July 9, 2017
1 Samuel 8:1-22
Samuel had two sons. The older one was Joel, and the younger one was Abijah. When Samuel was getting old, he let them be leaders at Beersheba. But they were not like their father. They were dishonest and accepted bribes to give unfair decisions.
One day the nation’s leaders came to Samuel at Ramah and said, “You are an old man. You set a good example for your sons, but they haven’t followed it. Now we want a king to be our leader, just like all the other nations. Choose one for us!”
Samuel was upset to hear the leaders say they wanted a king, so he prayed about it. Yahweh answered:
“Samuel, do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since the day I rescued my people from Egypt, they have turned from me to worship idols. Now they are turning away from you. Do everything they ask, but warn them and tell them how a king will treat them.”
Samuel told the people who were asking for a king what Yahweh had said:
“If you have a king, this is how he will treat you. He will force your sons to join his army. Some of them will ride in his chariots, some will serve in the cavalry, and others will run ahead of his own chariot. Some of them will be officers in charge of a thousand soldiers, and others will be in charge of fifty. Still others will have to farm the king’s land and harvest his crops, or make weapons and parts for his chariots. Your daughters will have to make perfume or do his cooking and baking.
The king will take your best fields, as well as your vineyards, and olive orchards and give them to his own officials. He will also take a tenth of your grain and grapes and give it to his officers and officials.
The king will take your slaves and your best young men and your donkeys and make them do his work. He will also take a tenth of your sheep and goats. You will become the king’s slaves, and you will finally cry out for the Lord to save you from the king you wanted. But Yahweh won’t answer your prayers.”
The people would not listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want to be like other nations. We want a king to rule us and lead us in battle.”
Samuel listened to them and then told Yahweh exactly what they had said. “Do what they want,” Yahweh answered. “Give them a king.”
The Problem is Civil Obedience Howard Zinn
Our problem is civil obedience.
Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.
Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.
That’s our problem.
We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong.
They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.
Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.
2 Samuel 1:19-27
David sang a song in memory of Saul and Jonathan, and he ordered his men to teach the song to everyone in Judah. He called it “The Song of the Bow,” and it can be found in The Book of Jashar. This is the song:
Israel, your famous hero
lies dead on the hills,
and your mighty warriors
Don’t tell it in Gath
or spread the news
on the streets of Ashkelon.
The godless Philistine women
will be happy
and jump for joy.
Don’t let dew or rain fall
on the hills of Gilboa.
Don’t let its fields
grow offerings for God.
There the warriors’ shields
were smeared with mud,
and Saul’s own shield
was left unpolished.
The arrows of Jonathan struck,
and warriors died.
The sword of Saul cut
the enemy apart.
It was easy to love Saul
Together in life,
together in death,
they were faster than eagles
and stronger than lions.
Women of Israel, cry for Saul.
He brought you fine red cloth
and jewelry made of gold.
Our warriors have fallen
in the heat of battle,
and Jonathan lies dead
on the hills of Gilboa.
Jonathan, I miss you most!
I loved you
like a brother.
You were truly loyal to me,
more faithful than a wife
to her husband.
Our warriors have fallen,
and their weapons
2 Samuel 23:1-4
These are the last words
of David the son of Jesse.
The God of Jacob chose David
and made him a great king.
The Mighty God of Israel
When God told him to speak,
“The Spirit of the Lord
has told me what to say.
Our Mighty Rock,
the God of Jacob, told me,
‘A ruler who obeys God
and does right
is like the sunrise
on a cloudless day,
or like rain that sparkles
on the grass.’
Sunrise On A Cloudless Day
What images and stories come to mind when we think about David?
The statue of David by Michelangelo.
The star of David on Israel’s flag.
David the shepherd boy who slayed Goliath.
David who wrote the psalms or many of them including the beloved Psalm 23.
David who calmed Saul’s heart by playing the lyre for him.
David chosen and destined by Yahweh to be king because he was “a man after God’s own heart.”
David the great king loved by everyone.
David, whose throne is established by God, forever and ever.
David, the model for the messiah, the son of David, yet to come for Jews,
Already arrived for Christians, in the person of Jesus, who is the son of David.
Joel Baden, author of The Historical David: The Real Life of An Invented Hero remembers as a boy in Hebrew school singing a song with hand gestures, over and over, faster and faster…
David, melech yisrael, chai chai ve-kayam
“David, king of Israel, lives and endures.”
Notice the present tense. Who lives and endures? Not the historical person, David, of course. Who lives and endures is the ideal, the myth, the idealized David, and the hopes and aspirations associated with this heroic, idealized figure.
All that we need to know about David, we already know. We learned it as children and have it reinforced through repetition: David is the brave and poetic shepherd boy, a man after God’s own heart, who becomes Israel’s greatest king, and his throne endures.
It is no accident that we know David that way. This idealization began even within his own lifetime and created by the biblical storytellers. The idealized David is similar to the idealized founding fathers of the United States, such as George Washington. The cherry tree legend shows us that he could not tell a lie. These idealized portrayals of historical figures such as Washington or David, provide us a myth that lives and endures. The myth is that America or Israel were founded by good people, who were men after God’s own heart. That is who we essentially are.
