Sunday, August 16, 2009

Prophetic Vision

2 Kings 1-2

The first part of 2 Kings tells the rest of the story of Elijah. First, the next king of Israel, Ahaziah, falls through a lattice and is injured. He sends prophets to Baal, to find out whether he will recover or die. Elijah hears of this, and is horrified that the king is looking to Baal rather than the true God of Israel, and sends word to the king that because of this, he will die. And so the king dies (2 Kings, Chapter 1).

The final story about Elijah is his dramatic death, as witnessed by Elisha. A chariot of fire and horses of fire come, and Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha inherits his powers and becomes his successor (2 Kings, Chapter 2).

But you have to read the stories to get the full effect. Both of these stories are dramatic and filled with supernatural demonstrations of God's power expressed through the prophetic voices of Elijah and Elisha. Sometimes the power harms or destroys the people who are opposed to the true God (Ahaziah, the first two companies of men sent by Ahaziah to talk with Elijah, and the boys who taunt Elisha). Other times the power just dazzles (the parting of the waters). Other times, the power brings forth something clearly good (the purification of water).

When I was a child, I would watch movies about Bible stories. These movies portrayed such supernatural events literally and dramatically. I remember feeling sad and confused about why such events used to happen but now no longer happen. I remember thinking that it is so much harder now to figure out what is right and what is wrong, because God does not give messages so clearly any more.

Children often do see the world as infused with magic, and so the supernaturalism in Biblical stories is very believable. (Watching movie portrayals probably helps make the stories believable!)

In today's modern world, we expect children to reckon with reality and lose this sense of "magic" as part of normal maturation. So my memory can be seen as a transition to that more "realistic" understanding of the world. A lot of people lose their faith at this point. They feel disillusioned at the realization that these stories could not really have been "true," and then question all of what they are taught about religious faith. "It's all mere supersition," they conclude.

But somehow the path I took turned out to be different (though not unique). Somehow it did not occur to me that my noticing that life was different now than how it was portrayed in the Bible suggested that there is no God. Instead, I seized upon the idea that God was simply speaking to us differently now. And so I began a quest to understand how God speaks to us now.

When, later, I came upon Quakers, and found a whole community who still believes that God has come to speak to his people himself (to quote George Fox), I was amazed. This community affirmed my quest, and also provided access to more perspectives on the subject, and to an experiential process that hones our powers of discernment.

Now I do see the world as infused with supernatural drama. The supernaturalism in the Bible does not seem fantastical and hard to believe. Instead, I find myself nodding, and thinking, "yes, that is how it is." Maybe these things don't always happen literally and exactly as portrayed, but the sense of drama, power, and meaning that they portray does reflect a spiritual backdrop to everyday events that many people may miss, but nevertheless is really there and quite apparent to the discerning eye.

I think that this is what prophetic vision really is: the ability to perceive the spiritual significance of everyday life.

Monday, August 03, 2009

King vs. Prophets

1 Kings 17-22

The rest of 1 Kings seems to feature the relationship between one king of Israel, Ahab, and prophets, especially a prophet named Elijah. Ahab and his wife Jezebel are portrayed as especially bad.


Elijah tries to tell Ahab that the droughts they are suffering are because of not following the proper way. Then Elijah goes away as if to hide. I am guessing that the news was not received well. (In fact, we later find out that Ahab's wife Jezebel tried to put the prophets of the Lord to death. She still had prophets she liked, but they were prophets who served Baal and Asherah.) At first, Elijah hides in the wilderness. Then a poor widow takes him in, and miraculously her jar of meal and her jug of oil never run out while he stays with her during the drought (17:16). He also heals her ailing son (17:17-24).

In the third year of the drought, Elijah receives word from the Lord that he should visit Ahab again and let him know the drought is about to end (Chapter 18). So he does return to Ahab. Ahab calls him "troubler of Israel" (18:17), but Elijah answers: "I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father's house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals" (18:18). Now he offers a challenge. He challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to prepare a burnt offering and get Baal to provide fire for the offering. He alone will also prepare another burnt offering, and will get the Lord to provide fire for his burnt offering.

