King David the Odd

The Bible’s story of King David has unexpected surprises.

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A medieval Greek image of King David in the robes of a Byzantine emperor.

In the Biblical tradition, King David is a pre-eminent hero. He is presented as Israel’s greatest king. As expected with such a hero, the Bible tells many tales of David’s prowess as a warrior, conqueror, and political leader. It lauds him as a great poet. And it celebrates his magnanimity, as in his compassion to Jonathan’s crippled son, Mephibosheth.

I say “expected” about these tales because they fall into the genre for royal propaganda in the ancient world. Kings regularly expected their scribes to trumpet their exploits to the world. Pharaohs carved them in hieroglyphics on temple walls. Assyrian kings engraved them into the sculptured walls of their palaces. King Darius of Persia surpassed them all. He had an account of his accomplishments inscribed on the towering side of a mountain.

One thing is usually missing in all these ancient annals of the kings. We rarely find any acknowledgement of a king’s flaws, defeats, and abuses of power. If we find them at all, we find them in the insults hurled at them by their enemies.

Acknowledging an Abuse of Power

So that is what is so odd about the Biblical accounts of King David. Amid all the wonderful tales of his exploits, we find the scribes including 2 Samuel 11-12–a shocking account of David’s abuse of power.

This segment of David’s story tells of how he seduced and committed adultery with Bathsheba while her husband is off fighting David’s war. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. To cover up the scandal, David arranges that her husband gets killed in battle. Though the death is meant to appear accidental, it is really arranged murder.

Here is an account of sexual abuse that could hold its own in any news accounts coming out of the #MeToo movement. David has used his superior power not only to seduce a woman, but also to murder one of his own loyal troops. If we had accurate accounts of life in other royal courts throughout the ancient Near East, such behavior might be excused as the normal risks of living within royal circles. David would not be unique.

But the cover-up does not work. The prophet Nathan confronts the king with his abuse of his power and pronounces God’s judgment on his behavior. This is the first thing that is odd about the Biblical story. In ancient courts, prophets were expected to provide divine blessing on royal desires, not condemnation. Nathan is clearly outside the boundaries.*

The Marvel of a Repentant King

When confronted with his sin, David does the next odd thing. He acknowledges the wrong he has done and expresses deep remorse. We would expect any ancient king to do otherwise. It would have entailed a serious loss of face.

He might have expelled Nathan from court for lèse majesty or even executed him. He might have denied he did any wrong, singled out others for blame, or created a diversion to deflect attention away from his sin. Or he might have asserted that as king he is above the moral law.

Instead he admits his sin. How extraordinary of a king! He shows real humility in the face of the wrong he has done. And when Nathan announces that the child conceived with Bathsheba will die, David beseeches God in fervent prayer and fasting to spare the life of the innocent child.

Yet, despite David’s remorse, the child does die. David does not escape the consequences of his sin. This death is just the beginning of his troubles. Nathan also announces that David’s abusive behavior will unleash further devastation in his family, including rape, murder, and rebellion.**

Audacious Scribes

This leaves us the readers in awe of the authors/editors who composed the account of King David. They, most likely royal scribes, are fully aware of his greatness–and of their duty to magnify that greatness. Yet great as King David is, he remains in their tale a human being, with his own share of serious flaws, character defects, and atrocious moral lapses.

The same can be said of the stories they tell about the magnificent Solomon and all the other kings that follow him both in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Grand as the trappings of monarchy may be, the Biblical authors never let themselves be blinded by that grandeur. Kings remain human beings accountable to God just as does any laborer in the fields or beggar in the city streets.

That’s why the Bible remains a double-sided resource when we turn to it for guidance about our dealing with political power. On the one hand, we have the apostle Paul admonishing Christians to submit to the authorities in power because the existing institutions of state are ordained by God (see Romans 13:1-6).

And yet on the other hand, we have the whole Old Testament witness with its deep suspicion of power, especially as exercised by kings.*** That witness models for us how to challenge abuses of power.

Maybe this is why the Bible can never provide us a simple and unvarying blueprint for dealing with power. The pages of the Bible are as mixed and complicated as the political situations each of us deals with every day.

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* For more on Nathan the prophet, see my previous blog posting Prophets and Power.

** In this respect the literary work that comes closest to the pathos of the Biblical story is the cycle of stories about King Oedipus in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

*** That suspicion of royal power begins early in the Old Testament with the great confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.

 

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What Is Eternal Life?

Beware of defining it quantitatively.

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If we believe that eternal life means solely living on forever without an end, then the curmudgeonly Jonathan Swift pops our balloon.

In his novel Gulliver’s Travels, Swift recounts how Gulliver visits an island kingdom named Luggnagg. There among his adventures, he meets a resident who tells him about a special category of people on the island, named Struldbrugs. The Struldbrugs are born with the rare gift of immortality.  But as Gulliver hears more about their story, we come to question whether it can rightly be called a blessing.

