II Samuel 13-15, Psalm 94, Acts 9
Like a major Washington scandal!
II Samuel 13-15
The popular TV show Scandal can barely match chapters 13-15 of 2 Samuel for drama and intrigue. Think of this as great literature or a gripping novel. We simply do not know much of this is accurate, but it makes for great reading and incredible reflection on human behavior.
In his book The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: Where Archeology and the Bible Intersect William G. Dever makes a compelling case that if we want to know more about the lives of ordinary people living in biblical times that we can learn more from archeology than from the Bible itself. He notes that Old Testament often focuses on kings and those in high offices. It is full of intrigue, battles and plots, but much of the Old Testament does not focus on ordinary people living ordinary lives.
Furthermore, he notes that archeological evidence can accurately date an object within 50 years of its creation and more often closer to 15 years, whereas most of the Deuteronomic historical writings of the Bible such as 2 Samuel are said to have been written about 300 years after the events occurred. Some speculate much later than this.
What is clear, however, is that 2 Samuel is an incredibly engaging tale and sheds light on the human character, motivations, flaws, depravity and resiliency. Chapter 13 tells the painfully gripping story of the rape of Tamar, one of David’s daughter, who is raped by Amnon, her half-brother. This is the kind of story that demonstrates why it is not good to read the entire Bible with young children, but better to read age appropriate Bibles with children.
The reality of this situation is too evident in the world today. The newly elected president of Egypt has issued a statute increasing the punishment for men who harass or rape women. This came in reaction to a widely growing number of men abusing women in the country. Brutal gang rapes in India have been widely publicized. The government is only now beginning to address this blight on the nation.
In Rwanda, Bosnia, the Sudan and other countries, rape has become a weapon of war. The Obama administration is now wisely demanding that American universities address the rampant problem of rape on university campuses. Statistics report that one in four women in America will be sexually assaulted or abused in her lifetime. Rape is a global problem that must be seriously addressed.
In chapter 13 Jonadab, the son of David’s brother Shimeah, is the instigator of a plot to encourage his friend Amnon to rape his half-sister. Some men have no moral compass whatsoever. Jonadab is one such despicable figure. His plan calls for involving King David in sending his daughter Tamar to serve her half-brother in order that he may rape her. One can only wonder how David felt after learning of his daughter’s rape and knowing that he had ordered her to serve food to his son Amnon, the rapist.
As repugnant as rape is anywhere in the world, it is perhaps even worse in the Middle East where from the Ancient Near East until today rape victims have been viewed with enormous shame, as though they were worthless, damaged goods, who were responsible for their own assault. “As for me, where could I carry my shame?” asks Tamar. (2 Sam. 13:13) The Bible makes it very clear that Amnon used force on her when it notes, “…and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.” (2 Sam. 13:14)
No sooner has Amnon succumbed to his ferocious lust and raped his half-sister, than his lust turns into loathing. He despises himself and projects his self-loathing onto his victim. The sight of her now repels him and only serves to remind him of his own utter depravity. Tamar then acts courageously. Instead of being a silent, invisible victim, she tears the robe worn by virgins and covers her head with ashes, making it clear for all to see that she is no longer a virgin. She will not be a silent victim.
Perhaps there is no more evident sign of the deeply flawed nature of David than when he learns that his daughter has been raped by his son and does nothing. David is a man of many qualities, but he is also a despicably weak figure as well. “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his first-born.” (2 Sam. 13:21)
While Dever is correct that the Old Testament often focuses on famous leaders rather than ordinary people, stories like the rape of Tamar, which are never read in church and rarely in Bible studies and do not get addressed by the Church, speak powerfully to our world today. These are must-read stories for adults who seek to create a world of greater justice, peace and harmony. Painful biblical stories like this force us to wrestle with issues of theodicy – why does God permit evil to occur. Unfortunately, they are expunged from the Sunday lectionary and are often neglected or completely forgotten by the Church.
When Absalom arranges to avenge his sister’s rape two years later during a feast, we almost want to cheer as Amnon receives retribution for his despicable act. But just as Nathan predicted after he confronted King David for committing adultery, “Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house…” (2 Sam. 12:11) One wonders what would have occurred had David had the courage to confront Amnon and severely punish him for raping his half-sister. Would Absalom have respected his father and rebelled against him and divided the kingdom. Weakness, whether demonstrated by a president, a king or a parent, can open the door for evil to enter and manifest itself.
