Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for August, 2012

Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism

SolomonSolomon’s prayer tells us what he believes. Today I’d like to share with you Solomon’s Theology, Solomon’s Catechism.

1Kings 8:41 And, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, when such a one comes from a faraway land because of your Name— 42 For they shall hear of your great Name, and your powerful hand and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 you, you shall hear in the heavens, your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your Name to be in awe of you, as your people Israel, and so that they may know that your Name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

The dedication of the temple is a moment without peer in Israelite history. They are at the peak of their power; the borders that David enforced have grown wider under Solomon. They are wealthier than they could have ever imagined. No longer thinking of going back to Egypt because now they’ve got their own. And Solomon built a temple that became known as one of the wonders of the ancient world. And he built himself a house that was many times larger than the house he built for his God but on this day, the dedication of the temple, all that was forgotten. 

As we pray in this house today we still face towards that house. That's why the high altar in many churches faces east. Muslims, Christians and Jews historically and traditionally face east when we pray. Some Christians are losing that tradition, only facing east when we are in a church that is built that way; some know nothing about that practice. I didn’t do it on purpose but my bed is set at true east so that when I kneel at the foot of my bed I am facing east when I pray. Even after the Temple was destroyed twice there was still something about that place, something special, something holy. Later on the Holy of Holies would be encompassed by the Dome of the Rock to make sure that place would remain a place of prayer. Its name in Arabic, Al Quds, means the Holy Place.

Thousands of years before Jesus prayed for us, Solomon prayed for us in that place. He was light-years ahead of his time. In a time when most folk wouldn’t marry outside of their tribe or clan – Solomon did, too much so – and perhaps as a result, Solomon had a vision of a God who was bigger than he was, bigger than his family, bigger than his nation, bigger than folk who thought they had a monopoly on God. Or perhaps, having so many people in his family from so many different places opened his eyes to God in the world beyond the world which he knew. Solomon believed in a God who was not his alone, a God who would be the God of people he would never meet. And so Solomon prayed for us alternately standing and kneeling with his arms outstretched towards the temple building.

The Israelite temple was more of a complex than a building. Most of the worship took place outside in the courtyard. Solomon was outside the temple building when he prayed. Only the priests and Levites could go into the temple building, and then only by turns as they exercised their duties. There was the small altar of incense to tend inside, lamps to keep lit on the great menorah lampstand and the tables of bread before the Holy of Holies to maintain. The great altar was outside, as large as the chancel area. The priests actually walked on the altar which was a large platform; it was big enough that that an entire bull could be burned on it while the priests stoked the fire and added incense by the shovelful. Solomon prayed next to the altar and facing the temple, while inside the temple the throne of God had just been installed. The Ark of the Covenant, with its cherubim was the place where God would sit – as much as an invisible and formless God could be said to sit – and dwell in the midst of God’s people in the temple that Solomon built. Somehow, the great God of all would dwell in a building made by human hands. So Solomon prayed towards but not in the house, “Will God truly dwell on the earth? Look! The heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” Solomon is not ashamed to take credit for building the house; he reminds God of this every few moments.

And Solomon prayed, “Turn towards the prayer of your servant and his plea, Holy One my God, and hear the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said ‘My Name shall be there,’ that you may hear the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; may you hear in the heavens, your dwelling place; hear and forgive.

Solomon prayed for forgiveness. For himself. For his people. On general principle. Because we all need forgiveness. That is why we confess our sins corporately when we come together to worship. Solomon’s prayer is teaching today.

When Solomon prayed, the word “Jew” hadn’t been invented yet but in Israel’s perspective there was them and the rest of the world. They were “the people;” everyone else was “the nations,” goyim in Hebrew and ethnoi in Greek. That’s where we get the words “ethnic/ethnicity” and in a roundabout way “gentile.” Yet in this moment where Solomon can ask God for anything he wants, he famously asks God for wisdom and for God to hear the prayers of people from other lands. 

Solomon believes that people around the world will hear of the Name and fame of God – of course he meant across the surface of the earth, because Solomon believed it was a flat plane as did everyone of his day. It strikes me that Solomon doesn’t put any conditions on his prayer for outsiders. They don’t have to believe what he believes. He still asks God to hear their prayers, our prayers. Solomon’s prayer reveals his faith and if you will, his catechism.

I know we have a formal catechism in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. But this morning I’d like you to think about Solomon’s catechism. First, he prays for foreigners, those who are not of the people Israel. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus made a sharp distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was very clear that he came to save the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It was not until he was converted by a Canaanite woman seeking his healing touch for her daughter that he opened up his ministry to Jews and Gentiles alike. Later, he would go on to teach that everyone who does the will of his father in heaven is his sister and brother, father and mother, part of the family, part of the people Israel. Paul would teach that we who are faithful Gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel. 

