Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Blind Man and the Bureaucrats

The Gospels contain many accounts of Jesus healing the sick and the lame and other miracles; but they rarely speak much about what happens next. It's just sort of assumed that the person healed lives happily ever after and that Jesus moves on to a parable or another guy with some other affliction.

An exception to this comes in the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus gives a man a wondrous gift of healing, and it turns out to wreck the guy's life. Or pretty close.

Jesus is visiting Jerusalem for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the major holy feasts of the Jewish calendar. He happens upon a man who has been blind from birth. The text does not name him, but Tradition has given him the name Celidonus. Jesus' disciples ask him about the man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

This seems like an odd question. How could it be the guy's fault at all? Bible commentators have suggested that the disciples were thinking he might have committed some wickedness in a previous life, for which he was suffering in this one. I can't think of any place in the Bible that mentions reincarnation, even to reject it. Then again, the Hebrew Scriptures tend to be vague on the subject of the Afterlife. The Sadducees, who accepted only the Books of Moses as authoritative scripture, rejected any flavor of Life After Death; but the Pharisees, who were big on following the Law, liked the idea of a Divine Judgment of Souls in the World to Come. Some Greek philosophers taught the Transmigration of Souls, so it's not impossible that the disciples might have heard of reincarnation, even if the priests and rabbis didn't teach it.

Or it's possible that the disciples were wondering if the man could have sinned prenatally, which apparently some Pharisees thought possible. There's a remark in Genesis about Jacob and Esau fighting even in their mother's womb. Or perhaps they thought the guy was being punished retroactively for something he was yet to do.

If all this sounds convoluted, yes it is; which is no doubt why the disciples wanted Jesus to clarify the matter. But all these suppositions are based on the assumption that misfortune must be a punishment for some sort of failing.

It's a moralistic assumption which seems to seep into people's beliefs. We like it because it seems to agree with our sense of justice; people get punished for their bad behavior; and because it seems to fit with our experience: bad actions lead to bad consequences and karma is a bitch.

Except that taking the principle to its logical extreme we wind up saying that misfortune is always the result of wickedness and that anyone who suffers must have done something to deserve it.

Which brings us back to the disciples' question: whose sin is the blind man being punished for; his own, or someone else's?

Neither,” Jesus says. The man was born blind, he says, “ that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:3) And then he goes about to heal the man's blindness.

Hold on a moment, perhaps you're saying, is that any better? That God permitted this poor guy to suffer blindness his entire life just to make Jesus look good?

No. That's missing the point. The question isn't “Why is this guy afflicted?” because when we fixate on that question, we think it absolves us from any obligation to relieve that affliction. The right question, or at least the question Jesus asks, is: “What am I going to do to help?”

In this instance, Jesus makes a mud-pie. He spits in the dirt and mixes into a mud pat which he puts on the blind man's eyes. Jesus sometimes uses a mundane action like a catalyst to trigger the miracle and he does so in this case. He tells the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, a rock-cut reservoir that is part of the city water system built for Jerusalem by King Hezekiah centuries earlier.

The man does so, and for the first time in his life, he can see.

Which is when the problems start.

His neighbors, who have been accustomed to seeing the guy out on the street begging for alms are surprised that he can now see and some of them insist this must be some other guy who just looks like the blind beggar they knew. The guy insists that he truly is that man and tells them about his encounter with Jesus.

They bring him to the Pharisees. The text does not make clear whether they brought him to the Temple, or to a local synagogue within the city; I'm guessing the latter, but I could be wrong. Once again, he tells the story about how Jesus made some mud and how he washed his face in the Pool of Siloam.

The Pharisees who examine the man are divided in their opinions. The miracle had taken place on a Sabbath; and by healing the blind man on that day, Jesus had violated the Law of Moses about working on the Sabbath; therefore he can't be a man of God; Q.E.D. The Pharisees really got bent out of shape over the whole Sabbath thing, because this is not the only place in the Gospels where this comes up.

To be fair, though, not all Pharisees were as strict on this subject. In another place, Jesus asks “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12) Here Jesus is using an argument that some pharisaic schools had used in discussing this matter. And on this occasion some of the other Pharisees argue that, regardless of the day on which it happened, the healing of the blind man was still a miracle. “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?”

Finally they ask the blind man what he thinks of this Jesus. “He is a prophet,” the man replies. The text does not say that he added, “Duh!” but it would seem pretty self-evident.

The Pharisees remain unconvinced. How do they know the man was really blind in the first place? They call in his parents for questioning.

The parents are scared. They don't want any trouble with the leaders of the Synagogue. Yes, they say, that is their son. Yes, he had been blind since birth. No, they have no idea how he came to be healed of his blindness. “Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.”

So they question the man again, this time giving him a strong hint as to the answer they want to hear. “Give glory to God,” they say: a solemn charge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but; “We know this man is a sinner.”

The man doesn't know anything about that; all he knows is that he was blind, but now he's not. They tell him to go over the story one more time. “I have told you already and you did not listen,” he says. “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciple too?”

Ooo... that really gets their ephods in a bunch. “We are disciples of Moses!” they sniff at him. They don't even know who this Jesus guy is. They insult the blind man and accuse him of being a follower of Jesus; which is ironic, because he wasn't one at the beginning of the day, but as the pharisees continue to badger him, we can see him becoming more and more emphatic in his defense of the man who healed him.

