Words, Words, Words

A psalm theme: The power of human language to do good and to do evil.

In the musical “My Fair Lady” there is a scene about three-quarters of the way through the play. A British aristocrat named Freddy Eynsford-Hill has fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. He launches into a passionate love song to her.

She abruptly interrupts him, screaming (in lovely musical notes, of course):

Words, words, words, words.

I’m so sick of words.

I get words all the day, first from him and now from you…

If you are in love, show me.

 Those lyrics came to mind when I was recently reading Psalms 12and 15. We live in a society drowning in words. Words on TV, words in advertising, words in news media, words in political debate, words on Twitter and in e-mails, and constant daily conversations.

What Psalms 12 and 15 do is remind us of the power of those words, whatever our intent in speaking them. For example, Psalm 12 raises this lament about the unrighteous and their malevolent use of language:

They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts….(Psalm 12:2-3)

On the other hand, words also have beneficent power. Psalm 15 bears witness to that when it praises:

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
    and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
    and do no evil to their friends,
    nor take up a reproach against their neighbors….(Psalm 15:2-3)

When we read these sentiments, we should keep in mind that in ancient Israelite society the psalmists would have been thinking not primarily of the written word (important as it is), but of spoken words. Ancient societies were predominately oral societies.

That fact adds to the power of the psalmists’ assertions. When we speak, we communicate not only through the words we choose, but also through our pitch and tone of voice. The simple words “Don’t touch that” can be said matter of factly. Or they can be filled with a sense of menace depending upon the tone of voice we use.

The power of oratory

That’s why I think oratory has been such a powerful medium of communication through most of human history. It has been said, for example, that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, people said, “How well he spoke.” But when Demosthenes, the greatest orator of ancient Greece and the bitter opponent of King Philip of Macedon, finished speaking, people said, “Let’s march.” His words provoked action.

We saw the same thing happen in the 20thcentury with the oratory of Winston Churchill. In 1940 many people thought that it was inevitable that Great Britain would fall to the armies of Nazi Germany. It was just a matter of time.

They were wrong. Why? One reason is the bravery of the British Spitfire pilots. Another was the power of Churchill’s oratory. His words gave backbone to British morale. His words proved in the end powerful guns indeed.

We all know as well the power of oratory to be incredibly destructive. Oratory has the power to unleash forces of hate and violence that can wreak havoc with the lives of people and the peace of nations.

We need only turn again to World War II for the most revealing example. Would there have even been a war if it were not for the powerful oratory of Adolph Hitler? His words played a key role in unleashing the forces of hatred and genocide that marked that long conflict.

Other psalms decry the wicked engaging in violence and murder. But what Psalm 12 does is make clear that what precedes such violence is malicious and deceitful speech.

Biblical wisdom for Americans

This is an important message that I believe all Americans need to take to heart. We take great pride in our First Amendment right to free speech. That is a precious freedom. If we as a society are to establish wise policies that support the well-being and prosperity of all our citizens, we must ensure that the voices of all citizens are heard.

We also need to remember that our right of free speech carries with it a heavy responsibility if we are not to let our words destroy us. We can do great harm by deceitful, hateful, and intemperate speech. How many marriages or families have been torn apart by an argument that got out of hand or by an insult that was said in high anger?

We are seeing a lot of angry, intemperate speech in our society today, spoken not only by politicians, but also by ordinary citizens. That speech, wherever it comes from, works to deepen distrust among us.

As a result, too many of us, I believe, are beginning to question that we can ever know the truth. In John’s gospel account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, we hear Pilate ask cynically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) He apparently thinks it is impossible to know the truth. One hears similar sentiments today when we hear a politician say on TV that truth isn’t truth.

So if we cannot know the truth, how do we resolve conflicts? By naked power. Whoever is strongest gets the privilege of defining truth. This is something post-modernism constantly asserts.

I think, however, we need to be cautious if we buy into such an assertion. If we act as if all truth claims are simply disguised power plays, then I believe we are planting dragon seeds. We must not be surprised then when dragons begin to roam our society.

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A Biblical Response to Jeff Sessions

Be careful when you quote the Bible in the public sphere. The Bible may bite back.