After fleeing temporarily from his father for his revenge killing of his half-brother, Absalom is allowed to return to Jerusalem. A breach, however, has erupted between Absalom. The son, who is bound to fairness, and David, whose love for his firstborn has blinded him to justice, will never reconcile.
Absalom now takes a page from his father’s playbook. Just as David collected malcontents while being chased and hounded by King Saul, Absalom now stations himself on the road leading to Jerusalem and greets and gives an earful of his thoughts to those who come to meet with the king seeking justice. It appears that David is not operating the levers of justice fairly; otherwise Absalom’s harsh criticism of his father would fall on deaf ears as he spoke to the foreign inhabitants of Israel.
We read that “…Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel.” (2 Sam. 15:6) David’s discontented son soon proclaims himself king of Hebron, a title which his father once bore. The once-trusted and intimate advisor to David, Ahithophel, now defects from the king’s staff and joins Absalom’s breakaway government, giving instant credibility to the defectors. One must wonder whether David had so erred in his leadership that even his closest advisors felt that they could no longer support him.
With almost lightning speed, David, who once waged war with over a hundred thousand soldiers and cavalrymen, is forced to flee Jerusalem, leaving behind only ten of his concubines and a few of his palace staff. “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom.” (2 Sam. 15:14) This is an astonishing change of fortune for the once all-powerful king who threatened his most fervent enemies.
In one easy to read over and neglect passage, Ittai the Gittite, a foreigner who along with his entourage has just come to visit the king. He now flees with the king and palace staff, wives and supporters. David orders him to return home where he will be safe, but in words very reminiscent of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, Ittai says, “As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.” (2 Sam. 15:21) The great irony is that a stranger who has only recently come to visit the king offers words that one might expect the king’s own son to utter, while Absalom now seeks the downfall of his father and his father’s kingdom.
As another sign of David’s complete transformation from a man of strength with a strong moral compass, David orders the Ark of the Covenant to be brought back to the city of Jerusalem, which will soon be sacked. The man, who once saw his role as the protectorate of the Ten Commandments housed in the Ark, has now broken them and is no longer bound to follow or promote them for others.
Ever the insightful politician and plotter, David is not without resources, supporters and options. When Hushai the Archite offers his support, David urges him to go to Jerusalem and pretend to join the defectors who support Absalom. Worried that his trusted advisor Ahithophel will give Absalom insights into how to destroy his kingdom, David believes that Hushai can neutralize Ahithopel’s advice. David thus plants a mole at the highest level of Absalom’s rebellious new government.
There is only one question remaining. Where is Scandal’s Olivia Pope when you need her? King David has a royal mess on his hands. He needs a spin-master and trouble-shooter to put the kingdom back in order. Perhaps 2 Samuel is closer to reality than Dever and others might imagine.
This psalm is refreshing. First, we read a poetic line that may cause us to reflect deeply upon our own lives as we read, “The Lord knows our thoughts, that they are but an empty breath.” (Ps. 94:11) We often get worked up over the smallest of things. In looking back over what so angered or troubled us, we are apt to realize that we could have handled the situation much better. Much of the things that we worry about today will be seen in time to have been very manageable and not worth the anger, worry or fear that we have allowed to be stirred up within us.
Perhaps the best carry away line from today’s readings is found in verse 19, where we read, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Ps. 94:19) This is a verse well-worth inscribing in the front of our Bible so that we may return to it over and over again or to write it on an index card and tape it to our bathroom mirror, so that each night and day we may read it and reap its benefits. Our hearts will always be full of cares, but if we count our blessings each day, our consolations will almost always far outweigh our concerns and worries.
When we do this, we can join the psalmist in saying, “But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.” (Ps. 94:22) These are words of mature faith, the faith of one who has been tried and tested, where the good seed fell on fertile ground and sprung up and thrived, because it had deep roots. These are the words of faith of someone who has accepted and trusted God and come to surrender his or her will to the Lord, who did not obtain this strong faith overnight but who made intentional steps and decisions to receive God into his or her life and commit to following the Lord.
No conversion in history has had such a dramatic impact upon Christianity as the conversion of St. Paul, who was once a dreaded bounty-hunter tracking down “people of the Way” as the early Christians were called and transformed him into the Church’s greatest apologist. Paul became the supreme defender of the Christian faith. Yet, he was everything that most Episcopalians are not. He was neither tepid about his faith nor did he see shades of gray in life. Paul was passionate, fervent and saw reality as black and white.
Fortunately, the Lord intervened and transformed this little tyrant into one of the great giants of Christianity. If God could do that with Paul, the Lord can clearly transform each of us who has inflicted far less damage upon the Church and use us to build God’s kingdom in significant ways.