The man answered,”Now this is remarkable! You don't know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

A reasonable point, and one which the more open-minded of the pharisees have already made. But the synagogue officials are offended. They say “how dare you lecture us!” and chuck him out.

So here he is. He has no job because he's been a blind beggar all his life. He's just been thrown out of the synagogue, so he's an outcast in his community. Although the text does not come out and say so, I wonder if his parents didn't disown him as well, for fear of being ostracized themselves. He could well be forgiven for thinking that he was better off blind.

Jesus hears about what happened to the formerly-blind man and goes to find him. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks. “Son of Man” is an expression that appears a few times in the Old Testament, usually bearing the sense of “mortal man.” In the Book of Ezekiel, God addresses the prophet as “Son of Man”. The Book of Daniel, however, describes “One like a son of man” who will be given dominion over the nations of the earth. Some of the Apocryphal books written shortly before the time of Christ, such as the Books of Enoch and of Esdras, use the title for the Messiah-to-Come, and that is the sense in which Jesus used it in the Gospels.

Who is he, sir?” the man asks. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

You have seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” Jesus rarely in the Gospels comes out with any claims of divinity; some readers have said he never does; but in this brief private moment with the man whose life he has upended, he definitely, if a bit indirectly, acknowledges that he is indeed the Man of Prophecy about whom he and the prophets before him have preached.

Jesus goes on to draw a comparison between that day's miracle and his greater ministry:

For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (v.39)

And that is where the text leaves the blind man. We don't know where he went from there. Did he join the followers of Jesus? Did he go back to his family? Did he make a new life for himself with his new circumstances? We don't know. We don't even know if his name was really Celidonus. (Odds are, it wasn't). But despite the problems that came with the gift of sight, he does not seem to have regarded it as a curse. It was a thing of joyous wonder.

The religious authorities of his day thought their vision was perfectly accurate, yet they were so focused on their preconceptions and priorities they could not see things that were obvious to a blind man.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Two Christmases

This piece isn't about a particular Bible story; it's something I wrote several years ago for blog that, sadly, is no longer in existence.  But I like to drag it out every year at this time, because I think it says something worth hearing.  It's about how a War on Christmas is pretty silly if you don't know which one you're shooting at.

For a while back when I lived in Darkest Iowa, I shared a duplex apartment with my wacky brother Steeve and my friend Scott. One year, Scott asked me to draw some Christmas cards for him to send to his Internet friends. This was around 1990, back in the caveman days. We didn't actually have Internet access ourselves, but Scott had borrowed a friend's university account and spent a lot of his free time on a computer bulletin board based out of the University of Iowa. For a while, both Scott and I were forum moderators at that site, (despite the fact that neither of us were students at U of I and in fact I was an alumnus of Iowa State).
I drew three different designs for him. One was a parody of Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" featuring the bulletin board's Sysop. One was a fairly bland one with a picture of a computer made out of snow. The third one bore the message "Have a Happy and Blessed Christmas Season."
"You can't say that," Scott said.
"Why not?"
"Because a lot of the people on my list are wiccans and atheists and agnostics. They'd be offended!"
Personally, I didn't see why they should. The message wasn't making any kind of religious statement; it just extended good wishes. My own attitude was, to paraphrase Bette Midler, if they can't take a blessing, screw `em. But since I was doing the cards for Scott in the first place, I acceded to his wishes and changed the message to a non-controversial "Greason's Seetings."
I think about Scott and his cards when I hear about the "War on Christmas". I suppose my experience should put me on the side of the Righteous Warriors out to protect Baby Jesus from the Evil Secularists. Somehow, though, I can't get that worked up about it. If a cashier wishes me a "Happy Holidays", she's expressing a hope that nice things happen; the same as if she had said "Merry Christmas," "Groovy Kwanzaa", "Swingin' Solstice" or "May the Great Bird of the Galaxy roost on your planet." I don't have to celebrate any of those things to recognize and appreciate nice intentions. In the same way, I don't have to consider it an affront to God if somebody says "gesundheit" when I sneeze instead of "God bless you." Take it in the spirit in which it's given.
At one time I used to get all bent out of shape about the Secularization of Christmas. I particularly detested the deification of Santa Claus. When I was in junior high and full of adolescent anger and self-righteousness, I wrote an abrasive, curmudgeonly piece on the subject which upon saner reflection I threw away. A thirteen-year-old curmudgeon is not a pretty thing. My views towards Ol' Saint Nick have mellowed since then as I have come to accept what I call The Two Christmases.
There are two holidays celebrated on December 25th. One, of course, is the Feast of the Nativity, when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then there's the other holiday, the Feast of Jingle Bells and Jolly Fat Men in Red Suits and Reindeer with Luminous Noses. Both holidays happen to have the same name, but they're different.
I celebrate both; and I don't see why the two need to be mutually exclusive.
Where the Christmas Warriors get it wrong is where they assume that the holiday has to be either one or the other. To a certain extent, I can sympathize with their point. I worship Christ, the holiday's namesake; and it does bother me when the earthly babel sounds of the secular festivities drown out the song which the blessed angels sing. The Puritans felt this way and so they banned Christmas all together when they ruled England under Cromwell. Which is a funny way to honor a man who loved parties and who used feasts in his parables to represent the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christmas, as it is celebrated today, has a rich and varied tradition; sacred and secular, spiritual and commercial, tacky and sublime. There's a lot of Christmas stuff that I deeply love, despite having no connection to the Nativity story and only a tenuous connection, if that, to my religious convictions: family get-togethers, the giving of gifts, Vince Guaraldi`s piano music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas", just about any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Thurl Ravenscroft singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch".
When I was little, our family had a devotional booklet that we used every Christmas called The Talking Christmas Tree. Instead of setting up the Christmas tree and decorating it all at once, we'd put it together bit by bit. The first night we'd just put up the tree. The second night we'd add the lights. Then little by little we'd add more to the tree and we'd have a devotion talking about how each addition could symbolize something about God.
Now I know that most of those decorations, and the tree itself, can be traced back to pagan sources, which is why the Puritans had such a problem with the holiday. But part of the joy of Christmas comes not from purging the religious holiday of all secular dross, but rather of finding things in the holiday bramble that enrich and illuminate the spiritual aspects.
(According to one story, Martin Luther put up the first Christmas tree. Walking home one winter, he was so struck by the beauty of stars shining though the evergreens that he brought a tree home and put lighted candles in its branches so his family could see. And right after that, Philip Melanchthon invented fire insurance. This story is almost certainly untrue; other scholars trace the decorating of trees back to pre-Christian times; still, it's a good story).
It works both ways. Just as Christians can enrich their celebrations with aspects of the secular holiday, so too can Christian elements filter out into to world at large. Usually these elements are diluted: sentimental crèche scenes, platitudes of "Peace on Earth", Madonna and Child postage stamps; but God's Word does not return empty; not even when it's been wrapped in tinsel.
If we limit Christmas to only Christ - which I do believe is the most important part - then we also exclude those who aren't Christian from the holiday; we become in effect dogs in the manger. If we actually wind up driving people away from that manger, then we ain't doing Baby Jesus any favors.
"Happy Holidays" is a blessing, and ultimately all blessings come from God. The proper response isn't "That's Merry Christmas, you PC secularist!" but rather "Thank you; and a Merry Christmas to you too!"

