Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “David

Lament for Jerusalem and Genocidal Violence


Luke 13:31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Go! And get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘See here, I am casting out demons and restoring health today and tomorrow, and on the third I finish. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next, I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you all were not willing! 35 Look now, your house is released to you. And I tell you all, you will not see me until the time comes when you all say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Let us pray:
In the name of the in whose image we all we created. Amen.

The sermon can be heard here.
The entire gospel of Luke can be described as facing Jerusalem. Where Luke deviates from Mark and Matthew, it is often in the sequence and geography of Jesus’s life building towards a single momentous trip to Jerusalem in contrast to multiple trips in the other gospels. Jerusalem for Luke is the place where God redeems the world in the resurrected death-canceling life of Jesus. But Jerusalem is so much more. Lent, like Luke, is taking us to the cross and the tomb, not just anywhere, but in Jerusalem.
The sacred geography matters. Jerusalem matters. The Rector of the historic African American St. James parish in Baltimore explained the saga, story, and significance of Jerusalem this way:
“Jerusalem was once a place where there was room for everybody. And yet as the years have gone by, human beings have refused to listen to the lesson of love. [He’s been preaching about love for a long time.] There have been more wars, more fighting, more chaos over the holy city than anywhere else on the rest of the earth…In 2500 BC, Jerusalem was a Canaanite enclave, inhabited by the Canaanite peoples…In 1000 BC King David came and he conquered the city and made it part of the nation of Israel…In 587 King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and destroyed it and made it part of the Babylonian Empire…In 537 BC King Cyrus of Persia came, conquered the Babylonians and took over Jerusalem…In 392 the Selucids took it over. In 198 the Ptolomes took it over. In 63, Pompey from Rome came and conquered it. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed it. In 135 AD the Romans destroyed it again. In the 4th century, Constantine made it a Christian city. In the 7th century, the Muslims took it over. In 1099 Christians took it from the Muslims. In 1187 Muslims took it back. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks took it from the other Muslims. In 1870 the British took it over. 1949, the United Nations…” (I give him an A- and play this clip for my students.)
His recitation – without notes – doesn’t even include the time Jerusalem was subject to the Assyrian Empire or a Pharaoh picked his own king for Judah, more than once, or how Jerusalem and the rest of the word fell under the control of Alexander the Great. Stopping before the founding of the modern State of Israel and the forced resettlement of Palestinians or the resulting wars and continuing intifadas, (then Fr.) Michael Curry cried out, “How long O Lord?”
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Jerusalem. The name fires the imagination, conjures up awe, holiness, and violence. It is a legendary place of sacred story and a thriving prosperous city, and a divided inequitable city, and a holy city, and a mecca for tourists and pilgrims. It is a legendary city and a real city. It is a place with a bloody history and a bloody reality. Jerusalem is the place where the stories of scripture are made real in stone and bone. Jerusalem is a place that Americans politicize, and Christians romanticize.
Some parts of what makes up Jerusalem have been inhabited since the Stone Age before there was such a thing as an Israeli or Palestinian, Israelite or Canaanite. As far as I’m concerned, everyone after the Natufians is a late-comer and an immigrant. Between the mighty empires of Egypt and those of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem and Canaan and ancient Israel were not just on the road to war and imperial expansion, they were the road to war and empire building.
Jerusalem is forcibly dragged into Israel’s story when David conquers it to provide a neutral base from which to rule so as not to show any favoritism to northern or southern tribes. We’ve been taught all our lives to read from the perspective of the Israelites and give no consideration to the Canaanites. A whole lot of us grew up cheering Joshua’s genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites and gave no thought to what it was like for the people of Jerusalem to be occupied by David for the convenience of a well-situated capital city. That kind of thinking made it easy to identify the native peoples of this land as the new Canaanites and attempt to eradicate them like the old Canaanites. That kind of thinking causes some to conflate the ancient nation of Israel with the modern state of Israel. They are not the same. They are connected. There is a largely direct line between them, but they are not the same.
Romanticizing Joshua’s conquest of Canaan and David’s conquest of Jerusalem leaves genocidal language unchallenged in the scriptures, our genocidal past unrepented, and, provides theological language, and sanction for those calling for genocides today. We saw a horrific, chilling, glimpse of that in the massacres at the mosques in New Zealand, a man who murdered children, three and four years old so they wouldn’t grow up to be adult Muslims and have and raise Muslim children. That is genocidal white supremacist violence wrapped up in a toxic empire of Christiandom shell. Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem must be heard in its ancient and our contemporary contexts.
The ancient Jerusalemites were people created in the image of God like the rest of us, both victims and perpetrators of violence. Their tiny home was invaded and conquered by a warlord in the name of a God they may or may not have worshipped. The shining moments of the Davidic and Solomonic monarchies were purchased in blood. Their Jerusalem passed into Assyrian control where it was squeezed for every shekel, including the silver on the doors of the temple. They were subject to wanton acts of violence like the siege and razing of Lachish where the Assyrians tortured Israelites by hanging them on only slightly sharpened sticks and cutting their still living bodies open down to the bone. Archeological sources record that when they took tribute and hostages from King Hezekiah, they even took his daughters–who are never mentioned in the bible, likely because of the shame.
