Written by the victors?

Written by the victors?

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

“History is written by the victors,” the German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously wrote, by which he meant that the way that events, victories, and conquests are recorded are very much coloured by the teller of the story. If you win, your great leader is a hero. But if you are on the losing side? That same leader is a villain, a rebel, perhaps even a war criminal. Official court historians are fond of glossing over the foibles of their king, and of enhancing—even mythologizing—their character and achievements. Yet the writer of the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings can’t be accused of that sort of royal glossing. Yes, this writer does have a serious soft spot for David, but from the beginning of 1st Samuel right through to the conclusion of 2nd Kings, this historian unflinchingly tells a plain, raw truth.

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Tonight’s reading from 1st Kings is not one included in the lectionary cycle of appointed readings, but I opted to add it because it shows the unflinching biblical historian at work. The first book of Kings begins with statement that “King David was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.” David’s first appearance in the narratives was way back in 1 Samuel 16.12, when as a boy he had been described as being ruddy and handsome, with beautiful eyes. Along the way he’d been noted for his virility, fathering nineteen sons and one daughter by his eight wives. And now here he is, aged and frail, unable even to get warm. His attendants decide they’ve got a solution to this problem, and you can almost imagine the winks and knowing glances darting amongst them as they put their plan into action. “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the king may be warm. So they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king.” She’ll warm up the old man’s bones… nudge, nudge.

Yet though Abishag does become David’s attendant, and quite probably does lie with him in his bed to try to warm his aged body, the text is explicit: “David did not know her sexually.” There’s a kind of poignancy to this picture, as we catch a glimpse of the strong, handsome, striking figure of King David now grown so frail that what he most needs is someone to care for him.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of David’s death, there is some serious politicking and maneuvering going on in the royal household. All of the senate scandals, electioneering, back-room deals, and posturing that can make many of us a bit cynical about the impending federal election have nothing on this stuff. “Now Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king,’” His father frail but still very much alive, and here is David’s fourth eldest son actively positioning himself to inherit the throne. “He prepared for himself chariots and horsemen,” the text continues, “and fifty men to run before him.” This is a warning sign if ever there was one, for this is pretty much exactly what Absalom had done when he was preparing to mount his rebellion against David (2 Samuel 15.1); chariots and horses and fifty men running ahead as a military escort. Adonijah not only wants the throne, he’s turned a kind of corner and is already actively claiming it. He’d done some politicking and secured the support of the military officer Joab, as well as the priest Abiathar; two very important allies. Yet others, including the priest Zadok, the prophet Nathan, and David’s own loyal soldiers, were very clearly not prepared to throw their support behind Adonijah.

This opens the way for one of the most fascinating little bits of intrigue in the whole of the biblical narrative. The prophet Nathan—the one who had exposed David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his arranged murder of Uriah—comes to Bathsheba to hatch a plot. “Go in at once to King David,” he tells her “and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne? Why then is Adonijah king?’” Here’s the thing; while 1st Chronicles does make some reference to Solomon’s claim to the throne, in the version told in the books of Samuel and Kings there is no sign at all that David ever made such a promise. In this telling, it is all a piece of subterfuge, playing on the king’s failing memory. “Then while you are still there speaking with the king,” Nathan adds, “I will come in after you and confirm your words.” I’ll support your lie.

And David believes it. “The king swore, saying, ‘As I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, “Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne in my place”, so will I do this day.’” David has completely bought the con cooked up by Bathsheba and Nathan; which, when you think about it is a rather unexpected alliance, isn’t it? “Then Bathsheba bowed with her face to the ground, and did obeisance to the king.” And what do you suppose was the look on her face as she bowed her head? Satisfaction? Relief? Shame? “May my lord King David live for ever!” she adds, all the while knowing that death was not far off, and that it would be her son Solomon who would succeed him to the throne.

The transparency with which this biblical historian insists on telling these stories is striking. No one, not even the greatest king of Israel, is prettied up or glossed over. If Walter Benjamin is right in saying that “history is written by the victors,” then who is the victor here? In a figurative way, perhaps it is the long-dead prophet Samuel, who early on had warned Israel against its desire for a king to make them “like other nations.” It was back in early June that we had the text before us, in which Samuel had cautioned that kings are not all they are cracked up to be. Kings conscript your sons into their army, tax your fields and herds, use your daughters for the most menial of tasks—something that Abishag would surely confirm—and essentially reduce your lives to something close to slavery (1 Samuel 8:4-22). Careful when you ask for a king, because you’re likely to get what you ask for…  And you know, for all that David is a kind of crowning figure in the biblical story, so often Samuel’s words of caution indict him as well.

Ultimately, though, I believe that “the victor” who informs the telling of these stories is God. As the theologian Peter Leithart puts it, “The narrative is utterly realist in its unblinking depiction of conflict, interest, manipulation, and sexuality in political life, yet at the same time the author insists that Yahweh fulfills his purposes for Israel and the nations through these very strategies of realpolitick.” God is not thwarted by the intrigue, the backroom deals, and the oftentimes profound failings of these kings. No, strangely, salvation history is moved forward, not in spite of all of this messiness, but actually right through it all. Such is the way that God works, both then and now. Good news for anyone who is honest about his or her own messiness and failings.

Again from Peter Leithart: “Ultimately, this political narrative of crisis transition from one regime to another foreshadows a greater transition from an old to a new regime. It foreshadows the coronation of David’s still greater Son, a king sent to fulfill the Lord’s oath to Israel, a king anointed not with oil but with the abundance of the Spirit, a king who rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to take his cruciform throne. Jesus’s kingdom emerges, like Solomon’s, from the midst of a political conflict and self-interest in a world of sin…” And in the end, his is the only kingship that truly matters. And oddly enough, all of these stories of David and of those around him are part of the story of the Son of David too.

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