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Bovine Shrines

Dang, if that crazy old guy with the torn-up coat wasn't right after all.

The prophet Ahijah had prophesied that Jeroboam would someday rule over ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Sure enough, when Solomon's jerk of a son, Rehoboam, managed to piss off most of the nation, these break-away northern tribes chose Jeroboam to be their new king.

Ahijah also promised that God would bless Jeroboam with a dynasty as great and as enduring as that of David. With just one caveat:

If you do whatever I command you and walk in my ways and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statures and commands, as David my servant did, I will be with you. (1 Kings 11:38 NIV)

Yeah, there's always a catch.

When King David conquered the city of Jerusalem, he did more than just make it the political capital of the tribes of Israel. By bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, he also made Jerusalem the religious center as well. David originally intended to build a temple to house the Ark, but that task fell to his son, Solomon.

This presented Jeroboam with a problem. Yes, the Northern Tribes had declared their independence from the House of David, and no, Rehoboam did not have the military strength to re-take them; but if Jeroboam's people had to keep going to Jerusalem in order to worship and to perform sacrifices, they'd wind up under Jerusalem's thumb after all.

I sometimes wonder if it was a bad idea for King David to bring the Ark to Jerusalem in the first place. Yes, it consolidated the religious and political centers of the nation in the same place; but it also brought the priesthood under the direct control of the King. You could even see this as an argument in favor of the Separation of Church and State.

For Jeroboam, the solution was obvious. To keep his subjects from worshiping in an enemy nation, he set up mega-churches of his own.

After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel. And the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there. (1 Kings 12:28-30)

Bethel was already a religious site; it's name means “House of God.” It was located in the Tribe of Benjamin, near the border between the Jeroboam's Northern Kingdom, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. According to Genesis 28:19, this was the place where Jacob had his dream of angels ascending and descending a Stairway to Heaven, providing later inspiration for Led Zeppelin. Dan was located clear on the other side of Israel, up in the northern reaches near the headwaters of the Jordan River.

But what jumps out at the reader is the fact that Jeroboam made golden calves to represent God. Didn't the Israelites try that once before at Mount Sinai? Didn't that incident teach them not to worship gilded livestock?

One cynical answer could be that the author of Kings inserted the calves into the story in order to remind the readers of the sinful Golden Calf in Exodus. And the words of Jeroboam here do seem to be deliberate echoes of Aaron's words in Exodus 32:4. Or perhaps that the Golden Calf story from Exodus was a bit of retroactive continuity intended to foreshadow Jeroboam's idols.

But the two incidents could have arisen independently. I strongly suspect that the worship practices of the Hebrews was not nearly as standardized as the author of Deuteronomy would like us to think. Even if we follow Tradition and accept that the Law of Moses was written by Moses himself; considering how loosely-knit the tribes were before the monarchical period and how frequently the Israelites slid into adopting the religions of their neighbors, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a great deal of variation in how the individual tribes practiced the worship of the God of Abraham.

In an agrarian culture, worshiping a deity who takes the form of livestock makes a certain amount of sense. The Egyptians worshiped a bull-god named Apis; and when the Israelites at Sinai asked Aaron to make a statue to represent the God who had delivered them from bondage, in Exodus chapter 32, Apis was probably the first thing that came to mind. The Cretans worshiped bulls, as did the Canaanites; and art of the Assyrians, Israel's neighbor to the north, is noted for its winged bulls.

