It all started with a tomato sandwich.
Ahab had grown up in the city. He didn't know much about life in the country. But when he visited some of his cousins in the valley, they took him out to the garden where he could see those ripe, red tomatoes hanging heavy on the vine, warmed by the sun. They picked a few of the biggest ones and brought them into the house, put them on the kitchen counter, and then showed Ahab how to cut off a juicy, half-inch-thick slab and lay it carefully on a fresh, white slice of Wonder bread. They showed him how to spread Duke's mayonnaise on another slice of bread, sprinkle on a little salt and pepper, and then put the sandwich together. And when he took the first bite, when he inhaled the aroma of fresh bread and real mayonnaise and then felt that sweet, acidic, burst of tomato flavor on his tongue, the surprising contrast of textures, the warm juice trickling down his chin--he knew that he had to have tomato sandwiches for the rest of his life.
When he got back to the palace in Samaria, he asked his chef to fix him one, but it wasn't the same. There was a lot of fanfare, a big, showy presentation as the chef rolled in a cart and lifted the silver dome from the plate. But when Ahab bit into the sandwich, the bread was crusty and hard. The chef had put some kind of fancy Dijon mustard on it, and the tomato itself tasted like plastic. Ahab missed the simple pleasure of Wonder bread and Duke's mayonnaise, but most of all he missed those big, beefy, vine-ripened tomatoes. "You just can't get good tomatoes at the store," the chef protested. "They import them--green--from Egypt!" And so Ahab began to dream of having his own garden. He sent away for the Burpee seed catalogue; and at night he would lie beside his wife, Jezebel, in their big, king-size bed, reading the descriptions aloud. "Listen to this," he would say, as if he were reading poetry, "'The Big Mama Hybrid is an enormous plum tomato that's incredibly sweet and meaty.' Mmm. Or this one: 'The Fourth of July Hybrid is the first tomato to ripen by Independence Day. Be the first on your block to pick a ripe tomato.' Oh, and this one, this is the best one of all: 'Burpee's Burger Hybrid is a better beefsteak--very early to fruit, with firm succulent slices perfect for sandwiches, grilling or salads.' Doesn't that sound delicious?" But by then Jezebel would have turned off the lamp on her side of the bed and put the pillow over her head to muffle the sound of his reading.
Of course it was too late to get started that summer, but Ahab began to scout out a site for next year's vegetable garden. He had his driver take him all around the outlying regions of Samaria, out across the broad Jezreel Valley. There were plenty of good places for a garden, but none that really suited him. Too big, too far away, too . . . something. And then one morning as he was putting on his robe, he happened to glance out the bedroom window and saw Naboth down there working in his vineyard, pruning back some of those ancient vines and whistling while he worked. The vineyard backed right up against the palace wall, where it had always been, but it was like the nose on your face, you know? So familiar that you don't even notice it anymore. "There it is!" Ahab thought. Naboth's vineyard. The perfect size, the perfect location. All he would have to do is pull up those vines and plow up the ground, till it, smooth it, put in some hothouse tomato plants next spring and by summer he would have all the tomatoes he could eat. Without a moment's hesitation Ahab cinched up his robe and hurried down the stairs, out the back door, and into the vineyard.
"Naboth!" he yelled. "Hey, Naboth!"
"Yes?" Naboth answered, puzzled.
"I'm just curious. What would you take for this vineyard?" Ahab asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Oh, I couldn't take anything for it," Naboth said, wiping the back of his neck. "This vineyard has been in my family for generations. It was planted by my great, great, great. . ."
"Oh come on," said Ahab, impatiently. "I'll pay you for it. Or I'll give you another vineyard--a bigger one. Name your price."
But Naboth was shocked by the very suggestion. "God forbid that I sell off the family vineyard," he said. "As I told you, it's been in the family for generations. I'm planning to pass it along to my own son someday."
And then Naboth turned and went back to his work. But he wasn't whistling anymore.
Do you know how it is when you're looking for a house and you find one that would be perfect, at an unbelievable price, only to discover that someone else just signed a contract on it? Or when you've interviewed for a job--the perfect job--and you've got your fingers crossed hoping you'll get it when a letter comes that says, "We've decided to go in a different direction." Or when the girl who said yes when you proposed begins to have second thoughts and eventually breaks off the engagement so she can marry your best friend. It doesn't take long to fall in love with a dream, to imagine how everything is going to be different and better as soon as that dream comes true. And when something happens to that dream--when it dies for whatever reason--the grief that goes with it is real.
Ahab hadn't wanted that vineyard very long, but he had wanted it as much as he had ever wanted anything in his life. When he learned he couldn't have it, he took to his bed and refused to eat. He turned his face to the wall and wouldn't talk to anyone. He wouldn't return phone calls, wouldn't answer his e-mail. I know, I know. It sounds a little silly to get yourself into such a full-blown pout over a vineyard. But I'm guessing that Ahab is not the only one among us who ever took to his bed because he couldn't get what he wanted. The death of a dream can do that to you--and more.
For a while Jezebel just let Ahab be, not sure quite what to do, but finally she came in and sat on the edge of the bed, running her fingers through his hair.
"What's the matter, baby?" she cooed. "Tell mama all about it."
Ahab didn't say anything at first. He just lay there loving the fact that someone had noticed how miserable he was. At last he mumbled into his pillow: "Naboth."
"What's that?" Jezebel asked.
