Essay: Psychological manipulation in the Bible

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Case study: Naboth’s Vineyard[1]

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

1 Kings 21:1-16, New International Version (NIV); Credit for Scripture quotations: The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica

Let's now demonstrate some principles of psychological manipulation by analysing the classic Bible story. We have a righteous Israelite here, who is faithful to the Law and heritage of ancestors, and ambitious king, who himself is, owing to his pride, prone to get easily manipulated by his wife.

1 Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria.

What events are referred to in here? As described in previous chapters, King Ahab recently received a warning from prophetic disciple due to his betrayal of God’s work and for his disobedience to God. Autocratic and authoritarian ruler however hates reproofs. He experiences an immense anguish when anyone would dare to challenge him or even admonish him publicly, even though it would be by authority of the very God’s words. Ahab could not stand a situation when one would confront him without being afraid of him. Although he already experienced few cases when he had to step back in favor of Elijah, still his irrepressible exalted conceit would not allow him to get completely humbled under the mighty hand of God.

It is significant that even shortly after the event, when Ahab was convicted of sin, his attention was captured by someone's vineyard lying just next to his palace. One who hates reproof is usually eager to expand, keep everything under own control, and rule without any boundaries.

2 Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”

The king of northern Israel is aware of his wealth and riches hence first makes Naboth a really grandiose offer. When we meet someone for first time who is in his within a manipulator, we can often be surprised by his generosity and seeming friendliness, however only until we dare to show disagreement or when we act differently from his wishes.

3 But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”

Nabot had perhaps no idea that manipulators like Ahab extremely dislike being reminded that their own power has clear boundaries defined by higher authority and that by appealing to this authority it is legitimately possible to disagree with them. As Israel was juristic state in which the King’s power was defined by law which couldn’t be broken even by king himself, Ahab had clear understanding that it is beyond his privileges to confiscate Nabot’s vineyard. Nabot was a genuinely pious man obviously familiar with the code on meaning and importance of inherited parcels.

4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

It is very awkward for power-hungry man to be reminded that things might not be his way and that it is legal and legitimate to disagree with him. Such matter can cause even the loss of appetite.

5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?” 6 He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”

It is quite symptomatic that Ahab avoids speaking about grounds of Naboth’s refusal to cede his inheritance that are stemming from respect for higher authority, for God. It plays no role for him and he makes no mention of it. What is essential for him is that he came across someone who dared to dispute his will. At this moment there is king’s wife coming into scene who knows her husband quite well. She knows how much gratification he attaches to his power and how much inadmissible it is for him to face someone, who, notwithstanding in the name of God, backfires him. When on different occasion prophet Elijah dared to do so, who spoke even with authority of God Himself, king made orders to search for him for many days all over the nations and kingdoms and falsely blamed him to be a ‘troubler of Israel’.

7 Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him.

9 In those letters she wrote: "Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death." 11 So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them.

These words leave us in no doubt about the moral corruption of the royal family, as well as about the corruption of leaders of the nation. It is significant that every "crafty" manipulator of the cadre of Ahab's wife, skillfully justifies own self-interested acts in the name of God, and even proclaims public fasting for supporting it. Naboth, for his courage for defiance, was to be publicly portrayed as a blasphemer, who is going to receive a just punishment that he deserves.

12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 13 Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, "Naboth has cursed both God and the king." So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent word to Jezebel: "Naboth has been stoned to death."

15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” 16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Spoilers end here.

See also


  1. Aleš Franc (2008). Co je manipulace? (What is manipulation?) (Czech). Zápas o duši.