The prophets of Baal fail. Elijah succeeds. Furthermore, the droughts end (18:19-46).

The people are awed, but this display of God's power still doesn't bring Ahab, Jezebel, or all of the people back to the proper way. Elijah has all of the prophets of Baal killed; Jezebel then sends him a threatening message, so he goes back into hiding. He is in a bit of despair now. Indeed, the the reader cannot help but wonder why, after all that, Ahab, Jezebel, and the people were not all converted! What does it take? What more can one do?

But the Lord does not let Elijah just give up and die. An angel rouses him and gives him food and drink to prepare him for the 40-day journey to the mount of God, where he is to wait for the Lord to pass by.
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (19:11-13).
The Lord speaks to him, letting him know of future kings of Aram and Israel, and letting him know too that Elisha will become prophet in Elijah's place. He also lets him know that there will still be seven thousand in Israel who remain faithful.

Elijah departs, finds Elisha along the way, and throws his mantle over him, thereby designating him his successor.

Israel vs. Aram

Now there are stories of conflict brewing and igniting between Israel and Aram. Other prophets appear and help guide Israel to victory in the first couple of battles (20:1-30). The king of Aram, Ben-hadad, flees, but, hearing that "the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings" (20:31), becomes contrite and asks that his life be spared, and it is: a treaty is forged between Aram and Israel (20:34). But another prophet chastises the king of Israel for this (20:35-43).

In the next chapter, Ahab wants a man's vineyard because it is near his house and would make a nice vegetable garden. But the man, Naboth, cannot allow this because it is forbidden to give away or sell ancestral inheritance. So Jezebel arranges to have Naboth killed so that Ahab can have the vineyard. Elijah hears of this and chastises Ahab. Ahab is remorseful and so does not have to suffer disaster in his own lifetime -- instead the foretold disasters will happen in his son's days (Chapter 21).

In the final chapter of 1 Kings, after three years of peace with Aram, the king of Israel decides it is time to fight Aram in order to claim Ramoth-gilead, which he believes is supposed to belong to Israel. King Jehoshaphat of Judah is visiting, and so Ahab asks him to join them in this venture. Jehoshaphat says, "let's check with the Lord, first." So, the court prophets are consulted, all of whom agree that this should go well. Suspicious, Jehoshaphat says, "are there any more prophets we should be checking with?" Ahab says, "There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster" (22:8). "That's who we want then!" Jehoshaphat, in effect, replies. So they call him in, and Micaiah in fact says, "it's not going to work" (22:17).

Of course they go ahead and fight anyway. Ahab is a bit worried that Micaiah might be right, and so disguises himself (22:30), but he still does end up getting killed (22:37). Jehoshaphat survives, and in fact is a pretty good king of Judah, following the ways of the Lord, but, like many of the kings of Judah, still not quite eradicating the bad ways of the people fully. Furthermore, in his reign he makes peace with Israel (22:44).

Ahaziah, son of Ahab, reigns in Israel after his father's death, but continues to follow Baal, so things still do not look promising for Israel. And Jehoram succeeds Jehoshaphat as king of Judah.

Thus ends 1 Kings.

I find myself kind of sad for Ahab. The accounts of him seem to portray him not as a particularly horrible man himself (the bad things that happen are really Jezebel's doing). In fact, he seems to understand that the prophets that most alarm him are the ones who are right. He seems tragically caught between two opposing forces, unable to fully stand up for what he seems secretly to believe is true.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Kingdom Splits

1 Kings 12-16

After Solomon died, his son Rehoboam became the new king, but didn't handle things very well. When the people came to him complaining how hard his father had made them work, he sought advice. The elders who had advised his father said, "lighten up." But his own younger buddies said, "Tell them your little finger is thicker than your father's loins" (seriously! Look it up yourself! 12:10) and encouraged him to be even harder on them: "Tell them that, though your father used whips, you will use scorpions to make them work even harder!" (12:11). (The notes to the version of the Bible I am reading say that "scorpions" might have been an especially horrific kind of whip. Either way, it sounds pretty bad.)

