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.