So Jeroboam, wishing to present his people with an alternative to the Temple cult of Jerusalem, and lacking an Ark to represent the Presence of the Almighty, followed the examples of his neighbors and made these cows as stand-ins.

I can't help but wonder, if Jeroboam had just established places of worship without the idols, things might have gone better. Perhaps he could have made arrangements with the High Priest of the Temple to have officially sanctioned priests perform sacrifices in the other places. Perhaps they might have developed a decentralized religion, as the Jews were forced to later with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.

Or maybe it would have made no difference and Israel's break with the House of David would have resulted in apostasy no matter what they did.

From here the story gets weird.

A certain Man of God shows up at Bethel on one of Jeroboam's holy festivals. Not only did Jeroboam set up bovine idols at his new shrines, he also established his own holiday on the fifteenth day of the eighth month. This seems to have been to replace the Feast of Tabernacles, (Sukkot) established by Moses and held a month earlier. This might not seem like such a big deal, but Jeroboam also performed the sacrifices at Bethel personally. Having the king perform religious ceremonies was a common practice among Israel's neighbors, but Moses had established a kind of separation of Church and State in the Law: the priesthood and the secular leadership were separate entities, and the religious rituals were the sole provenance of the priests. A couple generations earlier, King Saul had gotten in trouble for presuming to offer a sacrifice by himself. (1 Samuel 13:5-14)

But back to this Man of God. The text does not name him; it only says that he came from Judah to deliver a message.

By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD: “O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: 'A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offering here, and human bones will be burned on you.'” That same day the man of God gave a sign: “This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.” (1 Kings 13:1-3)

Josiah was a later king of Judah, whose reign saw religious reforms and a revival of the Temple worship. It is believed by many Bible scholars that the Book of Deuteronomy was written during the time of Josiah, and possibly much of the Books of Kings as well.

The king reached out intending to grab this holy heckler, but when he did so his hand shriveled up so that he could not withdraw it; and just as the man of God had prophesied, Jeroboam's altar cracked and split asunder.

This really frightened Jeroboam. He asked the Man of God to intercede with the LORD and heal him. The Man of God did so, and Jeroboam's hand was restored to health. (1 Kings 13:4-6)

The king invites the Man of God back to the palace for something to eat and to give him a little “thank-you” present, but the MoG is also a Man with a Mission. “Even if you were to give me half your possessions, I would not go with you, nor would I eat bread or drink water here.” God told him to go to Bethel, deliver the message and come back. He was not to eat or drink anything while in Jeroboam's territory; he was not to Pass GO; he was not to collect $200. He was not even to go back by the same route came. And so he turned around and headed back to Judea. Snap. Jeroboam, you have been burned.

But there was also a prophet who lived in Bethel at that time. We don't get his name either. Hearing about what happened at the shrine, the prophet saddled up his donkey and rode after the man of Man of God back to his place for
a couple cold ones and maybe a quick nosh or something.

The MoG explained that he couldn't do this, for the same reasons he gave to the king. The prophet replied that it was okay because he was a prophet too and an angel had told him to give the man of God some refreshments.

Well, if a prophet said that an angel had told him, then it must be all right, right? I mean, a prophet wouldn't lie about something like that, would he?

I suppose that's what the Man of God thought. He thought wrong. (v.11-19)

Why did the jerk do that? Why did he lie to the man of God? I don't think he was deliberately trying to wreck the MoG's mission. I wonder if he might have just wanted the prestige of being able to say, “Oh yeah, that prophet from Judea? Yeah, I know him. Had him over for dinner once.” He was an old man, the text tells us, and perhaps his better days of prophecy were behind him. Maybe he hoped latching onto this new guy would make him seem more relevant. Or maybe he was just too gregarious for his own good.

He was a legitimate prophet, though, because in the middle of dinner with his guest the word of the Lord came to him.

While they were sitting at the table the word of the LORD came to the old prophet who had brought him back. He cried out to the man of God who had come from Judah, “This is what the LORD says: 'You have defiled the word of the LORD and have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you. You came be back and ate bread and drank water in the place where he told you not to eat or drink. Therefore your body will not be buried in the tomb of your fathers.'” (1 Kings 13:20-22)


At this point, the I think the reader can be forgiven for thinking that God is being kind of a jerk here. The man of God, after all, was acting in good faith. He didn't know the prophet was lying; for all he knew God had changed his mind about the Not-Eating-or-Drinking thing. If anything, the skeevy prophet was to blame. Wasn't God coming down hard on the guy?

Maybe. The best I can say is that the reason the Man of God was prohibited from accepting hospitality while in Jeroboram's territory was to emphasize God's displeasure with the king's idolatry. By accepting the prophet's dinner, after telling the king he wouldn't, he was undercutting the message God sent him to deliver. And he really should have known better than to accept the guy's invitation, even if the guy was a prophet.

I would imagine the rest of the meal was rather strained. The Man of God finishes his dinner; that's only polite and at this point he might as well; and the prophet saddles up his donkey for him. And on his way down the road, he is attacked and killed by a lion. But that's not the freaky part.

The lion does not devour the MoG, or maul him further, or go after the donkey, or even just wander away. For that matter, the donkey doesn't bolt either. Both animals just remain standing there, beside the MoG's body, as a mute testimonial to the man's death.

