In my reading of Hillel Millgram’s The Elijah Enigma I come to the story of Naboth’s vineyard and 1 Kings 21.
There are conversations recounted: Ahab with Naboth, Ahab with himself, and Ahab with Jezebel. There are also letters that Jezebel supposedly wrote. The author of 1 Kings uses all this as a literary device. He does not possess transcripts. But there is something true and probably historical that comes through. That is the cultural difference between Phoenicians and Israelites.
When Ahab makes an offer to buy Naboth’s land in 21:2, he offers an exchange of land for land. Paying silver seems like an afterthought.
But when Ahab retells the story of the offer to Jezebel in verse 6, he says he made the cash offer first. He tailored his story to Jezebel’s Phoenician economics where money mattered more than land. But this is not the way Israelites thought. The land was a gift from God. (Or, perhaps in the older form of religion in the north, it was a gift from God through ancestors now thought of as demigods.)
In any case, to the Phoenicians, to have an offer of cash rejected was unreasonable and an insult.
Millgram, although he knows that the conversations and letters are literary devices, still considers these events with a kind of historical naivete. It looks to me like the whole story has been backwritten by someone who knew how Naboth died and how Jezebel died. He also knew about land-grabbing by royal officials as condemned by many prophets, especially Micah. He plausibly traced this practice back to Phoenician influence.
Maybe he knew more. Maybe he had some account of what the charges against Naboth were. The charge in verse 10 is that he had offended Elohim and Melech, translated as God and the king. This seems to echo Exodus 22:28 from the Covenant Code. However, if these charges were made under Phoenician influence, the Elohim could be interpreted as a true plural: gods, judges or spirit-ancestors. And the god of Tyre was Melqart, literally milik-qurt, “King of the City”. That is suggestive.
Millgram is interested in Ahab’s motivation.
Why did he want Naboth’s farm so badly? Naboth’s land abutted Ahab’s winter palace. He wanted to plant a vegetable garden (v. 2). That sounds trivial and maybe it was meant to. A man was lynched because the king wanted greens for his table. Millgram thinks it had more to do with the king’s landscaping plans. In a footnote, he considers another theory: that Ahab wanted Naboth’s estate in order to gift it to a loyal general or official.
In any case Ahab fell into a funk, went to bed, turned his face to the wall, and wouldn’t get up even to eat (v. 4) until Jezebel reported Naboth’s death.
Millgram considers how Ahab’s petty and passive behavior seems to contrast with the portrait of a decisive and aggressive leader that we have seen in the stories about his wars.
This causes Millgram to see that he cannot take the story entirely at face value. Ahab was an expert at covering up his involvement, at keeping his hands clean. So the story as we have it, with Jezebel as the arch-villain, may have come to us that way because Ahab was so good at covering up his role.
This is especially likely because, once Elijah confronts him, Ahab does not put the blame off on Jezebel. He seems to take responsibility and fully repent.
Elijah has pronounced doom. This still applies to Jezebel and the house of Omri. However, God will spare Ahab. This does not keep the exilic author from repeating his judgment that Ahab was worse than all the other kings (v. 25).
Thinking about this causes me to reconsider the meaning of “the blood of Jezreel” in Hosea 1:4. We shall see that 1 Kings affirms the murders committed by Jehu in the overthrow of the Omride dynasty. Hosea doesn’t. Usually interpreters take the “blood of Jezreel” to mean the blood Jehu shed all over the Jezreel valley. But the phrase may have originally applied to the city of Jezreel. Perhaps it was a phrase that first referred to the murder of Naboth as the reason for the fall of the Omrides. But Hosea broadened the term to include even the death of Jezebel in the context of the fall of house of Jehu.