"For David hates the lame and the blind?"

This is the fourth in a series of sermons preached by Jamie Howison dealing with the figure of David; with the way in which his life speaks into, and sometimes unsettles, the life of the people of God.

I

n the first three sermons in this series, we encountered a figure who sparks the imagination of the church – the boy marked to be king; the one who trusts God rather than the armor of kings as he dares to contend with Goliath; the musician-poet who dares to sing the blues.

But tonight?  Tonight we hit a piece of the narrative that probably caused you to choke a bit.  Did you hear it as we read the passage from 2 Samuel 5?  ‘Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.’  Really?  This is the David said to be a man after God’s own heart, yet he hates the lame and the blind?

Sensible people in our age, who have been attuned to a politics of inclusiveness and who have been challenged to completely reframe our notions of ability and dis-ability, are right to shudder a bit at that line.

The temptation, then, is to do one of two things with this material.  You might choose to write off David as barbaric, and therefore as having nothing to offer to us.  Alternately, you might decide to skip over these verses, and just pretend that they aren’t there at all.  Which is actually the thing that the lectionary advises for this week’s reading; just read 2 Samuel 5:1-5 and 9-10, passing right by the nasty bits voiced in verses 6-8.  But that too is a problem.

No, we must retell the episode in its entirety, and grapple with the man David as he is in fact presented in the narrative.  This is part of what makes the Hebrew scriptures both compelling and difficult, this insistence on not sugar-coating its heroes and protagonists.

So, let me recap what has taken place to this point.  Following the death of King Saul, David has managed to pull together a shattered nation, and against any reasonable expectation to unite the tribes of the north and south.  Poised between the north and the south is the city of Jerusalem, a Jebusite stronghold.  Tactically it is important for David to take this city, and symbolically it is significant as a place that will link the two parts of his kingdom.

Jerusalem is a stronghold; so much so, that the Jebusites mock David by placing their blind and their lame as the city’s only guards.  Have you ever seen the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail?  Do you know the scene where King Arthur comes upon a castle held by the French, whose soldiers stand on its towers and taunt him with the most outrageous of insults?  That’s not unlike what is going on here!

But David rises to that mocking – which is where the troubling line about his hatred for the blind and the lame comes in – and in a piece of military brilliance sends his soldiers up the water conduit, which is the one point of vulnerability in the city’s defenses.  The city is taken and established as “The City of David,” the centre of the newly reunited nation.  Prejudice and ruthless genocide apparently work quite nicely.  David hates the blind and the lame.  The word of the Lord…

Yet this episode must be read in a much larger context; it is but one chapter in the much longer and deeper biblical narrative.  And that deeper narrative actually comes back in a powerful and poignant critique of David on this point.  Watch.

First off, move ahead two chapters, where we are told that it is David’s dream to build a temple in his royal city.  After all, he himself has a royal home, yet the Ark of the Covenant is housed only in a tent.  The planning begins, yet before it can get very far David is stopped.  It is not his to build, but rather will be left to his son Solomon to carry out.  And part of what is implied in the longer narrative is that David is limited in what he can do and achieve because he has blood on his hands (2 Samuel 16:3-13).

Then  move ahead just two more chapters, and find that David has taken into his household the son of Jonathan; a young man named Mephibosheth, the royal  grandson of the deceased, even disgraced, King Saul.  And while Mesphibosheth is himself lame, we are told that “He ate at the David’s table, like one of the king’s sons.”  And so who does David hate?

And then move ahead further – much further – in Israel’s story, to a time five hundred years later when David’s city and Solomon’s temple have been laid waste by the Babylonian army.  The prophet – the singer – Isaiah offers his great songs of new possibility for the city in ruins, and at the heart of those songs is this conviction that “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7b).  All peoples.

Now move ahead again yet another 500 years, to Jesus of Nazareth; to one who is known as “Son of David.”  Do you know who calls him by that title?  A blind man.  Calling out from the side of the road, the blind man says “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47).  And Jesus does.

When this Son of David enters Jerusalem, he is not fueled by hatred for the blind and the lame, but rather by deep compassion for those who are typically despised.  In the words of Walter Brueggemann, “In the old Jerusalem… the blind and lame are excluded and despised.  In the new Jerusalem envisioned by the gospel, all are welcomed, and the blind and lame are transformed into full, welcome participants.”

Well, that new Jerusalem is still but a promise and a hope.  Jesus enters an old Jerusalem, but he does it as a man already living out the new.  As he moves in that city, he visits the temple – the thing that David could not build – and he pauses at the Pool of Bethzatha, which sits in the shadow of that temple.  Do you know what that pool has become?  A refuge for the lame and the blind.  And there at that pool, he meets a lame man and he makes him whole (John 4).

pool-of-bethesda

And then at the Pool of Siloam – also in the shadow of the great temple – Jesus encounters a blind man whose sight he restores.  And as John tells the story, at the heart of this healing is a vivid teaching as to how such physical afflictions have nothing to do with sin, transgression or morality (John 9).

Yes, David did establish Jerusalem as a great royal city, and he did it in part through his ruthlessness toward the disabled.  But the longer, deeper, greater tradition stands in critique of him, by insisting on singing the songs of Isaiah and telling the story of Jesus – Son of David – who will bring wholeness to a lame man lying by a pool set beside the temple that David himself could never build… could really never even imagine.

“For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcast of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:7b-8).  The blind and the lame, the disfigured and the nobodies – those for whom David could never himself make room once he had begun to think and act like an ancient near-eastern  king.  Because of the Son of David – one who exercised a very different sort of kingship – there is now and ever room in the promised city.

Amen.

I am grateful to my friend, Dr Walter Deller, a scholar of the Hebrew scriptures and a great lover of the bible, for helping me to appreciate the way in which the scriptural voices so very often engage in this sort of ongoing dialogue and internal critique.