What happens when nosy historians and academics deconstruct these myths and search for the historical person behind the myth? When Washington is shown to be a wealthy slave-owner, or Jefferson, also a slave-owner, is found to have fathered a family by one of his teenaged slaves?
What happens is that conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer get upset. Krauthammer told Fox News last week that
“American students are being taught
‘about all of the pathologies of the United States and very little of the glories.”
What does he mean by that? He was responding to a poll that showed only 45% of Americans and 39% of Democrats were proud of America. Krauthammer puts the blame for this decline in pride on 60s radicals. He said:
“They weren’t just out there rioting and sitting in, they went into the professions – the teaching professions, and they’ve essentially taken over….That generation of radicals runs the universities, they run the teachers’ unions, they run the curricula.”
Krauthammer says this is bad news for our future. He said:
“In the end what brings civilizations down is when the elites lose confidence in the rightness of their cause….We need a new generation of teachers who are not committed to this … history of the sins of our ancestors.”
My hunch is that Yale historian Joel Baden would be on Krauthammer’s list of bad teachers.
What Baden demonstrates is that the Bible is essentially spin. His focus is on the books of 1 and 2 Samuel that tell the story of David. His thesis is that those things we remember about David were invented cover-ups to hide the ambitions of a ruthless man. That King David was an ambitious and ruthless person, who lied, stole, and murdered to get to the top is not unusual for ancient kings. That is what they did.
You might check out my podcast interview with Joel if you haven’t yet.
I am going to put Joel Baden on the shelf and give a quick run-down of 1 and 2 Samuel.
It begins with Hannah who can’t have a baby. She prays to have a son and if she has a son she would devote him to religion. Eventually, she has a son and names him Samuel and devotes him to the priesthood. She sings a song that sounds much like Mary’s song. God will lift up the poor and throw down the mighty and so forth.
Samuel grows up and has children of his own. He ends becoming a prophet and the connection point between Joshua and Judges and the monarchy. When you get kings you have to have prophets.
Samuel’s sons are not good leaders and the people come to Samuel and want a king. Yahweh’s answer is a point of honesty. Yahweh says kings are a bad idea. Samuel, the one who appoints kings doesn’t like kings.
The first king that he appoints is Saul. Saul is king for forty years. The Bible portrays Saul as bad. Saul disobeyed. He didn’t kill all the sheep. Small things. Saul has evil spirits and they bring David into his house to play his lyre to calm him down.
While this is happening, Yahweh decides he wants another king so he tells Samuel to search for another and he finds David, the pure of heart. We know already, the readers that is, we are being shaped for David to become the king.
David plays the lyre for Saul. In a second story, they are fighting the Philistines and David’s brothers are afraid of Goliath. David goes to Saul and says he can take Goliath. But Saul doesn’t know him. We have a couple of stories of how Saul meets David stitched together.
Saul gives David his armor. It is too heavy, so David finds five stones and uses a slingshot to send one into Goliath’s forehead. He kills him. Chops off his head. That is the children’s story. There is a second story in 2 Samuel 21:19 where another guy killed Goliath. What you find are little holes in the plot as you read Samuel. These are events of history that authors can’t quite fit seamlessly into the narrative.
David gives a speech to Goliath that Yahweh is on his side. David is pious and brave even as a child. That is what we are supposed to learn.
David joins Saul’s army and he is successful. The women sing about him: Saul killed his thousands and David his ten thousands. Saul is not happy with that and soon starts throwing spears at David. David runs away and cannot figure out why Saul is trying to kill him.
Saul’s son Jonathan, who would be the next king, befriends David. More than even friends. The language here is romantic. The Bible doesn’t flinch about David and Jonathan being lovers but we do need to come back to that relationship as we read this document for the history underneath the spin.
David is on the run and he works for awhile on the opposite side, for the Philistines. The Bible wants us to think he is some sort of double-agent, but that is suspect. He is a hoodlum. Roaming the countryside, terrorizing people. But it is all put in a language that seems to suggest that Yahweh approves.
Eventually Saul and Jonathan both die in battle. The text says that David is no where around but David ends up with Saul’s insignia. David ends up being king. David makes the capitol in Jerusalem.
Then we move to the Bathsheba story. David sends Uriah the Hittite to the front lines to be killed since David is in love with Bathsheba. Bathsheba’s son is Solomon who becomes the next king. David has to repent as he has done a bad thing. But Yahweh is still loyal to David. Even when David is punished he will be forgiven and the covenant is still with him and his line.
David as an old man is cold in bed. So he has a young woman keep him warm. They don’t have sex but she is cute. Then David dies and Solomon becomes king.
That is the basic plot and the central thread is that David has the heart of God and was destined to be the leader. The characteristics of David are the characteristics of the messiah.
Enter Joel Baden, the historian. He doubts this narrative is historically accurate. We know nothing archaeologically about David. Nothing until we get to Omri or Jehu. Nothing known about Solomon or David outside what is in the Bible.