When the smarmy prophet hears about this, he goes with his sons to the scene of the tragedy. The man's death was partly his fault – okay, largely his fault – and so he tries to make amends the only way he can. He has his sons bring the MoG's body home with him, (carefully, no doubt, under the watchful glare of the lion), gives the body proper funeral rites, mourning over him and burying him in the prophet's own tomb. And he told everybody about the Man of God's prophecies against the shrines of Jeroboam.

Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways, but once more appointed priests for the high places from all sorts of people. Anyone who wanted to be a priest he consecrated for the high places. This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to his downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth. (Ch.13 v.33-34)

“High Places” is how the Books of Kings refer to any of the shrines to other gods, although it's not entirely fair. The Temple of Solomon wasn't exactly built in a valley either. I suspect it's a logical impulse to locate places of worship on hill and mountain tops. If the gods dwell in the heavens, it makes sense to climb to a high elevation in order to worship them. And so the shrines to the Canaanite and other gods get tagged in the Bible under the general name of “high places.”

But note what else this passage says: it's a new accusation against Jeroboam. IT was briefly touched on before, but this passage emphasizes it. Jeroboam did not just set up his own rival temples, or have his people worship idols, or even invent his own religious holidays. He'd give out priestly appointments to anyone who asked.

Under the Mosaic tradition, only descendants of the Priestly Line of Aaron were permitted to become priests; (and only members of the Tribe of Levi, to which Aaron belonged, were permitted to serve in the Tabernacle, and after that the Temple). Because of this privilege, the Tribe of Levi was not allocated tribal lands, the way the other Tribes of Israel were; instead, they were given a handful of cities distributed throughout Israel. Not every Levite worked in the Temple, but in a sense the entire tribe was dedicated to God.

On the surface, Jeroboam's decision to open his priesthood to all-comers seems egalitarian and wholly a good thing. (As well as being a practical necessity, seeing as the Tribe of Levi had remained loyal to the House of David). But I get a hint of something else in this passage. Yes, the king is permitting applicants from other tribes into the priesthood; but more significantly, the king is making the decisions. The priesthood becomes no longer just a religious office, but a political appointment, serving at the whim of the king. I'll bet that bothered the Jerusalem Temple Establishment even more than the gold cows did.

The story has one more sequel. About the same time as his confrontation with the Man of God from Judah, Jeroboam's son Abijah fell sick with a severe illness. With no one else to turn to, Jeroboam remembered Ahijah, the prophet who had given him the scraps of his cloak and prophesied his rise to kingship.

Jeroboam knows that Ahijah is likely to be disapproving of the whole cow thing, and so tells his wife to visit the prophet in disguise, and ask him what will happen to the boy. He's not asking for a miracle here, or even a blessing. He just wants to know the child's future, and perhaps to reassure himself.

It's been many years since Ahijah gave Jeroboam the tatters of destiny, and the prophet has grown old and blind. But the Lord has given him advance notice of the visit. “Come in, wife of Jeroboam,” he says. “Why the pretense?” He has a message for Jerry and it's not good news. The Lord God of Israel raised Jeroboam up as king of Israel, but Jeroboam has not lived up to his end of the bargain. For this reason, God is going to bring disaster on Jeroboam's house.

I will cut off from Jeroboam every last male in Israel – slave or free. I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung, until it is all gone.” (1 Kings 14:10)

Ahijah also tells the woman that her son will die “When you set foot in the city”. Is it fair that the boy be punished for the sins of his father? No, Ahijah says, the kid is getting off easy. Jeroboam's son will die mourned and loved by all of Israel and given a respectful burial precisely because is is the only member of the family in whom God has found anything good. The rest of Jeroboam's household will meet with ignominious deaths and dogs will eat their carcasses.

Things come to pass just as Ahijah predicted. The boy dies as soon as his mother crosses the threshold of their house. He is buried and mourned by all of Israel. Jeroboam continues to reign for some years more, and is succeeded by his other son, Nadab. The son of Jeroboam reigned for only two years before he was assassinated on the battlefield by one of his own generals, Baasha, who siezes the throne and sets about killing the rest of Jeroboam's family.

This pretty much sets the pattern for the rest of the Northern Kingdom's history. Short dynasties lasting only a generation or two at most and ending with violence. The line which was to have been as enduring as the House of David, ended in blood.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

David On His Deathbed

(originally posted as D'var Torah Veyehi on Daily Kos, Dec. 28, 2012)

We like to think of David as the gentle shepherd boy with the harp, who liked to write psalms and who forgave his enemies and wept at the deaths of Saul and of Absalom. But David also had a temper, as shown in the story of Abigail and Her Really Stupid Husband (1 Samuel 25). And although he might forgive, that didn't mean he'd forget.
We see King David in 1 Kings 2 on his deathbed, having just crowned Solomon as his successor by doing an end-run around the attempted coup by Solomon's older brother, Adonijah. (That's another recurring theme in Scriptures; an inheritance going to someone other than the Firstborn Son who "should" have received it; but that's irrelevant to this particular reading).
David begins his final charge to Solomon with a pious set of conventional platitudes. Good, godly advice:

"I am about to go the way of all the earth," he said. "So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: 'If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.' (1 Kings 2: 2-4)

