Day 127-133 Editorial

Now the rest of the acts of Ahab and all that he did, ….are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Israel?

So ends the First Book of the Kings. The period covered by First and Second Kings is a period of fragmentation with a series of very unsatisfactory kings sitting on the thrones of the now divided kingdoms of Isreal and Judah. As the state of kingship continues to decline there arises a new breed of prophet in the land. As typified by the great Elijah and his successor Elisha we encounter the rise of the political prophet as the antidote to the corruption of the monarchy. The office of the political prophet is to speak truth to power. The prophets function like the Supreme Court, guardians of the constitution. At the heart of the Hebrew constitution lie two key concepts:

The political prophets function like the Supreme Court, as guardians of the constitution. At the heart of the Hebrew constitution lie two key concepts:

As typified by the great Elijah and his successor Elisha we encounter the rise of the political prophet as the antidote to the corruption of the monarchy. The prophets function like the Supreme Court, guardians of the constitution. At the heart of the Hebrew constitution lie two key concepts:

  1. The definition of Israel as those who God brought out of the land of bondage. The Exodus is the defining moment in the birth of the Israelites as a distinct people, a people born in slavery and liberated by God to be his chosen race.
  2. There is to be no other God but Yahweh who is the only true King in Isreal.

In all ages and in each political system there needs to be a mechanism for judging unconstitutional actions by those in authority, a voice that speaks truth to power. Thus all the kings are assessed by how faithful they are to God.  In Canaan the king was sovereign. He was God’s appointed surrogate. Like God, the king stood above the law. In Israel, the king was not sovereign, he was a servant of God with the responsibility to ensure faithfulness to the laws of God, sitting under God, not above him. This was easy for Isreal’s kings to forget when they become mesmerized by the example of real divine Canaanite models of kingship all around them.

First and Second Kings is a chronicle of the failure of each king to remember and to obey the founding principles of the covenant. So each comes to a sticky end – hastened by the work of the political prophet who declares what is valid and what is not according to the laws God has established in the Covenant with Moses.

First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings comprise that phase of Hebrew history we refer to as the Monarchy. The struggles recorded reveal a universal tendency that without checks and balances power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely. This is a powerful message for us to remember in our own current period. We see the resurgence of the figure of the nationalist dictator aided and abetted by the resurgence of an uncritical and paranoid nationalism. We see how this resurgence has not left America untouched. We witness the tensions when a dictatorial interpretation of presidential leadership, aided and abetted by a resurgent nationalism with all the xenophobic elements of fear of foreigners, those who are not of the tribe, of racism, and sexism expressions of the patriarchal systems of oppression, arises within a system founded on checks and balances designed to place limits on executive power.

To read the Bible is to read and learn that there is nothing new under the sun.Vigilance emerges from a knowledge of history and a long, long memory.

Day 114 Editorial Comment

The story of the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13) is one of the most horrifying episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures, arguably second only to the story of the rape, murder and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. These “texts of terror,” a term coined by theologian Phyllis Trible, leave the reader stunned at the least, and potentially triggered at the worst. How can we possibly read such horrific passages spiritually? How can such despicable behavior be part of our sacred Story?

The first thing to remember is that our sacred Story is a checkered one. It reflects the stark and often cruel reality of the human condition. The key is to read each episode as being in the context of the broad arc of God’s relationship with Creation—a relationship that progresses toward reconciliation in fits and starts from the very beginning; one step forward, sometimes five steps back. And in this passage we are currently in a dizzying backward swing.

So how to read this story? One possible option is to avert our eyes and pretend it isn’t there. That isn’t too difficult to do, since this is not part of the regular lectionary; there is little chance that you will hear it read or preached on in a Sunday service. But averting our eyes doesn’t make it go away any more than closing our eyes to human suffering makes it cease to exist. No; we need to look more closely, not away, and interrogate the text. What is the writer trying to tell us? And where is God in this story?

