“Jewish and Christian Guidance for Democracy” by Pat Conover

August 8, 2021

Dave Lloyd made several important points about the limitations of the lectionary as a way of learning the Bible. The well intentioned lectionary authors give us the passages that they think are good sources for preaching and skip over a lot of stuff that seems to them to be distracting or negative, just the sort of entries that prompt questions, curiosity, and productive arguing with the texts.

I’m going to unpack the story of David’s ascension to become king of a combined twelve tribe coalition of Judah and Israel, plus territory of non-Jewish tribes. The three great kings of somewhat united Judah in the South and Israel in the North, Saul, David, and Solomon, ruled for less than one hundred years about a thousand years before the time of Jesus.

Saul was chosen to be king by Samuel the king-maker priest. Saul was portrayed as initially having the approval of God. Samuel, and Samuel’s imagination of God, turned against Saul because Saul did not follow the directions of Samuel. Without God’s imagined approval, Saul dies in battle against the Philistines.

As Dave Lloyd has pointed out, to understand a story it is important to understand who is telling the story. Today’s lectionary story is being told by Deuteronomic priests about 400 years after the death of David. They were writing during the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Judah after the return from captivity in Babylon. Samuel the priest is the hero of this priestly told story and is presented as warning the people against having a king, but then giving into the will of the people and selecting Saul as king, mentally unstable Saul from the small tribe of Benjamin.

Priestly story David is initially a weak figure, a young herdsman, not a mighty warrior, deserving of power because Samuel the priest, presumably speaking for God, says so.

Historical David is a mighty warrior who became Saul’s shield bearer. David flees from Saul’s wrath when he becomes popular as a hero. David then cuts a deal with the Philistines. Some Philistine leaders don’t trust David and sideline him when Saul goes to war against the Philistines. Saul loses and dies in battle along with three of his four sons. David picks up the pieces and rises to power in Judah with his rag tag professional army of outlaws and adventurers. David, along with killing off others of Saul’s descendants, attacks and kills Ishbosheth, Saul’s fourth son, who had gathered a large, but untrained volunteer army from the ten tribes of Israel. 

Priestly story David rises to power because Samuel chose him. Priestly story David shows he has God’s approval by slaying Goliath. Chapter 18 tells the story of David’s army killing his son Absalom who had rebelled against David. Absalom had regathered an army from Israel, the ten Northern Jewish tribes. David defeats Absalom as he had previously defeated  Ishbosheth.

Instead of thinking of David as defeating a big foreign army, think of David as capturing weak Judah with his rag tag professional army and then twice winning civil wars against Israel. In the process David also conquers several neighboring small independent non-Jewish tribes. Reading the history of Saul, David, and Solomon in lectionary bits and pieces makes it almost impossible to clarify the larger story and its implications.

The historical story is that David has risen to power as a warrior king who gathered an independent army and owes little or nothing to the tribes of either Judah or Israel. Apart from telling the stories of David’s rise to power, the priests tell several stories of David as a bad king, such as the story of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.

Samuel is long dead by this time and Nathan, a prophet, picks up Samuel’s role. He convicts David of his sins in the lectionary story told last week. Nathan reappears in Samuel’s king maker role and chooses Solomon as David’s successor. Historical Solomon rises to power through a lot of palace intrigue featuring David’s wives and concubines. There is enough conniving going on to provide material for a Netflix mini-series.

The Deuteronomic priests are making the point that justice, and the judicial authority of the priests who knew and justly interpreted the laws, is more important than military power for guiding a nation with the approval of God.

They often told the stories of military victory as God winning the battles. They told this story in a time of military weakness as remnants of the Jewish tribes straggle back from captivity in Babylon.

Cyrus of Persia, not a Jewish king, is praised as benevolent. King Josiah, subordinate to Cyrus, has local authority, sort of like the governor of West Virginia. The Deuteronomic priests praise Josiah as king of the Jews in contrast to their critiques of Saul and David. This is hardly surprising since Josiah was raised as a child by a priestly family. During Josiah’s childhood, a priest ruled Jerusalem as Regent. The priests “find” the book of Deuteronomy in the rubble of the First Temple and use it as their Constitution to guide the rebuilding of Jerusalem and Judah.

In addition to restoring the Temple, Josiah supported the primacy of Jewish animal  sacrifices conducted in the Jerusalem temple, rather than the several altars in Israel, such as the long established altar and center of religious practices in Bethel.

I suggest to you that the larger story of Deuteronomy, plus First and Second Samuel, is that justice is the proper basis for laws and should constrain the arbitrary rule of kings. Consider how similar this larger story is to the story of defeating Trump in 2020 and as inspiration for doing our parts in the elections in 2022 and 2024. 

A July 7th story in the Washington Post describes a techie version of Christian Pentecostalism using ear splitting music and charismatic harangue to encourage the establishment of a Christian American Kingdom with Trump as literal King, doing away with the Constitution, and substituting the guidance of the Bible according to their preacher’s interpretation. They support kingly dominion over family, religion, education, economy, arts, media, and government, guided by their minister. They have a big plan, thousands of followers, and lots of money. It is no joke.