Then things get interesting. David has three special requests. The first concerns Joab, who was the commander of David's army:
I like to think of Joab as the G. Gordon Liddy of the Davidic court. Whenever there was dirty dealings afoot, Joab was usually involved in it somewhere. Sometimes he was pragmatic voice of reason, as when he questioned the wisdom of David's command for a census or when he reminded David that despite his sorrow over Absalom's death, he also had to consider his army's morale. Sometimes he was acting at David's command, as when he sent Uriah the Hittite on a suicide mission so that David could have Uriah's wife, Bathsheba. Sometimes he went behind David's back, as when he killed the rebellious Absalom, despite David's orders that his son not be harmed. Usually he could claim, with some justification, that he was acting in David's best interest. Then there were the two incidents David mentions here.
Joab ran down and killed Abner, one of King Saul's best generals, when Abner was defecting to David's side during the struggles for the throne of Israel after Saul's death. (2 Samuel 3) On a later occasion, when Joab was supposed to meet up with Amasa, one of David's other generals, Joab pretended to greet him with a friendly embrace but then stabbed him with a concealed dagger. (2 Samuel 20:1-13) David was infuriated by both murders, but at the time could do little about them. Joab was simply too valuable to kill. But by the same token, he was too dangerous to let live; which is why David advises his son:
"Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace." (1 Kings 2:6)

Changing gears, David requests that his son show kindness to the sons of Barzillai, who provided food and shelter for him and his retinue when David was fleeing from Absalom.   David did not forget his friends.

But he didn’t forget his enemies either. He also commands his son to remember Shimei, son of Gera the Benjamite. During the same period when David was fleeing from Absalom, Shimei came out to meet David's retinue and threw stones at him and cursed him:
"Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned... You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!" (2 Samuel 16:7-8).

One of David's men offered to chop off the guy's head, but David told him not to. After all, David says, it's quite possible that God commanded Shimei to give him this message. The guy had a point; David's career had been a bloody one and he was far from blameless. So David swore that he would not put Shimei to death.

But that was then. Reminding his son of this incident, he also tells Solomon that he is not bound by his father's oath.

"You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood." (1 Kings 2:9)

It's a funny thing; Scriptures speaks of the Wisdom of Solomon, but gives us very few concrete examples of his wisdom. We get the dubious attribution of the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but apart from the story of the Two Mothers and the Baby and the story of the Queen of Sheba, we get few solid examples of Solomon doing smart stuff. It occurs to me that how Solomon goes about fulfilling his father's requests in the rest of Chapter 2 shows some remarkable shrewdness.
But what are we to make of these three requests: One a nasty sort of pragmatism, one an act of gratitude and generosity, and one just downright petty? They don't show the Great King David in a terribly flattering light. But perhaps that is the point.
Even David was not a Plaster Saint, a paragon of virtue. He made mistakes like other men; he let his temper and his desires and his power as king get the better of him. Sometimes he even let his own remorse cloud his judgment. He wasn't a superhero.
And that I think gives his life story meaning: both the heroic deeds and the dreadful mistakes, the glorious triumphs and the shameful tragedies. I can relate to that, even when I wail at the stupidity of some of his acts. And if some of his final thoughts were focused on petty vengeance, he was also thinking of what was best for his son; and he had confidence that his son would be able to work things out.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Storybook Wedding: Michal and David

Sometimes people dismiss the Bible as being nothing more than a “collection of fairy-tales,” a judgment which to my mind shows a superficial appreciation of fairy-tales as well as of the Bible. If you define a fairy-tale as a ridiculous fantasy fit only for children and the feeble-minded, Professor Tolkien would like to have a few words with you out behind the Bird and Baby.

I can think of one Bible story, though, that does have certain fairy-tale elements in it. It’s the story of a Princess, and of the Brave Peasant Lad who saves the kingdom and is given her hand in marriage. It’s the kind of story that ought to have a Fairy-Tale Ending, in which the two of them Live Happily Ever After.

Except that in the Bible story, things don’t work out that way.

Most people have probably heard the story of David, the humble shepherd boy, and how, armed only with his faith in the Lord and five smooth stones, he sleweth Goliath who lay down and die-eth. King Saul, the ruler of Israel at that time, was pleased with David's defeat of the giant and the subsequent victory over the Philistine army. He gave David a high rank in the army of Israel. And that's when the trouble began.

David proved himself a capable officer. He was successful in battle and led his men wisely. He was popular with the other officers and with the people as well. He became best buds with Saul's son, Jonathan, which is another story we'll be getting to.

Once, when Saul and David were returning after another successful campaign against the Philistines, they were met by a group of women who had come from “all the towns of Israel” to welcome them home. As they played music of celebration and danced, they sang a little song in honor of the heroes:

Saul has slain his thousands,and David his tens of thousands.(1 Samuel 18:7 NIV)

Now, Hebrew poetry has a literary convention of stating an idea in one line, and then restating it, slightly re-phrased, in the next. It's the reason why the Psalms work so well as responsive readings in worship services. So it's very likely that all the women meant to say was that the armies of Saul and David have killed many thousands of enemies.

But that's not how Saul took it.

Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:8-9)

There's an old saying that you should always keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Saul seems to have had a similar thought, because his first idea was to offer David his eldest daughter, Merab in marriage. Well, to be honest, Saul had previously promised his daughter to anyone who would kill Goliath, so he was making good on his earlier promise; but he made a condition of marriage that David continue his brave service in the army and continuing to “fight the battles of the LORD.” Sooner or later, Saul figures, David will get killed in combat, and then he won't be a problem any more, will he.

Which, come to think of it, is similar to the plan David later used against Uriah the Hittite. I wonder if that's where he got the idea.