But Solomon prayed this prayer long before any of that theology had been worked out. He just believed in a God who was big enough to hear anybody no matter who they were. So let me ask you this morning, how big is your God? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t think like you, don’t talk like you, don’t even pray like you? Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of people who don’t vote like you, who don’t go to church like you, don’t look like you, don’t eat like you, don’t live and love like you? Solomon doesn’t say, “Hear their prayers Lord except for the Egyptians because you know they did us wrong.” (And not just because he was married to an Egyptian princess.) Is your God big enough to hear the prayers of your enemies?

Next, Solomon says, “When the foreigner, the outsider, comes to your house…” Are you prepared to let outsiders in the house? Are you prepared to give a royal welcome to whoever shows up, no matter what they look like or how they are dressed, pierced or tattooed? Notice that Solomon doesn’t say that they’ve been to new members class or learned basic church etiquette. Now Solomon is talking about people going to Israel, going to Jerusalem to the temple that he built. That temple is no longer standing but its Western Wall remains. And I encourage you at least once in your life to make that pilgrimage. It is a holy place. This is also a holy place. Where the people of God are gathered, there God’s Spirit is. And, God in Christ Jesus is present in a particular way through the sacrament of his body and blood. God is in this place. And we are the temple of the living God. Our bodies are the habitation of the Most High God. God dwells in all of these places and more. How are you treating your temple? How is your temple treating God’s other temples?

Solomon prays, “They shall come for they shall hear…” Are you telling the story? Do you have a story to tell? Are you telling the Good News? Do you know the Good News? Do you know anybody who doesn’t already know the story? Or are the only people you talk to people like you who already know what you believe? Solomon is so certain that people from everywhere will hear of God’s fame yet he never assembles a committee to go out knocking on doors, stopping people at bus stops, harassing or annoying people. He just believes the word will get out. 

Solomon prays that God who dwells in heaven will hear the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon knows that God is present in the temple that he has built but he also knows that God can’t be contained by four walls. He knows that God exists in a world beyond his world, in a place that he cannot see or enter. Yet God from the height of heaven, the heavens beyond the heavens, can hear the prayer of anyone on earth. Solomon is teaching theology today. He’s teaching ecclesiology, the nature of the church. And Solomon adds that God would answer the prayers of the foreigner; that God would do whatever the outsider asks God to do. It's hard to catch this if you're reading in English but in Hebrew Solomon doesn't ask God to grant the prayer of the foreigner; Solomon tells God that God will grant the prayer of the foreigner. Solomon believes that God will be gracious to aliens and outsiders because that’s the God he knows and the one in whom he has placed his trust. 

Solomon doesn’t put limits on God. He doesn’t ask for the prayers to be granted only if they’re in his best interest for the best interest of his people. He asks God to grant the prayers of outsiders so that people will know that his God is real and that the stories they have heard are true. Ultimately he wants people to fear God, to revere God, to be in awe of God’s Name. He wants to draw people from the four corners of the earth into relationship with his God. 

That is Solomon’s prayer. What is your prayer today?

In the Name of God, Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.

25 August 2012

Restoring Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba

Our first lesson says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” In so doing the text jumps from 1 Kings 2:12 to 1 Kings 3:3. There is a gap in the text. The story as we have it framed by the lectionary presents a smooth transition from David to Solomon. But it wasn’t that smooth. You may not be surprised, because if you’re like me, you know that life is not always smooth. And if you know anything about the biblical narrative, you know that life in the bible is most certainly, not always smooth. If you’ve been hearing David’s story preached this summer, you know that his life was not always smooth. The lectionary framers skipped something, cut something out. Don’t you want to know what it is? This morning I’m preaching the gap, “Bathsheba Restored.”

As David lay dying just before our lesson, with his professional and personal impotence on display, his sons began fighting over his throne. Even before David was in the ground one of his sons, Adonijah, began trying to claim some of what was his. Adonijah wanted David’s throne and his last woman, Abishag. She had been brought in as a bed warmer for David, to warm up his old bones. But he wasn’t the man he used to be. And he could do nothing with her. And when she got up from what became David’s deathbed, his son Adonijah began asking for her.

This didn’t sit well with everyone. Solomon and Bathsheba understood that by asking for a royal woman even if she had only been a royal woman for a very little time, Adonijah was making a claim on the throne. While he was David’s fourth son, he was now at the head of the line. His oldest brother, Amnon was executed by his third brother Abshalom who was in turn executed by their cousin Joab. (Forget the Borgias, David’s family put the “OG” in original gangstas.) The second brother probably died in infancy because the bible says nothing about him after his name. 

The king is dead! Long live the king! As David lay dying, folk began maneuvering, choosing sides. Who would be the new king? There were a lot of options because as quiet as it’s kept, David had a whole lot of children with a whole lot of women:

2Samuel 3:2 Sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; 3 his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; the third, Absalom son of Maacah, daughter of King Talmai of Geshur; 4 the fourth, Adonijah son of Haggith; the fifth, Shephatiah son of Abital; 5 and the sixth, Ithream, of David’s wife Eglah. These were born to David in Hebron.

But hold on! Chronicles continues chronicling David’s children:

1Chronicles 3:5 These were born to him in Jerusalem: Shimea, Shobab, Nathan, and Solomon, four by Bath-shua, daughter of Ammiel; 6 then Ibhar, Elishama, Eliphelet, 7 Nogah, Nepheg, Japhia, 8 Elishama, Eliada, and Eliphelet, nine. 9 All these were David’s children, besides the children of his secondary wives; and Tamar was their sister.

In case you missed it, Solomon was David’s tenth son out of nineteen. Adonijah was way ahead of Solomon in the line for the throne. But he didn’t count on Bathsheba. Today we’re talking about “Restoring Bathsheba.” Bathsheba had been so callously used by David. When he sent his men to take her she didn’t have the option of saying no. She was a stranger in a strange land, her husband was away fighting the king’s war and the king took her, used her, raped her and tried to discard her. But she became pregnant and David tried to get rid of her and the baby by setting them up to be claimed by her husband. And when that didn’t work, he got rid of her husband by murdering him. I guess she could be grateful that David didn’t just kill her too. I wonder if she had had a choice would she have chosen death over marrying her rapist. Perhaps some days the answer was yes.

That’s all that most people remember about Bathsheba, the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day she was raped, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to live with David as his wife. I don’t know how she did it. But it seems to me that she made up her mind to have the best life she could under the circumstances. I imagine that she said to David, “You are not going to shut me away like you did your first wife Michal. You stole the life I had with my husband in the sight of God, the man I love, the husband I chose to live with. You stole our future and you stole our children. I can’t get that back but I can have your children and the security that comes with them. I will be the mother of kings.”

I don’t know if she really said that, but that’s what I imagine her saying. I have to imagine something because she keeps living and sleeping with David, having his babies in spite of everything that he has done to her and her husband. She stayed in that marriage like so many women married to a monster with no place to go. Now don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands must stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that in her time she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. She made the best she could out of the situation and God was with her.

God was with her in the form of Nathan. The one man who stood up to David. He had no way of knowing whether or not David would kill him, but he told David what he was doing wasn’t right and he told him in such a way that David pronounced judgment on himself. I believe that Nathan became a friend, advisor and perhaps a father figure to Bathsheba. She even named one of her children after him. And then there was the confusion as David lay dying, who would be king after him? Nathan and Bathsheba worked it out.

The king is dead! Long live the king! But who would be the new king? Adonijah is sure that he will be king. He had the support of David's chief enforcer, his nephew Joab, the man that killed one of David's sons and then told the king to stop crying because his grief was taking too long. The rest of the warriors didn’t back him; the priesthood was split. They didn’t have another candidate; they just knew that they didn’t want Adonijah. And yet, Adonijah throws a big party; he invited all of his brothers except for Solomon and he left Nathan off the list too.

David’s oldest surviving son, Adonijah, was making moves, claiming royal property, claiming David’s last woman. And Solomon is only tenth in line; even with the death of three of his older brothers he only moved up to sixth place. And Mama stepped in. I believe Bathsheba said “Baby, let Mamma handle that.” While the man who would be king was partying the night away, Nathan went to see Bathsheba. He said to her look, “If this boy becomes king he will kill you and your son. You and I are going to make sure that doesn’t happen. You and I are going to put your son on the throne. You’re going to go into his room and remind him that he promised to put Solomon on the throne.” Of course, there is no record of that promise in the Bible. Scholars are divided over whether or not David actually made that promise. Some of us think that Nathan and Bathsheba simply decided that Solomon should be king and used David's old age and failing memory against him. 