Then the Babylonians came, and Jerusalem was subject to more violence than they had ever experienced or could ever had imagined. So much so that when Cyrus of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return home, he was hailed as God’s messiah in Isaiah. (There are multiple messiahs in the bible, but that is another sermon.) Alexander’s conquest was relatively mild, but those who followed him were savage. And then Herod got Jerusalem and Judea in part by knowing which backstabbing Roman general to back.
Jesus’s Jerusalem had a bloody history. But it wasn’t just conquerors, colonizers, and occupiers who were spilling blood. Like all other peoples they shed their fair share of their own blood. And among the most notorious crimes were the murders and attempted murders of several prophets. It wasn’t just that the prophets were preaching a word of God that the people didn’t want to hear, but that the prophets were also preaching highly political words that that challenged the power, authority, and sometimes competence, of civil and religious leaders. Prophets and preaching have always been political. These prophets preached against Jerusalem. They preached against their puppet-kings and their puppet-masters. They preached against the inequities in Jerusalem among her own people. And they proclaimed the inevitable fall of the holy city where God dwelt and which God had previously protected from invading armies, because not even in Jerusalem could those systemic institutionalized inequities stand.
And so the prophets were targeted rather than heeded. One of those puppet-kings, Jehoiakim, sentenced the prophet Uriah to death, and when he escaped to Egypt, had him killed there and his body brought back to Jerusalem, Jeremiah 26:20–23. When Jeremiah preached the fall of Jerusalem, after beating him and throwing him in jail, the people of Jerusalem called for his death, and Zedekiah, the last king of Judah appointed by Nebuchadnezzar, let them have him. Jeremiah was only saved because someone remembered the prophet Micah–whom everyone agreed was a trustworthy prophet unlike Jeremiah, who wasn’t believed until after his death¬–Micah had said virtually the same thing, Jeremiah 38:4–6. And then there was the infamous murder of the prophet Zechariah, not the one who wrote a book of the bible¬–everyone, including Matthew and Jesus mixed them up–Zechariah was murdered on the temple grounds, in the court, in sight of the altar, 2 Chronicles 24:20–22. Jerusalem’s reputation as a place that kills prophets even makes it into the Quran five hundred years later:
We gave Musa, Moses, the Book, and followed up after him with the messengers, and We gave Isa, Jesus, son of Marium, Mary, clear signs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit. (But) whenever a messenger brought you what you yourselves did not desire, you become arrogant, and some you called liars and some you killed. Sura 2:87
According to New Testament scholar Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, when Jesus said, “it is impossible for a prophet to perish outside of Jerusalem,” he was saying, “it is not destined that Herod will kill me, but that Jerusalem will,” (Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, p 1032).
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
I am struck that Jesus’s response to the threat from Herod and murderous history of Jerusalem was not to resort to a toxic masculinity, call for force of arms, or even call down fire and brimstone. Instead he portrayed himself as the most ridiculous of animals, the very image of protective motherly devotion, almost mindlessly so. I imagine mother hen Jesus wanting to gather all of the disparate chicks of his, her, Jerusalem under her, his, wings: Not just Israelites, but Geeks and Romans, and Syrians and Libyans, and everyone else from everywhere else. Jesus wasn’t distinguishing citizens from immigrants and refugees; he wasn’t even distinguishing between the oppressed and their oppressors. He just wanted to hold them all to his heart, and like a mama hen, sit on then when they looked to get out and get up to trouble. Some will see in this image a call for mass conversion, certainly that is how the church has operated, often to its shame. But I want to point out that Jesus didn’t lay any requirements on those he wanted to embrace in the city for which he lamented.
The City of Peace has never known lasting peace. Neither have the rest of us. There is still blood in the streets of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is still a city of many peoples from many nations with many faiths; there are still those who are occupied and those who occupy. And there are still prophetic voices crying out against inequitable governing structures and policies that cannot and will not stand. Now those prophetic voices are Palestinian, and sometimes Israelis, and sometimes, other voices. Those voices crying out against the occupation of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza, and the targeted shooting of unarmed protestors, and the continuing eviction of Arab residents of Jerusalem to hand their houses over to Jewish citizens is not anti-Semitic. Critiquing the policies of state of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That’s a lie that has to be prophetically called out because there is real, vile, lethally violent anti-Semitism in the world.
Antisemitism and Islamophobia are the both the spawn of white supremacy as we have seen acted out in blood in the Linwood Islamic Center and Masjid al-Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg PA, and at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston SC, and at the Oak Creek Sikh Temple in Oak Creek WI, and at the Overland Park Jewish Center in Kansas City KS, and at the Islamic Center of Quebec City, and, and, and… [h/t @Michael Skolnik https://twitter.com/MichaelSkolnik/status/1106534709302042624]
In the Lenten season we are called to the holy practices of self-examination and study of and meditation on scripture. Today that means reflecting seriously on the stories we tell and the stories we were told. This Lenten season I bid you join me in repenting for the violence of Christians against Jews and Muslims, for Christian complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and for those of you who have white privilege, for silence and inertia in the face of the rising tide of white supremacist violence, in word and deed.
Let us teach and tell new stories about Jerusalem and all of her peoples and those who love her. I will begin by praying Psalm 122 in a new way.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,
and pray for the peace of Palestine:
May they all prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers,
and may the walls that divide be torn down.
For the sake of my Muslim and Jewish relatives and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of all the houses of God,
I will seek your good. Amen.


Ritualizing Bathsheba’s Rape

Bathsheba with her dead or dying child produced from David's rape while he prays for the child.
Pauline Williamson by permission

In the powerful image by Pauline Williamson (who creates as Sea), Bathsheba sits with her dead or dying child produced from David’s rape while he prays for the child. See her own interpretive work on this passage here.

It is Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday when Christians traditionally went to confession and were shriven, and celebrated the sweetness they would deny in Lent with delicacies or full-on Mardi Gras and Carnival. Some of us still go to confession; now we call it the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Reconciling a Penitent.

Perhaps we need to repent for how we have ritualized Bathsheba’s rape while excluding her from the penitence it generated while the bodies of women and girls (and not just) are still being plundered, desecrated, and profaned in the church and by anointed leaders.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and Psalm 51 will be our corporate litany. It is ostensibly David’s psalm of repentance after his abduction, rape, and forced impregnation of Bathsheba, and his subsequent murder of her husband. Yet he does not mention her or his specific transgressions against her in it. To be fair, the biblical text constructs David’s sin as being against God and Uriah, her husband, but not against her.

A titular verse likely from the hand of an editor – and it is questionable whether a shepherd boy turned bandit possessed the literacy to write a psalm though he could have composed it and had it recorded – a titular verse proclaims the context of the psalm as that time he “went to” Bathsheba: When Nathan the prophet went to him on account of his going to Bathsheba. (my translation)

He didn’t go to her. He had her brought to him. “His going to her” is perhaps supposed to evoke a Hebrew euphemism for intercourse. It does not describe her as an active participant, an adulteress, as many would later wrongly claim. But it does not make clear the nature of his crimes.

In the (Episcopal) Book of Common Prayer, the psalm appears without the superscription so no reference to Bathsheba remains, misleading, fallacious, or otherwise. We will in David’s voice confess to sinning against God alone, with no specificity (unlike our Jewish kin who collective own a litany of transgressions on Yom Kippur).

In the Litany of Penance that follows we will confess our transgressions against others. But it is striking that we have so abstracted Psalm 51. Now that we are really talking about sexual violence and harassment in and out of the church, #MeToo and #ChurchToo, and calling once beloved figures to account for their sexual predations – Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson – and laicizing priests, bishops, and cardinals, perhaps we should stop allowing David to get away with structuring his act of contrition around an abstract concept and tell him to leave his gift on the altar and first make peace with his sister.

And perhaps we should repent for our treatment of the survivors of rape in and out of scripture, our coddling of rapists, our refusal to hold great men accountable, and our love of occasionally disembodied liturgy.

In the spirit of Phyllis Trible, when we pray Psalm 51 as our prayer of repentance, we plead the blood of Bathsheba:

She was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon her was the punishment that made us whole,
and by her bruises we are healed.

For more on Bathsheba’s story see: Womanist Midrash.


Bathsheba & Black Lives Matter

Our first lesson could easily be and should be translated:

2 Sam 11:4 David sent emissaries to kidnap Bathsheba and she came to him then he raped her. Then she cleansed herself from her defilement and returned to her house. 5 [After some time] the woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.” (translation, Wil Gafney)

These are hard words. These are hard times. Hard times call for hard words.

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our ears that we may hear. Amen.

sandrabland2[Note: all of the tweet links are broken. I’ll fix them when I can.] As Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi watched Trayvon Martin being put on trial for his own murder they created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Many have joined the movement and when others have tried to hijack the prophetic proclamation by focusing only on black male lives or heterosexual or cissexual black lives we who agitate and protest in social media and in the streets remind and correct them: all black lives matter. [tweet thisBlack women’s lives matter. Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lives matter. Black Muslim lives matter. All black lives matter because black life is sacred. [tweet that] The lives of Sandra Bland, Kindra Chapman and Jasmine Wright cut short this past week matter because they were the very image of God and someone could not or chose not to see God in them.Jasmine Wrightkindra-chapman-photojpg-cbd8bfa919366ce9

And when folk want to turn away from the death that is stalking black lives in the streets, in the church, in police custody, in WalMart, in public parks and in the case of 7 year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, shot by a cop in her own little bed, we say no. Don’t look away. Don’t change the subject. You don’t go to a breast cancer rally and change the subject to all cancer or another disease or all the people who aren’t killed by cancer or even blame folk for behavior choices that you think may have contributed to their cancer.