Up to this point in the account of David’s life and kingship, if we look closely, we can see that David’s biographers aren’t exactly enamored of their subject. David is light and shadow—a lot of shadow. There are times when David shows humility and love for the God who called him to lead God’s people. But by this point in the reading of Samuel you may have also noticed that a lot of people around David have died violently, and somehow David has avoided responsibility almost every time. Nothing sticks. And in the case of his daughter Tamar, the writer makes quite clear that David is indifferent to what is going on, effectively under his nose. This entire episode precipitates a family tragedy of epic scale, ultimately alienating David’s son Absalom from his father and dividing Israel.

Remember how the Deuteronomist writers made clear that God wanted one thing and one thing only of God’s people—to put God first? Remember how Samuel warned the people that if they got a king they would forget God and regret their decision? This rather sideways portrait of King David and his sons invites us to hear the writer say, “I told you so.”

But what of Tamar? She speaks 82 words as she begs her half-brother to see sense and not do this horrible irrevocable thing. And once it is done, and he recoils from her, she begs him again not to cast her out in disgrace. Just 82 words. But it is her actions that are most eloquent. This young woman, whose life has been effectively ruined by the combined actions of Amnon (rapist), Jonadab (conspirator), Absalom (who tells her to remain silent and waits two years for revenge) and David (willfully ignorant) refuses to accept her fate silently. She tears her garments, puts ashes on her head and wails with grief as she makes her way home from Amon’s chamber. In effect, she demands that the entire community witness to what has happened to her.

Where was God? God was in the ashes Tamar put on her head. God was in her tears. God remains in her testimony read through millennia, and in the testimony of abused and abandoned women everywhere and in every time. This text of terror invites us to hear Tamar’s call for justice and comfort for people like her, and to respond on their behalf.

The inspiration of Scripture isn’t just in the writer. It is also in the reader, if we have ears to hear.

 

Day 110 editorial comment

Luke, in Acts chapter 7 reports the death of Stephen. Stephen was one of those who in chapter 6 we learned were entrusted with the social and pastoral support of the members of the community, especially among the poorer Hebrew Christians. These men were called servants or diakonoi and are the first in the ministry of those today we call deacons.

Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council where he retells the history of Israel. Stephen’s speech is reminiscent of the long speeches that occur in Exodus and Judges in which Israelite history is rehearsed for the benefit of the people, lets they forget their origins as those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt.

Every time Hebrew history is rehearsed it’s always to make a particular point. The present always dictates how you think about the past. With Stephen we get a good view of how the first generation of Christians related to the Hebrew Scriptures. They were incredibly inventive. Unlike us to day, they did not feel constrained to paint only within the lines of conventional interpretation.  For the early Christians, Jesus had changed the course of Jewish history and vastly expanded the destiny of Abraham’s children.

Luke employs the literary convention of rehearsing Israel’s history throughout the early chapters of Acts. When Peter addresses the authorities he, like Stephen begins with historical rehearsal as the basis of introducing a new twist to account for the effect of Jesus. It’s this new twist that gets them into trouble. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. So we see Stephen landing on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets, and so their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. Now, stung by his words, his hearers become consumed with murderous intent.

The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of the story all his hearers already knew by heart was to land on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets. This is the point he wants to bring out about Jesus. He is saying you killed him like you killed or rejected all the prophets before him. So their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. This is too much for his religious hearers. Stung by his words, they become consumed with murderous intent.

When we rehearse the history of God’s relationship with Israel, how does our 21st-century twist shape the way we read the Biblical story? What do we hear in the story and what conclusion does it lead us to that informs us of God’s presence among us?

The Bible read as a kind of rule book or owners manual on how to live life in the present is likely to miss the point that Luke, Stephen, and the other early Christian writers show us. The words on the page are not the story. When we lift our eyes from the literal fixation on the words we come to see the words are part of a bigger story shaped by Jesus, who is bigger than the Bible.

Luke concludes chapter 7 with one seemingly insignificant detail. He tells us that the man entrusted with holding the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen is one called Saul. Luke’s introduction of this seemingly insignificant bystander prepares us for a dramatic shift taking his narrative of the early days of the church in a new direction.