He sided with his buddies.

Revolt ensued, and the kingdom was split. Rehoboam was king over Judah (and maybe the tribe of Benjamin, or part of it), and Jeroboam came back and became king over the other tribes of Israel. They did not do a great job of keeping to the ways of the Lord.

Rehoboam was about to fight to reclaim the other tribes, but was stopped by the Lord: "You shall not go up to fight against your kindred the people of Israel. Let everyone go home, for this thing is from me" (12:24). Nevertheless, Jeroboam was afraid that if his people kept going to the temple in Jerusalem to make their sacrifices, they might re-unite with Judah. So he made two calves of gold for people to go to for worship instead (12:28), and did other things that changed the usual religious practices. A man of God came to warn him that these changes were not right and good (chapter 13). (The full story here is very strange. Why did the older prophet trick that man of God?) One of Jeroboam's sons fell ill and died (14:1-18) -- that was another warning that Jeroboam did not heed. He still continued in his problematic ways.

Meanwhile, things were not going much better in Judah, although there, the people in general (rather than Rehoboam himself) are blamed (14:21-24). Even worse, King Shishak of Egypt attacked and took away the treasures of the temple and the king's house (14:25-26). After Rehoboam died, his son Abijam reigned for three years, not doing so well, really (15:1-8). (It seems that war broke out now between Judah and Israel). His son Asa succeeded him.

Asa did better (15:9-24), although wars continued. His son Jehoshaphat succeeded him, but we have not heard his story yet. So, the rulers of Judah so far are all descendants of David.

Things were much more troubled in Israel. While Jeroboam's son Nadab did succeed him (15:25), he only reigned two years before being killed by Baasha, who then became the new king (and killed all the house of Jeroboam). Each later king becomes worse and worse. Israel even divides further, but only for a short period of time (16:21-22).

Many of these kings are mentioned briefly. Apparently, details about them used to exist in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, and the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah, but those books no longer exist.

So we have a history described, trying to make sense of why the kingdom split, and why the treasures of the temple were lost. We see things tending to get worse. We see prophets trying to warn the kings to follow the Lord's ways. We see David's line preserved, but the succession of kings in Israel more troubled. We realize more clearly that the wealth Solomon had built came from forced labor, and so one possible explanation of the cause of the split is that Solomon's son Rehoboam did not listen to wise elders and lighten up, but followed on in this practice even more strictly than his father did -- yet then lost much of the kingdom and much of the treasure.

Yet there is also a theological interpretation: that God somehow wanted the kingdom split. Was Jeroboams's sin actually that he did not accept this? Rehoboam did not himself attack, trying to reunite. Instead, Jeroboam started setting up new religious practices in order to keep his own kingdom separate from Judah. How would things have been different if he himself had accepted that the Lord was really okay with him ruling Israel separately from Rehoboam's ruling of Judah, as long as he had kept to the usual practices and traditions? Would the two have eventually come back together in a peaceable way?

As it was, they eventually did start fighting. And Israel almost fragmented further.

I will be interested to see what happens next.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Solomon's Reign

1 Kings 3-11

Solomon becomes king, and for a while, things are looking good. He marries the Pharaoh's daughter -- interesting that there is now this positive connection with Egypt. He wishes for wisdom, and is granted that wisdom. Israel enters into a time of peace and prosperity, and so Solomon fulfills his father David's dream of building a permanent temple to the Lord. (It is nice that master craftsman Hiram is given a lot of credit for the beautiful work he does on the temple.) This seems to be a real moment of arrival at long last -- the return of the people to their land, finally attaining enough peace and stability to build the temple that at last signifies the fulfillment of the promise. There is even international recognition as the Queen of Sheba comes to visit.