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

This past week we heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeal to Romans 13 as Biblical warrant for the administration’s no-tolerance policy on illegal immigration. I had to smile. He appealed to the one passage in Scripture that autocrats and divine-right kings have always claimed as their own. Sessions placed the administration right in their company.

But it is always dangerous to quote the Bible as isolated prooftexts. The Bible is not one simplistic message. It embraces many voices. When we quote one passage in isolation, we run the risk of one of those other voices rising up to challenge our single-minded viewpoint.

This is certainly the case when we look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants. For it has a lot to say. To be fair to the Bible, we must hear these alternate voices as well.

The Old Testament’s Vulnerable Ones

A striking feature of the Old Testament is the partiality that God shows for the vulnerable in Israelite society. In particular three classes of society are singled out as a focus of God’s concern. They are:

  • The widow, especially the childless widow
  • The orphan
  • The resident alien (Hebrew: ger)–a foreigner who is living permanently, not temporarily on Israelite soil. They are analogous to the green card immigrant in the United States.

All three were especially vulnerable in ancient Israelite society as they did not fit securely into the structure of the patriarchal family and clan. All three were, therefore, subject to being taken advantage of, abused, or oppressed.

The phrase–the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien–becomes therefore a stock phrase in the Old Testament for referring to the most vulnerable and marginalized members of Israelite society.

The Vulnerable Ones in the Torah

What is striking about the Old Testament is how this divine concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien enters into the text both early and late. The Book of Exodus, for example, includes commands from God about this vulnerable people in its very earliest statement of torah law, the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23).

There we find God instructing the Israelites:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Exodus 22:21-24)

God’s concern for the immigrant gets repeated just a few verses later:

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

What is striking about these commands is the rationale they give for treating the resident alien benevolently. Israelites are to do so remembering that they too were once aliens living in a foreign land. They know the precarious lot of a resident alien, who lives and works in a land but is not a citizen.*

When we get to Leviticus, we find the focus on the resident alien rising to an even high level of intensity. Leviticus 19:18 lays down the command that Israelites are to love their neighbor as themselves. In the context, the neighbor is clearly a fellow Israelite. But just a few verses later we find this striking extension of the rule:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Here the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is extended to loving the immigrant as we love ourselves. We are to treat him or her like a citizen.

In Deuteronomy, we find God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien moves beyond just words to concrete actions that the Israelites are to take on behalf of these three vulnerable classes of society.

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this. 

Flight_into_Egypt_-_Capella_dei_Scrovegni_-_Padua_2016

The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, by the Italian painter Giotto, 14th century. Jesus himself was a refugee baby fleeing homeland violence.

(Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

Concern for the widow, the orphan, and resident alien means taking action to see that their physical needs, their very livelihood, is being taken care of. This is a vision of a generous society, not a parsimonious one. Welfare for the poor is built into the very way the Israelites are to do their daily business.

The Prophetic Contribution

Concern with the life needs of the widow, orphan, and resident alien are not confined to the Pentateuch. We find references to them in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 94:1-7 and Psalm 146:5-10) and in the prophets (see Isaiah 1:12-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, and Zechariah 7:8-10).

I find the most striking prophetic passage in Jeremiah. It reads:

Thus says the LORD: Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and speak there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David—you, and your servants, and your people who enter these gates. Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they, and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.(Jeremiah 22:1-5)

The Jeremiah passage makes clear that the security and well-being of the kingdom itself is dependent upon the way it cares for its most vulnerable members. If the kingdom chooses to oppress and abuse them, then the very stability of the country is placed into jeopardy. Without using the stock slogan of the widow, orphan, and resident alien, the prophets Hoses and Amos declare a similar message.**

Absorbed into the Spiritual DNA of the Early Church

The New Testament writers do not use the stock phrase—the widow, the orphan, and the resident alien—but we find a concern with these categories appearing all through the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic church. The message of the Old Testament has been so absorbed that it resides as part of the spiritual DNA of the early Christians. I wonder if it was not one of the reasons why the early Christian community found itself ultimately opening its ranks to include the Gentile believer—the spiritual outsider.

Jesus himself builds upon the warning of Jeremiah. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the last judgment when the Son of man comes in glory and sits in judgment. He separates the sheep from the goats.

What is striking in this account is the basis of judgment. It is not whether someone has placed saving faith in Jesus, but how someone has related to the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the prisoner, and the stranger.

