Among villains of the Bible few stand out as infamously as Jezebel and her husband King Ahab of Samaria. The name “Jezebel” became—quite justly—a byword for an evil, conniving woman. One of the most notorious stories involving Ahab and Jezebel illustrates well the dangers of the breakdown of law and the necessity of personal virtue to uphold the rule of law and to serve as a brake on growing state power.
The Bible records that King Ahab had his eye on a particular plot of land:
Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And after this Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.’ (1 Kings 21:1–3, ESV)
I suppose we could commend Ahab for his agrarian desire for a vegetable garden. And his offer to Naboth for the vineyard seems fair on its face, a land swap or outright purchase for cash. Perhaps Ahab’s “better vineyard” really was a superior grape producer. But Naboth’s land was his by heritage. It was wrong for him to sell it.
Ahab’s reaction to Naboth’s rejection was to sulk. “And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food (v. 4).” But Jezebel gave Ahab hope—“I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” What follows is a despicable abuse of state power for personal aggrandizement, but one that was only possible if others were willing to ignore the rule of law and their own obligation to be honest men.
To fulfill her promise to Ahab, Jezebel sent letters under the seal of the king to the elders of Naboth’s city with orders for false witnesses to be brought against Naboth. These “worthless men” would charge blasphemy. Naboth was to be executed. “And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them….So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones (21:11a, 13b).” Jezebel triumphantly brought the news to her husband, and Ahab took possession of the vineyard that had been in Naboth’s family for generations.
The story clearly illustrates the dangers of autocratic executive power. God had warned Israel about this. When united Israel demanded a king, God told them the king “will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants (1 Samuel 8:14, cf., vs. 10–18).”
But the kings of Israel (and Judah) were not given absolute power. They were, in essence, constitutional monarchs. Not checked by a legislature but rather by the law of God, which predated the monarchy itself. Because of Israel’s unique covenant status, it was a law both moral and civil. But the civil law could not function unless the moral law was followed.
The check, then, on the power of Ahab and Jezebel came down to the integrity of the elders and subjects of Israel. The outward form of the law was acknowledged—a trial and witnesses. But that form had no life unless the elders were willing to say “no” to Jezebel’s order and withstand the implicit threat to them that stood behind it.
Jezebel used her power to commit murder. Even King David, a man after God’s own heart, found the ability to toss aside human life for his own ends irresistible when he ordered Uriah to his death so he could cover up his adultery with Bathsheba. As Lord Acton taught, power does indeed corrupt.
The Proverbs tell us, “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan (29:2).” A righteous citizenry is the final check on a corrupt government and thus the last line of defense for the rule of law. When leaders inevitably violate legal boundaries, they will only be stopped by those with enough integrity and courage to withstand them. If that integrity is not in the people, then neither will it be in the government. Jezebel and Ahab proved that leaders will reflect the virtue of the people, or the people have the government that they deserve.