King David: Historical drama or holy scripture?
Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.
So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.
Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
Joab took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones.
Now David was sitting between the two gates. The sentinel went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he looked up, he saw a man running alone.
Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, ‘All is well!’ He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground, and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.’ The king said, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ Ahimaaz answered, ‘When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.’ The king said, ‘Turn aside, and stand here.’ So he turned aside, and stood still.
Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’
The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Samuel 18, edited)
I've just finished reading 'Bring up the bodies' by Hilary Mantel. The novel recounts the historical drama of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. King Henry is struggling to have a male heir. It is a tale full of intrigue and ambition, lust and murder.
The saga of King David also reads like a historical drama. There is murder, adultery, abuse of power, family rivalry, courtly ambition, and the heart of it all, David himself, with his mix of ruthlessness and vulnerability.
David lusts after Bathsheba and takes her, very likely without her consent, although that is open to interpretation. She becomes pregnant. David then uses his kingly authority to kill her husband Uriah. He sends Uriah to the battle front with instructions to his generals to place Uriah at the front in the thickest part of the battle and then withdraw from him so he is overwhelmed by the enemy. Cruelly, and without conscience, David gives Uriah himself the sealed letter to take to the generals, that unknown to Uriah, seals his own death.
God punishes David by causing the new born child to fall ill. David fasts for seven days and nights, lying prostate on the ground, pleading to God to save his baby. When the child dies the courtiers are fearful to tell David. But David ceases crying and explains his sudden change in mood: While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, "Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live." But now he is dead: why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12: 22 & 23)
Later, David's eldest son, Amnon, rapes his own sister, Tamar. David's third born son, Absalom, revenges Tamar's death by killing Amnon. Absalom develops kingly ambitions and schemes to subvert David's authority. David gives him authority to deal with disputes. However, Absalom turns away the petitioners claiming there is no-one to hear their complaint. He then uses his falsely won popularity to usurp the throne. The armies of David and Absalom fight, and Absalom dies. When David hears the news he breaks down crying: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son! (2 Samuel 18: 33b)
It's a griping tale. But is it scripture? Why do we read this saga in church?
Here are three reasons:
1. This is our story.
In the book of Deuteronomy there are instructions to farmers of what to recite upon offering the first fruit of the harvest to God. The setting is many centuries after Abraham and probably a few generations after the Hebrew slaves have escaped from Egypt and are now settled in Israel. They are told to say:
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
The wandering Aramean is Jacob, later named Israel. For those ancient peoples the patriarchs of the bible, Jacob, Joseph, Abraham and Isaac were their fathers too, though not biological. They were fathers in the journey of faith, in the journey of salvation, which in the bible means freedom, healing and communal well-being.
We also have our own families, but like these ancient farmers in the 'land of milk and honey', we also belong to the family of God. The story of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David, is our story too. It's important to know our story. To know where we are going we need to understand where we have come from.
2. We learn about our human condition from these stories.
Despite the gap of many millennia and the incredible differences in culture, we relate to the sagas on a human level. David cries to God for his sick baby and grieves for his rebellious son. We know what it is to grieve for our sins and for the loss of family members. We know that children and parents can enter into life-threatening conflicts. And we know the paradoxical and conflicting emotions such conflicts create. We have ambition and desire, and we hunger for a better life for us and those close to us. We are vulnerable and practical. We face many unknowns and dangers, and we have to make consequential decisions without being certain of the consequences.
David is torn between his role as King and Father. Life is replete with conflicting values and roles. We cannot always be true to our love for our family and the demands of our work. Friends may act in ways that we disagree with and conflict with our own values. Do we risk the friendship by confronting the action or turn a blind eye and neglect our personal ethic? Managing such conflicts is costly. There will be loss.
The narrative of David assures us that God is with us in the midst of these uncertainties.
3. The stories tell us about God.
The poignant words of David grieving over his dead son Absalom point to the fatherly love of God. Despite Absalom's rebellion, David still loves him as his son. That is how God relates to us too.
This moving story reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the rebellious son, usually called the 'Parable of the Prodigal Son'. This selfish son, the younger of two brothers, wants his inheritance now, even before his father has died. The amazingly generous and patient father gives him the money. The son enjoys the money, spending it on one long party with excessive food and sex. When he is destitute he decides to return to the father and work as a hired worker on his farm. Unknown to him, each day his father has been looking out for his son's return. As he approaches the home the father runs and greets him, hugging him and putting a fine robe on him. The father celebrates his return saying: This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! (Luke 15: 24)
The Christian story is that Jesus, God's son, died for our salvation. On the cross Jesus is said to have prayed: Father forgive them, they don't know what they are doing. (Luke 23: 34)
It is compassion that saves us. How can the we live together, crowded on this one small planet with its ecological diversity and fragility? How can we live together when we are all so different and historically we have made enemies of each other? How can we live together when we continue to be threatened by the differences we perceive in the 'other'? There is only one way: to embrace each other in our 'otherness', with compassion and generosity.
This is our challenge today and it was the challenge during King David's time too. We continue to bring God's Kingdom to earth, just as David strove to do 3000 years ago.
That is why we read this narrative in church. That is why it is holy scripture.