Then Solomon blows it.

You think he would know better, especially after his father's advice to him, repeated to him by the Lord Himself.

But, among his wives, he takes on women "from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, 'You shall not inter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods'" (11:2). Apparently, Solomon in fact had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (11:3). He supported their worshiping their different gods.

The Lord warned Solomon, but Solomon did not change his ways. So then the Lord warned him further that the kingdom would be fractured after his death, and He raised adversaries against Solomon. Solomon's son would be able to continue to rule Judah, but the other tribes would be given to Jeroboam. Solomon tried to kill Jeroboam, but Jeroboam fled to Egypt and remained there until Solomon died.

Is this a story of the corrupting power of privilege? At first, the peace and prosperity are used well: used for the building of a beautiful temple. But then Solomon claims more and more for himself: an extravagant house, hundreds of wives and concubines. If this is a story of power corrupting, it is distressing, especially since Solomon did not originally ask for wealth and power, but wisdom. One would hope that true wisdom would protect against corruption.

Taking a closer look at the story, I find myself asking why it was bad that Solomon reached out to other nations and religions in a positive way, with love and interest rather than through war and conquest? Perhaps it is that he did so in a way that diluted his faithfulness to his own people, history, and traditions. Thus, friction and strife began to build again. The time of peace ended. Are such cycles inevitable?

What is the right balance between, on the one hand, faithfulness to your people and your heritage, and preservation of your own culture, and, on the other hand, positive interest in and openness towards other people and other cultures?

Of course, another way to read this story is to consider what the difference is between "true religion" and "false religion." What does it really mean to worship "false gods"? At the time that this part of the Bible was written, the line was drawn between one's own religious heritage and others. I think now we see that even within every religious tradition, there are ways of worshiping true to the best spirit of that tradition, and false ways of worshiping. The false forms of worship are when one keeps up the appearances of adhering to the tenets of a given faith, but yet one does not really keep to the proper spirit. It is not really God that one is worshiping, but something lesser that one may still call "God" but has fashioned into one's own image. So, what one worships instead is really not God, but something else: an image of success, wealth, power, happiness, etc.

What is the aim of all of your strivings? Who or what is it, above all else, that you serve?

Even if you answer, "God," is that really God? How do you know?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Solomon Becomes King

1 Kings 1-2

At the beginning of 1 Kings, David is old and not doing so well. He has trouble staying warm, and so his servants find for him a young virgin to attend to him and sleep with him. Her name is Abishag. She is very beautiful, but the king does not "know her sexually" (1:4). The next sentence states that the next son, Adonijah, now declares that he will be king (1:5).

Taken as they are written, these are just statements of a sequence of events, not necessarily linked. But in the notes to the edition of the Bible I am reading (see sidebar for complete reference), the commentators say that this indicates that the king is impotent "and therefore no longer fit to be king. The knowledge of David's impotence spurs Adonijah to declare himself king" (OT 415).

I find that an interesting interpretation. Was that really the primary reason? Or was it just that David was getting old and was no longer in good health?

At any rate, Adonijah is the next son. One listing of David's first sons appears at 2 Samuel 3:2-5. The listing include Amnon, Chileab, Absalom, and Adonijah first. We heard what happened to Amnon and Absalom. Chileab is not mentioned further: the commentators suggest that he may have died young. But after Adonijah there are other sons too: Shephatiah and Ithream. Then later offspring (both sons and daughters) are mentioned at 2 Samuel 5:13-16. These include Shammua, Shobab, Nathan, Solomon, and others.

I mention this because what happens next in 1 Kings is that it turns out that Solomon becomes king. No mention is made of the other brothers between him and Adonijah. And recall that Solomon is Bathsheba's son, and the union between David and Bathsheba began as adultery.

