On Passion Sunday, or on Good Friday, it is not unusual to hear the entire account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion read. One church l visited had a very long reading – the Passion narrative from all four gospels read consecutively! It took well over an hour for the reading. I could imagine doing something like that around a camp fire, reading well into the night, and the listeners letting their minds wander as the text evoked memories and thoughts for each individual.
In such a context we could substitute the Jesus Passion narrative for another Passion narrative, that of David: beginning with the prophet Samuel in the First Book of Samuel, through King Saul’s reign, into David’s ascendency; then the Second Book of Samuel, with David’s greed for another man’s “lamb” and David’s alleged remorse, dysfunction in the royal family leading to violence, death, and much grief [Absalom O my son!”]; and finally in the first two chapters of the First Book of Kings David’s legacy and end. This passion reading would go on for many hours through the night – a total of 55 chapters[i] - as the absorbing characters of Hannah, Samuel, Saul, Jonathon, David, Bathsheba, Uriah, Nathan, Absalom, Amnon, Tamar, and Yahweh have their tales told. Reading a portion of this great narrative, as we have done this morning, in isolation from the rest hardly does it justice.
Alongside a campfire, when I would sit and talk and listen through the night, I often held a stick in my hand. I liked stirring the embers and seeing the sparks fly into the sky. Or to use the stick to push some of the logs further into the blaze. In this sermon I want to give you a stick or two to prod this great Davidic passionate narrative and see the sparks which are a part of it.
The story the children have re-enacted of Samuel trying to discern which son of Jesse the Bethlehemite is the one to be anointed king has a wonderful modern-day application, namely it is not your physical appearance which matters, but the state of your heart. Memorize that verse.[ii] It’s a message that any child or adult absorbed with our culture’s fetish with appearances needs to hear.
Jesse parades seven of his sons before Samuel, and all of them are rejected. When Samuel asks if he has another son, Jesse mentions David, who was out tending the sheep. The word translated "youngest" could also imply that David was the shortest. A key word in the narration is r’h (to see),[iii] so that the story becomes an exercise in right ‘seeing’ – seeing with the eyes of faith. But, even though David might be the least tall or the least buff of the sons of Jesse, the author can’t resist saying David was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. So much for the right seeing with the heart!
This pericope is just one amongst many of the rise and rise of the marvellous David. David is actually anointed three times – once by Samuel, once by the tribe of Judah, and once by the Northern tribes.[iv] Similarly this story is the first of two introductions to the history of King David, the second being in vv.14-23 in which Saul chooses David as his armour bearer. [And note the whole Goliath legend is historically very suspect – 2 Samuel 21:19 even accredits Goliath’s demise to the soldier Elhanan].
The nearest equivalent to this adoration of an anointed in recent world history would be the election of John F Kennedy and the whole “Camelot” phenomena. Walter Brueggemann calls David ‘a sport of nature’. Everyone loved him – women and men. He was chosen by Yahweh, he was skilled in battle, he elicited loyalty from his men, and he was shrewd in his dealings with the powerful.
The lectionary places Samuel’s anointing of David alongside Mark 4:31-33, the parable of the mustard seed[v] – a tale of marginalized weeds [mustard] being the exemplars of the kin-dom of God – inferring David was such. Please note: President J.F. Kennedy was never a poor marginalized weed, and neither was King David.
David like Kennedy probably had an aura of ‘chosenness’ about him, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want or scheme or walk over people to be the ‘chosen’ king. Never forget that a number [if not all] of the writers of this Davidic history were on the king’s payroll. What is interesting is why they sometimes showed David in a negative light.
Similarly, giving Yahweh’s/God’s stamp of approval to the king’s actions is a long tradition in the annals of the powerful. Remember David was a person of mixed motives, faith, courage, love, greed, need for power, who killed those in opposition to his desires, and he was cruel and had fits of anger. David’s mix of politics, guerrilla action and intrigue, marriages of convenience, and questionable service with the Philistines, are all secondary considerations to the authors’ declarations that Yahweh has anointed David.
