I was reading 1 Kings 21 today as part of my daily Bible reading. This is the story of Ahab and his at first unsuccessful attempt to purchase Naboth’s vineyard. When Naboth refused to sell, Ahab, as wicked as he was, initially accepted the refusal and went home depressed. It illustrated that even the kings of the Northern, breakaway kingdom of Israel were influenced by the rules for kings found in Deuteronomy 17, which stated that kings were subject to the law and were not to think of themselves as better than their fellow Israelites (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). His wife, Jezebel, the queen, was a non-Israelite and the daughter of non-Israelite royalty, and so behaved in a non-Israelite royal fashion: the whim of the king was the law and so she just took the vineyard by having Naboth killed.
Then, intriguingly, the text informs us:
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’” (1 Kings 21:17-19 TNIV). Jezebel had the man killed, but Ahab is blamed for his murder and is held accountable for it. How come?
Jezebel told him that she would get the vineyard for him (1 Kings 21:7). According to Numbers 30, a woman was obligated to fulfill her vows only if her father agreed or said nothing, or if she was married, her husband agreed or said nothing. If the patriarch in her family refused to agree to her vow, then her vow was abrogated. In the patriarchal society of ancient Israel (and the world, for that matter, through most of its history) women were subject to men. So God protected the women: since the men wanted to be in charge, then anything that happened, it was always the man’s fault. Fathers are held accountable for how the children turn out–see for example Eli (1 Samuel 3:13), Samuel (1 Samuel 8:1-5) and David (1 Kings 1:6). The mothers are never mentioned or blamed. It’s always the father’s fault. So if the wife commits murder, as in the case of Jezebel, it’s her husband that gets blamed. If you want to be the boss, then you have to accept the responsibility that goes with it.
In modern western societies, men and women are, at least before the law, equal; women no longer kowtow to men. This is a good thing. Society has advanced some over the centuries, thankfully. Interpretation of biblical passages must make allowance for the differences in cultural context. Those that imagine women must be subject to men mistake the culture of the ancient world with God’s ideal. God worked with people as they were, and worked to transform them, and to protect the weak and oppressed in the meantime as much as possible.