Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Learning from David
A few weeks ago, I wrapped up a six-week bible study on David. We read some of the big stories from David's life--his anointing by Samuel, his battle with Goliath, his affair with Bathsheba. I had never studied in succession these passages from 1 & 2 Samuel before, and it did me a lot of good to read them with a group of thoughtful, insightful, faithful students. I learned so much about the David story--less about what happened and more about connections between the stories. Over and over, the David narrative shows us that God is choosing what human beings do not have the sight to see.
On Sunday, those of us in RCL Track 2 will read a tiny snippet from one of many chapters in David's life (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15). It isn't really fair to read only this encounter between the prophet Nathan and King David. I think the lectionary selection (wrongly) presumes that the congregation will remember that "the wife of Uriah," who is introduced that obliquely at the beginning of this lesson, is Bathsheba. In Nathan's rebuke of David, we hear that David had indeed "struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife," but we get none of the lust, the conspiracy, or the faithfulness of Uriah despite David's attempts to get him unknowingly to take the unborn bastard as his own. We miss the fact that numerous soldiers of Israel had been killed during the cover-up, and we fail to see that David didn't even care. Multiple lives are taken so that the king can cover up his misdeed.
Even if you're not preaching on this passage, go back and read all of 2 Samuel 11-12. The story loses so much of its teaching power if we fail to recall the complete debasement of David and the remarkable faithfulness of the dead soldier. Without it, this lesson feels like God may be overreacting--coming down with great and lasting anger upon his chosen king. Even knowing the whole story, the death of the child is a terrible tragedy, which raises deep and unanswerable questions about God and punishment, but, without the whole story, the child's death is remarkably disproportionate and could distract the congregation from the rest of the service. Really, this lesson is quite perilous.
And still God forgives David.
Because our class immersed itself in the David story, we got to know him. We saw how God had chosen not the first or second or third etc. son of Jesse but the last one. We saw how the boy who didn't belong at the battle field was the child God chose to defeat the champion of the army of the Philistines. We saw how David fell in love with Jonathan--their souls were knit together upon first meeting--and how their friendship held them together even when Jonathan's father was trying to kill David. We saw how David remembered the love he shared with Jonathan even after his friend had died, restoring to his only surviving son all that Saul had possessed before David displaced him as king. Through it all, we saw how God had chosen David to be this leader. Like the people of Israel, we grew to have confidence in God's choice despite what might have been our own preferences. So, finally, when we get to the story of David's adultery and murder, we hear it not as a fatal blow to God's chosen but as a sign of real, human struggle for one of God's faithful people.
The encounter between the prophet and the king is a moment of clarity. David had become so drunk with power--living in a cedar house--that he had forgotten what it meant to be faithful to God. He had murdered people to satisfy his own lust. The most damning words of Nathan come not in the parable of rich and poor men but in the comparison he offers between David and Saul: "I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah." All of the sudden, David discovers that he has become his predecessor. All that was wrong with Saul had fallen onto him. Like looking into a mirror and seeing for the first time how unmanageable one's life has become, David woke up and knew he needed help. "I have sinned against the Lord," David said. And the time for renewal was begun.
This is a beautiful story, but the text we are given hides some of that. Go back and read more about David. Don't lose sight of this story's place in the whole David narrative. There's much more going on here than adultery and punishment. This isn't a story about God enacting vengeance upon a sinner. It's a story about deep and abiding faithfulness, moments of confusion, and moments of clarity. It's worth our attention.