That’s what the folk who invented the all lives matter hashtag in response to black lives matter were doing. [tweet thisWe said black lives matter. They said no, all lives matter. They said we will not acknowledge that black life is under siege. We will change the subject. We will look away.

We have a hard time talking about race in this country. At this moment we are looking at an escalating tide of black death and some of us are saying black lives matter. In the church we should also say Black life is sacred.

Our scriptures teach we are all created in the image of God. That is easy to say. Our history and our very present demonstrate that some of are not counted in that “we.” Our own Episcopal Church told my enslaved ancestors that freedom in Christ didn’t mean freedom from slavery. They would be free when they died. We weren’t counted in that “we.” The founders of this nation, many of whom were also founders of the Episcopal Church, both founded in my home Diocese of Pennsylvania, had no trouble excluding people of African descent from “we the people.” (Yes, they excluded others but we’re not going to look away or change the subject.) [tweet thisThose founders for whom the bible was scripture could appeal to its pages to support slavery. Yes, Paul said there is neither slave nor free – but he told Onesimus who freed himself from slavery he had to return to slavery and his master and also wrote “slaves obey your masters.” [tweet thisAnd for all his talk about freedom, Jesus never freed any slaves.

In the biblical world just as in ours there were people who counted and people who didn’t. Often those people were identified by ethnicity. Race as we know it didn’t exist in the biblical word but ethnicity functioned very much as it does now. Ethnicity in antiquity and modernity is identity rooted in people and place often with distinct language and cultural attributes. In their scriptures Israelites were the people who mattered and non-Israelites often did not. For me there is more than a little irony in Gentile Christians claiming the scriptures of Israel as our heritage. And, whether Israelite or non-Israelite, women in the scriptures often – but not always – but all too often – were treated as though they didn’t matter. And yes, there are those texts where women and foreigners and even foreign women turn the tables on exclusion and bias but don’t rush to those texts too quickly. Don’t look away from what is hard to see just yet.

Part of what is so infuriating to many us in the Black Lives Matter movement is that all too often our fellow God-crafted citizens whom we pay, support and need as police officers are killing us and our children. They have the power of the state at their disposal, a sacred trust to use lethal force only for the protection of all of us, for our common good. But some of them abuse that power. [tweet this] The sheer scope of extrajudicial killings of black folk by police is an abuse of power. Some take it further like Officer Daniel Hoytzclaw who spent his on-duty time targeting black women for sexual assault. [tweet this] He took at least 13 black women like David took Bathsheba. Don’t look away.

The church has a history of looking away. The church has looked away from David’s abuse of his power, running to his repentance. Don’t look away. [tweet this] The church has even looked to Bathsheba blaming her – some call her rape adultery – looking at her instead of David just as some folk have blamed victims of police killings: if they had just done what they were told… If she hadn’t mouthed off… The penalty for non-compliance and being mouthy is not summary execution, not in these United States. Besides, compliance won’t save us. Don’t change the subject. Don’t shift the blame. Don’t look away from the abuse of power in this text.

Hold David responsible for his actions. I tell my students and the preachers I mentor not to say “Bathsheba was raped” but to say “David raped Bathsheba.” 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 his war and then he took her, raped her and tried to discard her. Having to prove David raped Bathsheba is uncomfortably similar to the plight in which many women and girls find themselves, having to prove to the police and general public that they were raped.

God, the prophet Nathan and the scriptures are clear that Bathsheba was not at fault for David’s sin. Only he is accused and held accountable. But the text doesn’t regard David’s rape of Bathsheba as a crime against her. In the bible her rape is a crime against her husband. That’s hard for me. But I won’t look away. As an Episcopalian and a biblical scholar I know the bible is more often descriptive than prescriptive, describing things as they were and not as they should be. [tweet this] We are called to learn from, not always imitate Iron Age theology. We are also called to look for those spaces where every once in a while Iron Age theology is revolutionary and revelatory. So don’t look away when the text and even God are hard to look at or you might miss it.

David who was so handsome when we met him is ugly in this text. David rapes because he can. Rape is about power and domination. It is not about sex. [tweet this] David had sex partners. He was married like so many other rapists. David has been engaged to Saul’s daughter Merab, then married to her sister Michal then married to Abigail after her husband died and, on the way home with Abigail he stops off and picks up Ahinoam.] Before he sends men to abduct Bathsheba so he can rape her, David has sexual access to a minimum of six wives whom we know, seven if you count the banished Michal and an unknown number of Saul’s wives whom he inherited. That does not include servants – or slaves since they could not say no – and prostitutes with which Israelite men could have sex without consequence because adultery at that time was only having sex with a married or engaged woman.

[Now those of you who have medical or public health training, tell me what does a person with multiple sexual partners run the risk of, particularly when those partners have more than one sexual partner themselves? Listen to David’s words in Psalm 38:

5 My wounds grow foul and fester
because of my foolishness;
6 I am utterly bent over and prostrate;
all day long I go around mourning.
7 For my loins are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.

[tweet this] David had an STD and wrote a psalm about it. If you asked him, I’m sure David would tell you, “It’s good to be king.” David’s rape of Bathsheba and murder-by-proxy of her husband need to be understood in light of his treatment of other women. [tweet that] He would go on to have children with seven women that we know by name: Abigail, Ahinoam, Bathsheba, Maacah, Haggith, Abital and, Eglah. He fathered another seven children with a group of nameless wives, and he still had Saul’s leftover women. But the church has looked away from David’s sexual ethics.

To cover up his crime, David killed Bathsheba’s husband. And as a result she had no place else to go. 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. Sadly, all that most people seem to remember about Bathsheba is the worst day of her life, maybe the worst two or three days: the day David raped her, the day David killed her husband, the day she realized she would have to marry her rapist. 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. 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. It’s good to be king and 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 – four of them – 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. I’m not saying that women who are being abused or even raped by their husbands should stay with them. I am simply acknowledging that she had no other choice, and that in our time many women feel like they have no choice either. Bathsheba made the best she could out of the situation.

In so doing she changed the course of history. Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan decide between them, without an old, then-impotent David at the end of his life, that her son Solomon and not David’s oldest son Amnon or even his favorite, Absalom will be king. [tweet this] Bathsheba put her son on the throne. And after David died, Solomon put her on a throne. In 2 Kings 2, Solomon enthrones his long-suffering mother who has survived her rape, her rapist and their forced marriage. Bathsheba became the right-hand woman in the kingdom. And when Solomon got up off of his throne and bowed at her feet, everyone else in the throne room did too.

Solomon learned it’s good to be king and followed in the footsteps of his father David. Where did you think he got the habit of collecting women? It is good to be king. But Jesus didn’t want to be king. He knew that there was nothing romantic about being king. Many monarchs, kings, some queens and pharaohs – male and female – were bloodthirsty, power-hungry, egomaniacal and rapists. [tweet thisDavid and Solomon represented the golden age of Israelite monarchy and Jesus didn’t want to be anything like them. David and Solomon collected women for their own personal use. [tweet] Jesus collected and respected women disciples like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles whose feast was this past Wednesday.

Yet the Church and the scriptures have given the title “king” to Jesus. His disciples then and now never seem to get that he never wanted to be king. In today’s Gospel, after he has demonstrated his power by feeding five thousand people with a child’s lunch Jesus has to run away and hide because the people want to make him king. Just after his resurrection and ascension, the disciples asked again, “Now are you going to restore the kingdom?” If he could raise himself from death to life surely he could put Herod and even Caesar to death. Because the one sure way to become king was to kill the previous king. But Jesus would die, not kill.

[tweet this] Kings take. But Jesus gives. A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity. A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry. [tweet this] A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.

As king David had the power of life and death at his command. He used that power to rape and murder. There were good kings in Israel and terrible kings and kings who did good things and terrible things. There are good people and horrible people with the power of life and death over others. And there are people who do good things and terrible things with the power of life and death over others. Some of those things are so terrible we may want to look away and change the subject. [tweet] But the lesson of Bathsheba and Black Lives Matter is that the victimized and the vulnerable matter to God and none of the biases of text or culture, in the Iron Age or this age will ever change that.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amene.

 


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


It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David

Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.

The author of the book of Samuel wants you to know that good things come in small, or better, seemingly insignificant packages. David’s own father – Happy Father’s Day! –  overlooked him because he was the baby. Samuel wasn’t much better, focusing his attention on the tall, dark and handsome brother. But God says, “I do not see the way that humans do: you all look at a person’s face and body; I look at a person’s heart.” 

Samuel and God were having this conversation because God had decided to replace Saul as king. Saul, the second king in Israel after Avimelek in the book of Judges, has turned out to be something of a disappointment. And God breaks up with him. Saul is devastated and never recovers, and I really feel for him. Samuel seems to take it equally hard. But the bible and God move on to David – ah new love!

God has had God’s eye on David’s family and decided on David as the next King of Israel. What was it God saw in the young David? I’d like to think it was promise and possibility. I’d hate to think that God saw all of the things that David would do and chose him anyway, not caring. I’d rather think that God saw that David had it in him to be a great man, to inspire people, to lead people, to love passionately, to pray faithfully, yes, to sin, but then to repent sincerely. So God sent Samuel to Jesse, to anoint one of his sons – as yet unidentified. God tells Samuel to invite Jesse and leaves the rest of the details up to him. And that’s where things get interesting.

  I’m calling this sermon “It Takes A Village: In the Shadow of David” because while David is the obvious focus of this story, he’s not the only one in it. David is anointed as king to lead God’s people, but not for his own benefit – although he did benefit. David was called to service, a type of service that exists in only a small part of our world. People all over the world recently reflected on the tradition of monarch as servant with Queen Elizabeth II as she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. David’s service was to and for people the bible rarely mentions, the little people, the insignificant people, people passed over based on birth order or what they look like. Just like David; the irony abounds. So, I invite you to look at and look for all of the people who made David’s reign possible including his royal family because, quite frankly, David isn’t someone who I’d like to model my life and faith on. So I’m going to do a feminist reading of the story this morning. You don’t mind me using the f-word in the pulpit do you? As a feminist, I’m keenly aware of who is in the story and who is missing from this story. 

Today we’re going to talk to each other a bit. Who do you think is missing from this story? Think of the sacrifice like a big family celebration. Who is around your table at Thanksgiving?

I’ll give you a moment to answer while I remind you what is going on. Samuel comes to Bethlehem and the elders of the city meet him at the gate, shaking with fear and want to know, “Do you come in peace?” That’s because one verse before our lesson in the previous chapter Samuel kills the Amalekite king, Agag, chopping him into pieces: 

1 Samuel 15:32 Then Samuel said, “Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.” And Agag came to him haltingly. Agag said, “Surely this is the bitterness of death.” 33 But Samuel said, “As your sword has made women childless, so your mother shall be childless among women.” And Samuel chopped Agag in pieces before the Holy One in Gilgal. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah… [Our lesson picks up here]

So the elders of Bethlehem were understandably concerned when Samuel showed up. The text doesn’t leave any space between the two stories so for all we know Samuel may have come straight from the execution, having his conversation with God on the road. So Samuel invites the elders to the sacrifice, perhaps to prove the only thing getting killed is the cow. 

Back to your quiz: God has sent Samuel to Jesse to anoint the king that God has chosen. Samuel invites all of Jesse’s sons – but we know one, David, is missing – and Samuel invites the elders. Now, who do you think is missing from this story? [David’s mother and sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.]

David was only available for God because his parents produced and raised him. We know a bit about his father, Jesse the grandson of Ruth and Boaz. But what about his mother whose name is not preserved? How do I know that David’s mother is alive and that he has sisters?

Later on in 1 Sam 22:3-4, David asks the king of Moab – his great-grandmother Ruth was Moabite – David asks the king: “Please let my father and mother come to you, until I know what God will do for me.” He left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him all the time that David was in the stronghold.

  So David’s mother was alive. And either Samuel excluded her from the sacrifice only inviting Jesse and the boys or the author of the text ignores her only focusing on Jesse and the boys. Where else would she have been but at her home when the national prophet showed up? Even if she was at market wouldn’t she have gone straight home after that scene at the city gates with the elders? Even if they weren’t invited to the sacrifice, don’t you think everyone in town was as close to the sacrifice as possible? And since sacrifices were done outside there was nothing to keep anyone away – and ancient Israel didn’t practice gender segregation at sacrifices. I think she was there, along with her daughters. Did she at some point offer hospitality to Samuel, a meal and a place to stay and water for his feet? I think so.

David comes from a large family and the names of all of David’s brothers and sisters are given in 1 Chronicles chapter 2. David’s brothers: Eliab firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David the seventh (1 Chron 2:13-15) and David’s sisters: Zeruiah and Abigail (1 Chron 2:16) They will become the royal family, the village that makes it possible for David to be who he will be and perhaps could be.

Why does it matter who counts and who gets erased? It matters as we try to understand what lessons this story has for us. Many folk read the scriptures through the lenses of the major characters. But we can’t all be David. Who are you in this story? Are you even in this story? Are you David’s parents or sisters? Think about the fact that we know their names unlike the sisters of Jesus from last week. Are you one of David’s brothers, one of his nephews – I’ll tell you about them in a bit – or even one of the many, many, women in his life? (Solomon got that thing honestly, from his father.)

The lessons for us today in this passage of scripture are not literal – we will not be anointed king of Israel or America. Yet this is a scriptural story passed down to us. It may be that God has seen something in us like David, that we are full of promise and possibility. And there is the promise and potential of all the other folk in our village, some of which gets overshadowed by the radiant gifts of a select few. But none of us will be who we are and who we will be, who we can be, on our own. We come from families that shape us for good and for ill, and from communities, neighborhoods, schools and our larger culture. And many if not most of us participate in more than one culture. And we are also responsible for our own choices, including the choice to nurture the dreams and aspirations of other folk in our villages. How will we live up to and into our own possibilities and promise and at the same time, how will we help those around us live up to and into theirs?