What is also striking in the account is that this judgment is not just a judgment of individuals. The text says explicitly that the ones gathered before the throne are all the nations. Here again we meet that note that the security and well-being of a society is contingent on how it treats its most vulnerable ones.

I recognize these Biblical passages are not dealing with the issue of society’s need to control its borders and balance the need of immigrants with the needs of the native society. But they clearly say that a society’s “me-first” approach to the challenges of immigration and population movements is not ultimately going to secure the long-term well-being that its citizens crave.

If we are going to take seriously the message of the Bible for America, then I believe we Americans are going to have to listen to the full message of the Bible and not just one sole prooftext.

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* When we read this rationale, we can’t help recognizing how it mirrors the American experience. Unless our ancestry is native American, every American today comes from immigrant stock.

** In the prophets two great sins ultimately bring God’s judgment onto the two Israelite kingdoms. They are religious apostasy and social injustice.

 

 

The Widow’s Mite

The gospel writer makes connections by the placement of his stories.

widow's mite

The widow making her temple contribution, by the French illustrator Gustave Doré, 19th century

I never assume that the gospel writers compiled their gospels thoughtlessly. We may think that they just joined one story to another as a jeweler might string a strand of beads. However, that’s not the case. How they place individual stories or sayings in their broader gospel narrative often reveals connections they want us to make between the stories they recount.

A good example is the story Mark tells that we often label the tale of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44). It recounts an incident in Jesus’ life, which Mark places in the events of Holy Week.

Jesus is sitting in the Jerusalem temple, watching the crowds who enter. Many drop a money gift into the temple’s cash box. Those who are affluent drop sizeable amounts. Then a widow makes her donation. It is a tiny sum: just two small coins that are valued what our translations call a penny. (It is hard to know how to value this sum in today’s currency. But think of it as a miniscule value, like two dollar bills.)

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus comments that she has given the most of all. The rich have given large sums, but those sums amount to no great sacrifice for them. The widow, however, has given everything she has, in fact, everything she has to live on.

The text calls us to admire her for her extreme generosity…or her sincere religious devotion. That is what most preachers focus on when they preach this text. But I contend there is much more going on by Mark placing this story where he does.

In the verses preceding (Mark 12:38-40), Jesus has been criticizing the religious elite who make a great display of their religiosity. They expect public esteem. But while the community honors them, they are behind the scenes devouring the property of widows, reducing them to poverty. One is left to wonder if it is one of those very scribes who has in fact reduced this particular widow to her poverty.

In the story that follows the poor widow (Mark 13:1-4) Jesus foresees the destruction of the temple, the very institution the elite are so lavishly supporting. He has already driven the merchants and money changers out of the temple’s courts. Now he foresees the collapse of the whole institution, which has lived off the temple tax and contributions given by people like the widow in our story. Like the barren fig tree, the temple culture has not produced the spiritual fruit God expects from it, despite the lavish sums invested in it.

Mark lays before us this stark contrast between the pious who exploit the poor and the poor who live out a genuine piety. This richness of meaning comes as we read the three stories together and recognize hidden connections between them.

Connections with Other Scripture

The contrast that Mark develops reminds me of the same contrast that the gospel writer Luke develops in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). There Jesus tells of a Pharisee who goes to the temple to pray. He lays out before God all the right and pious things he has done, unlike the sinful tax collector standing nearby. Presumably this entitles him to a special divine blessing.

The tax collector, however, sees himself truly, with all his flaws and failures to live up to God’s standards. As a result, he prays, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way does he presume he is entitled to any blessing.  Yet, Jesus says, he is the one who returns home in right relationship with God.

We see the same striking contrast between the religious elite and the despised and marginalized ones of society. Both stories make the same point. It is a point that we find constantly repeated in the Old Testament prophets.* Lavish religious piety (and I might add moral scrupulosity) counts for little when that piety and scrupulosity are contradicted by the practice of social injustice. Yet, despite the frequency of this point in Scripture, we Christians, just as much as the ancient Jews, find it hard to root this insight into our core consciousness.

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* The classic text is Amos 5:21-24. But Amos is not alone in his message.

 

Jesus on Paying Taxes

Jesus eludes an entrapment by turning the tables on his opponents.

Marcus_Aurelius_Denarius2

A Roman denarius with the image of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

In Mark 12:13-17, the evangelist Mark tells the story of an attempt by the Jewish temple authorities to entrap Jesus. They seek to lead him into saying something that will put him in jeopardy. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not.

It seems a perfect trap. If Jesus says it is lawful, then they can charge him with compromising his obligation to honor God. They can use that to damage his reputation with the people who hang on his every word. If Jesus says it is not lawful, they have grounds to report him to the Roman authorities, with dire consequences for Jesus. It seems a perfect question for their purposes. Jesus cannot dodge the question. He must make a choice.

Yet Jesus proves cleverer. He recognizes their question is not a legitimate search for insight, but an effort to entrap him. Holding up a Roman coin, he gives an answer they did not anticipate: Render to Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.  

Many Christians have regarded this answer as a nugget of wisdom for the ages. In a sense it is. We might say that it delineates the proper relation between religion and the state.

But we also easily overlook something important about Jesus’ answer. He does not define exactly what are those things that belong to Caesar, and what are the things that belong to God. He throws that task back to his opponents…and in a sense, to each of us.

They/we have to decide what it is that belongs to Caesar and what things belong to God. And we run the risk if our answers offend the authorities in our lives. In trying to entrap Jesus, his opponents put themselves in jeopardy…if they attempt to clarify Jesus’ answer. Jesus has turned the tables on his opponents. Clever Jesus indeed!

Jesus lays down the fundamental principle that should govern the relations between church and state. But as we see, this principle remains inherently fluid. And so Christians have answered the question of what things belong to Caesar and what things belong to God in various ways. Sometimes their answers have had corrupting influences on the church. Sometimes their answers have instead had grave consequences.

Jesus lays down the timeless principle. Its implementation, however, rests on us. Jesus will not relieve us of our own proper responsibility to think for ourselves.

Jesus and Divorce

How do we come to terms with one of Jesus’ difficult teachings?

JesusPharisees

Dispute between Jesus and Pharisees, by French artist Gustav Doré, 19th century

 Every now and then I read a gospel passage where I wish Jesus had kept his mouth shut. His words are hard to take. They’re even harder to explain if you are a preacher.

A prime example is Jesus’ teaching on divorce, as recorded in Mark 10:2-11 (with a parallel in Matthew 19:3-9). On a superficial reading, Jesus comes across as stern, even legalistic like so many of his opponents. Certainly many Christians through the centuries have taken Jesus’ words as sanction for being stern and legalistic in their own attitudes, causing great pastoral harm.

So when faced with a tough passage like that, I turn to my primary tool in interpreting Scripture: a close reading of the text. Here I focus on exactly what is said, not what I presume it says. When I do this with the Mark passage, a couple of details pop out that seem to point me to how to understand and apply what Jesus is saying.

An Effort to Entrap Jesus

The first detail is what Mark says provoked the whole discussion. He says the Pharisees came to him in order to test him. In Mark the word test usually has a negative association. It is the same word in the Greek that Mark uses when he says the devil came to tempt (test) Jesus in the desert after his baptism.

In this case, the motivation of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus. They want to entrap him into saying something that will get him into hot water. A current polarizing debate in the Jewish community on the proper grounds for divorce offered just the right pretext.

Mosaic law permitted divorce. The key text was Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There Moses says: If a man marries a wife, and then she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her, he may give her a bill of divorce and send her out of his house.

The grounds for divorce are that the husband has found some uncleanness in his wife. But what does the word uncleanness refer to? That was the focus of the debate.

The Jewish rabbi Shammai and his school said it meant adultery. Only adultery was a legitimate reason for divorce. The Jewish rabbi Hillel and his school said that uncleanness could refer to any reason why a wife lost favor with her husband. It could be her cantankerous temper, the fact that she talked to a stranger in the street, or that she burned his bread.

The Pharisees may have wanted to put Jesus right in the middle of this debate when they asked their question? Whichever side he took on the issue of the legality of divorce or the grounds for divorce, he would make new enemies.

The question was not an invitation to an honest theological discussion. It was a game of gotcha. We are terribly familiar with such games as we listen to a lot of political rhetoric today.

