Monday, 7 March 2016

The King Rests

Last week I gave a small talk to potential confirmands (11/12-year-olds) and their parents. One of the kids read the passage where King David is anointed with oil. I told them that they could also receive this sign that has existed for at least three thousand years, and asked them if they knew what a king did. One of the kids ventured, ‘Not much.’

That happens to be a quite correct and Biblical answer. In I Samuel 8, when the people of Israel come to the prophet-judge and demand a king to rule over them, Samuel warns them that the king will take their sons and daughters into his service and will demand their finest possessions and products. The word yiqqāh ‘He will take’ is repeated at least five times in the short description of the king that the people crave. And yet the people demand a king, ‘that we also may be like all the nations’ – an obvious red flag, because Israel’s vocation is to be different from the nations.

Even King David falls. He sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba, but even more by his complicity in the death of her husband, who is one of his most loyal soldiers. The story of David and Bathsheba (and Uriah) is well-known. But its introduction is usually left out; a priest recently alerted me to it. After the author has narrated one of David’s many military exploits against the Ammonites, in defence of the honour of his servants, this is the opening paragraph of II Samuel 11:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle (hint, hint), David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

Well, perhaps a king cannot be in the forefront of the battle all the time. Leading a band of warriors is one thing, but ruling a nation demands administrative work, diplomacy, thought. Right? Yeah, right:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing …

He wasn’t keeping himself too busy!

Then comes the whole Bathsheba shebang, Nathan’s parable, the child’s death, Solomon’s birth – and then we go back to the beginning. Because while all these intensely personal matters are going on, General Joab is still at the walls of Rabbah. When the job is done and the gate is breached, he sends word to the king to preside over the concluding military ceremony.

Gather the rest of the people together and encamp against the city and take it, lest I take the city and it be called by my name.

After all, Davidopolis has a better ring to it than Joabtown.

Then David arrives at Rabbah, which his faithful soldiers (minus Uriah and a few unnamed others who have become collateral damage) have conquered for him. And what does he do?

He took the crown of their king from his head. The weight of it was a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone, and it was placed on David’s head. … And he brought out the people who were in it and set them to labor with saws and iron picks and iron axes and made them toil at the brick kilns.

The King of Israel wears an Ammonite crown and acts like an Egyptian pharaoh.

So much for ‘that we also may be like all the nations’.

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