Each morning at the 2020 Bartimaeus Kinsler Institute, Ched Meyers led a Bible study that framed our analytical discourse around settler colonialism. On Tuesday, he offered “Naboth’s nahala: Tale of Two Queens (An Archetypal Parable of Settler Colonialism).” The story of Naboth’s vineyard (I Kings 21:1-24), in short, is this:
King Ahab really wants Naboth’s nahala (property or inheritance) – a vineyard. He desires this “property” so much that when Naboth is unwilling to trade or sell it, he heeds the advice of his wife, Queen Jezebel, and hires two “scoundrels” to bring a criminal charge against Naboth in public and then stone him to death. Upon Naboth’s death, Ahab seizes the coveted vineyard. When Ahab encounters Elijah the Tishbite in the vineyard, the Lord decrees to Ahab through Elijah that, “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” The details and severity of Ahab’s curse extend to all his people, “bond or free,” as well as to Jezebel.
After explicating this Bible story, Ched drew a parallel to the illegal overthrow by the U.S. of the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893, citing Queen Lili’uokalani’s plea to the U.S. government:
“Oh, honest Americans, as Christians, hear me for my downtrodden people. Do not covet the little vineyard of Naboth’s, so far from your shores, lest the instrument of Ahab fall upon you, if not on your day in that of your children.
The children to whom our fathers told of the living God . . . are crying aloud to Him in their time of trouble; and He will keep His promise and will listen to the voices of His Hawaiian children lamenting for their homes.”
What is the lesson of Naboth’s vineyard? And why does Queen Lili’uokalani call upon the U.S. government to heed this lesson?
To answer these questions, I am drawn to recall yovel (the Jubilee year, every 49/50 years) within Hebraic society. During yovel, fences are taken down, the land is let to rest from agricultural toil, slaves and indentured servants are released, debts are forgiven, and all land properties are returned to their original owners, in this case kinship groups within tribes. One of the results of the practice of yovel is that humans, animals, plants, and all of Creation are cyclically returned from hierarchies of dominion to relations of equity and reciprocity. The concept of “property” in Hebraic thought, therefore, is inherently imbued with temporary status; the land is Creator’s, not that of any one individual or group.
From this understanding of nahala, one can conclude that Queen Lili’uokalani was calling upon “honest Americans, as Christians” to remember the biblical nature of human relationships with land. She was also calling upon hearts and minds within the U.S. government to heed the warning of I Kings 21 – to recognize that their own God will see to it that they reap the violence they sow.
A Tale of Two Queens thus becomes a warning parable for settler colonialism. As people sourcing wisdom and strength from our Jewish and Christian traditions, we are implored to take stock of the Naboth’s vineyards in our own lives. We are guided to question whether the places we covet or consider our own were ever ours to begin with. And we are called to answer with humility and bare, honest self-assessment: What is my just inheritance and what burden shall I bear for it?
Learn more about the BKI and its parent organization Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries. The photo featured at the top of this post is by indigenous Australian artist Safina Stewart (nee Fergie). She painted “Bartimaeus Billabong” for the 2019 BKI.