1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14
August 16, 2015
12th Sunday After Pentecost
I am seldom irate about things having to do with the lectionary and its usage; I have my quarrels, as readers of these articles can surely attest, but fury is never the result of evaluating the choice of texts. But today's lectionary choice makes me livid. It is beyond absurd that the story of David should close with these rather insipid texts and the tale of his successor, Solomon, be headed by this propagandistic piece from 1 Kings 3. What lurks below and behind these sweet words about David's death and Solomon's fervent love of YHWH are turbulent and cruel actions on the part of both of these kings. Such actions cannot be glossed over and forgotten if we are to take the full meaning of their lives into the most serious account. I intend to do that in this article today.
Here are the words of 1 Kings 2:10-12. "David slept with his ancestors and was buried in the city of David. The days that David was king over Israel were forty years; in Hebron he was king for seven years and in Jerusalem thirty-three years. And Solomon sat on the throne of David, his father; his kingdom was strongly established." Roiling underneath these dry "facts" are monstrous actions by both kings.
David did not "sleep with his ancestors" (a phrase that paints a portrait of a peaceful and righteous death) until he has spent the last breaths his God provided him by urging his son to murder two old men in cold blood. Would that his last words were that pious ejaculation mouthed to Solomon from his deathbed found in 1 Kings 2:2-4, wherein he charges his son, head bowed in pious reverence, to "be strong and courageous, keeping the charge of YHWH your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies as written in the Torah of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn." Here is religious advice one might expect from the dying king of Israel, shared with his grieving but capable son, who is about to sit on the throne of his father. But unfortunately, those are decidedly not the last words of David, however many times a ubiquitous church anthem, composed by Randall Thompson, is sung that purports that they are.
Here are the last words of David, according to the Bible that we all may read. They are in fact the demand for two contract killings, first on his oldest friend and supporter, general Joab, and second on a very old man who cursed the king long days ago as he was fleeing the city of Jerusalem, running away from his usurping son, Absalom. Listen to the chilling words as they fall from the lips of the dying David. "And also (the next charge is connected directly to the pious one just noted, suggesting that David, now having done what he is expected to do as king, namely demand piety from his son, turns to the real acts he demands that son perform in his name), you know what Joab, son of Zeruiah, did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner, son of Ner, and Amasa, son of Jether, both of whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, dripping the blood of war on his belt and on his sandals. Do according to your wisdom, and do not allow his gray head to drop into Sheol peacefully." Such an appalling demand to lay on his young son; murder the general of my army, and not because he is some threat to your rule (though he might well be), but because he inconvenienced the king long ago by removing from David two potential rivals for his reign over Israel.
That charge may be evil enough, but the second demand for murder is certainly worse. "There is also with you Shemei, son of Gera, who cursed me with a terrible curse on the day that I went to Mahanaim. (Note he does not say that he was running for his life from his son; he makes it sound as though he were taking a pleasure trip to a nearby town!) When he came down to meet me at the Jordan, I swore to him by YHWH, 'I will not put you to death by the sword.' But you (the you, Solomon, is placed first in the sentence), do not hold him guiltless, for you are a wise boy; you will know what you ought to do to him. You must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol!" (1 Kings 2:8-9) One can well imagine that that last line was said with a snarl and no little waspish delight, as King David imagines the demise of that ancient man who dared curse his royal person. Then, and only then, follows the line from our lectionary, "then David slept with his ancestors." After reconstructing the context of the line, the peaceful death of the greatest king in Israel's history becomes rather more the growling spewings of a furious and petulant old monster.
And the successor king, Solomon? Just how was his royal throne "strongly established"? Solomon becomes the third king of Israel on nothing less than a river of blood. He uses Adonijah's strange and foolish demand to marry Abishag, the last concubine of David, as an excuse to have his half-brother murdered by the new hit man of the kingdom, the brutal Benaiah. After banishing the priest Abiathar to Anathoth for choosing Adonijah as the new king rather than Solomon, he turns his evil to Joab, and following the demand of his father, he has Benaiah slaughter the old soldier while he is holding on to the horns of the altar, crying for the safety of sanctuary. But in Solomon's kingdom there is no sanctuary for those who do not adhere fully to his kingship. Then Solomon turns to Shemei, requiring him to build a Jerusalem house but then demanding that he never leave that house on pain of death.