When Acts 9 opens we find Saul on the prowl, seeking letters from the synagogues granting him permission to gather up any who profess Jesus to be the Messiah and allowing him to haul them off to prison. Saul is earning himself a reputation as a one-ma n Gestapo force that the Christians dread. His notoriety precedes him as he now attempts to round up followers of the Way in Syria, where in the city of Antioch Jesus’ followers were first given the name “Christian.”
Paul was raised in a strict Jewish home and educated at an early age in Jerusalem, studying with some of the finest Jewish teachers, including Rabbi Gamaliel, who was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel, the leading Jewish teacher of the first century B.C. As he noted in his letter to the Galatians, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” (Gal. 1:14) Zealous is a great word to describe Saul and later Paul. His zeal for God never flagged.
Paul grew up in the two worlds of the Greek and Jewish cultures. Like his parents, he was an adamant Pharisee, striving to find ways to encourage and demand that the entire 611 Jewish laws could be practiced on a daily basis by ordinary Jews. His parents named him Saul after Israel’s first king. Unlike all but a few of the Jews living in the Diaspora, Jews living outside of Israel, Saul and his family were citizens of Rome. This offered them protection by Roman law. Paul was probably educated in a Greek gymnasium or school. He had every advantage and a bright future ahead of him. At the same time, he learned the skill of being a tent-maker so that he had a secondary trade to fall back upon.
His upbringing in the Greek city of Tarsus and his early education led him to devote himself to the defense of the Mosaic Law against a sect that not only threatened the Law and the Temple worship but also claimed that a crucified carpenter from Nazareth was the Messiah. At about the age of 30, sometime around 35 A.D., Paul had a life-changing experience, which altered the course of Christianity.
As he was traveling to Damascus and carrying letters from the high priest allowing him to arrest members of “the Way,” God chose to transform Saul from the Church’s most feared opponent to its greatest champion. As Paul was nearing Damascus, a radiant light from heaven struck him blind and he was thrown from his horse. Artists like Caravaggio have tried to capture this moment.
Saul heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Saul responded, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:5) Saul was instructed to enter the city, where he would be told what to do. Temporarily blinded, Paul stumbled to get up. Those around him had heard the words and were deeply frightened. Paul would later describe the experience calming by saying God was “pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…” (Gal. 1:16)
God struck Saul blind, allowing him to experience the blindness with which he had been violently punishing the people of God. He spent three days fasting, creating a spiritual break with his violent past and allowing him to enter an uncharted and uncertain future. In order to move forward on his journey, Saul had to be cared for by the very people he had been persecuting. Ananias laid hands upon Saul, allowing him to regain his sight. “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.” (Acts 9:18) Saul was then baptized, allowing the Holy Spirit to enter and transform him.
He soon began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” (Acts 9:20) Those who heard him were amazed. Here was a fervent Pharisees who once sought the death of those who professed Jesus to be the Messiah now admonishing others to follow the Risen Lord.
Saul had to flee for his life from Damascus, making his way to Jerusalem, where he was viewed with great suspicion. He continued to proclaim Jesus boldly, yet gradually he earned the trust of those who once feared him. Saul’s conversion deeply upset the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem who sought to kill him. The disciples spirited Saul away to Caesarea and later sent him off to his home in Tarsus.
Meanwhile, the Church grew in numbers. Peter emerged as the leader of the Church and produced miracles reminiscent of what Jesus had done. He healed a man named Aeneas, who was bed-ridden for eight years, and he raised a devout woman named Dorcas from the dead. I have a friend who is a devout Christian named Dorcas. She lives in Kenya. Little known biblical names like hers are frequently used in Africa, where Christians draw inspiration from a wide variety of figures from the Bible.
“But the Lord has become my stronghold, and my God the rock of my refuge.” (Ps. 94:22)
What does the Church miss by neglecting some of the most troubling stories in the Bible? Are you surprised by some of the stories which are not read aloud in church or rarely addressed in Bible studies? Do some of these stories speak powerfully to current problems? Do some of these Bible stories speak to current political situations and events? If God can so transform Saul, the violent opponent of Christianity, how much more can God transform you to serve Jesus and the Church? How has God been working to transform you?
Holy and Life-Giving God, you have offered us this new day. Let us bathe ourselves in your Spirit and marinate our souls in the prayerful reading of your Word, that we may be transformed this day into powerful agents of your mercy, love and grace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania