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.