But, back to the story: While Adonijah makes preparations to succeed his father as king, the prophet Nathan (not the same Nathan as David's son, I don't think), goes to Bathsheba to warn her and encourage her to talk to David about this. Adonijah seems to be worried that his father favors Solomon, because he did not invite him (or Nathan) to his big party. So Bathsheba and Nathan tell David about all of this to encourage David to quickly appoint his own desired successor before Adonijah declares himself king.

David does spring into action, ordering a procession and ceremony anointing Solomon as king (1:28-40). Adonijah and his guests at his party hear the trumpets, inquire, and learn that Solomon has just been made king. The guests all depart uneasily, and Adonijah goes to the altar and grasps the horns, seeking sanctuary (1:50). Solomon summons him and lets him go.

David does die soon thereafter, but first gives Solomon advice: keep the ways of the Lord, and get rid of a few people... (2:1-9). He then dies (2:10). Now Adonijah asks Bathsheba to ask Solomon if he can have Abishag (the beautiful virgin whom David never knew sexually) for his wife (2:13-18). According to the commentators, this is really a power move. Elsewhere too, sleeping with a king's wives and concubines is a symbolic way to try to grasp the king's power. So, Solomon has Adonijah killed (2:25).

The rest of chapter 2 has Solomon banishing or putting to death others who threaten his power (because they had sided with Adonijah), including Joab, even though Joab asked for sanctuary. In fact, this was one of the people David advised Solomon to put to death, because of the killings Joab had intiated on his own (not commanded by David), especially of Abner and Amasa (2:5-6). The commentators seem doubtful that David had really suggested this, because those killings had happened so long ago. They think that this was merely a rationalization for killing Joab, but that the real reason was that Solomon felt threatened by him since he sided with Adonijah. But I think it is plausible that David may have advised Solomon to do this, since David and Joab did seem to have an uneasy relationship. I think David found Joab dangerous but valuable, and may well have held a lasting grudge towards him for those two deaths. And David may also have felt that while he could handle Joab, Solomon might have difficulty. It certainly was not a good sign that Joab sided with Adonijah. That did not bode well for his future relationship with Solomon.

Anyway, now that all of the enemies are cleared away, Solomon is ready to rule. Yes, I am appalled at this grisly side of power in those days (the killing off of one's enemies), but, well, this is not the first time I have seen such things in the Bible.

What's interesting from here is that there now seems to follow a substantial period of peace, for a change! We'll see that in what follows.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

2 Samuel Draws to a Close

2 Samuel 21-24

2 Samuel 21:1-14 tells the back story behind why all of Saul's heirs were killed except for Mephibosheth. Apparently, it is a more complicated story than the brief version we earlier saw, involving three years of famine, and the realization that it was due to a past fault of Saul (his trying to wipe out the Gibeonites). Wanting now to make amends to the Gibeonites, David asked them what he should do, and they responded that he should round up seven sons of Saul and have them executed. So he did, but he did also honor their bones, along with those of Saul and Jonathan. And the famine lifted.

2 Samuel 21:15-22 tells of a battle with the Philistines in which David was finally showing his age and was almost killed, so his men told him he had better not go out and fight himself any more. In this and mention of other battles, giants (or descendents of giants) appear again, one with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.

2 Samuel 22 is a poetic passage, a song. It is portrayed as David thanking the Lord for helping him and protecting him. The image is of a person regarding himself as righteous in the midst of lots of drama and violence, grateful for the Lord's strength in carrying him through, helping him to conquer his own enemies, and delivering him from violence.

Clearly, David himself was quite violent, having no qualms about killing those he felt he should kill. We know enough about his life story to realize that he wasn't as perfectly righteous as this passage makes him out to be (see 22:21-25). And so I find myself reading this as the inner view of a person who tries to be righteous (even if not always succeeding) and tries to be a good ruler, honoring God as he rules, and accounting for his success by giving credit to God.

