As an increasing number of Australians realize, our nation was founded on the legal lie that the continent was terra nullius, “nobody’s land.” The truth is that Aboriginal people had been living on the lands now called Australia for at least 65,000 years by the time the first Europeans arrived. However, since British law said no one was here, most settlers didn’t bother making treaties.
One exception was John Batman, who was born in Australia to a convict father and a free mother who had paid passage to keep the family together. After encountering challenges trying to access a land grant in other regions, Batman staked out land near Merri Creek, otherwise known as the home of the Wurundjeri nation, and signed a treaty with them that exchanged handkerchiefs, flour, and other supplies for most of what is now Melbourne.
Even if their signatures weren’t faked, the most the Wurundjeri people possibly agreed to was temporary hospitality. They considered the land as something they belonged to, not as a possession that could be sold as under English law.
In the end, it didn’t matter. In 1835 the governor responded to Batman’s treaty with a letter in the king’s name: The treaty was invalid because the land already belonged to the crown. Within a few years, most of the indigenous inhabitants in that region were either killed or forcibly displaced far from their ancestral home.
While the themes in this story show up across Australia’s history, this is the particular story of the land on which I live and work. I first learned about it while preparing to preach on 1 Kings 21 at a church near Merri Creek where the treaty was signed. I don’t often like to compare myself with biblical villains—especially not Ahab and Jezebel, two of the wickedest rulers in the Bible. Yet when we read about what God judged them for, the violent entitlement and casual cruelty with which European settlers stole Melbourne sound uncomfortably familiar.
Ahab ruled the breakaway northern tribes of Israel in the ninth century BC. The Bible paints him as one of their worst kings. He “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30), which was no small effort. He and his wife Jezebel routinely break Israel’s covenant with God and drag Israel deep into idolatry, building a temple of Baal and violently persecuting the prophets of God. Elijah the prophet famously challenges him and his 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel with a contest to see which god would answer their sacrifice with fire (1 Kings 18).
Yet God’s covenant spans the horizontal as well as the vertical; he is enraged by injustice on earth no less than by offenses toward heaven. So, in 1 Kings 21, God’s heavy judgment on Ahab is traced back to an incident involving a field and a relative nobody named Naboth.
Naboth owns a vineyard that has belonged to his family for generations. Unhappily for Naboth, however, the vineyard is next to King Ahab’s palace. When Ahab decides that Naboth’s vineyard is the perfect place for a vegetable patch, he asks Naboth if he can buy the field.
Naboth says no. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors” (v. 3). I mentioned above why the Wurundjeri elders would never have agreed to sell their land to Batman; in a similar way, godly Israelites like Naboth saw themselves as custodians, rather than owners, of their ancestral land, which could never be sold permanently (Lev. 25:23).
Incensed that Naboth has repudiated him, Ahab returns home to sulk. He refuses to eat dinner and lies in bed feeling sorry for himself, before a frighteningly powerful political leader pays him a visit.
Jezebel eviscerates Ahab for moping. “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” (1 Kings 21:7). She writes letters in the king’s name and arranges for Naboth to be falsely accused and executed on blasphemy charges.
Suddenly, Ahab finds the field available. Cold, decisive, and deadly efficient, Jezebel has little pity for those in her way. Ahab jettisons any qualms he has with his wife’s actions and seizes the murdered man’s field for himself.
Often it can appear that the names and stories of those like Naboth, who have found themselves in the cross hairs of those acting with impunity, have long been forgotten to history. Yet God remembers. Through the prophet Elijah and a couple of eavesdroppers, God delivers a chilling message: One day, dogs will lick up Ahab’s blood on the very ground where Naboth’s blood was spilled (v. 19).
The prophecy comes true three years later, when Ahab picks a fight with the neighboring nation of Aram at Ramoth Gilead and dies from a stray arrow in battle (1 Kings 22). As the cleaners are washing Ahab’s blood from his chariot, a pack of dogs comes and starts drinking from the bloody puddle, as prophesied, in Naboth’s field.
It’s the beginning of the end for Ahab’s dynasty. Two sons succeed him. The first (Ahaziah) dies, and then, during a reboot of the battle that killed his father, the second (Joram) is wounded and returns to Jezreel to recover. Ahab’s former general, Jehu, is sent on a mission from God to finish him off and take the throne for himself. He scores an arrow through Joram’s heart and dumps his body in Naboth’s field—once more fulfilling Elijah’s prophecy in 1 Kings 21.
