grounding its inevitability and blessedness in God’s purposes and enacting genocidal warfare in its narratology at the level of character development, discourse, and plot. Within Joshua, we read a justification designed to overcome the implied audience’s horror at the planned annihilation of indigenous noncombatants. (44)
We must acknowledge the violence prompted by means of the coercive rhetoric of Joshua, nearly as pervasive as the violence of events narrated in chapter after chapter. Throughout the book, it is claimed over and over again that to be faithful, the covenant people must give themselves, fully and unflinchingly, to the ideology of militarized colonization and the merciless extermination of indigenous peoples. Those who support the genocidal ideology are portrayed as glorious heroes, as is the case with Joshua and Caleb. (53)
It is clear that land grabbing is at the heart of the biblical narrative (whatever may be historical reality), even while it is given eager theological justification.
There is no doubt, moreover, that the land-grabbing of the book of Joshua became a warrant for the land grabbing of white Europeans, not only in America but in New Zealand and Australia as well. The cry for Lebensraum, made familiar to us by Hitler, is a very old cry that is a deeply engrained in the modern world and our U.S. place with it. Along with “living space,” land is essential for a secure food supply. Thus in her analysis of the expansion of Charlemagne in the eighth-ninth centuries Janet Nelson comments:
The state that inspired him [Charlemagne] was the Christian Roman Empire; a very large state that depended crucially, like all empires, on management of food supplies (Janet Nelson, King and Emperor: A Life of Charlemagne (2019), 297; see also James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States).
Modern states like Saudi Arabia simply continue the practice to do what they deem necessary to assure a reliable food supply, including grabbing the land of others. In the lore of my German antecedents coming to the new world, there is a report of a letter that an early German immigrant, Duden, wrote back to Germany. In the letter, he urged immigration to the new world, precisely to Missouri, because the land was so fertile that one can “grow two potato crops in one season.” Talk about a secure food supply! In many cases of that requirement of new land for more food, acquisition requires wholesale violence. In the case of my antecedents in the new land, this featured systemic violence against Native Americans.
In light of the tradition of aggression for the sake of land and food now being pursued by modern nation states, Pearce turns his attention to the traditional peasant alternative to such aggressive land grabbing in the pursuit of food. His contention is that traditional farming done by agricultural peasants is the most productive of food and the most generative of good land:
Smallholder farming is the solution rather than the problem [says Jules Pretty), a success story waiting to happen. Small farms have great potential to increase their output—but also to raise the incomes and improve the livelihoods and skills of their operators. (301)
In one specific case in rural Nigeria, a peasant farmer asserts:
Crops grow much better with manure … I don’t use chemical fertilizer at all … We can double our yields here easily and improve the environment at the same time. (299)
The contrast between peasant farming and big industrial farming is clear and unambiguous:
Simple measures of tons of grain per acre may suggest big is best. But small farmers bring many other things to the kitchen table. Official statistics often ignore the fact that they use every corner of their plots, planting kitchen gardens where mechanized farms have vehicle yards. They gather fruits from hedge rows. They have chickens running in the yard. They feed animals on farm waste and apply the animals’ manure to their fields. They raise fish in their flooded paddies. Big farmers may have access to more capital. But ultimately their purpose is to generate returns for that capital—to please their investors, rather than to feed families. (295)
In response the former president of the Rockefeller Foundation comments:
[A green revolution] will be driven by smallholders—the 33 million smallholders in Africa with less than two hectares. The people from whom that continent gets 90 percent of its food. It is their productivity that we have to improve. (295)
It is easy enough to ponder this data from Pearce and return to the Naboth story. Let Ahab and Jezebel be a stand-in for big industrial farming, while Naboth a smallholder peasant who treasures his “two hectares” as his inheritance.
The contrast is clear among us now as it was clear then. Of course it is a great leap from Ahab who only wanted a vegetable garden to the present aggression of nation states for food. This is no doubt an over read of the Naboth narrative. But even with his modest claim of Naboth’s property, Ahab embodies the reach of Baalism for self-sufficiency that propels the modern states.
Thus, the Naboth story is a paradigmatic tale that anticipates the contest between two ways of life that now occupies our world economy.
The narrative eventually comes to the role of Elijah. Without him, Ahab could have prevailed and Naboth would have been readily forgotten. So it is among us. Without prophetic alertness marked by courage, the commoditization of land and of people and smallholders will be promptly forgotten. It is the ilk of Elijah who must intervene in order to preclude such prevailing and such forgetting. Pearce quotes a United Nations commentator:
There is a cultural prejudice against peasants … They are seen as backward, not worthy partners. These ideas are self-fulfilling. (293)
Yet another author could assert:
The chief scientist’s planned revolution stands a good chance of making the poor poorer. Big farms and big investment risk exacerbating the trends that bring hunger amid plenty. We could have both more food and more famines. (293)
Biblical faith has a great stake in the role, identity, and vocation of Naboth. He is the point person for a modest way of life that takes seriously the possibilities and the limits of the land as God’s created order. We learn only late and always again that the created order cannot be outflanked with impunity. This is the great nonnegotiable truth voiced by Elijah. No impunity for exploitative pursuit of the land or its “inheritors!” (See Psalm 37:11, Matthew 5:5)
By now you know the primary accent points of my interpretation. Nonetheless, the book by Paul McMahon, Feeding Frenzy: Land Grabs, Price Spikes, and the World Food Crisis (2014), merits attention as a rich and suggestive read (I commend it heartily to you)! McMahon takes a large-scale view of the shape of global food policy and practice and the crisis it has generated.
The baseline for thinking about food production is that there was a time when food was locally produced, distributed, and consumed.
In that practice of food, we can identify the grains that undergirded food usage. In China, it was the “five grains:” wheat, rice, millet, soybean, and sorghum (McMahon 7). In the West, that list would be modified to include potatoes, but the same picture is clear.
The great new fact that has altered the world of food is the capacity to store and export surplus grain (Naboth of course had nothing like that on his horizon, he being a locally oriented peasant farmer). James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, has traced the way in which the capacity to produce, store, and administer grains became the basis of the first great states and empires. This remarkable development is reflected in the Exodus narrative of the Bible that pertains to the slave labor that built the great storehouse cities for the storage of Pharaoh’s grain monopoly (Genesis 47:13-26, Exodus 1:11, 5:4-19).
With a long historical leap, McMahon quotes Dan Morgan who describes “how grain became one of the foundations of the post-war American Empire” (See Dan Morgan, Merchants of Grain: The Power and Profits of the Five Grain Companies at the Center of the World’s Food Supply). This capacity for the storage and export of grain has decisively shifted the reality of food and drawn energy away from local practices of production, distribution, and consumption.
The development of international markets, trade, and export of food caused a great new hunger for land in which farmers were urged to “get big or get out” (Earl Butts). The acquisition of huge tracts of land (that has led to the demise of the “family farm”) has been propelled by the profit-making drive of the great food companies:
Owning and operating farmland is the ultimate form of vertical integration. It allows companies to control every step of the chain from the germination of a seed to the delivery of processed food to the end consumer. The examples given in this chapter are part of a much larger trend of foreign acquisition of farmland, especially in developing countries. Many call them “land grabs.” It is the most controversial and dangerous phenomenon to emerge as a result of the recent food crisis, one that has echoes of darker colonial era. (McMahon, 178-179)
This astonishing land grab has required and evoked a change in the nature of land rights that undermined long-established peasant practices and customs. The new practice has been propelled by profit-seeking agents with whom governmental officials cooperated:
They target poor developing countries where land is cheap or can be obtained for free. They involve a radical change in the nature of land rights, usually a transfer from government or local communities to a foreign company in the form of a long-term lease. Host governments are usually heavily involved as they often hold the rights to the land … They are often externally imposed by government officials who ignore customary land rights and make massive transfers at the stroke of a pen, or by local chiefs who have been seduced by the investor’s chequebook and do not have the best interests of the people at heart. Many foreign investors engage in a sort of sham consultation with local people after the deal has been made — they have no intention of changing their plans. (187, 198)
It takes no imagination at all to see that such vulnerable peasant farmers, not unlike Naboth, have no resources with which to withstand such aggressive economic power. The land grab has been without restraint or limit and is a story of investment for profit:
The investment story presented is usually about buying under-utilized land, investing capital in new seeds, fertilisers, machines or irrigation, and implementing a “modern” high-input, mechanised farming system. This is the sort of narrative financial investors expect to hear, perhaps because it makes farming sound like the industrial sectors they are used to investing in. (258)
It is not at all a surprise, then, that the land (along with its present occupants) has been exploited and abused, over-farmed for the sake of over-production. McMahon describes the way in which land degradation and land depletion operate, as the pressure for production and profit override all other concerns:
A more insidious threat is land degradation. It happens inch by inch, soil particle by soil particle, so slowly that a farmer, like the metaphorical frog in boiling water, is unaware of what is happening until it is too late. Soils can lose their fertility as their composition and structure alter, or they can disappear altogether through the effects of wind or water erosion. (65)
The phrase “soil particle by soil particle” calls to mind the insistence of Wendell Berry who has said that the recovery of the environment will come, not by some ambitious government program, but rather “one acre at a time.”
But of course loss of one “soil particle” at a time or the recovery of “one acre at a time” is much too slow and too modest for the great engines of profit.
The insistent and recurring question for those who care is how to develop and fund an alternative policy of production (and land care) that will stop the destruction of the land and interrupt the present economics that has refused sustainable food policy. McMahon nicely identifies the “five processes” that constitute the basis for a farming system:
Selecting plants and animals, managing water, renewing fertility, protecting from pests and applying power. (9)
These ingredients of practice and policy are to be kept in purview as we consider how land and food might be cared for and produced in an alternative way. It is not difficult to see how these five processes are factored out by the great “Merchants of Grain.” But the “merchants of grain” characteristically want speed and scale that are unmistakably contrary to both good food production and good land management.