It is true that the Struldbrugs cannot die, but with the gift of immortality they are not given the gift of perpetual youth.  Instead each year they grow older and older … becoming ever more wrinkled, feeble, and disagreeable with each passing year. In the end their lives become so miserable that families on Luggnagg regard the birth of a Struldbrug as a curse on the family.

I think we need to recall this story whenever we are inclined … thoughtlessly … to define eternal life quantitatively … as everlasting longevity. Swift is saying to us, “If that is what you hope for, beware of what you ask.”

Eternal Life in the Gospel of John

This is not eternal life as the author of the Gospel of John proclaims it. Eternal life is an important concept for John, but it is certainly something more than longevity.

We get at John’s understanding in the prayer that Jesus prays on behalf of his disciples at the end of the Last Supper. In that prayer Jesus says:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. [John 17:3]

That statement by Jesus has always stopped me in my tracks. Jesus says nothing about the longevity of eternal life. Rather he focuses entirely on its purpose.

There is a peculiar twist in the syntax of that verse in the original Greek. The first part of the verse sounds as if Jesus is going to give us a standard definition—This is eternal life…

 But immediately after this phrase in Greek comes the word hina. Hina is a conjunction that points to purpose. The NRSV translates it that. It would be more accurate to translate it so that, or for the purpose of.

This strange twist in the grammar suggests that Jesus (and John) knows that eternal life does involve immortality, but he does not want the accent to be on that quality. He wants to emphasize that what most constitutes eternal life is not longevity and agelessness but its purpose. And that purpose is that we may know God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent.

The Semitic Understanding of Knowing

To understand the significance of this knowing, we must read the verb know in a Semitic way, not in a Greek way. For the ancient Greeks, to know meant to perceive intellectually. They wanted to understand the world and human beings factually. Their goal was to express their perceptions in abstract, philosophical principles.

In this Greek usage, if you knew a person, you could recount facts about his or her life. You could tell something about who they are or what they do.

The Semitic understanding of knowing, however, was very different. For the Hebrew used in the Old Testament, knowing was more practical, experiential, and emotional. To know a person did not mean you could talk about a person, but that you had some kind of relationship with that person. It had a connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.

The Hebrew understanding of knowing a person is captured in several different places in Genesis where to know is used as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The classic text is Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to know his wife Eve and she conceives a son. Knowing is an experience that leads to a form of union in relationship.

British Biblical scholar E.C. Blackman captured this special Semitic flavor when he said that for the Old Testament, …knowledge of God meant not thought about an eternal Being or Principle transcending man and the world, but recognition of, and obedience to, one who acted purposefully in the world.*

American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown agreed with Blackman. He commented on the use of know in this verse: For John, of course, knowing God is not a purely intellectual matter but involves a life of obedience to God’s commandments and of loving communion with fellow Christians…This is in agreement with Hebrew use of the verb ‘to know’ with its connotation of immediate experience and intimacy.**

The apostle Paul also holds to this experiential dimension of knowing. We see that caught in Philippians 3:10: …that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings…. Paul is clearly implying that he seeks to know by experience, rather than by abstract thought.

Although the verb to know would mean something to both a Greek and a Jew, I think it is absolutely essential that we understand that Jesus–and the gospel writer–are thinking like Jews, not like Greeks. The Semitic understanding of knowing can issue in intellectual understanding. But intellectual understanding is its fruit, not its defining characteristic.

Semitic Knowing and Christian Faith Today

I think this Semitic understanding of knowing is essential as we try to present the Christian faith to both believers and unbelievers today. There is a prevalent idea out there in our churches and in the broader culture that Christian faith is all about believing certain intellectual doctrines. Such faith turns into something dry and unemotional.

I suspect we owe that understanding of the Christian faith to the scholastic theologians in the late 16th and the 17th centuries who followed in the wake of the Reformation.  For the Reformers like Luther and Calvin the experiential dimension of the Christian faith was preeminent. It was what fired their preaching and writing. But their scholastic heirs turned the Reformers’ ardent faith into an intellectual affair. Faith was believing the doctrines, not a personal trust in God.

Intellectual knowing, however, seldom transforms a person. Rather it tends to make a person, especially scholars, arrogant and conceited. It is the personal relationship –with God and with other Christians–that changes minds and behavior. That has been proven time after time in the stories of the great conversions in Christian history.***

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* Entry on “Know, Knowledge” in Alan Richardson, editor. A Theological Word Book of the Bible. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950. Page 121.

** Raymond E. Brown, S.S. The Anchor Bible: The Gospel of John (xiii-xxi). New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970. Page 752.

*** As a great resource for reading about these conversions, I recommend John M. Mulder, editor, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.