It is better in this narrative to think of Yahweh as a character, maybe even a literary device, with character flaws like any human. Yahweh too, like the anointed kings, would sanction slaughtering undesirables – like foreigners. The authors profession of faith that Yahweh had blessed David raises the bigger questions about who are the blessed and why, and what does God have to do with it.
As you might easily surmise from reading, this narrative is not the work of a single author. Like the gospels it is the work of many, and their different perspectives come through. In particular the authors tussle about the great dilemma throughout much of this narrative of being a tribal people held together by Torah, and covenant, and ancestral stories, and yet thinking they needed instead of an occasional charismatic leader to unite the tribes to fend off a common enemy, a king – like the neighbouring nations had. And with a triumphant king came an empire. And with the triumphant king, came courtiers, and queens, and a dynasty, and a bureaucracy, and a standing army, and tax and more tax.
The hierarchy that a tribe needed was very different from the hierarchy an empire produced. A tribal leader was honoured for how he or she treated every member of the tribe including the least. A king acquired so much power he could easily forget that the least member of the kingdom was also a chosen child of Yahweh. The old tribal order had an ideal of fidelity to social egalitarianism – an ideal some of the prophets tried to call the leaders back to. The new order had an ideal of fidelity to God’s anointed, the King, and his management of God’s estate – an ideal that easily confused to whom loyalty was due.
So throughout this passion narrative we can hear these opposing voices, how David is judged by each, and the extraordinary change at the end of the 10th century BCE in the way Israel is governed.
These opposing voices we can hear in the rise to power [the first part of the narrative] as David is portrayed positively when he saves Saul's life and negatively as he betrays his own people and fights for the Philistinian enemy. Note though that the pro-David apologists spin the story that David never fought against Israel – he fought other tribes [tribes who would later be enemies of Israel]. So therefore, though technically fighting for the Philistines, he was helping Israel. Yeah, right. The author of the later historical books called Chronicles just simply omitted any negative qualities of David's actions and character.
Some of those voices were the pro- and anti-Saul factions. These factions didn’t disappear when David became king. Indeed just prior to his death – after some 40 years[vi] of reigning as king – David tells his son and successor Solomon to kill Shimei son of Gera[vii], a man from the same clan as Saul's family. So the myth that everyone loved David, and switched their allegiance, was to cover the truth of continued unrest. Note too in that deathbed speech David issues a death sentence for his loyal go-to hatchet man Joab. Although David supposedly was blessed and guided by Yahweh, violence and vengeance lay just beneath the pious surface.
As we sit around the campfire and listen and ponder and poke this great narrative what does it say to our day? Its messages are not simple proof texts to live by. They aren’t beatitudes-like verses to adorn posters, or to pray over. Rather they are messages that emerge as we hear the whole story of personalities, and power, and providential twists and turns. And they are messages that are real, and challenging, and current. Walter Brueggemann summarizes them as:
Beware of false and destructive reliance on military power for the resolution of problems.
Beware of false and destructive devotion to excessive standards of living in a world that has strayed far from the ideal of social egalitarianism;
Beware of false and destructive images of self [believing in your own inflated media, and the sycophants that surround you with praise] – images that divert those anxious to maintain power from the pressing issues of justice; and
Beware of false and destructive notions of certitude – political, moral, theological [‘the King is always right’, ‘God is on our side’, ‘the market knows best’] – notions that work towards control rather than fidelity to God’s vision of mutuality and compassion.[viii]
[i] A total of fifty five chapters is given to Samuel, Saul and David and forty seven chapters to all the remaining kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms.
[ii] I Samuel 16:7. The heart is also cited as indication of one's character in Jeremiah 17:10 and 20:12.
[iii] Which is used in 1 Samuel 16: 1, 6, 7 and 12.
[iv] The second and third anointing are found in 2 Samuel 2 and 5.
[v] See my sermon last year http://www.stlukes.org.nz/?sid=100129.
[vi] According to 1 Kings 2:11.
[vii] I Kings 2:1-9.
[viii] W. Brueggemann, Power, Providence, & Personality p.122.