A more ambitious man, or perhaps a less prudent one, would have jumped at the offer. David turns Saul down. “Who am I, and what is my family or my father's clan in Israel, that I should become the king's son-in-law?” (v. 18)

The plan wasn't a total wash, though. David is still in the army, and accidents can still happen. Saul marries Merab off to a guy named Adriel and the two of them fall out of the narrative. Much later the Second Book of Samuel makes mention of five sons of Adriel (2 Samuel 21:8). Many of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts refer to them as the sons of Adriel and Michal, Merab's sister; but that doesn't make a lot of sense and many translators and commentators – regard this as a goof and say that Merab was the mother. One explanation, which makes about as much sense as anything, suggests that Merab had died by this time and that Auntie Michal raised the five boys. Maybe.

But what about Auntie Michal? We're getting to her.

Michal is Saul's younger daughter, and she has fallen in love with David. This pleases Saul because it gives him another chance to sucker David into doing something rash. He has some of his flunkies go to David privately and butter him up. “Look, the king is pleased with you, and his attendants all like you; now become his son-in-law.”

Dave still plays it cagey; or perhaps he really is that humble. “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king's son-in-law? I'm only a poor man and little known.” (v.23)

It was customary at the time for a bridegroom to pay a “bride-price” to the father of the bride. To our sensibilities, this sound awfully like the girl is being sold like a prize heifer; and to a certain respect it is. The reasoning behind it was that the bride-price was compensation to the bride's family for the loss of a daughter; and also insurance to support the bride, should she become widowed; which, given David's line of work, was a distinct possibility.

This time, Saul is ready for David's demurral, and passes on the message that the only bride-price he wants from David is one hundred Philistine foreskins. Presumably from dead Philistines, although I suppose they could have been taken from prisoners; but yes, foreskins.

Perhaps you might ask yourselves at this point, “What is it with these ancient Hebrews and their thing about foreskins?” Well, Circumcision, the excision of the male foreskin, was the sign of the covenant God established with Abraham way back in Genesis chapter 17. It became a symbol of Jewish identity; a physical sign that they were a people different from other nations. Not only were the men required to be circumcised, but also their servants and the other male members of their household.

One Bible study program that my Dad used back in the '70s used Circumcision to represent a whole class of Mosaic laws and Scriptural narratives which emphasized the separation of God's People from the Gentiles; but I wonder if the reverse wasn't true as well. By requiring the servants and even the slaves to also be circumcised, the Law was including them in the Covenant community as well.

Looking at it from this point of view, Saul's request becomes rather perverse. Besides the the inherent squickiness of the the body part he requested, I mean. A ritual intended to be a sign of inclusion in a group, is being used as a mark of humiliation inflicted on an enemy.

On a less theological level, Saul is also following the venerable fairy-tale tradition of demanding that a suitor perform an impossible task before granting him the hand of his daughter, in the hopes that the guy will fail or die in the attempt.

In the fairy-tales, this never works. The Poor but Honest Peasant Lad succeeds in his impossible task; and in this story, so does David. He goes off to fight the Philistines and comes back with twice the number of trophies Saul demanded.

This ought to be the point where they all live happily ever after; except that Saul still hates and fears David. He sees David's success as a sign that God favors him, and the jealousy Saul feels is eating him up. Everything David does is a success; he has more victories than any of Saul's other generals. Saul's daughter is in love with David and even his son, Jonathan, who ought to regard David as a rival, speaks up for him.

Saul's jealousy deepens into an obsession and on a few occasions, he impulsively tries to kill David.

On one of these, Saul sends minions to David's house with orders to watch it and to kill David in the morning. Michal becomes aware of this and warns her husband that he needs to flee for his life. She helps him escape through a window, and then hides the escape by sticking a dummy in his bed and covering it up with blankets and a goat-hair pillow at the head to make it look like David is still sleeping. Saul's minions obviously haven't seen enough movies and so they are fooled.

The text doesn't call it a dummy of course; the Hebrew calls it a “terephim”. The word is believed to refer to an idol, and is used in the story from Genesis where Rachel steals her family's household gods and winds up embarrassing her husband. Why would the daughter of the king of Israel have a heathen idol in her house? Well, the obvious answer is that King Saul wasn't all that righteous. Another possibility is that the people of David's time weren't nearly as doctrinally pure as the later priestly writers of Scriptures would like us to think, and that sometimes made graven images. Maybe it was simply an object d'art, or a piece of plunder from a neighboring kingdom.

Whatever it was, when Saul arrives the next day desiring to kill David and finds how his myrmidons were bamboozled, he is furious with his daughter. Michal pleads that she had to help David escape because he threatened to kill her if she didn't. Which was a lie, but one which probably saved her life, considering her father's rage.

David flees Saul's court, and for the next several years sort of knocks about with a small group of loyal followers. Let's not be cute about it; the were essentially mercenaries, like Jephthah's band of “worthless men”. Sometimes they were pursed by Saul and his men, but even when they weren't, David kept his distance. There were times when David even wound up working for the Philistines, although he tried to finesse this conflict of interest by raiding third parties who were enemies of both the Philistines and the Israelites.

And what of Michal? As far as Saul is concerned, David is dead to him; or at least Saul wishes he was dead. He marries Michal off to a guy named Paltiel. I don't imagine he asked Michal's input on the matter; even if such a thing were customary at that time, Saul wasn't that kind of a guy.

