Opening The Old Testament
An Open-Hearted God, An Open-Hearted Worship: Reflections on 1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Fortunately in this small passage, there is more—two "mores," at least. The first insight I wish to note is the result of the information that the rest of the Bible offers to me about the great king David, the father of this very Solomon. Though the Deuteronomist blithely tosses off his litany about how YHWH has never removed steadfast love from David, and is demonstrating that fact with the dedication of the Jerusalem temple, what we all know about this David, having read the shocking stories of 1 and 2 Samuel (wherein David breaks at least five of the ten commandments; see Dt. 5), could have led us to believe that the very last person YHWH would regard with unbreakable love is this nasty David! We should never miss the astonishing claim throughout the Deuteronomic literature that David was somehow YHWH's boy. Really??!! David? If God can love David, there may be hope for us!
The second "more" is found in the quite amazing claims concerning foreigners found in 1 Kings 8:41-43. Again, the broader context is crucial. If this material is the product of the 7th century B.C.E., what do the readers of that time know and think about foreigners? They will have lived cheek-by-jowl with foreigners their whole lives. Direct descendants of Canaanites and Philistines, not to mention some farther afield like Hittites, continued to form important parts of the population of the land. Some of these had lived in Israel for generations, while others were relative newcomers. Each of these gerim (strangers, foreigners, sojourners) brought with them elements of culture and language that clashed with what some Israelites felt certain were the proper ways actually to be Israelite.
Further, the readers would have heard of the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrian armies late in the 8th century, decimating the people of Samaria, and seeding the land with Assyrian elements. That same army had come south to destroy Jerusalem and Judah, but had failed to do so for complex reasons right at the turn of the 8th-7th century B.C.E.
There is little reason for these Judeans of the 7th century to look kindly either at local foreigners or those whose more recent foreignness was more obvious by their dress and accents. All the more surprising, then, are the lines of Solomon's prayer.
When a ger who is not of your people Israel comes from a distant land because of (or "due to" or "on account of") your name—for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand and your outstretched arm (so the story of Exodus)—when a ger comes and prays toward (or "to") this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do all that the ger calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear (or "worship") you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built (1 Kgs. 8:41-43).
In other words, the brand new temple in Jerusalem is an open place of worship for all the people, particularly foreigners by whose prayers even "toward" the place will announce the universality of YHWH's covenant and love and will remind the Israelites that they are not the only ones who call upon the mighty name of YHWH. Such is the power of the worship of the foreigner. Solomon's prayer, as narrowly ideological as the Deuteronomist has made it, might be a goad for those of us who would exclude the gerim who are even now in our midst and who are demanding a place at the table of God in our land. Without them, Solomon prays, we lose the wideness of God's mercy and suffer the danger of exclusivism in our relationships to God.
All of us, like the dastardly David, need the amazing mercy of God if we are to be God's children in God's world. Equally, we need openness to those who are different if we are to experience fully that amazing mercy for ourselves. As you can see, even the tight straight jacket of a Deuteronomic ideology cannot, in the end, blunt the wonders of the biblical word for our own day.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.