Land as a Gift from God
A recurring Old Testament motif is God's concern for the distribution of land. After the conquest of Canaan every tribe and family received a parcel of land. God decreed that these allotments were not to pass out of the hands of the family: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me" (Leviticus 25:23).
Yahweh required that the land be used to establish a just society in which everyone had equal access to the earth's fruits. The Israelites' neglect of this land stewardship became for God's judgment on them:
Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 5:8).
In the New Testament, Jesus was concerned with the intent of God's law, and the laws regarding land remind us that such resources are a gift of God intended for equal use by all. The possession of land brings with it a mission and obligation to make of it what God intends. In one of the darker aspects of North American history, we have repeatedly denied the native peoples access to the products of the land. The words of Micah accurately depict our actions:
They covet fields, and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress people and their houses, people and their inheritances. (Micah 2:2).
Since our livelihood today is no longer derived directly from the soil, it is not essential that every family retain its plot of land. However, for the Inuit, the Cree, the Yukon Indians, the Dene, and the other native peoples of North America, the land still plays an important role in their prosperity. If they lose their land, they lose their spiritual and physical lives.
The story of Ahab and Naboth (1 Kings 21) takes on frightening relevance for the present situation. The parallels between this story and our treatment of native peoples first confronted me when I read Walter Brueggemann's exegesis of it in The Land.
The story begins when King Ahab wishes to purchase the vineyard of Naboth in order to make a vegetable garden for himself. He is at first quite willing to acquire the land in an honest manner and offers Naboth a reasonable price or another vineyard of more than equal value. But Naboth refuses to negotiate, stating, "The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers."
Ahab's request and Naboth's reply reflect two contrasting views of land ownership. For Naboth the land is an inalienable inheritance. He adheres to the old traditions which assert that land is not to be freely bought or sold but is to remain in the possession of the family which originally owned it. Naboth accepts the land as a gift from God, knowing that since he is not its ultimate owner his duty is to hold the gift in trust so that future generations may also benefit from it.
Ahab, on the other hand, considers the land to be a commodity to be bought or sold at will. Today we would describe him as an honest capitalist willing to make an equitable transaction. Because of his ideas about land, he finds it difficult to understand Naboth. However, Ahab appears to be aware of the old Israelite traditions, for he reluctantly accepts Naboth's rejection of his offer.
His wife Jezebel, being of foreign background, has no such respect for the laws of Yahweh. Her belief in the prerogative of government to acquire what it pleases resembles that of many modern politicians. She asks her husband, "Are you or are you not king in Israel?" In her opinion the king is above the laws which regulate the lives of ordinary individuals.
The royal couple proceeds with a scheme to acquire the vineyard. They order the elders of the city to proclaim a fast. When a disaster such as drought, plague, or oppression by foreign enemies struck a city or district, it was common to proclaim a day of mourning and fasting. Its purpose was to give the people an opportunity to confess their guilt and ask God to relieve the punishment which had been inflicted on them. Naturally, on such occasions the people would also seek to discover what sin had brought on the calamity.
In this emotional atmosphere it was relatively easy for Jezebel's two false witnesses to convince the assembly that Naboth was the guilty one responsible for bringing the evil on the city. He was convicted of cursing God and the king and was stoned to death. Since the property of treasonous individuals reverted to the crown, Ahab was then free to take possession of the vineyard.
Jezebel's sinister attitude toward the law is illustrated in the way she uses the letter of the law to accomplish an end contrary to its spirit. For her the law is simply an instrument of manipulation. As Brueggemann has pointed out, Jezebel made a fatal mistake by assuming that in securing land she had only to deal with public opinion and conventional legal practice. The prophet Elijah appears to announce the Lord's judgment on Ahab and Jezebel: "In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood."
The disquieting thing about this story is that it has been repeated many times in the history of North America and is still being re-enacted. If we substitute native people for Naboth and white society for Ahab this becomes painfully obvious...Like Ahab, we view land as a commodity. We too have our Jezebels in the form of huge mining, lumber, oil, and pipeline companies. With their greed for more resources, natural gas, and oil, these companies apply tremendous pressure on the government. Or perhaps we consumers are Jezebels with our insatiable demands for more energy and cheap goods.
The Canadian situation is the one with which I am most familiar. Until 1951 it was a crime in Canada to raise funds for the purpose of pursuing an Indian land claim. In 1969 a provincial court in British Columbia ruled that a tribe had legal rights to its traditional lands only in a situation in which the government, by some act, had recognized its title. We have repeatedly kept the letter of the law while violating its spirit. The law seeks to protect the rights and freedoms of all individuals, yet in striving to apply this principle to ourselves we have neglected to reflect on how it should apply to Native Americans.
The drama of Ahab and Naboth is being acted again. Unless we raise our voices in the quest for justice we too will have committed Jezebel's fatal error of assuming that the only issues at stake are public opinion and conventional legal practice.
Daniel Tiessen was writing his master's thesis on the theology of land at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg when the article from which this excerpt is taken appeared. To learn more about contemporary Native American issues, visit the White Earth Land Recovery Project.