Opening The Old Testament
Strange Relations: Advent Reflections on 2 Samuel 7
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
I have always been somewhat disappointed in this passage, and that for two reasons. First, it breaks into the rip-roaring, slashing, thrill-a-minute story of David's rise and fall in Israel with a heavily deuteronomic propaganda piece, convincing us that David is the founder of a great and eternal dynasty, from which YHWH will never remove divine "steadfast love" (2 Sam. 7:15). And, second, it is this chapter, beyond and outside of that great Samuel-Saul-David saga, that gets all the later press. That is so, of course, because the early Christian community saw here the promise of the "eternal throne of David" upon which Jesus of Nazareth was now thought to sit. Why else would those Palm Sunday crowds be shouting "Hosanna to the son of David" at that donkey-riding prophet unless the writers of the gospel were not convinced that Jesus was heir of David?
So, it is little wonder that 2 Samuel 7 shows up in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, right before the miraculous birth of the crowning heir of the greatest king in the history of Israel. I am very sorry that the long and memorable story into which this chapter intrudes has been swallowed up in later Christianity by this rather tame prophetic claim for David's eternal significance.
Please do not misunderstand me. I know full well the enormous significance that this passage has played in the formation of the ancient lineage and role of Jesus the Messiah. And I also know that this promise of an exclusively Davidic kingship for subsequent Judean history determined who would be king in the southern land of Judah for the next 350 years, finally ending with the pathetic rule of Zedekiah in the 6th century B.C.E. It is just that the passage is so unlike the energetic and complex story that surrounds it, that it sounds rather more like "a word from our sponsor" than a crucial part of that superb tale. I admit to a certain secret joy when the story returns in chapter 8 by announcing "David attacked the Philistines." Ah, I say, here comes the fun again! And when the spectacular chapter 11 dawns, and the grand David is reduced to the status of a Mafioso don, being led by his lust more than his godliness, I am almost able to forget chapter 7 and its calm and dispassionate claims for the eternal dynasty of this man.
But wait! Perhaps I have read it too hastily. Perhaps it needs to be seen as a crucial part of the story after all. The David given to us in 2 Samuel 7 is the same David who acts in such monstrous ways four chapters later. The powerful, eternal king, the one beloved of YHWH, is at the same time the liar and seducer and murderer of chapter 11. Just because David is the hero of chapter 7, the one who will begin the dynasty that will eventuate in Jesus, 1000 years later, is no reason to place David on a pedestal, no reason to imagine him as something more than a man. Just because the one we Christians call Christ is a direct descendant of this long-ago king does not elevate that king above the level of who we know him to be, namely a weak and dangerous and vicious person who stops at nothing to possess the desired Bathsheba.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.