"Naboth," he said again, turning toward her. "He won't give me his vineyard. I offered to pay him for it, give him another vineyard in exchange, but he wouldn't even discuss it, the stubborn fool!"
"Well!" said Jezebel, a little surprised. "Aren't you the king of Israel? Don't you make the rules around here? The nerve of that Naboth! Listen, why don't you get up and get dressed, get a little something to eat. If you want that vineyard, I will give it to you myself!" And with that she leaned over, gave him a peck on the cheek, and walked out of the bedroom like a woman on a mission.
She went straight to Ahab's study, took out a few creamy sheets of the royal stationery and a Montblanc fountain pen and immediately wrote letters to the elders and nobles of Samaria. "I need you to do me a favor," she wrote, as if she were Ahab. "I need you to declare a fast, call a solemn assembly, put Naboth front and center, and when he's there, I need you to have a couple of scoundrels accuse him of cursing God and the king. After that take him out and stone him to death." And then she signed the letters with Ahab's name, sealed them with Ahab's seal. And because Ahab was the king of Israel, the thing was done with no questions asked. They declared a fast in Samaria. They called a solemn assembly. Naboth was seated front and center. Two scoundrels got up and swore that he had cursed God and the king. Now the Bible said that if just one person testified against you he couldn't be trusted, but if two people testified against you, well then . . .
it must be true. The crowd could hardly believe its ears. They had known Naboth all his life, but they had never known him like this. They let out an angry shout and rushed upon him, determined that justice would be done. They dragged him outside the city walls and in a rage heaved heavy, jagged stones at him until his bones were shattered, his skull was crushed, and his body lay in a bloody, broken heap. Word quickly got back to Jezebel that Naboth was . . . no more.
And so she breezed into the royal bedroom, all smiles. She pulled back the draperies and opened the windows, letting the fresh air and sunshine fill the room. "Ahab!" she said, in her little singsong voice, "Ahab, get up! You've got a vineyard to inspect."
"What?" Ahab asked, rubbing his eyes. "A vineyard?"
"It's the strangest thing," Jezebel said, shaking her head. "Naboth dropped dead, just like that," she said, snapping her fingers. And Ahab didn't even pretend to be sorry. A slow smile spread across his face and then he threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. "Well," he said, pulling on his overalls. "Looks like I need to go take possession of a vineyard!"
And that's when the word of the Lord came to Elijah.
"I need you to go down to Samaria," the Lord told him. "I need you to have a word with Ahab, who is even now ripping up Naboth's vineyard by the roots. I need you to give him this message for me." And then God whispered in Elijah's ear what he needed Elijah to say; and without a word Elijah got up, fetched his walking stick, and started down the road to Samaria. Ahab saw him coming and stomped over to the edge of the vineyard to meet him.
"What do you want, you troubler of Israel?" he demanded.
"I want to tell you something," Elijah said. "I want you to know that God sees everything, and that even what you do in secret is known to him. I want you to know that God has rules about the proper uses of power, and about protecting the rights of the weak. I want you to know that there is a little thing called justice in this land, and God has called on me to proclaim it. Oh, and one more thing," Elijah said, before he turned to go. "In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, they will lick up your blood, too. Don't try to pretend that you weren't in on this the whole time." And then Elijah started up the road toward home leaving Ahab to consider all that he had been promised--judgment, wrath, death.
To think that it had started with a tomato sandwich.
It's not hard to get exactly what you want. All you have to have is a little power, which you can get in any number of ways. You can get it by having some money, or by getting promoted, by being elected to public office, or by being made king. And then you have to have an accomplice of some kind--someone who will stand by your side and support your decisions, encourage them, take action on them, maybe even justify them. And then you need to be willing to bend, or even break, a few little rules, like the one about not coveting your neighbor's possessions or bearing false witness against him. Maybe even the one about not murdering. It's not that hard to get exactly what you want. What's hard is giving God exactly what he wants. It contradicts our human nature.
I've been trying to think what God would have wanted in this story, and I think he would have wanted Ahab to love his neighbor as he loved himself. The more I think about it the more I think this story could have turned out differently than it did. Ahab could have looked out the window and seen Naboth down there, tending his vineyard. He could have noticed that it was the perfect place to grow tomatoes. And then, without a moment's hesitation, he could have cinched up his robe, hurried down the stairs, out the back door, and into the vineyard.
"Naboth!" he might have said. "Hey, Naboth!"
"Listen, I ordered these tomato seeds from the Burpee catalogue. I've been looking for a place to plant them, but I can't seem to find anything suitable. You've got a nice spot here. I thought maybe you could use them."
"Well, thank you!" Naboth might have said.
And not that year but the next Naboth might have put those seeds into little paper cups and set them up on the windowsill in his kitchen. And when they got big enough, he might have planted them in a corner of the vineyard where they could get plenty of sun. And when the tomatoes got ripe, he might have taken a big basket full to Ahab, as a sort of a thank you gift. And Ahab might have said, "Let me show you something, Naboth," and taken him into the kitchen to make two of the most delicious tomato sandwiches that have ever been made, Duke's mayonnaise and all. Can you picture the two of them sitting there at the kitchen table, eating those sandwiches with the juice dripping down their chins, laughing and talking like old friends? And isn't that a better ending than the one we have in this story from 1 Kings 21, where the dogs have licked up Naboth's blood and Ahab is next?
It's not hard to get exactly what you want. What's hard is to give God exactly what he wants. But if we could do it, we might discover that that's how to get exactly what we need.