Bathsheba went in and asked the question while David was lying there with his latest pretty young thing curled up with him in the bed. She spoke to his pride saying, “Aren’t you still the king? Why is it that Adonijah can proclaim himself king while you’re still alive?” She closes by reminding him that Adonijah will surely kill her and Solomon and the rest of her children with David. She doesn’t have to say the rest out loud; she just looks him in the eyes and reminds him of everything he did to her and why she is even in his house. Then, just as they planned, Nathan walked in on cue and Bathsheba slipped out. “Did you say that Adonijah was supposed to be king? He has proclaimed himself king and is throwing a party – and he knew better than to invite me. And by the way, the people are saying long live the king!” David called for Bathsheba to come back in and said to her, “I promised you that I would make Solomon king and I am going to keep my word.” At that very moment, David proclaimed Solomon King. Then David died. The king is dead! Long live the king!

Our last verse before the break says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” But there’s a gap in the text. In that gap in the text, in the space between the two pieces of text of assigned for us today, there’s a whole lot going on. Adonijah knew that the tide had turned against him; he tried to cut a deal with Bathsheba. He said, in the text between our texts, “You know the throne was mine, but I’m going to step aside for your boy because I’m sure that’s God’s will. I do want just one thing for my trouble, that girl.” Bathsheba said, “I will speak to the king about you.” What she meant was, “I’m going to see to it you get exactly what you deserve.” 

She knew that if he had a royal woman and got her pregnant he could claim the throne. And she knew that Solomon knew that too. She raised him well. She also knew that Solomon had to decide on his own what to do about Adonijah. So she asked for the girl for him. Solomon’s response did not disappoint her:

1 Kings 2:22 King Solomon answered his mother, “And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom as well! 23 Then King Solomon swore by the Holy God, “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! 24 Now therefore as the Holy God lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne of my father David, and who has made me a house as God promised, today Adonijah shall be put to death.” 25 So King Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada; he struck him down, and he died.  

The violence in this text and much of the bible is symptomatic of the barbarity of the times. God met folk where they were and they were in the Iron Age. Three thousand years later we haven’t learned that power to hurt and kill is not strength; it does not last and does not bring happiness. In this city plagued with murderous violence and sexual assault God is still trying to show the Davids of the world that they cannot do whatever they want just because they have power. There is seemingly no end to those who use their power against others. I wonder how many Nathans there are, willing to stand up and say that what you have done is wrong; you can’t do whatever you want to people.

After the death of Adonijah, the words of the text came true: “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And Bathsheba, the woman who had been stolen and raped and stolen again, who had married, lived with and lay down with the man who raped her – a man who collected women like dolls and set them aside when he was no longer interested in them – Bathsheba survived him. Bathsheba survived and thrived. Her agency, her ability to make decisions for herself, her life and her body was restored, in part because of Nathan’s friendship and in part because of Solomon.

In that scene in the throne room where Bathsheba is making sure that Adonijah will never threaten her son or his throne again, Solomon elevates his mother in 1 Kings 2:19: “The king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat on his right.” He places her on a throne that he has set on his right hand side; from now on she will be the right hand woman in the kingdom. How different this is from her first encounter with an Israelite king! The physical postures are reversed; now she is elevated above him and it’s voluntary. And in the generations to follow in the monarchy of Judah the king’s mother, the Queen Mother will rule with her son. Bathsheba is no longer the broken woman David used to flex his power. God has transformed her brokenness, given her back her power and more power than she could ever imagine. God restored Bathsheba.

This is the point where poor preachers will say that there is a reason for everything and that everything happens for a reason and that everything happens for our good. I’m here to tell you that’s bad theology and bad preaching. God who can create anything out of no thing can transform any situation and restore any brokenness but God does not need us to be broken, devastated, raped or abused to elevate us. It’s true that Bathsheba would not have had Solomon if David had not kidnapped and raped her; it’s true that she would not have had this life. But we will never know what kind of life she and Uriah would have had. Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have risen up through the ranks of David’s army and when after David died one of David’s fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom, he could have stepped in and stepped up making Bathsheba the right-hand woman with out all that mess. 

It could happen. It did happen. That’s what happened with the general and his wife after Solomon died and one of his fool sons made a mess out of the kingdom. He became king in his place. Bathsheba made the best out of a bad situation. And God was with her. Our text says, “Solomon’s throne was firmly established…” And, “Solomon loved the Lord…” But that’s not the whole story. There’s a gap in the text. And God is in the gap, restoring Bathsheba.

May God the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies
Accompany you through the gaps and brokenness in your life
Nurture, sustain and transform you to change the world around you. Amen.

19 August 2012
Episcopal Church of St. Andrew & St. Monica
Philadelphia PA