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.

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