Jesus avoids the horns of this dilemma by avoiding the whole question of whether divorce was permissible or not. The law of Moses said that it was. On that question, I hear Jesus accepting the law of Moses.

Refocusing the Discussion

What he does instead is address the deeper pastoral issue raised by divorce. And here a close reading of the text proves fruitful. Jesus says that the law of Moses permits divorce because of your hardness of heart. Now that is not what I anticipate coming out of Jesus’ mouth. But I think the words are critical in how we come to apply the words of Jesus in pastoral situations.

Hardness of heart is a Biblical phrase that refers to a stubbornness of our will, a callousness of feeling, a stone-like fixation on our own self-concern at the expense of God and the other person. It is the prime feature of Pharaoh’s character in his struggle with Moses over release of the Israelite slaves.

Hard-heartedness stands in contrast to warm-heartedness, expressed in gentleness, humility, compassion, openness and flexibility. A warm-hearted person feels with other people, feels their joy and their hurts, instead of closing them out of his or her emotions.

Here, it seems to me, Jesus pinpoints the real reason why many marriages end in divorce. The deep emotional reason is the inflexibility, the intransigence, the insistence of having things one’s own way in the relationship that leads ultimately to irreconcilable conflict. The two partners in the marriage become so entrenched in their own hurts, anger, and demands that they find it impossible to work out their problems in a way that keeps them together.

Every marriage will have its problems and conflicts. The question is: How do we handle them? How do we negotiate through them to a resolution? Can we reach a resolution that both partners can live with? Sometimes one partner wants to work out the problem, but the other partner refuses. Sometimes both partners are locked into combativeness and inflexibility. Both say to the other: It’s my way or no way.

If a resolution proves impossible, then the marriage will split apart. Or one partner will cave in and the marriage becomes lopsided in its power arrangements. Love drains away through the emotional cracks.

Jesus Plays One Scripture Off Against Another

As a pastor, Jesus directs attention away from the legality of divorce to the deeper question: What is God’s intention for marriage. Here he plays Scripture off against Scripture.

In response to Deuteronomy, Jesus directs the Pharisees’ attention back to the story of creation in Genesis, chapter 2, where God creates Adam and Eve. In that story, when Adam meets Eve for the first time, he cries out in ecstasy This at last is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. And then the Biblical author comments: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Jesus reads this passage as expressing God’s intention for marriage. That intention is first and foremost to create a union so deep between the spouses that the couple becomes as one living being. This is talking about the creation of a deep, loving intimacy—a sexual, an emotional, a spiritual intimacy—between the two partners.

For Jesus, the pastoral issue in marriage is the quality of the intimacy between the two spouses that God intends their marriage relationship to foster.

In a healthy relationship as God intends it, giving and receiving are mutual. Both partners become more fully alive, more fully themselves within their marriage. Marriage is meant to nurture life, not smother it. This is the divine call and ideal.

None of our marriages fulfill this ideal perfectly. We fulfill it to various degrees. Some marriages achieve such a depth of love and intimacy that when one partner dies, the other feels as if his or her life has been ripped apart.

In other marriages the partners may be sexually faithful to each other, but maintain an emotional and spiritual distance between them. They live parallel lives that only reach out to each other occasionally.

And in others alienation replaces love and intimacy. This alienation may result from a one-time act of betrayal. Or it may result from the corrosive acids of small, repeated negativities like constant nagging, fault-finding, and petty obsessions. The alienation results in a marriage that feels like a zombie existence. One or both partners live as if they are the walking dead.

In that last situation divorce may become the healthier alternative to continuing to live together. But even so, the divorce can create an immense pain as the union is separated apart.

When we marry, we vow to be faithful to our spouse until death do us part. When we divorce, we break that promise by the sheer act of separation. And when we remarry we carry that broken promise with us.

That is what I think Jesus is getting at when he says that when a divorced person remarries, he or she commits adultery against the first spouse. We enter the second marriage with the broken promise in the first.

Second Chances in Marriage?

So is Jesus closing the door on second chances in marriage? I don’t think so. If Jesus were, he would be out of step with the rest of Scripture. For the Bible is full of stories of God giving people second chances, whether it be Israel returning from exile in Babylon or the apostle Peter after his denial of Jesus.

If Jesus is denying the opportunity for second chances in life, then we are all doomed, not only in our married life, but in our family, business, and community relationships.

