Revealing Verbs

The verbs in a Biblical story disclose the character of the actors.

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The Rape of Tamar, by the French artist Eustache Le Sueur, ca. 1640

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I put great value on a close reading of the Biblical text. I like to pay attention to the words that writers use to tell their story. Their choice opens up new perspectives on a familiar story.

One of the most brutal stories in the Bible is the story of the rape of Tamar, the daughter of King David (2 Samuel 13). She is raped by her half-brother Ammon. The rape unleashes catastrophic consequences on the house of David. In the process David almost loses his throne.

Christian Century magazine has recently published an article by Anna Carter Florence, in which she focuses on the verbs used in the story to disclose the power dynamics at work in the rape. It is a brilliant example of a close reading of the Biblical text. I want to commend it to you for your reading. It will be worth your while.

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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.

 

Prophets and Power

The complex role of prophets in the halls of power.

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The prophet Nathan rebukes King David, by the 19th century Belgian artist Eugène Sieberdt.

Last November, in my posting “Thus Saith the Lord,” I wrote about the story of Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Micaiah was a prophet attached to the court of King Ahab. He was out of royal favor because his prophecies never favored the king’s desires and policies. In fact, he predicted the king’s death in battle. His story, however, gives us an insight into how the Hebrew prophets understood their role.

Prophets were common in the royal courts of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Micaiah is not, in fact, the most prominent court prophet that we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament. That honor belongs to Nathan, prophet to the great King David. His story reveals the complex challenges and temptations that come when religious officials align themselves with the halls of power.

The Prophet Endorsing Power

 We meet Nathan at several different points in David’s career. Our first encounter comes in 2 Samuel 7. David has solidified his power. He resides in his new capital, Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace. Like many royal builders of other eras, he wants to honor the divine power that put him into power. He proposes to build a temple for God.

Nathan, his court prophet, endorses the idea. He tells the king, Go, do what is in your heart. The Lord is with you. (2 Samuel 7:3) It was the kind of divine endorsement of a royal action that court prophets would have routinely been expected to give. It must have seemed a no-brainer. What god would not be flattered by a temple built in his honor.

Nathan, however, has remained spiritually sensitive enough that he can still hear an alternate word from God when it comes to him in a dream. God does not want David to build the temple. That task will fall to his successor.

Nathan delivers that message to David, a message that David was not likely wanting to hear. But David’s disappointment is assuaged by the divine promise Nathan also delivers to David. His family line will rule Israel forever: …your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:16).

It is an extravagant promise coming out of the mouth of God’s spokesman. David is overwhelmed and immediately breaks into praise for God. It is also the first expression of that line of thought in the Hebrew Bible that emerges eventually into the belief in a Messiah, a belief with enormous consequences for both Judaism and Christianity.

Here we have a court prophet performing a duty that every monarch in the ancient world would have gladly welcomed. But it is a duty that needs to be performed with modesty. For Nathan learns in the process that what he thinks accords with God’s will may not represent God’s will at all.

The Prophet Challenging Power

 The next time we encounter Nathan (2 Samuel 12) he performs a duty that no king would have welcomed nor most likely even tolerated. But it was a duty that a court prophet had to perform if he was to be true to his calling as a spokesman for God.

David abuses his powers as king. He uses his position to seduce and commit adultery with Bathsheba. He then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin. It is not the first time that a government official has taken advantage of his power to gratify his own sexual lusts.

God summons Nathan, however, to confront David with his sin. He does so by first telling David a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David is outraged by the injustice. At this point, Nathan directly confronts David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7)

I find it amazing that Nathan had the courage to directly name his abuse of power to the king directly. It was a courageous thing to do. Nathan was fortunate that David had some sense of conscience and did not order Nathan’s execution on the spot. Instead David admits his sin in remorse.

In this case the court prophet had to speak truth to power. It was probably not a common service that court prophets did. Micaiah also did and it won him banishment for court. But it is a necessary task if power is to be kept accountable.

The Prophet Complicit with Power

The last time we encounter Nathan in the historical record we learn of his participation in the plot to place Solomon on the throne after David’s death (1Kings 1-2). As David lies dying, his son Adonijah tries to pre-empt the succession by getting himself crowned king in advance.

Nathan is the one who comes and informs David of what Adonijah is trying to do. David, however, has other plans. He wants Solomon, son of Bathsheba and Adonijah’s half-brother, to succeed him. He summons the queen, Zadok the high priest, Benaiah commander of the king’s troops along with Nathan, to set in motion a kind of counter coup d’état to ensure the succession of Solomon.

It works. Solomon is acclaimed king and Adonijah loses his life. Nathan has played a critical role in this intrigue from the very start.

This story shows how a court prophet could not remain above or separate from the intrigues that go on in any royal court. Life in the court presented its temptations. And in my viewpoint Nathan succumbed in this case.

The Prophet as Morality Tale

The story of Nathan, it seems to me, is more than an interesting incident in the history of the Davidic monarchy. It is a morality tale about the challenges and temptations religious leaders face when they choose to become aligned with political power.

• Such religious leaders can be seduced into providing religious endorsement of what the political power wants to do, regardless of whether that represents the will of the Lord or not. If they are to maintain their spiritual integrity, they must take care to cultivate constantly their spiritual sensitivity to the God they serve.

• Such religious leaders can provide a necessary function in speaking truth to power if they have the courage to do so. It runs a risk, of course, but it is a needed function if we are to keep political power honest.

• And finally the alignment with political power can work its subtle corrupting influences on such leaders that they become entangled in the intrigues that swirl around such power. Religious leaders are not immune from that lesson from history that Lord Acton summarized in his aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If religion is to have any impact on the wider society, its leaders cannot remain divorced from power. That is the great mistake, in my opinion, of all those who interpret the American tradition of separation of church and state as meaning that churches and their leaders should stay strictly out of politics. Christianity is not a faith just for individuals. It has immense consequences for all of our communal life, and religious leaders have a duty to speak of those.

Yet when churches and their leaders venture into the political realm–necessarily though it may be–they also run the risk of being co-opted and corrupted by their engagement. They should walk the halls of power with fear and trembling, knowing the great perils they face. That is the continuing relevance of the story of Nathan, court prophet.