Jehu was one of the soldiers who, years earlier, overheard Elijah’s words of judgment: “Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?” (1 Kings 21:19) As he ends Ahab’s dynasty, he declares that justice has finally come for what Ahab and Jezebel did to Naboth (2 Kings 9:25–26).
“Remember how you and I were riding together in chariots behind Ahab his father when the Lord spoke this prophecy against him: ‘Yesterday I saw the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons, declares the Lord, and I will surely make you pay for it on this plot of ground, declares the Lord,’” Jehu tells his chariot officer. “Now then, pick him up and throw him on that plot, in accordance with the word of the Lord.”
Have you not murdered men, women, and children and seized their property?
Those who live, work, and worship on stolen lands are advised to tread thoughtfully. God hasn’t forgotten what happened here in Australia. He has humbled kingdoms greater than ours for less.
Indigenous Australians haven’t forgotten how they lost this land either. For Stan Grant, a prominent journalist and Aboriginal man, the injustice tests his faith:
Where was God when our land was invaded? Where was God when we were killed in the Frontier Wars? … I was raised by people with hope in God. A hard hope. The despairing hope of a people forsaken. A people who wait for God's justice.
These injustices took place long before I was born. Yet we nonindigenous Australians inherit together the guilt as surely as we inherit the land itself. Like Ahab, we have enjoyed the proceeds of crimes done in our name. Ahab himself did not arrange the murder, but the order went out in his name, and he was unjustly enriched by it. Likewise, God holds Jezebel and Ahab’s heirs accountable for the sins of the house of Ahab as a whole (1 Kings 21:21–24).
While individualistic Western culture struggles to recognize corporate sins, a biblical theology of sin reveals that God regularly holds groups of people responsible for their corporate sins, even generations later. These corporate sins call not for denials of individual culpability but for corporate repentance on behalf of the community (Josh. 7; Ezra 9; Dan. 9; 1 Cor. 5).
Even Ahab recognizes the need for public repentance when confronted by the wickedness Jezebel has done in his name. After Elijah delivers God’s judgment, Ahab responds by acknowledging his sins with public actions: sackcloth, fasting, and humility (1 Kings 21:27). Because of this repentance, God delays judgment and allows his family to remain for one more generation.
Nonindigenous Australians are beginning to repent of the sins done in our name by acknowledging that the places we live and work tell a history that precedes European settlement. Later this year Australians will vote on whether to formally acknowledge indigenous Australians in our constitution and facilitate a consultative indigenous Voice to Parliament.
Whether or not this legislative proposal succeeds, many Australians will continue to acknowledge indigenous inhabitants in more local ways. For instance, recently my son’s class opened a school assembly the way an increasing number of events in Australia are marked:
We acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay our respects to elders past and present.
Two decades ago, few practiced “acknowledgements of country” outside activist circles. But with increasing support for reconciliation between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians, it’s become common to hear these statements (or a “welcome to country” given by an indigenous person with ancestral connection to that place) as a prelude to a sporting match or at the landing of an airplane.
For nonindigenous Australians (like me), acknowledging that this land belonged to a specific people, like the Wurundjeri people, shows respect for their humanity and culture, as well as their continuing struggle to survive as a unique and irreplaceable culture in the wake of European colonization.
Many nonindigenous evangelical Christians have eagerly adopted this practice, seeing it as a way to love their indigenous neighbors. Some even incorporate acknowledgments of country in Sunday services.
A minority of Christians worry that acknowledging country might be inadvertently participating in “pagan spirituality” by invoking ancestral spirits. Those who genuinely believe this should of course spare their consciences.
Other skeptics dismiss acknowledgments as mere secular rites that risk becoming rote. This underestimates the true danger of reciting liturgies: Over time, they have a profound potential to change us for the better.
But for me, as an Old Testament scholar, I understand these acknowledgements as reflecting the character of God we see in the Ahab story—and indeed throughout Scripture. God seeks not just true worship but also true justice. God holds groups accountable for corporate sins. God opposes proud oppressors but shows grace to those who humbly repent.
Nonindigenous Australians cannot undo what was done in our name. We cannot revive the generations cut short by disease or violence or recover lost languages and cultures. We could offer to leave, but most of us have nowhere to go.
It’s humbling to acknowledge something we have little power to right. But time and time again, we observe in the Bible that repentance marks the first step in obedience. For myself and my fellow nonindigenous Australians, following God begins by asking forgiveness for the lie of claiming this continent as “nobody’s land.”
Andrew Judd lectures in Old Testament and hermeneutics at Ridley College, on Wurundjeri land now known as Melbourne, Australia.