I hear the good news of the gospel as a message that God gives us second chances over and over again. But we always enter into our second chances as flawed human beings. Repentance acknowledges that fact.

As I listen to this passage, I hear Jesus’ chief concern not being over the issue of whether divorce is permissible or not. This is largely a legal question. Nowhere in the gospels do we find the spirit of Jesus to be legalistic.

His focus is a pastoral one. When it comes to marriage, his chief pastoral concern is the quality of intimacy that a husband and wife are nurturing in their relationship. That, I contend, should be our chief concern too when we seek to apply this passage to contemporary marriages.

Author’s Note:

I write this posting in an effort to make some pastoral sense out of a difficult passage. But I also write from the perspective of a married man who has never undergone a divorce. Those of you who have may want to challenge what I say. I welcome your feedback.

 

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.

 

A Case of Religious Amnesia?

Our citing of Biblical authority can sometimes be truly selective.

Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)

“The Slave Trade,” by Auguste François Biard, 1840

On a recent Sunday, I was sitting in church waiting for the service to begin. To kill time, I picked up a pew Bible. I opened to the book of 1 Timothy and began reading.

You don’t get far into Timothy before you run into these words:

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:8-11 NRSV)

 In this passage, the author (ostensibly Paul) lists examples of those who are lawless, godless, and sinful. They include the ones we usually expect: murderers, fornicators, liars, and perjurers. He also includes sodomites. This makes this verse then one that opponents of homosexuality customarily cite as Scriptural authority against this practice.

But what captured my attention this time was the inclusion of two words I had never noticed before: slave traders. They hit me like a new revelation. I was perplexed. How could I have missed them ever before?

I decided to check out a couple of other translations. The King James Bible reads menstealers. The Revised Standard Version and the New English Bible (two translations I often use) read kidnappers.

I was curious what the Greek word was behind these English translations. It is andrapodistes. Curious what this word meant, I checked my Greek-English dictionary. The first meaning listed was slave traders, the second kidnappers. The same was true with other dictionaries I checked. So it appears that the primary meaning is slave traders.

Those two words have a different connotation for most modern people than does the word kidnappers. In our society, we tend to think of kidnappers as seizing people to hold for ransom or for blackmail. We do not think of them seizing people to sell into slavery, because Western society has abolished slavery.

But in the ancient world, the chief reason for kidnapping was to capture human beings to sell in the slave trade. Pirates on the Mediterranean were particularly notorious in this respect. They made sea travel in the Greco-Roman world particularly hazardous until Roman power was able to greatly reduce the danger during the Pax Romana.

Puzzled by a Lack of Citation

 Now I was fascinated that the author of 1 Timothy would include slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. Early Christianity had generally taken a somewhat accommodating stance towards slavery, as we see in references to slavery in the New Testament. The Christian movement welcomed slaves into the church, but raised no public protest against the practice of slavery.

Slavery was accepted as part of the social structure which may be ultimately passing away, but in the meantime, Christians had to live with it. This is reflected in the frequent New Testament counsel to slaves to be obedient to their masters.

But here in 1 Timothy I find a discordant note. The author may not deplore slavery itself, but he certainly deplores the slave trade in the strongest possible terms by including slave traders in his list of notorious sinners. I find it a singular and most unexpected voice to find in the New Testament.

Given all the brouhaha that Christians have given to the fact that the author includes sodomites in his list, I found myself asking why I have never heard anyone in the many classes I have taken on the Bible call attention to the fact that slave traders are also included in the list.

Christian history has certainly never shown much anxiety about this verse when it has come to Christians engaging in the slave trade. Christians just as much as pagan pirates have seemed to practice the trade with no great pangs of conscience. This contrasts so dramatically with Christian obsession about what 1 Timothy says about homosexuality.

I am not familiar with the literature of the Abolitionists in antebellum America. But I wonder if they ever cited this verse in their polemics against slavery, and in particular the business of slave trading. Last summer I read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the first time. It is a fierce denunciation of the evil of slave trading, but nowhere in the novel do I remember Stowe or any of her characters citing this verse.

I am puzzled by why such silence has tended to follow this mention of slave trading in the New Testament. It raises for me the question: Are we dealing with a case of deliberate and selective religious amnesia?