(Lectionary for December 24,2017)
I have long loved the brilliant stories of Saul, Samuel, David, and their fascinating friends and enemies as found in the Hebrew Bible’s two books of Samuel. I love them so much as to have published one novel based on them (King Saul, 2015) and to have completed a draft of a sequel, “King David,” I hope soon to be found in a store near you. The author(s) of the vast and astonishing tales that comprise two full biblical books were nothing less than master literary stylists, providing their readers with characters unforgettable in their multi-sided richness and a story to compare with any in world literature. I have long said that the character of David is the single finest portrayal of any human being in any writing until the time of Shakespeare’s Falstaff or Hamlet.
And then we find 2 Samuel 7, which sits like a great gob of goo right in the heart of the pulse-pounding story of David’s rise to the throne of Israel. It is for me nothing less than tragic that it is this chapter out of all the fabulous tales that comprise the actions of Saul, Samuel, and David, from 1 Samuel 1 until 1 Kings 2, that rises into the lectionary’s gaze every year and usually at Advent.
Oh, I well know why that happens; I have read and written a good deal about the use of the Old Testament by the New, how the event of Jesus of Nazareth needed to be rooted in multiple ways in the soil of the Hebrew Bible in order that Jesus could be seen as the fulfillment of ancient hopes and prophecies. The synoptic gospels especially, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, spend a huge amount of time connecting Jesus to Israel’s past dreams, making it as plain as they could that Jesus is the completion of those longed-for expectations. Early Christian apologists mined the ancient texts for nuggets, in their minds at least, of suggestive passages that they believed pointed to the one they called Messiah.
And since by the time of the first century CE David had become the watchword of a hoped for ruler, a kind of once and future king, it was imperative that the first Christians connected their crucified leader to that ancient Israelite king, the conqueror of Goliath, the consolidator of the land under one rule, the greatest king in the history of Israel. Matthew constructs an elaborate, albeit almost wholly fictitious, genealogy of Jesus that sets out to prove that Jesus was in fact “son of David, son of Abraham” (Matt.1:1). Though Mark opens his gospel with Jesus as an adult, thus offering no immediate reason why he should be connected to David, at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, still celebrated as Palm Sunday, Mark makes the same reference by having the crowds shout, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mark 11:10), the figure on the donkey being the obvious fulfillment of that expectation. Luke makes the connection by telling his readers again and again that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, “the city of David” in his very familiar account of the royal birth, witnessed both by shepherds, great David’s original work, and by angels (Luke 2:4, 11).
This important necessity of connecting Jesus to David, of course, glosses over all that appalling account of David as adulterer, murderer, and liar, and not just in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah in 2 Samuel 11-12. No, David is a consummate liar, the Bible’s very best prevaricator by a mile, as he demonstrates time and again during his saga. But all of that is forgotten in the ensuing years of Israel’s long struggles for survival, and perhaps under the influence of the retelling of the David story by the Chronicler who in every way he could imagine cleaned David’s story up by omitting any item that might sully the fine patina of the perfect man and king. If one read only the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, one would conclude that all David ever did in his life was write songs, play the harp, direct the choirs of Israel, and praise YHWH the whole live-long day! It is the very epitome of a white wash, making David into the figure he plainly was not, at least according to the old writers of the books of Samuel.
Such an attempt to keep alive an ancient promise is a constant in the literatures of the world. In ancient Britain, King Arthur and his knights of the round table disappeared in the mists, but the hope of their return is kept boiling in the hearts of those who are weary of the evil and foolish leaders that too many centuries cough up for them. In Germany, the great Frederick Barbarossa, victor of many of Germany’s worst enemies, is said to be resting in a vast mountain, waiting his time to return in power and bring Germany back to its world- dominating place. Adolf Hitler used this myth as a way to demonstrate his supposed fulfillment of that old promise, naming his ill-advised attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 after the ancient king. The theme of a renewed kingdom, of a return to glory, is found in many literatures, and this story of Jesus as the heir of David is no different.
The danger of the myth, of course, is to assume that when the past kingdom is once again made manifest, then power will again be ours, power to control, power to subvert, power to claim we are the best and the only great ones in the world. Hitler went that way, but Jesus will not allow that. He comes as babe, not conquering hero; he gives his life for others, and does not assume the mantel of power like a king; unlike the reprehensible David who murders and lies his way to the throne, Jesus comes in peace, speaking of the poor and the weak, kissing the leper, raising up the place of women, speaking of the power of service for others.
Far too often this Davidic myth has been misconstrued as an announcement of the coming power of Jesus, a reconstitution of a military realm where we who follow Jesus are destined for greatness and wealth and power over others. That is blasphemy, pure and simple! Though I understand why the first Christians worked hard to connect Jesus with David, I think that connection, which became very strong and memorable indeed, was in the end not a helpful one. We need no more kings like David! We need no more kings at all. We need Jesus, the child of YHWH, who brings justice and peace as the ways we must follow if the world is to find a true wholeness and unity. May it be so this Christmas!
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)