7 Responses to "For David hates the lame and the blind?"

  1. Dan DiFabio says:

    The Geneva’s Bible’s notes give a logical interpretation of the 2 Samuel 5:8.
    The following text(verses 6 through 8 of 2 Samuel chapter 5)is from the 1587 Geneva Bible:
    6 And the king and his men went to Jerusalem unto the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land: which spake unto David, saying, Except though take away the(The children of God called idols blind and lame guides: therefore the Jebusites meant that they should prove that their gods were neither blind nor lame.)blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither: thinking, David cannot come in hither.
    7 But David took the fort of Zion: this is the city of David.
    8 And David said on that day, Whosoever getteth up to the gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind, [that are] hated of David’s soul, [he shall be chief and captain]. Wherefore they said, The blind and the lame shall not(The idols should no longer enter into that place.)come into the house.

    The notes from the Geneva Bible are in parentheses. I modernized some of the spelling for greater clarity.
    Here is Habakkuk 2:18 from the KJV:
    18 What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?

    I quoted that last verse from Habakkuk to illustrate what the ancient Hebrews thought about idols.

  2. Son Speaker says:

    The saying of David, how he hated the lame and the blind, is what he meant by their spiritual state. The Jebusites were blind and lame as it regarded God. They had no comprehension of His Spirit, or His mercy, therefore, David “hated” them, as should anyone who has the Spirit of God. They are the enemies of God. They were then, and they are now. Even thought they were aware of God’s holiness and greatness, they despised and hated Him. That is why David hated those “blind and lame Jebusites”.

  3. Rico says:

    The practicality of living the Christian faith in the face of abject moral, ethical, and societal chaos is a challenge yet one that is necessary and indispensable in terms of making the Gospel relevant to its hearers.
    I minister in the inner city of Kingston, Jamaica where if you are attacked and don’t defend yourself physically, you will forever be labeled as weak and not worthy of respect. Sometimes you have to resort to violence in order to defend yourself. There is nothing blissful or peaceful about hitting somebody up side the head. Believe me, however, if you try to hurt my family, my wife, my children, I will stop you in Jesus’ name. Let’s be real, let’s use the Scriptures as they were intended, and let’s stop hiding behind religious platitudinous ideologies that only work on paper. Jesus Himself made a whip and kicked people out of the temple.

    Bless up,
    Rev. Rico

    • Jamie says:

      Hello Rico,
      While I will quite readily admit that your situation in Kingston is far more challenging (and violent…) than is mine in Winnipeg, I do wonder if the setting in which Jesus lived wasn’t as challenging as yours? In his case, it was the state-sponsored violence of the Roman Empire; a kind of rule-by-terrorism, which used such tools as crucifixion to break the hearts and souls of the people that it ruled. And yes, he did drive the money-changers from the temple, but if you look at the text it says that he used the whip to drive the animals out (“Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.” John 2:15) It was a symbolic and prophet act of cleansing the temple or an enacted parable, and not a justification for violence. This is particularly clear in light of all that he says in the Sermon on the Mount, and even more so in light of what he does as his great and culminating act, which was to go to his cross. It was this refusal to return violence for violence that inspired the early church, producing figures like Polycarp, whose extension of table hospitality to the soldiers who had come to arrest him was for them challenging and transforming. They still arrested him, and he was ultimately executed, but remember; the meaning of the word “martyr” is witness, and what he did was a more powerful act of witness than any act of violence.

      Having said all that, I realize that for me martyrdom is pretty much a theoretical thing, while in your context it could well be today’s reality.

      Blessings,
      Jamie

  4. Katharine says:

    Thanks for this. I came across this passage again for the first time in a while in my Bible reading. Before, I assumed there was some cultural thing going on with David that I didn’t understand; this time, I wanted to find out. I appreciate the insights offered here. I’m wondering, though, (in light of the fact that David willingly made a place for Mephibosheth not only in the kingdom, but in the palace) if David simply meant that he hated those particular blind and lame who were acting as guards and taunting his armies, not all blind and lame individuals. I’m also at a loss to understand how he could have handled the situation differently. I can’t imagine him sending soldiers up there to somehow safely remove the blind and lame soldiers– surely the whole Jebusite soldiers would have immediately attacked them and defeated them. I don’t know.
    Speaking to Matthew, I have heard that Deitreich Bonhoeffer (sp?) wrote some interesting insights re: Christian activity in wartime. He himself was a pacifist until the situation in Germany became untenable. It was then that he, with great difficulty, made up his mind to do what he could for the Jews, and became party to several assassination plots against Hitler, working as a double agent in the Third Reich.

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  6. Matthew Oliver says:

    Thanks for a sensitive treatment of that text (and your thanks to Walter, who has had a similar impact on me).

    Six years after my retirement from the military life, I’m still struggling with the Christian tradition around ‘just’ war theory, and particularly after a month that included the deaths of three more Canadian soldiers overseas.

    Does God’s prohibition on David building the temple, linked to the blood on David’s hands, inform us at all on the question of violence and our response to that violence in our world?

    It almost seems there is a certain pragmatic element to God’s approach to David. There were things that needed to be done, things of blood and violence, before the kingdom could be one. After those deeds had been done, the rebuilding of the temple had to be left to the next generation, the ones who had not done the deeds of violence (acknowledging that Solomon was not pure white himself). There’s almost a divine acknowledgement that sometimes God’s people need to get their hands bloody.

    In practical terms it brings to mind Rwanda in the early 1990’s. In hindsight, sending in a UN armed force to stop the genocide by force of arms would have been easily sanctioned under our ‘just’ war theory. Would that act of violence, even to save many lives, not leave some Christians with the same sort of blood on their hands as David?

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