As any of you know who have been following my lectionary blog this summer, I have been retelling in fictional form some of the great stories from Samuel. As the summer is winding down, I was anticipating a rousing rendition of the end of David’s life, his inability any longer to get warm, even with the help of a nubile woman, his manipulation by his wife, Bathsheba, who forces him to make her son, Solomon, the heir to the throne, and finally his dying words that are a contract on a helpless old man who rebuked the king many years ago. It is a deliciously sordid tale of intrigue and nastiness perhaps unmatched in any literature until the time of Shakespeare. Who would not want to have a crack at all that, given our present world of, well, nasty sordidness?
But what the lectionary gives us instead is a cleaned-up, pious mess of religious claptrap that leads us away from the raw truth of things. In the first brief bit, we learn that “David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David” (1 Kings 2:10). But what we do not learn is that the last words out of his mouth is nothing but a contract for the murder of Shemei, an aged member of the house of Saul whose curse against the king as he was fleeing from his traitorous son Absalom David has never forgotten. Listen to the dying David urge his son toward the killing. “Do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise man; you will know what you ought to do to him. You must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol (1 Kings 2:9)! And then the Mafioso Don dies! It literally sends trembling shocks to the system to hear the greatest king in Israel’s history utter such maleficent commands to the next king of the land. Note especially David’s use of that adjective by which Solomon shall best be known, a “wise man.” What sort of wisdom is this, the wisdom of the killer, the sly actions of a monarchial murderer?
The fact is that the wise Solomon becomes the king of Israel on a river of blood. One after another, his rivals are dispatched, especially those who followed his older brother as the would-be king, Adonijah. One by one, Adonijah, Joab, and, yes, Shemei are all murdered; only the priest Abiathar is spared but suffers banishment to the village of Anathoth. The grim tales of those extra-judicial killings give a horrifying backdrop to the innocuous sounding sentence that ends the first part of today’s lection: “So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established” (1 Kings 2:12). Indeed, its firm establishment occurred over the corpses of Solomon’s siblings and rivals.
In addition, the monstrous stories of mayhem and death equally serve as dark context for the pious little text that ensues in 1 Kings 3. “Solomon loves YHWH,” the account begins, and one may only surmise in the light of Solomon’s blood-thirstiness of what exactly that “love of YHWH” consists. I am reminded of the absolutely gripping scene in the movie “Godfather 3” where the son of the new Godfather of the mob is being baptized while old rivals and former friends of the new leader are being systematically butchered one by one. It is very difficult to take with full seriousness the public acts of piety after the stories that have just been told about the cruelty and callousness of the supposedly pious one. The tale of Solomon’s great religious devotion to YHWH proceeds as follows.
Yet, I hear irony here nevertheless. Solomon’s request for a “listening heart” in order that he may be able to “discern between good and evil” reminds the careful reader of the previous actions of this heir of David. Perhaps he should have asked for such a listening heart before he went on his killing spree to consolidate kingly power? Or perhaps such a listening heart would have prevented him from fulfilling the murderous design of David and the apparent demands of RealPolitik when power must be kept in the face of those who would snatch it away? I am very glad that Solomon asked his God for a listening heart, but that request seems to have come about one chapter too late.
The issue here is decidedly current. In a day when raw power regularly rules the public space, when US presidents threaten horrific demonstrations of nuclear assault against North Korea and Iran, and then attend a prayer breakfast to celebrate a man, Jesus, who called for peace among all people, such cries of piety seem, not to put too fine a point on it, inconsequential and trivial at best and downright blasphemous at worst. A preacher simply cannot use the texts assigned for today apart from the terrible contexts in which those texts are found. Know the whole story, preacher! Do not be led into a sweet pile of religious goo without looking always at just where that goo is to be found.
The lectionary’s choice for today is dangerous apart from the full story of these characters that populate the superb and demanding tales of the books of Samuel. Take and read! But read it all!
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)