Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Last week, David’s drama took center stage as he grieved over his mentor, Saul, and his friend, Jonathan, two figures who represented possible one-time rivals for legitimate rule.

"pilgrim" by Matúš Benian via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.  

July 5, 2015

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Commentary on 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Last week, David’s drama took center stage as he grieved over his mentor, Saul, and his friend, Jonathan, two figures who represented possible one-time rivals for legitimate rule.

David mourned the fallen shield of Saul, Israel’s protector, which no longer bore the anointing oil. In this week’s text, the people come to David looking for a new shield, a new protector, anointed by God.

While David would never malign his predecessor, the tribes of Israel reminded him that even while Saul was the official king over Israel, David was the functional king (2 Samuel 5:2). They recalled Samuel’s prophetic anointing of David (1 Samuel 16:13), and they claim him as their shepherd. The people make a covenant with David as king — much as YHWH will make a covenant with him in chapter 7 — and they anoint him, the people’s choice (2 Samuel 5:3). He begins his official reign at the age of 30, and the text proclaims his rule for the next forty years, first with Hebron as the capital, and then Jerusalem. The end of this passage declares that David occupied the holy city and renamed it after himself (v. 9).

The only theological claim in the story is that David increased because YHWH, the God of hosts, was with him (v.10). This title for YHWH is not insignificant. “God of hosts” is the title of the warrior God, the God who wages war against Israel’s enemies — and sometimes Israel itself — in the prophets, and the victorious God whom the Psalms praise. When we recall the people’s request for a king like all the other nations in 1 Samuel 8, they wanted a king who would lead them into battle, preferably a king who would protect them from the intruding Philistines and other neighbors. Despite the prophetic warnings of what the king will do — that he will enslave their children and take their lands — the people persist, desiring security and peace through force rather than trusting in YHWH as their king.

It is interesting, therefore, that the lectionary text for today omits the very story of how David comes to reign in Jerusalem. Perhaps this lectionary omission reveals more about how we want to sweep the dirty details under the rug of divine anointing than we like to admit. 2 Samuel 5:6-8 relay David’s conquest of Jerusalem. The Jebusites, who inhabited the city, mock the new king, so confident in Jerusalem’s fortification that they claimed even the blind and lame would turn back David’s forces (v. 6). David persists, with a quite shocking declaration from our perspective, commanding his soldiers to “attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates” (v. 8). The Hebrew meaning of this last phrase is quite ambiguous. It could refer to those whom David despises, as the NRSV translates. The Jewish Publication Society suggests, however, that it could refer to those who hate David. In either case, these are the enemies of David, though the text does not give any indication as to why this is the case.

In essence, the Jebusites controlled Jerusalem, a city David wanted to claim for his capital. This was a wise choice for the new king. Jerusalem was the northernmost fortified city in the tribal territory of Judah, which gave David the political base of his own tribe but also offered a central location to conduct business with the other tribes of Israel. Because the Jebusites occupied the city, no other Israelite tribe could lay claim to the territory, providing neutral ground to conduct political affairs. As the Jebusites point out in their mockery of David and his soldiers, it is also a well-fortified territory, providing a nice military advantage. In essence, by taking the city, David showed his political and military prowess. David had the strategic mind to rule.

Because of our pro-Davidic bias and the glorification of David as the man after God’s own heart (1 Kings 11:4), we tend to forget these baser aspects of his rule. We prefer to place David on the pedestal as the pious psalmist rather than think about the means he used to consolidate his rule. The omission in the lectionary text helps us do that. But David had been working behind the scenes even before this episode. In 2 Samuel 3, David reclaimed his former wife, Michal, taking her away from her husband Paltiel, insuring that there would be no Saulide rival to the throne from Michal’s womb, a factor that will play into next week’s lectionary text as well.

As this rehearsal of Israel’s game of thrones suggests, I am quite taken back by the mixture of theology, politics, and warfare that we witness in these texts. Prior to Saul’s death, the character of David seemed rather pristine, even though he was involved in military conflict throughout most of his exile from Saul’s house. After Saul’s and Jonathan’s death, however, David seems quite shrewd, so shrewd that it leads me to question his supposed humility in his ode to the fallen Saul and Jonathan.

The biblical text, however, does not share my discomfort. The text does not judge David for reclaiming Michal or dispossessing the Jebusites of their city. In fact, it almost blesses or condones these actions in proclaiming that David was both the people’s choice and God’s (2 Samuel 5:1-2). For me, this text serves as a reminder that even as we condemn other religious traditions of engaging in holy wars, we have our own heritage of holy war and glorification of theo-military leaders to examine. Perhaps it is time to stop idolizing David by reading the rest of his story.