2 Samuel 23:1-7 gives the last words of David: more words of thanks to the Lord.

Then 2 Samuel 23:8-39 honors the best of the brave soldiers who fought for David. The numbers do not add up correctly, if you count the actual names. And Joab is not listed among them, even though he is mentioned back at the end of chapter 20 as being in command of the whole army of Israel. It makes me wonder whether chapters 21-23 up to this point were added in later, breaking up this discussion of Important People in King David's Administration. I'll have a closer look to see whether that makes the numbers add up any better.

Finally, 2 Samuel 24 tells a story of a census, at first portrayed as commanded by the Lord (though Joab is doubtful that this could be so) and then becomes the cause of the Lord's anger. It is mysterious why this would be a problem. The building of an altar saves the day.

So, the end of 2 Samuel has these bits and pieces collected together, signalling that we are getting close to the end of David's reign. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why the First Two Sons Do Not Become King

2 Samuel 13-20

David's first son, Amnon, does not become king, because he falls in love with his half-sister, Tamar, rapes her, and thereby becomes hated by Tamar's full brother, Absalom, who ends up killing Amnon.

Absalom is the second son. He flees after killing Amnon, but David forgives him and calls him back, and yet initially will not see him. Resentment brews, and Absalom plots to overthrow David and gain power. David hears of this and flees. Absalom pursues. A battle ensues. Although David does not want Absalom killed, Joab does kill him. David's mourning the death of his second son now creates confusion and more resentment. Judah is happy to call David king again, but the rest of Israel is not so sure.

David returns to Jerusalem, but someone else, Sheba, tries to take control of Israel. In the end, he is defeated. David is fully back in power.

Throughout this story (much longer and more interesting than my summary here!) are other stories of complex relationships and tales of loyalty and betrayal.

First of all, it is interesting that for all of David's displeasure with Joab's harshly violent and vengeful ways, they stay together in alliance. At times, David places others in higher command, but Joab continues to play a major role, taking it upon himself to kill those he finds problematic, even when he knows David will be displeased. It seems that Joab is just fierce and scary, and manages to hold on to a prominent place because of a mixture of his being too dangerous to ignore but also because these characteristics make him a valuable fighter and commander. Joab and David often argue, yet David never actually fires him, as such.

David's wise adviser, Ahithophel, does betray him and sides with Absalom in Absalom's revolt. The notes suggest that it may be that Ahithophel was Bathsheba's grandfather (see 11:3 and 23:34), and maybe he was displeased at how David took Bathsheba and had her husband killed. Ahithophel's good advice to Absalom gets bypassed in favor of Hushai's advice. Dismayed, Ahithophel leaves and kills himself.

Hushai is a "good friend" of David who pretends to defect to Absalom, but really plots to turn things around to give David the advantage. He counters Ahithophel's advice with advice of his own while meanwhile sending a warning to David, giving David and his army a chance to regroup and plan for the attack. So, Hushai does stay loyal to David.

Most interesting of all is a little side-story: As David flees from Jerusalem, a man named Shimei comes out of his house cursing at David and throwing stones (16:5-6). Joab's brother, Abishai, offers to kill him, but David stops him. "If he is cursing because the Lord has said to him, 'Curse David,' who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?'" (16:10). "Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on my distress, and the Lord will repay me with good for this cursing of me today" (16:11-12). So the man trails along for a while, continuing to curse and throw stones.

Later, after David is victorious, and is returning to Jerusalem, the same man meets them again. Now he is contrite and begs for David's forgiveness (19:16-23). Abishai again wants to kill him, but David says no, and allows him to live.

Often David's position of refraining from killing is set against Joab's and Abishai's tendencies to kill whoever displeases them or gets in their way. So there emerges a picture of a new kind of leadership, grounded in a new ethic: one that involves some restraint. David wields a kind of power that comes from not killing when he could, and this power is shown to be superior than that of Joab and Abishai. After all, it is David who is king. For all of Joab's fierceness and mercilessness, still, even his position as chief commander of David's army is not stable. His kind of power only gets him so far.