David’s family supports him; his successes are largely family affairs. David is supported by three men who have his back at every turn, his nephews, the sons of his sister Zeruiah: Abishai, Joab, and Asahel. Contrary to much of biblical tradition, their father is erased from the text; his name is not preserved and they are known by their mother’s name. David’s nephews are the commanders of his military forces and his personal guard. They hunted down and killed everyone who rebelled against David personally – including David’s son Absalom. David didn’t put himself on that throne and he didn’t keep himself on that throne. And when one of Saul’s men killed one of David’s nephews in battle they hunted him down and killed him after the battle was over.

David’s other sister, Abigail, gave birth to his nephew Amasa, unfortunately he sided with Absalom and was killed by Joab, one of those first three nephews. (1 Chron 2:16-17) Amasa’s father, David’s brother-in-law was Jether the Ishmaelite, so David is related to the children of Ishmael and Israel in addition to being the great-grandson of a Moabite woman. David’s village transcended socially acceptable boundaries. The Gospel of Matthew will take it farther and say that Boaz, David’s great-grandfather is descended from Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute. 

David’s complicated family history is a reminder that royal families are not different from our families in most ways. We’ve all got stories and skeletons. The feminist practice of naming those rendered invisible and silent paints the Israelite royal family in a whole new light. David’s family would be right at home in a reality show, but they are nearly lost to the long shadow cast by David in the glare of the light shone on David by the writers of the scriptures, nearly eclipsing everyone else. 

And of course, there are all of David’s women: Merab whose engagement to David was broken by her father Saul, Michal whose marriage to David was ended by her father Saul who gave to another man; she was taken back and imprisoned by David, Abigail with whom he apparently never had children. And then there are all of the women with whom he did have children: Ahinoam whom he married on the way home with Abigail after their wedding – ick!, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheba. 

When I teach the biblical account of David’s rape of Bathsheba I start with the fact that David has at least six wives with whom he is living, sleeping and making babies. They are in addition to his banished wife, Michal. David has also two collections of women described as “other primary and secondary wives taken in Jerusalem” and he inherited “Saul’s former wives.” David has sexual access to as many as a dozen women if not more when he walks out onto that roof sees Bathsheba and gives the order to have her abducted and brought to him so that he can do as he pleases.

There were consequences to all of David’s womanizing which he admits in his lesser-known psalm of repentance, Ps 38:

1 Holy One of Old, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath. 

2 For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me.

3 There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones because of my sin. 

4 For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.

5 My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness; 

6 I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all day long I go around mourning. 

7 For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh.

David has apparently contracted a sexually communicated disease. And, lastly, there was Abishag with whom he was impotent before he died – yes that is in the bible. Did God really know that David would do all of these things and choose him anyway?

Saint Augustine famously described God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. However in the bible, God seems to never be more than two o’s at a time. When God looks on David’s heart, what does God see? Perhaps God did see all of David’s brokenness and knew that it was still possible for David to be the man that God called him to be. And I think that’s good news for the rest of us. Amen.


If We Can’t See God Then Give Us a King: Incarnational Monarchy

A Bejeweled Crown

It’s not you it’s me. That’s the stereotypical and clichéd way to break up with someone. But what happens in the book of Samuel (and it’s a single book in Hebrew) is even tackier: The one partner (Israel) won’t talk to the other partner (God) and tells a third party (Samuel) that it’s time to redefine their relationship. Awkward!

But they’re also dissing Samuel – we wouldn’t need a king if you had done a better job raising your boys… Verse 5: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways… Ouch! Samuel’s sons were greedy and corrupt. Listen to the beginning of chapter 18 excluded from our lectionary:

1Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Yo’el, and the name of his second, Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The people had already been through this with Eli, Samuel’s mentor and predecessor. He was a good judge, but his sons were thieves – they stole the peoples’ offerings, God’s offerings, right out of the collection plates and they forced the women who ministered at the sanctuary to sleep with them, clergy misconduct in every way. Hannah gave her firstborn son Samuel to God and God gave him to Eli to be his replacement, but there were no fine young men or women waiting in the wings this time around. Just the thought of going through that again must have been traumatic.

But what I can’t figure for the life of me is why the Israelites thought a monarch would be any better. What guarantee would they have that the king’s sons wouldn’t be despots or tyrants? None! That's exactly what happened and the monarchy of Israel was broken into two shrinking pieces from which it never recovered, just as the gospel says, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The request was illogical and irrational. It wasn’t about Samuel; he was just the excuse. It was peer pressure on an epic, national and international scale. We want a king like everybody else. We want to be like the modern Iron Age nations, on the cutting edge.

Now this is a tricky text for Americans because we’re rather smug in our rejection of monarchy, particularly here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty. But the aftermath of this text, which we often forget, is that God sanctifies monarchy –the Israelite monarchy and perhaps those that extend from it – making our own patriotic rebellion scripturally questionable. This text is also difficult to translate into our contemporary reality. If we agree that neither God nor Samuel thought that the monarchy was a good idea but held their collective noses and let their spoiled brats have what they thought they wanted to teach them a lesson, then what was the preferred alternative? Theocracy? Theocracy doesn’t have a positive track record in our world outside of the scriptures. It doesn’t work terribly well in the scriptures. We know that theocracies are dangerous.

