People in positions of power tend to abuse that power. Biblical characters are no exception, and the stories of David's sin with Batsheva1 and Achav's acquisition of Navot's vineyard2 are two cases in point. Despite the vastly contrasting reputations of the two kings, here they act surprisingly alike. Moreover, as a whole, the two stories follow very similar plot lines, further inviting a comparison. In each, a king, who lacks nothing, nonetheless desires a layperson's beloved property. With the aid of others, a plot is orchestrated to bring about the owner's death so that the king can take the item for himself. In the end, the king is rebuked by the prophet, but repentance serves to mitigate the punishment.
The following list reviews the many similarities between the two stories:
- The kings – Both David and Achav are powerful kings who have more than their share of wealth and property, but nonetheless want more.3
- The desired "property" – In each story, the kings desire something which is especially significant to its owner. Natan's parable emphasizes that Batsheva was beloved by Uriah, who was his only wife.4 Similarly, the vineyard of Navot was a "נחלת אבות", family property from which he was not willing to part.
- King removed from the murder – The deaths of Uriah and Navot are set up in such a manner so as to leave the public unaware of the king's role and have them believe him innocent. Navot is killed via a staged trial in which he is accused of blasphemy and treason, while Uriah is killed in battle.
- Plots to kill – Both plans involve a "sending of letters" to those meant to execute the murder,5 an abuse of power by royal institutions (the army and judicial system), and the cooperation of officials whom the victim had trusted (the townsmen of Navot and Uriah's fellow soldiers and general). In each case, after the plot succeeds, word is sent back to the king, who then acquires the desired property.
- Partners in crime – In neither story does the king act alone. David involves Yoav, who achieves David's goal (though he apparently takes some license with David's directive).6 Achav shares his distress with his wife, Izevel, who takes matters into her own hands and plots the death of Navot.
- The victims – Each of Uriah and Navot take a moral stance when refusing a request of the king. Uriah questions how he can sleep in his own bed when the nation is camping on the battlefield, while Navot implies that selling his vineyard would be against Hashem's will.
- Fast / refusal to eat bread – When David is faced with the imminent death of his son, he fasts and refuses bread as part of his prayers to save him. Achav similarly refuses to eat, first as a sullen reaction to not getting what he wanted from Navot, and later in the story, as part of his repentance.7
- Prophetic rebuke – Both kings are rebuked right when they stand to inherit the coveted possession. Natan approaches David soon after Batsheva's baby is born, and Eliyahu meets Achav in the vineyard as he goes to acquire it. Each prophet delivers the message of "הֲרָצַחְתָּ וְגַם יָרָשְׁתָּ" (albeit in different words),8 and punishes them measure for measure for their sins.9 The punishments are aimed not only at the kings, but their descendants as well.
- Repentance and reprieve – David's cry of "חָטָאתִי לַי"י" earns him reprieve from death, while Achav's penitence defers punishment to the next generation.
There are no significant literary parallels between the two stories, suggesting that the text did not intend for one chapter to allude to the other. As such, the similarities stem solely from the similar actions of the two kings who had each taken advantage of their position of power.
Points of Contrast
Alongside the many parallels between the stories, there are also several significant points of contrast, many of which center around the character and actions of the two kings:
- Initial attempts at acquisition – In contrast to David, who used his royal authority to bed Batsheva without seeking consent,10 Achav initially attempted to acquire the vineyard through legal means and a fair purchase.
- Role in the murder – David initiated the plan for murder on his own, while Achav might have been totally unaware of Izevel's plot.11
- Motive for murder – While Izevel framed Navot so that her husband could legally inherit the vineyard, David had Uriah killed so as to cover up a prior sin.
- Power of the king – Achav emerges from the episode as a king who is totally under the influence of his wife and powerless without her.12 Though David, too, seeks assistance from others, his independent authority is not questioned.
- True to character? – Achav's crimes do not necessarily come as a surprise, as he has been introduced as doing "more evil in the eyes of Hashem than all who had come before him".13 David, on the other hand, is portrayed as a just and righteous king, making his actions here appear out of character.
- Punishment – As a result of his sin, Achav is promised that his dynasty will end. Though David's family is plagued by strife and bloodshed, his dynasty remains intact.
A comparison of the two stories raises several questions and points to ponder:
- Is anyone immune? – The above comparison equates the actions of Achav, the most villainous of Tanakh's kings, and David, one of the most virtuous, highlighting how easily the line between good and bad can be crossed, and how power can corrupt even the most upright.14
- Just punishment? Though the behavior of both kings is deserving of rebuke and punishment, somewhat surprisingly, of the two, David emerges as the more problematic. Despite this, David's punishment appears to be the less severe, as his dynasty remains intact, while Achav's is ended. How are we to understand this? See David and Batsheva for various opinions which mitigate his wrongdoing, and Achav's Punishment for opinions which aggravate his guilt.
- Izevel's power – A comparison of the roles played by Izevel and Yoav highlights just how much influence Izevel held over both her husband and the kingdom as a whole. One wonders how different Achav's reign might have been were she absent.
- Prophetic balance of power – Together the two stories demonstrate the need for a balance of power in government. In Israel, though the king might rule in the political sphere, he is kept in check by the prophet who ensures that he recognizes that he is not above the law, but is rather accountable to a higher authority.