Naboth’s Vineyard (1 Ki 21) and Methods of Interpretation

The Construction of a King (Interfaces) Jerome T. Walsh, OT scholar and professor, has done some fine work in the area of OT narrative, language, and structure. While studying the life/ministry of Elijah, I ran across a helpful article by Walsh in the Journal of Biblical Literature 111.2 (1992): 193-211, called “Methods and Meanings: Multiple Studies of 1 Kings 21.” One thing I found helpful in this article is the point that different methods of interpretation need not be opposed to one another. Walsh shows this by approaching 1 Ki 21 from a stylistic, syntagmatic, and paradigmatic analyses (stylistic = surface and general structure of the text; syntagmatic = plot, motif, resolution, etc; paradigmatic = deep structure of the text, including relationships of characters, etc.).

For example, the stylistic aspect of this chapter “demonstrates the symmetrical construction of both parts of the story and the numerous parallels that unite the two parts and balance them against one another. The chiastic arrangement of scenes calls attention to the central subunits of each part, and close reading reveals the way those subunits shape the reading of the entire text. Of particular note is the way these subunits work against the narrative quality of the chapter to elicit the reader’s reflection and judgment” (201-2).

The syntagmatic analysis of this text deals with the flow of the narrative. For example, “Naboth is named more often (seventeen times) than Ahab and Jezebel combined (fourteen times)! Even after Naboth is dead, he is named six times in three verses (vv 14-16); he haunts the story like an unpeacable ghost” (204). In this section, Walsh also notes the ironic eating motif in 1 Ki 21. Ahab goes from wanting a vineyard to a childish fast; Jezebel calls an illegal fast which results Naboth going hungry and Ahab eating once again. Naboth’s blood is unfortunately consumed by dogs. Later on, Elijah rebukes Ahab: dogs will consume/eat you and Jezebel – and your posterity! Again, in a childish way, Ahab fasts and sulks and later he and his wife and descendants are consumed (205).

The paradigmatic analysis has to do with the fundamental nature of the narrative (206). This analysis shows that in some respects Ahab is in control, in some he is not; in some respects Naboth is the enemy, in some he is the hero. In this analysis we are left wondering if Ahab’s *repentance* is “any less self-serving than his earlier petulance” (tantrum) (208). Furthermore, by telling the story we accomplish the “completion” of it. Ahab’s story is complete: he is/will be judged for wickedness. Naboth’s story is not, but by reading the story we note the injustice, that Naboth ought to have kept his vineyard (Ibid.). Naboth is innocent.

If this is somewhat confusing, the elements of Walsh’s article are things we hopefully do as we study any text in Scripture (primarily narratives). We might not label things in such a detailed manner, but we do try to see what’s going on at different “levels” of the text (not levels as in levels of contradictory meaning, but levels as in different approaches to map-making: topography, geography, precipitation, etc.). Walsh is clear: “All three synchronic (my note – reading/studying the text ‘as is’) methods produce a strongly unified reading of the entire chapter” (208). “Though they are compatible, each insight is unique” (211). Finally, “the method itself, therefore, exercises some control over the way a reader construes a text and over the meaning he or she eventually actualizes” (Ibid.).

To sum this all up, first of all the article is a “must read” if you are studying 1 Ki 21 (don’t miss the footnotes!). It offers quite a few insights into the Naboth story that are easy to pass by. It also shows how the three afore-named analyses are “done” and how they are helpful when “done” rightly. Finally, the article doesn’t tear the text into shreds which the reader must scotch-tape back into place.

Be sure to check out other materials written by Walsh: he’s contributed to the Berith Olam series, and has a few helpful books published by Liturgical Press.

shane lems

sunnyside wa