Moses was arguably the first theocratic ruler in Israel’s history. And yet, in spite of the very real, visible presence of God in the pillars of cloud, smoke and fire, miraculous provision of manna and quail, earthshaking miracles, sand, serpents, plagues and other punishments, there were constant complaints, rebellions and more than one attempted coup. At more than one point God had enough, decided to kill everybody and start all over again with new people – as though they would be more faithful the next time around than the old people – and Moses had to talk God out of killing rages repeatedly, interceding with incense, placing his own body between the wrath of God and the dying.

Then came the judges. They were a mixed bunch at best. The judges were warlords and whoremongers, prophets and priests; one sacrificed his own daughter, slaughtering her like an animal in the name of God, a human sacrifice. And they had a bad habit of appointing their own questionable offspring after them. They may not have called themselves kings, queens or monarchs, but they sure acted like them – right down to the thrones of Moses, Deborah, Eli and Samuel.

So God tells Samuel, “it’s not you; it’s me,” that the people are really rejecting God in v 7:  “Obey the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from reigning over them.

But on the other hand, it is about you too in v 8: Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, abandoning me and serving other gods, so too they are doing to you.

As a priest, I appreciate that God got that Samuel was taking this personally and ministered to him: they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me… It’s not you; it’s me. God gives Samuel what he needs, divine comfort. And God gives the people what they say they need, a king. But that wouldn’t be enough. Because kings are not gods. They do terrible things, as bad as any of the transgressions of the sons of Eli and Samuel. 

The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9. 

So the Israelites knew that monarchy was an imperfect solution. They also had the example of all the queens, kings, pharaohs, princes, and other sovereigns around them. The Middle Bronze and Iron Ages weren’t exactly known for their advances in human and civil rights. So why were they so desperate for a monarch in spite of all of the evidence around them? Because of what a monarch represented in their world, what I’ll call representational incarnation, the woman or man on the throne was the beloved of God, sometimes child, sometimes spouse, and God was with her or him in a particular, intimate way and that person was the visible presence of God in their midst. 

They just wanted to be able to see and touch God. At any cost. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. They certainly apply to the monarchy of which Israel dreamed. So Samuel warned them, “this is what a king will do, he will take….” in vv 11-17:

he will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…  he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys… he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall all be his slaves.

And the people said, “We don’t care!” Verse 19: 

No! We are determined to have a monarch over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our monarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Perhaps they thought God would still be on their side and fight their battles through this king they demanded – which is how it eventually worked out, for a while. Perhaps they felt entitled to divine protection. Perhaps they weren’t faithless. But perhaps – and this is what I really think – perhaps they were just being human, craving institutional structures and hierarchy as bulwarks against the chaos of their world and a monarch, a king, as a tangible symbol of God’s presence with them. That’s why I call it representational incarnation.

As is so often the case, the symbol is more important than the reality. We want to see someone fighting on our side. We don’t want to have to imagine an invisible God or trust that God is really here with us or have faith in that which we cannot see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears or touch with our own hands – one could touch a king in certain circumstances, circumspectly. We want a king, even if he is a puppet. 

I don’t blame them. I understand them. They were not the generation who had seen the power of God in the deliverance of the Exodus, plagues of Egypt and miracles in the wilderness. Those were their ancestral stories. They are sort of like us, hearing the stories of scripture, whether the stories of Miriam and Moses or Mary and Jesus. Those are our ancestral stories, and they require faith because we were not there. And sometimes faith is hard. Samuel wasn’t enough. He was the heir of Moses and Deborah – only the three of them were both prophet and judge – but he wasn’t a miracle-worker or lawgiver like Moses and he wasn’t a warrior-poet like Deborah. He and his ministry weren’t enough.

We are not so different from them. We also need tangible symbols. Israelite worship like Episcopal worship was sensual. There were sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. A monarch was a religious symbol of divine power throughout the ancient world, not terribly different from a Christ Pantocrator icon come to life. And some still venerate the prophet, priest and pastor as God’s representative.

The need to have the power and presence of God in the midst of the community in a tangible, visible way endured and endures. And so God became incarnate in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. An answer to that ancient prayer. But without the traditional trappings of monarchy. In fact so ordinary that his own family thought he was crazy from time to time, or least needed protection from himself, so that he wouldn’t wear himself out.

Jesus’ family, his mother, his sisters – we don’t know how many there were, just that there were more than one, his four brothers – Joseph Jr., James, Jude and Simon, his absent father Joseph Sr. and all whom he welcomes into his family, we who will do the will of God, find a monarch who refused to behave like a king and an incarnational presence who embraced and transcended death. A continuing, abiding, accompanying, guiding presence, reigning in our hearts with our consent. 

When we cry out, “Give us a king” because we cannot see where God is in our lives and in our world, may God disregard our demand and respond to the cry of our hearts with what we need, the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.