David has the capacity to show mercy and even affection. He is not naive. He keeps a strategic eye on all of his relationships. But he appears to be able to transcend just a strategic stance and is alert to real loyalty and affection wherever it may appear. While not naive, he is also not cynical. He seems to hold the relational complexity in an effective balance.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Complexity of a King's Relationships

2 Samuel 8-12

In Chapters 5, 8, and 10 there are more battles, as King David consolidates his power. The victories are seen as signs of the Lord's favor.

Chapter 9 tells the story of David's bringing Jonathan's son Mephibosheth into his household, out of loyalty to Jonathan. Mephibosheth is the last surviving male heir of Saul. He is described as being lame in both feet. It's unclear whether David is motivated by loyalty to Jonathan, or wants to keep Saul's last heir under close watch.

There is a lot of ambiguity throughout the story of David's life whether his relationships are grounded in personal affection or whether they are strategic alliances. Perhaps those in power themselves have difficulty differentiating between these two.

Then Chapters 11-12 bring a new story of relational complexity. David becomes attracted to a woman who is not his wife: Bathsheba. He sleeps with her, and when he learns that she is pregnant, he arranges to have her husband killed in battle. Then he marries Bathsheba. The Lord is not pleased, and so the son that is born dies. But another son is conceived and born: Solomon. We know that Solomon is destined to become the next king, but how? David already has other wives, and other sons. How could it be that this son, born later on, from a marriage that began in such a problematic way, is the one who becomes the next king? We'll have to wait and see how this comes to be.

The story of David's relationship with Bathsheba is interesting. On the one hand, it breaks all the rules of morality. On the other hand, that union in particular holds special status in David's lineage. While the Lord is displeased with the obvious immorality of the situation, David does not fall out of the Lord's favor. (Meanwhile, recall that Saul did fall out of the Lord's favor, apparently for inappropriately performing a sacrifice and/or for not annihilating conquered groups completely.) David continues to show real affection for Bathsheba. Yet even their relationship turns into a strategic alliance of sorts, since we know that it is their son who becomes the next king.

But what I find especially interesting about this story is that it does not start out as a strategic alliance -- it is far too risky for that. This suggests that David is not just motivated by pragmatic and strategic considerations in his relationships. And, in the long run, he is in fact rewarded for this. Even though the start of the relationship is not ethical, and the Lord is portrayed as unhappy with him and as punishing him for this, David does not fall out of the Lord's favor, and ultimately the relationship turns into one that is good and important.

And so there is the suggestion here of the beginning of a change in attitude about relationships. There is now a kind of love in some relationships that transcends both ethical rules and pragmatic or strategic considerations. Suddenly, the divine punishment for an ethical transcendence is reduced and specific (the child born from the initial adultery dies); but the relationship is allowed to turn into marriage and continue; the next child born then in fact becomes the next king. This unexpected turn of events suggests not just a weary tolerance for human fallibility: it looks more like an actual reward for not letting the rules of society or the pragmatics of kingship undermine something emerging as more important: love.

So, I am starting to see a pattern emerge in David's life: an ability throughout to assess and care about relationships in new ways. His loyalty to Saul despite Saul's jealousy towards him; his affection for Saul's son Jonathan, carried through to his care for Jonathan's son (even though all of the rest of Saul's heirs are killed), and now his love for Bathsheba -- all of these relationships show David balancing the demands of his power and responsibility with compassionate concern for certain key people in his life: regarded as unique individuals, deserving of special consideration. David is able to take on personal risk for some of his relationships: risking his power, his reputation, and even his life. Something about these special relationships stops him from a kind of ruthlessness that might seem justified for one in his position. And so we see a place being made for affection, caring, and love. These are not contrasted with power or regarded as weak. On the contrary, David's appeal and perhaps even effectiveness as king are enhanced by these qualities.