It will not be a surprise that the likely viable alternative to the current profit-driven food policy and practice is a refocus on “small farms” that have been disdained by the “merchants of grain.” Thus McMahon concludes:
An alternative way forward ... could result in a more benign scenario. Two major themes stand out. The first is the need to help small farmers in poor countries to produce more food. This can kick-start a virtuous cycle of rural and urban development in these countries, while reducing their dependence on rich-country surpluses. The second theme is the importance of switching to agro-ecological farming systems that use fewer non-renewable resources, pollute less and enhance the fertility of the land, while still producing sufficient quantities of food. (267)
There is nothing remote or hidden about these two proposals. They are doable once we are free from the compulsions scale and speed according to the rhythms of creation. The current global system of food is not working:
The global food system of the early twenty-first century was both impoverishing and starving one-eighth of humanity, while leaving an even larger number overweight and at risk of disease. The equilibrium that had emerged was unjust, even perverse. But it was also unstable ... Many systems of food production are unsustainable. Without change, the global food system will continue to degrade the environment and compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in the future, as well as contributing to climate change and the destruction of biodiversity. (45, 69)
This leads McMahon to conclude:
Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore. (69)
And then McMahon adds this powerful insight:
There is a strong economic rationale for placing ecology at the heart of agriculture. Profitability in farming is driven not by high yields but by good margins, the difference between the price a farmer gets and the cost of production. (258)
This is a remarkable and important correction to the uncritical assumption of “food to scale,” that high yield is the single goal that matters. McMahon sees that it is not the size of the yield but the margin between cost and price that makes the difference to the farmer. As Berry saw long ago, a highly mechanized farm system requires investment in equipment that is incommensurate with the reality of much farm income.
While current commitment to scale, speed, and high yield is endlessly demanding, we may come to our senses with the recognition that food production must soon or late, of necessity, be in sync with the potential, requirements, and limits of the creation as food-giving land. Land as creation has the potential for abundance, but land also has limits; unless and until those limits are acknowledged, the potential of abundance is short-term and uncertain. The land as creation has its own requirements that must be heeded. The Promethean technological capacity of our present world food system has assumed that these requirements can be disregarded and outflanked.
But we know better than that!
Thus, we may draw two conclusions. First: this is, to be sure, a lot to impose on the Naboth narrative. I do so because Naboth serves well as a peasant farmer who wanted only to care for, treasure, and honor his inheritance. It is impossible to imagine that Naboth could care about speed, scale, or high yield. One could imagine, rather, that Naboth would have easily resonated with that other peasant farmer, Micah of Moresheth, the poet, who anticipated a viable local economy outside the arms race of his king:
But they shall sit under their own vines and their own fig trees,
and none shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Micah 4:4)
(Note well that this verse is missing in the same oracle from the urban prophet, Isaiah in 2:2-4). The additional verse from Micah exhibits the imagination of a peasant farmer who has no inclination for the global food system, but who is content with local food production, the kind that would indeed feed the world.
Second, alternative food policy required for the sake of adequate food and adequate land management is not simply a shift of aims. Beyond any shift of resources, what is required is an act of imagination that lies beyond the horizon of the great grain merchants. That act of imagination can be evoked by giving voice to peasant wisdom that is local, modest, and frugal in a way that appears from the outside as parsimonious. Peasant wisdom is in deep tension with the insistent advocacies of the technological sector that is variously glib, over-confident, self-indulgent, and excessively self-assured. It is certain that this required act of imagination must come from outside the ideology of scale, speed, and high yield.
It is (surprise!) the work of the faith communities funded by the alternative text of the Bible to seed such counter-imagination.
The text entrusted to us is grounded in the claim of God the creator who will not be mocked. This is the God who wills abundance but who keeps the neighbor always in purview, and who intends that creation itself be treated in neighborly ways. At the center of the claim of faith concerning creation is the glad affirmation that the creation, in all its dimensions, belongs to the creator God. A pause in scale, speed, and high yield is essential to the slow down required for recognition of the creator and of the world as God’s creation. It is undoubtedly the case that the practice of local food is in sync with the will of the creator. Naboth understood that in his peasant bones. It is no wonder that the king, committed to scale, speed, and high yield, by the end of the narrative is held under by the severe truth-telling judgment of Elijah.
By contrast we may indeed imagine the murdered Naboth joining the song of Francis:
All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing,
O brother sun with golden beam,
O sister moon with silver gleam…
O brother wind with clouds and rain,
you nurture gifts of fruit and grain,
O sister water, flowing clear,
make music for our Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia! (Glory to God, 15)
The glad utterance of “alleluia” (praise YHWH!) is a ready recognition of the penultimate status of all creatures, a willingness to be on the receiving end of life, and an acknowledgement of the limits of every Promethean temptation. In that world of glad “alleluia,” Ahab’s land grabbing cannot finally prevail.
In that world, moreover, Naboth will not finally be forgotten or nullified.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.
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