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.
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).
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.
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.