Search the Site


Naboth’s Trial

Naboth’s trial, even though it is a sham, has a sound legal claim and follows proper legal procedure.

Middle Assyrian Laws (Tablet A). 12th century B.C.E.
Middle Assyrian Laws (Tablet A). 12th century B.C.E. Photograph by Olaf Tessmer. Burnt clay tablet

The biblical story of Naboth’s vineyard (1Kgs 21), tells how Ahab, king of Israel, and his wife, Jezebel, arrange for Naboth to be convicted of blasphemy against God and king, in order to take possession of his property.  The trial that Ahab and Jezebel arrange, even though it is a sham, actually obeys proper procedural rules. Jezebel convenes the “elders and nobles” before whom Naboth is to be denounced (1Kgs 21:9-10) and Naboth’s accusers testify against him “in the presence of the people” (1Kgs 21:13).

In the book of Deuteronomy, the elders hear accusations prior to a criminal’s execution: the “stubborn and rebellious son” is stoned to death only after his parents appear with him before the elders (Deut 21:18-21; compare the case of the “slandered bride” in Deut 22:13-21). Similarly, in Deuteronomy and elsewhere, the community, not just the elders, is present to validate public hearings, trials, and executions (see Num 35:24, Deut 17:5-7). The presence of the elders and the community ensures that the charge against Naboth—trumped up, of course—will be lodged in a venue with legal standing.

For an accusation to stick, it must not only be made in a proper venue; it must also follow the proper procedure. To this end, Jezebel specifies that there be two witnesses, not just one, to accuse Naboth. This brings the process into line with biblical laws that explicitly prohibit punishment on the basis of just one accuser’s word (Num 35:30, Deut 17:6-7). By requiring corroborating testimony, these laws guard against false accusations and a rush to punishment. Thus, Naboth’s two false accusers subvert these laws’ very purpose!

Apart from these procedural matters, the charge itself, had it been true, would have had the legal outcomes that Jezebel and Ahab imagined. Had Naboth actually “cursed God and the king” (1Kgs 21:10, 1Kgs 21:13), he would have been executed, like the man who blasphemes God in Lev 24:10­-16 and Ahimelech the priest of Nob, whom Saul executes as a traitor for harboring the fugitive David (1Sam 22:9-19). Furthermore, ancient Near Eastern legal records show that the property of those executed for treason was transferred to the king. One legal text from 593 B.C.E. records that the famous Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 B.C.E.) executed a man for treason, took control of his land, and transferred ownership to a temple in the city of Borsippa. According to a provision of the Middle Assyrian Laws (14th century B.C.E.),

If a man, who has not yet received his inheritance share, speaks treason or flees, the disposition of his inheritance share shall be determined by the king.

Like Ahab, the Assyrian king assumes control of the traitor’s inheritance property, in place of the traitor and any other heirs. By convicting Naboth in a kangaroo court before his execution, Ahab and Jezebel attempt to launder their corruption in the machinery of justice. Their accusation is rooted in law, but so is the punishment God metes out to them. False accusation, according to the Bible and other ancient legal sources, entailed “do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other” (Deut 19:19). Moreover, abuse of royal power, in the Bible and elsewhere, was subject to punishment directly from God, the ultimate judge.

  • Shalom E. Holtz

    Shalom E. Holtz is associate professor of Bible and chair of the Robert M. Beren Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. He is the author of Neo-Babylonian Court Procedure (Brill, 2009) and Neo Babylonian Trial Records (Society of Biblical Literature, 2014) and coeditor, with Ari Mermelstein, of The Divine Courtroom in Comparative Perspective (Brill, 2015).