We see David as complex and as human, but what is human about him is not portrayed as weak and problematic, but as worthy of a new form of admiration. He loves, and stands up for his love, and the Lord Himself seems to take notice and respect this.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Promise Reaffirmed

2 Samuel 6-7

In Chapter 6, the relationship between David and the Lord comes more clearly into focus again. David wishes to bring the ark of God to the city of David. So they begin to bring it, with dancing and music along the way. But then a man named Uzzah accidentally touches the ark and is stricken dead. This show of angry power angers David, and he pauses, letting the ark stay in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. It stays there for three months, "and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household" (6:11). When David hears of this, he decides to bring it to the city of David after all. Again, he dances before the Lord "with all his might" (6:14) as they bring the ark. His wife Michal sees him and "despised him in her heart" (6:16), later chastising him for demeaning himself in that way. But he insists he did this for the Lord, and says, "I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in my own eyes" for the Lord (6:22). Meanwhile, Michal ends up not ever having any children (6:23).

David now decides that he would like to build a house for the ark. But the prophet Nathan receives word from the Lord that this is not necessary at this time. Chapter 7 is an important and moving dialogue first between Nathan and the Lord, and then between David and the Lord. It is a reaffirmation of the promise from the Lord:

I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went. ... And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more (7: 8-9, 10).

Instead of needing a house Himself, the Lord promises David a house. It is David's offspring who will build the Lord a house (7:13). The Lord promises to remain with his people: "I will not take my steadfast love from him" (7:15).

This is the true moment of arrival. After power is consolidated, the kingdom reunited, and the ark brought into the center, there is this moving time of prayerful appreciation for all that has happened, and what this moment means.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Complex Transition of Power

2 Samuel 1-6

The story now seems more focused on human struggles for power. As we watch David transition into power, we see him still concerned about living righteously, but guided more from his own ethical stance (perhaps supplemented by political strategizing?) and less directly by God; yet consideration for the will of the Lord is not entirely lacking. But there seems to be a subtle change in how it is determined. David is not consulting with spiritual leaders. Occasionally he consults with the Lord directly himself.

David is sad at the news of Saul's and Jonathan's deaths (2 Samuel 1). He even has the messenger killed, since the messenger (an Amalekite living in Israel -- the son of a resident alien) said that he had killed Saul (supposedly at Saul's request, seeing defeat at hand). David is upset that someone living in Israel would kill the anointed king.

After Saul's death, David does not immediately become king of all Israel. He first becomes king of Judah. He rules from Hebron. Meanwhile, Saul's son Ishbaal rules over Israel. But it is really Abner, the commander of Saul's army, who seems to be in control. David's people and Isbaal's people fight. In the process, Abner kills one of the brothers of Joab, who seems to have a leadership role over David's army. The struggle between the groups continues (2 Samuel 2).

A fateful moment arises when Abner sleeps with one of Saul's concubines. Ishbaal catches him, and is angry. So, it looks like Abner decides to switch sides. He arranges to meet with David, to help him gain power over Israel and combine the kingdoms. David asks him to bring his (David's) former wife Michal (Saul's daughter) along with him. (Her new husband follows, weeping.) When Joab hears of Abner's meeting with David, he is angry (remember that Abner killed one of his brothers), and tells David that Abner was probably spying. He goes off in search of Abner, finds him, and kills him. David is not happy about this, and makes clear that he had nothing to do with this. He makes sure the people realize that this was Joab's doing because Abner killed his brother (2 Samuel 3).

Meanwhile, Ishbaal became alarmed at hearing of Abner's death -- for good reason. Without that protection, in fact other commanders of his own army now kill Ishbaal in his sleep. They bring his head to David, hoping for praise. David is horrified that they would kill a righteous man in his own bed while he was sleeping, and has them killed (2 Samuel 4).

Now David becomes king of Israel as well as of Judah. He moves to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5). And so now at last we see the kingdom united under one king based in Jerusalem.