The story of democracy as the people crying out for a king is a good story until the people accept Saul, thinking that they have the approval and leadership of their priests. Then the question becomes whether Saul or David can break through the constraints of their equivalent of the Constitution. The guidance I take away is that we need the Republican Party, or its successor, to help us defend the Constitution from attacks by the Trump Party and their compliant priests.

There are multiple stories, multiple guidance provisions, in Hebrew Scripture that are examples of the kind of things we have established in U.S. laws at the federal, state, and local levels. Consider the following.

Deuteronomy 5:1     Moses summoned all the Israelites and said to them, Hear O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully.

Notice that compliance is up to the people, not out of fear of human authority, but rather out of recognizing what is the right thing to do and doing it. One of the Ten Commandments is that you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. This is a commandment that makes sense in the context of trial law – pointing to the role of priests and judges being called on to deal with disputes between neighbors. When I built the deer fence to finish enclosing our back yard I did my very best to make the fence just inside our property line as I had marked it when it was last surveyed. The markers would not necessarily be obvious to anyone else’s eye.

Many of the 613 Miztvot (commandments) found in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, deal with food, clothing, and appearance. There are public health Mitzvot such as segregating lepers when leprosy was thought to be contagious. There are public safety measures such as building parapets to protect against falling off flat roofed houses. And there are a lot of Mitzvot regarding ritual practices. The Hebrew priests really needed help from our Celebration Circle.

Levites functioned like priests but were embedded with tribes rather than being attached to temples or altars. They were more important when the Jewish tribes were herders who had to keep moving their herds. Levites were interpreters of laws and justice as advisors to the patriarchs of tribes. The Ark of the Covenant, understood as containing the Ten Commandments, traveled with a tribe as their religion based covenant or constitution. Levites in tribes were a smaller scale version of priests serving kings in the emerging concept of nations, marked in Second Samuel as David brings the Ark to Jerusalem.

As wandering tribes dependent on their herds, patriarchy and tribal alliances were crucial. As agricultural tribes, dependent on farmers who need to eat and sell their crops, the issues of land ownership, boundaries, and inheritance became crucial. By the time of established priests in the Jerusalem temple, written records of land transfers were usual. Inheritance, when men could have several wives and concubines, led to the intrigues and murders that are the story of Solomon becoming the successor to David. 

The standards of justice and fairness, supported by the will of the people looking to priests and judges for fair treatment, is the bedrock challenge to the arbitrary rule of kings. Hebrew Scripture abounds with messy stories of injustice and corruption by kings, such as David’s murder of Uriah to gain Bathsheba as a concubine. In today’s lectionary story, Absalom is David’s last son. David’s defeat of Absalom, who had rebelled against David as king, illustrate the priests perspective that murder and concubines are not the right way to run a Kingdom, that such sins have consequences.

The prophets and priests in Hebrew Scripture cry out for the rule of justice established in law. Jesus went to the cross to challenge the compliant priests controlled by Rome, wealthy corrupt priests allied with upper class families in Jerusalem who helped manage the extraction of wealth from Israel for the benefit of Rome. With this in mind please listen with fresh ears to the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice that there is no language about the separation of church and state in the first clause of the First Amendment as commonly summarized. The language “no government establishment of religion” constrains government from using the public purse, gathered from citizens, to build church institutions. The “free exercise” language constrains the state from controlling or influencing how people practice their religions. There is no prohibition of people following the guidance of their religion in choosing their political leaders or advocating for justice as they understand it.

Some Christians and Jews oppose abortions and support taxes on the wealthy. Some Christians and Jews support rights to abortions and oppose increased taxes on the wealthy. What we believe, and the justifications for what we believe, have important political implications whether we want to think about politics or not. Seekers is going through a third or fourth round of considering and reconsidering racial justice which has many implications for how we behave and make choices, including our political choices.

I have reread sermons touching on politics that I preached for Seekers in 2003, 2006, and 2009. For those of you who can’t recite them by heart, I repeat the following summary from my 2003 sermon.

“Politics is about working within the imperfections of mixed choices to direct our nation more surely towards ongoing transformation. Politics is a place to witness to our faith. Politics is a place to give life to the principles we stand for. Politics is a good place to look for God’s presence in judgment and in grace.”

Seekers continues to probe a lot of political issues including at least the following: fighting poverty, the challenges of immigration, racial justice and the challenges of policing community behavior, defending voting rights, and the importance of improving the health and education of our population. Seekers has majority and  minority opinions on these and other subjects. Building Christian community does not equal political conformity and we will be much the worse as a community if we fail to respect alternative points of view. I hope that calling attention to the relevance of  Hebrew Scripture and the inspiration of Jesus for here and now political guidance, will continue to be important references for political aspects of our Seekers conversations.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"Expanding on Love: The Practice of Giving and Receiving" by Rebecca Wheaton
"Separation Weekend" by Larry Rawlings