Some scholars claim the David story is made up of whole cloth. Joel Baden does not see it that way. He says there probably was a guy because there are all kinds of stories in the text that you wouldn’t want to invent. There is a great deal of spin and back-pedaling. There probably was this historical person, David, but he wasn’t anything like what the Bible portrayed him to be.
The Bible portrays him as a man after God’s own heart. He is good. Saul is bad, etcetera.
To illustrate the difference between spin and history, Baden reconstructs the story of David and Nabal. While David is fleeing from Saul and roaming the countryside with his fellow hoodlums he sends his troops to the house of a man named Nabal. David has his men ask Nabal for food. They have been guarding Nabal’s sheep and wasn’t that nice and wouldn’t they like to give David and his men food. A lot of food.
Now the narrator tells us that Nabal is very wicked. His name means ‘fool’ and his wife, Aigail, doesn’t even like her husband. Nabal refuses to give them food.
David becomes angry and brings is 400 men to Nabal’s house. They are met on the road by Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who gives David and his men a lot of food. She waxes poetic and says that David will become king.
As it turns out, Nabal has a heart attack and a few days later Yahweh kills him. David takes Abigail as his second wife.
That is how the Bible tells this story. Imagine this happening in real life. The facts are that David and his hoodlums are running a protection racket. The owner refuses payment and he dies and David takes his wife. It is far more plausible that David killed Nabal or had him killed and took over his stuff including his wife. Nabal may or may not have been a “wicked” guy but he was a wealthy guy. The numbers of his animals suggest that he was more than a wealthy man but even a king.
Notice Abigail is David’s second wife. David’s first wife is named Ahinoem. The Bible says nothing about Ahinoem except that she is from Jezreel. However, there is another mention of Ahinoem. Saul’s first wife is Ahinoem. Baden suggests that the likely history here is that David started a coup to take over Saul’s kingdom, didn’t succeed but did steal Saul’s wife and a good number of his soldiers. This is why Saul was angry and tried to kill David.
What we have is a history very different from the spin of the Bible. The facts cannot be denied but the interpretation by the Bible paints David as innocent. Throughout the story, people die and the narrator is careful to tell us that David is nowhere around. Saul and Jonathan both die and David ends up with Saul’s insignia. The Bible concocts a story of one of Saul’s men helping Saul commit suicide and bringing Saul’s stuff to David. The Bible also tells us that David has a couple of opportunities to kill Saul but doesn’t do it. The Bible protests too much, says Joel Baden. It wants to drive home the message that David wouldn’t do such a thing, which is probably the very thing that he did.
David ends up being king as all kings end up being king. It is a tough business.
Who should have been king? Jonathan should have been king. But as the story has it Jonathan is love with David and Jonathan gives David his own military gear. Is that likely? No! It only happens in stories, especially in stories that need to paint David as loved by all, women and men, and innocent, and a man after God’s own heart.
The narrator wants us to think that David just happened to have the kingdom fall into his lap, or have it given to him by God. What is more likely is that David stole it and killed or had Saul and Jonathan killed.
According to Joel Baden, Solomon shouldn’t have become king. The Bathsheba story was a way to make this happen. Baden suggests that Solomon was not the son of David and Bathsheba, but the son of Uriah the Hittite and Bathsheba. The odd events regarding Solomon’s conception is a literary cover for the likely fact that Solomon was not David’s son.
Joel Baden’s book, The Historical David: The Real Life of An Invented Hero. You might like that. Of course, you might be saying, “No, I don’t like that at all. You just took a Sunday and ruined David for me!”
What do we do when we realize that our heroes are invented heroes?
Let’s go back to Charles Krauthammer again and those nosy academics who write about the sins of our history. Are they doing us a favor or not? Are they doing us a favor when they are showing us the history behind the mythology?
For Krauthammer, no they are not. For Krauthammer we need to keep those myths going. We need to keep the myths of America and its glories in front of us. The historians will say, “Maybe, maybe not.” Are we ever going to become true if we don’t challenge the myths and actually take on the science itself? I am in favor of the latter because I think we need to be aware of how history becomes spin.
The last time I preached couple of weeks ago someone said that history is written by the winners. That’s true. Not only is it written. It continues. This is the kind of spin-making that continues today. When we hear leaders tell us we need to go to war because we need to take out an enemy who is bad and evil and does horrible things to children, for example, we need to recognize this as a spin story. These stories fit into the narrative of our own founding. We are good, innocent people and we are the ones who never go to war without good reason. That reason is always a moral one. The historical facts show that the reasons are more likely to be geopolitical ones.
That is the same way the Bible itself tells its story. The reason I encourage us to read the Bible is to get good practice of reading the spin of common news cycles. It has not ended. We continue to get the stories given to us by the winners who have something at stake in getting us to believe what they want us to believe. That is why I promote critical thinking and we all promote critical thinking here, especially regarding our founding myths. It doesn’t hurt to know our history and to be open to reality so we can find the healing that we need and then become what we would really like to become.