Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Spinning David

By the time of Jesus the verdict on Israel's great king, David, was fixed. Here is the man against whom kingship standards are measured.

So although John's gospel goes out of the way to say that Jesus comes from Galilee, and shows Jesus demonstrating from Isaiah 9 that this is just as much a messianic expectation as Bethlehem, it is still important that he is of David's line for the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

Which might mean we would find good things in the biblical account of the history of David. And indeed we do, in the commentaries upon it. But in 1 Samuel we find an account of a king doing as a king does - beating up the little guys, choosing the best women for his harem and holding grudges.

Consider one of the three accounts of the beginning of David's coming to the notice of the Court of Saul (there are three, and none of them makes reference to any of the others) - the story of Goliath. A later hint that the giant was killed by someone other than David and then the narrative placed in David's life (2 Samuel 21:19) is rarely referred to by preachers. Indeed 1 Chronicles 20:5 smooths over the inconsistency by suggesting Goliath had a brother. 1 and 2 Chronicles do this sort of thing a lot.

Taking the account at face value, what is the first thing that David says as he strolls onto the world stage? In the narrative of the choosing and anointing of the youngest son of Jesse, David has no lines. In the account of the harp-playing, trouble-soother of Saul's demons he has no speech either. Only in the Goliath story of 1 Samuel 17 does David speak. How does he announce himself?

'What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine?'

Yes folks, that's right. David wanders in with the line 'What's in it for me?' He may be a good-looking shepherd-boy but he has a mercenery's heart. He wants a reward.

David's ability in battle is, however, more than just legendary. Whether or not he actually discarded his bronze-age armour and used his stone-age weapon to defeat his iron-age adversary, he eventually becomes the subject of a chant 'Saul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands'.

And in a world where we are rightly horrified by beheading, the habit of collecting the foreskins of the vanquished is a bit of biblical history we also wander quickly beyond.

Cue another bit of unspun action. David asks his best mate Jonathan to lie to explain his absence from a royal banquet.

This is seen as perfectly normal behaviour by the authors. It warrants no criticism.

And so our account of the life of David proceeds. Mistresses and wives collected. Adultery committed. The husband of one of his female conquests bumped off by placing him on the front line. And by his death bed a list of enemies for his son Solomon to continue beating up on.

The judgement of history from the letter to the Hebrews, where great heroes of the faith are listed, is this:

'I do not have time to tell about ... David ...'

So he was not everyone's cup of tea. Our Morning Prayer lectionary walk through the life of David as told by 1 Samuel is the story of kings doing as kings do.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail the king arrives in a village. The Pythons announced him with this timeless two lines of dialogue:

How do we know he's the king?
He ain't got shit on him.

That's the truth about ancient kingdoms. The boss avoided the shit. Others protected them from it, and once you were the king all matters of right and wrong are judged on the basis that the king must be right. And only occasionally will a prophet brave the court to challenge in the name of The Lord. Samuel, Nathan and the company of the prophets are going to be our heroes and heroines.

Yet I give the last word to musician Bono who, writing an introduction to the controversial, but brilliant Pocket Canons, said:

'That the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a source of great comfort.'
(Introduction to Psalms)

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