The on-again/off-again wars between the Israelites and the Philistines continue. In one climactic battle, most of Saul's sons are killed, and Saul commits suicide on the battlefield rather than be captured by the enemy. His remaining son, Ish-Bosheth, is a weak leader who holds only a tenuous grasp over the tribes of Israel.

David returns to his native Judah, to the city of Hebron; where the tribe of Judah elect him king. There follows a period of tension between David and Ish-Bosheth over which one would rule over the whole of Israel.

David sends messengers to Ish-Bosheth, demanding that he return his sister Michal to David. After all, David did pay for her. Perhaps it was tacky of him to mention the hundred foreskins, but at least he didn't bring up the fact that he had supplied double the price.

Perhaps if Ish-Bosheth had been in a stronger position, or if he regarded his sister better, he would have told David where to stick his hundred foreskins. As it was, he complies, and orders Michal to be taken from Paltiel and delivered to David. Paltiel is heartbroken to be separated from her and follows her weeping, until Abner, the general charged with escorting Michal, tells him to get lost.

It would be nice to think that David demanded Michal's return because he still deeply loved her. Maybe he did. But during the intervening years, he had picked up two other wives, Aninoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal. Some readers have darkly observed that if David really loved Michal that much he could have taken her with him or tried to recover her earlier.

It could be that this was simply a matter of pride: Saul had taken David's wife away from him, and now he wanted her back. Or it could have been a matter of politics: by claiming the Daughter of Saul as his wife, David was trying to bolster his claim as the rightful successor to Saul.

Or it might have been something even more subtle. At this time, Abner, one of Saul's most able generals, is getting pretty fed up with Ish-Bosheth and decides to defect to David's side. His escorting of Michal might have been an excuse for him to go to Hebron where he could negotiate with David.

Or it may have been a combination of any of these factors. We aren't told how Michal felt about being yanked from one husband to another. The narrative simply notes that David regained possession of her and then goes on to other things.

Eventually, David does gain recognition by all the tribes as King of Israel. He conquers the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and makes it his political capitol.

At first he wants to bring the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem too, so that Israel's religious center and its political center will be in the same place. This doesn't work out so well. In his first attempt to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, he fails to follow the SOP, and one of the men transporting it accidentally touches the Ark and gets fried by its Divine Power. (2 Samuel 6:1-7) This frightens David, so he waits a few years before trying it again.

The second time, David was more careful and had his people follow the protocols established in the Law of Moses for transporting the Ark. Everything goes without a hitch, and David led the procession into the city, dancing before the Ark all the way. And why not? It was certainly an occasion for celebration. This moment, for David, is probably the peak of his career; more momentous than slaying Goliath, more important than being crowned king, even more significant than claiming the city of Jerusalem for his own.

Maybe, but Michal doesn't see it that way.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)

After the Ark has been placed in its new home, a special tent erected within the city walls, and offerings have been sacrificed to sanctify the occasion and David had given out bread and dates and raisins to the crowd in celebration, David returns to his palace, where Michal has words for him.

When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (v.20)

He was making a spectacle of himself and cavorting in a manner beneath the dignity of a king. Her phrasing has led many readers to assume that David was dancing naked, or perhaps in his underwear, but I'm not sure if this is necessarily true.

Verse 12 states, “David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might.” The ephod was a sleeveless garment worn by those who served in the holy sanctuary. A special type of ephod was worn by the High Priest and had a special breastplate attached to it, but this was probably the bog-standard work smock worn by the entry-level staff. The text does not give us a detailed description of what the ephod looked like, probably because at the time those passages were written, it was in use and so everybody knew. The Jewish Encyclopedia tells us this:

All that can be gleaned from the text is the following: The ephod was held together by a girdle ... of similar workmanship sewed on to it (Ex. xxviii. 8); it had two shoulder-pieces, which, as the name implies, crossed the shoulders, and were apparently fastened or sewed to the ephod in front (Ex. xxviii. 7, 27). In dressing, the shoulder-pieces were joined in the back to the two ends of the ephod. Nothing is said of the length of the garment. At the point where the shoulder-pieces were joined together in the front "above the girdle," two golden rings were sewed on, to which the breast-plate was attached.

If the ephod was fairly short, coming down, say, to mid-thigh, and if David was wearing nothing underneath it, is is quite possible that in his enthusiastic dancing he gave the crowds on the street some entertaining glimpses of his royal dangly bits.

Or it could be that Michal was peeved that he cast off his kingly robes to prance about in a humble tunic like a peon. It was a rude reminder to the princess that the man she married was at heart still a peasant shepherd.

So was Michal's rebuke prudish, or snobbish, or justified anger? It was certainly a buzzkill, and David replies icily:

David said to Michal, “It was before the LORD, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the LORD's people Israel – I will celebrate before the LORD. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” (v. 21-22)

The chapter ends with a sad commentary:

And Michal daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death. (v. 23)

Many commentators see this as Divine Punishment for her catty remarks about her husband's dance moves. I think it's something deeper and sadder.

At one time, Michal loved David. There aren't a lot of relationships in the Bible where the text says anything about how the woman felt; this might be the only one. Then David was absent for so many years, and Michal married off to some other guy. By they were reunited, they must have become strangers to each other; she was no longer David's first love, but rather an addition to his existing collection of wives.

I think the incident of David's dancing brought home to both of them that their relationship was over. He put her aside, with the other trophies of his old victories, but never again loved her.

A bitter ending to what started out as a storybook romance.